Thanks for joining me, Mike. Welcome to Spy Vibe! When did you first discover The Avengers?
I vaguely remember the series in the late sixties, but I didn’t really become a fan until the mid-seventies. The ITV region where I live Yorkshire Television, were the final region to repeat any episodes of The Avengers in the UK before The New Avengers arrived. This was late night 1975/76. On October 30th 1975, for some reason I decided to watch and the episode was “From Venus with Love”. I was hooked from that point on.
What are some of the qualities and elements of the series that appeal to you?
There are many things that appeal. I like Brian Clemens’ idea of taking the thriller to the next level, which he began doing with the black and white Diana Rigg episodes- pushing the storylines into science fiction. Plus the eccentric characters and the rapport between Steed and his various partners, though with this I am mainly thinking Mrs Peel.
Did you ever collect the various books and memorabilia associated with the series? What are some of the treasures in your collection?
I have collected bits and pieces over the years such as magazines, T-shirts, vinyl records, CDs, reference books and more. I don’t really have any memorabilia associated with the series that is highly valuable. For instance I don’t have the Corgi Gift Set of die-cast vintage Bentley and Lotus Elan, which I hear can command a price between £150 to £200 ($250 to $340). I did have a rare demo copy of the Honor Blackman single record Before Today, from 1968, but I sold it.
Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots has just been published. How did that project begin?
About three and a half years ago I told a friend that I intended to write the ultimate book about The Avengers, but not just the TV series, I also wanted to include the South African radio series, the stage play and the 1998 film. I soon found out that The Avengers is a very large subject.
What kinds of resources and materials did you find to conduct the research? Was it difficult to gain access to archives?
Over the years I had collected quite a large amount of information regarding the series, but once word spread that I was writing a book someone contacted completely out of the blue offering a huge amount of official paperwork associated with both The Avengers and The New Avengers. I honestly could not have imagined receiving such detailed documents. There were letters and memos from when the series was in pre-production in 1960 through to early 1966. Further to this, there were daily progress reports for almost every day’s shooting from the episode “Epic” to the last episode “Bizarre”, which show where the various units were out on location, or which soundstage and sets they were using at Elstree Studios.
That was quite a call out of the blue! How extensive are the company files re: production history of The Avengers? How are those records catalogued and stored?
The documentation is quite extensive and it’s logged in chronological order, so I can go through it and build up a picture of how The Avengers progressed on a daily basis. Unfortunately, I don’t have the correspondence from early 1966 to early 1969, or progress reports for the black and white Rigg episodes or the colour Rigg episodes from “The Fear Merchants” through to “Epic”. Likewise, my research material for The New Avengers is lacking day-by-day progress reports and correspondence.
Are there also official archives of things like scripts, props or costumes?
StudioCanal will have some material, although some years ago the copyright owner of The Avengers decided to reduce the space that the scripts took up, thus had them reduced down to dialogue sheets, which just record the characters’ dialogue. As a result, actual scripts can be difficult to come across, although I do have quite a number. The differences in these screenplays have been noted in Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots. For instance the episode “Never Never Say Die” has two sequences missing where the duplicate played by Christopher Lee, crossed an army firing range and was cut down by a machine-gunner. The other missing sequence involved the duplicate being electrocuted by high voltage power line… needless to say neither event had any effect on him.
Where are those major costumes and vehicles these days? Have they ever been exhibited?
An Avengers collector here in the UK, John Buss, has various costumes and these were exhibited three years ago at The Avengers at 50 event held at Chichester University. I know of a couple of bowler hats from the series and one of them has providence provided by Patrick Macnee to prove its originality. I researched the various vehicles that were regularly seen in the series and there is a list in the appendix of Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots revealing their whereabouts. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate some of these vehicles and I can only assume that they have now been scrapped.
I regret so much not being able to make it to the 50th weekend. Tell us about some of the treasures or gems of info you unearthed.
There were tentative plans to film episodes in Australia. At one point the Associated British Picture Corporation wanted The Avengers moved from Elstree Studios to allow more space for the making of films and the series could have ended up being filmed at the smaller Beaconsfield Studios. However, this did not occur and most of the Rigg and all of the Thorson episodes were filmed at Elstree Studios, in Borehamwood. The first two colour Rigg episodes were based at Pinewood Studios, because there was not enough studio space at Elstree at the time, until the ITC film series The Baron ended its production run. I also managed to see a shooting script for the original unaired Linda Thorson episode “The Great Great Britain Crime”, hence Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots will log what parts of this were not recycled in “Homicide and Old Lace”.
Who are some of the cast/crew members you interviewed for the book?
