June 25, 2016


Actor Patrick Macnee passed away on this day last year. It's hard to believe a year has gone by already. I heard the news just after I completed a large group tour of the Elstree and Borehamwood area, where so many locations appeared in The Avengers, The Saint, Randall and Hopkirk, etc. In the end, it was a kind of comfort to be steeped in Avengerland with so many of Patrick's admirers and with fellow writers who have dedicated their lives to documenting how these great programs were made. My reflection on that experience appeared as the afterword for a book published in the UK called Avengerworld, which chronicled the experience of The Avengers by fans from around the world. I believe many Spy Vibers bought the book because the publishers were able to donate quite a lot of the sales to a great education charity in Africa (Thank you!). Info about the book here. I will again join that large tribe of Avengers people next week for another adventure through the great manor houses and obscure locations from the series. In remembrance of Patrick Macnee today, I'd like to offer readers my afterword from the book, which I titled Umbrella ManBelow: my Pop Art image of Steed.

UMBRELLA MAN: The darkroom in the cellar was off-limits, but the smell of the Fixer wove its way up the stairs as a constant reminder of our move to this small, dark house far from friends and family. The year was 1971. I was six years old and had no siblings. The rest of the clan relocated to the house built by my great-grandfather, founder of the New York School of Interior Design, who had outfitted his ideal shelter with special features such as secret compartments hidden in columns and a false door leading to a secret room behind the library. It would be another four years until I could explore those mysterious nooks and crannies as a permanent resident. In the meantime, I joined my father, a single parent, in one of our tangential attempts to make a go of it alone in the world. Between his professional photography and work recording bands in a home studio, I kept myself company and began to build my own kind of internal, cultural shelter. The stage was set to discover new role models and a new outlook on life. And following the family tradition, I looked for answers in the world of the arts and imagination.

The Beatles had split the year before and a family friend gave me her collection of US Capital albums. It was love at first sight. My afternoons became busy with important work, like learning the names of each Beatle and honing my senses to identify their individual vocal styles. The album jackets taught me my first lessons in style and design. I didn’t know it at the time, but images by Robert Freeman and others were riding a stark, monochromatic wave popularized in the first half of the 1960s. Although Kodalith had been invented long before, the early part of the decade seemed to draw heavily on the film’s high-contrast quality with bold, graphic shapes and silhouettes. Images of the band in minimal geometric studios, wearing their turtleneck sweaters and thin suits, became an inner landscape that would be my secret garden and shelter throughout the years. It never occurred to me that this world was already long gone. In my imagination, 1962-1965 Britain carried on in glorious black and white, like a permanent daytrip destination in the Twilight Zone.

Humans are apparently encoded with a “love map” early in life that guides them toward potential mates with specific features and qualities. As an only child with nothing but time for solo expeditions, I followed the map set down by those Beatles graphics and started looking for more citizens of that monochromatic world. As well, I broadened my search for a true role model. Patrick Macnee arrived just in time.

Vintage ads from that year reveal WOR channel 9 transmitted episodes of The Avengers out of New York at 10pm- rather late for a first-grader. But then again, I recall sneaking late broadcasts of Bonanza in my bedroom while loud Rock bands thundered away in the living room. Sometimes I had to watch with a small earplug fitted into one ear to catch the dialog over the live music outside the door. And on some special evenings, my dad watched with me. The Avengers made instant sense to me. Colorful, whimsical characters populated the