Over the years I have interviewed, spoke with, corresponded and exchanged emails with the following: Mick Audsley, Roy Ward Baker, Duncan Barbour, Richard Bates, Jeremy Burnham, Michael Chapman, Cyd Child, Brian Clemens, Jennifer Croxton, Peter Duffell, Cyril Frankel, John Hough, Gareth Hunt, Don Leaver, Patrick Macnee, Frank Maher, Roger Marshall, Rhonda Parker, Ron Purdie, Jon Rollason, Dennis Spooner, Julie Stevens, Robert Banks Stewart, Brian Tesler, Linda Thorson and Tony Williamson.
Unfortunately, several of these people are no longer with us and so I’m glad I took the opportunity to interview director Roy Ward Baker when I did regarding his career, to discover his revelation that he was responsible for setting the style of the show on film when he worked on the black and white Rigg episodes. Likewise the late scriptwriter Tony Williamson, who I don’t think anyone else ever spoke to about The Avengers, and the same applies for director Peter Duffell. Rhonda Parker who played Rhonda has only ever attended a solitary Avengers event in Bradford many years ago and I got the opportunity to discuss the series with her, plus a special mention needs to go to Brian Clemens for being so helpful and for writing the introduction to Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots.
Did their eyes light up when they talked about The Avengers?
I don’t know about that. When a friend and I interviewed the late Dennis Spooner in November 1985, he got very excited about The First Avengers Movie, which was a screenplay for a TV movie for the American CBS network. Spooner gave us a breakdown of the plot and various characters and who they were going to approach to play those characters had the project been given the green light. The big let down was that CBS decided against making the film, which it was hoped would the first of many, but Spooner added that both he and Brian Clemens were paid for their endeavours.
I'm wondering if you could see sparks of what we would identify as an Avengers style of flair or wit originating in some of the creators or actors?
I don’t know about the performers creating the style of the show. Patrick Macnee had far more input into his character of John Steed than any of his female co-stars had into their characters. The person who put the style into the series and developed The Avengers more than anyone else was Brian Clemens.
I've always wanted to chat with Patrick Macnee. He was my first spy hero and I've always loved seeing his humour, kindness, and intelligence come through in interviews. Have you had a chance to talk with him or learn more about what he brought to the series?
I met Patrick Macnee just once at a book signing in Manchester many years ago, where he kindly signed my copy of Blind in One Ear. We spoke briefly about the changes that came about when The Avengers changed from being made on videotape with Honor Blackman to being shot on film with Diana Rigg. As per everything I’ve ever read about him, Patrick was very similar to his on-screen persona being polite, pleasant and a complete gentleman. [Below: Macnee visits on-set with Roger Moore].
We don't see Diana Rigg contribute often to Avengers discussions- she does keep pretty busy and current in her work. I don't know to what degree you've asked her or researched her press records, but do you think she's generally positive about what they created?
I went through several newspaper archives looking at anything I could find on Diana Rigg’s career. Unfortunately, she has distanced herself from The Avengers and I think this came about because she felt she was undervalued by ABC Television at the time for her contribution to the series. Diana turned down a personal written plea from Brian Clemens to attend The Avengers at 50 event, though she did admit in her reply to him that she owed her later success on both the stage and in films to The Avengers. Several months later, Diana appeared at The Entertainment Media Show on the 1st and 2nd of October 2011, at Earls Court, in London, doing a photoshoot signing (the only time she has ever done an event like this) and gave everything she made to charity. A friend of mine attended and found Diana chatty and more than happy to talk about The Avengers. [Below: Diana Rigg filming her farewell scene in "The Forget-Me-Knot"].
It's cool you have organized Avengers location tours. Did the book project reveal new info about where the episodes were filmed?
As I have mentioned, the daily progress reports have location information on them, but I have had an interest in Avengers locations for a long time. I first went to the Borehamwood/Elstree area looking for filming locations in September 1986 and discovered several, including the bridge over Tykes Water Lake (where Linda Thorson ran along the parapet in the Tara King opening titles). I decided the best way to share what I had found was to stage an event. The following June the first ever Dead Man’s Treasure event was held and this is the only regular Avengers event that has been held every year ever since.
Nowadays a team of people run the event, but the format is basically what I established. Everyone meets up on Friday evening and talks The Avengers. Saturday is taken up with a location tour. Over the years we must have visited almost every large filming location used in both The Avengers and The New Avengers, as well as some of those seen in the 1998 feature film. Sunday is a recreation of Benstead’s treasure hunt from the episode “Dead Man’s Treasure”, which usually begins where it did in the episode at Shenley Hall, and concludes at a pub where there is a running buffet waiting. Over the years several people associated with the series have attended as guests, including Linda Thorson, Brian Clemens, John Hough, Anneke Wills, and Caroline Munro.
It has taken decades to locate many of the various filming locations, although this has become easier with advanced technology such as Google Earth, Streetview and Bing Maps: Bird’s Eye View. Surprisingly, not that many locations have been demolished or redeveloped since the sixties and now there are not that many unknown locations left for The Avengers.
Did the crew ever have to travel far from the city to get shots? Allington Castle comes to mind ("Catle De'ath"), far by car in 1965?
Its about 50 miles from Elstree Studios in Borehamwood in Hertfordshire to Allingham Castle in Kent, although none of the regular cast were there on location. The Mrs Peel double had noticeably lighter coloured hair and this suggests second unit footage. This was a compromise, as early publicity quoted producer Julian Wintle saying that the crew were hoping to film at a genuine castle in Scotland.
The crew did pay two visits to Wells-next-the-Sea, in Norfolk for the two shooting blocks that made up “The Town of No Return”, which was a 123-mile trip. The first visit was during October/November 1964 with Peter Graham Scott directing Elizabeth Shepherd as Mrs Peel. Then they went again with Diana Rigg during July/August 1965 with Roy Ward Baker calling the shots. However, the record on The Avengers was 245 miles, when John Hough led the second unit to the Start Point Lighthouse at Salcombe in Devon for shooting on the Thorson episode “All Done with Mirrors”. Records show they abandoned their usual vehicles for this shoot, and together with their equipment, they took the train from central London.
I'm especially interested in the fashion in the series. Did your research go into the relationships between John Bates (Jean Varon) and other designers with the show? I wonder if those designers were continually active during the various seasons, or if they essentially created some concepts early on that were followed? [Images from John Bates: Fashion Designer].
John Bates was active during the black and white Rigg season because he was only brought on to the series at the eleventh hour after another well-known fashion designer defaulted on her contract. Bates was recommended by fashion consultant Anne Trehearne, but then he needed to design Diana Rigg’s fashions and come up with a range of Avengerwear for sale in high street shops. To save time, Bates subcontracted the manufacturing of the majority of items to outside companies, and these are listed in the appendix of Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots, for both “The Jean Varon Avengers Pack” launched in 1965 and the later “Alun Hughes Avengers Pack” launched in 1967.
Alun Hughes had Diana Rigg’s wardrobe include the Emmapeeler catsuits, which were ready before production on the colour Rigg episodes began. When John Bryce took over as the series producer at the beginning of the Linda Thorson episodes, he brought in Harvey Gould to design her outfits. But upon their return to the series, Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell reinstated Alun Hughes.
Are there records re: how the production arranged to use the Lotus, Bentley, and other vehicles? Were there alternate cars considered for Mrs. Peel and John Steed?
The daily progress reports show which ‘action vehicles’ were on location and if they had taken part in filming. The Bentleys were hired from either Farmcraft Motors or Kingsbury Motors, who in turn usually had the vehicles on hire from their owners. I don’t know of any alternate motoring considerations for the regular characters. All the Lotus cars on the series were provided by Lotus Cars, as was the AC 428 in a similar arrangement with AC Cars of Surrey. Kingsbury supplied most of the other vehicles in the series, ranging from an armoured car to a London Transport double-decker bus and they continued supplying cars to the film and TV industry well into the eighties. The now defunct British Leyland provided vehicles for The New Avengers, but their attention to detail left a lot to be desired and the producers were less than happy with the service they received.
Do you know if there were alternate theme songs ever considered?
The only alternate theme song I’m aware of is a recording edited onto Italian transmissions of Honor Blackman episodes and issued as a vinyl record on the Bluebell label in that country during 1965. The recording was credited to a group of musicians calling themselves “Avengers”, although the vocalist was an uncredited Carmen Villani. But what is more surprising is that she sings this replacement theme in English and not Italian, so I don’t really understand why Johnny Dankworth’s theme was replaced.
Now I have to find that record! Your new book is quite extensive and I look forward to diving in! What are some of the facts you uncovered that surprised you as a veteran fan?
The whole thing surrounding the proposed 1965 feature film The Avengers: The Pursuit of Evil. American director Louis de Rochemont was to have directed this using an experimental filming lens called D-150, with location shooting lined up to have taken place in Lebanon and Syria. Besides having the ABC Television and Associated British Picture Corporation’s paperwork, I also managed to locate de Rochemont’s documentation in the States and had copies sent to me here in the UK.
Further to this, there were also plans for a Broadway musical based on The Avengers and when ABC Television were approached by producer Cheryl Crawford they struggled how to deal with this. The result was the unthinkable situation where ABC Television’s managing director Howard Thomas asked for assistance from his biggest rival Lew Grade of ATV/ITC. To his credit Grade assisted as much as he could by getting the UK’s best-known theatre impresario and member of the board of directors at ATV, Prince Littler, to handle negotiations on ABC’s behalf.
We've posted on Spy Vibe about a few unproduced Avengers scripts that exist. Are there more unproduced materials out there fans are waiting to see?
I have come across various unmade scripts and story outlines for both The Avengers and The New Avengers and they are all covered in the book. For instance Robert Banks Stewart suggested a Wild West storyline that was rejected. Eric Paice wrote and rewrote a screenplay for the black and white Rigg season that seemed very similar to “Espirit De Corp” from the previous season, whereby undercover manoeuvres a British army regiment would attempt to take over the government. The conclusion of this was to have been a one-on-one tank battle in London’s Hyde Park, but the concept was just beyond the production’s means.
As far as you know, are there any Avengers novels out there that were never published?
I don’t know of any spin-off novels that have not been printed.
Did any of the novelists also work on the show? I loved Patrick Macnee's Avengers novels, did he work with a ghost writer on those?
John Garforth who wrote several Avengers novels during the sixties had discussions with John Bryce at the beginning of the Linda Thorson season about the possibilities of writing for the series, but this failed to progress any further. Peter Leslie wrote the two Patrick Macnee Avengers novels Deadline and Dead Duck and would also work on other sixties TV spin-off novels, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E..
Are there areas of Avengers research that you still want to explore as a scholar?
With the exception of the daily progress reports for the remaining Diana Rigg episodes and/or those for The New Avengers (as already mentioned), probably not, as I have tried to cover everything in Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots. I have looked at viewing figures, scheduling both in the UK and the USA, production, locations, the studios where the episodes were made, and the large amount of promotional and merchandising items, plus the background and careers of the regular cast and crew. However, should something new turn up then obviously I’m always interested.
Desert Island picks: your favourite five episodes? Why?
Okay, in no particular order. My favourite videotaped episode is “Dressed to Kill”, a nice idea that owes a lot to Agatha Christie, but an early sign that Brian Clemens was beginning to push the boundaries in storytelling in the series. A great supporting cast of Leonard Rossiter, Anneke Wills, John Junkin, Alexander Davion, Richard Leech and stuntman Frank Maher, who remembered suffering a bloody nose after his fight scene with Cathy Gale. Honor Blackman was very apologetic towards Maher afterwards.
My favourite black and white Rigg episode is “A Surfeit of H2O”, credited to Colin Finbow, but greatly rewritten by Brian Clemens. It offers a bizarre situation of people being drowned in heavy rainfall, with the science fiction elements of weather control taken to the extreme. Noel Purcell as Jonah and Talfryn Thomas as Eli are perfect Avengers-eccentrics, with the episode coming across as a nice balance of serious and humorous, and I enjoy it more every time I watch it.
My favourite colour Rigg episode is the one that started it all for me, “From Venus with Love”, from the ideas-man Philip Levene. The plot revolves around a series of mysterious murders, connected to The British Venusian Society and a storyline out of this world, which is revealed to be more down to Earth. This boasted another excellent cast, including Philip Locke, Jon Pertwee, Jeremy Lloyd, Barbara Shelley and Derek Newark, with great direction from Robert Day. As an in-the-zone Avengers script, this stands out a mile for me and incorporates several elements that could not be transplanted into another show. Thus, the best Avengers scripts are custom written/or exactly adapted for the Avengers’ format.
My favourite Thorson episode is “Fog”, written by Jeremy Burnham from a one-line idea by Brian Clemens and set entirely on atmospheric sets. I like how this one breaks the formatting and shows that The Avengers would work in Hammer horror mode, plus Robert Fuest’s direction incorporates various unusual angles and overhead looking-down camera shots.
My favourite episode of The New Avengers is “Cat Amongst the Pigeons”, a truly great piece of writing by Dennis Spooner influenced by one of his heroes Alfred Hitchcock with his movie The Birds. Despite not having an army of ravens at their disposal, the production and especially director John Hough made this one work so well. The dialogue where Zarcardi, played by Vladek Sheybal, informs Purdey that his birds of prey have been trained to attack their victim’s eyes was very nasty and genuinely strong drama.
Mike, if you were a diabolical mastermind, what would your secret lair be?
If you remember Needle in the episode “The Positive Negative Man”, he hid inside a fake haystack in the middle of a field, well that would be me hiding in plain sight!
Brilliant! Thanks again for your time and for giving us Avengers fans this valuable new resource. Spy Vibers can order paperback editions of Bowler Hats and Kinky Boots from Telos, Amazon UK, Amazon US, Nook UK, Nook US, and Barnes & Noble. Also available for Kindle. Avengers links: Avengers Declassified, Mrs Peel, We're Needed. If folks enjoyed this interview, please consider making a small donation in our Paypal tip jar at top-left of the page. Spy Vibe is a labor of love for me as an art teacher, and even a few bucks can make a big difference. Thanks!
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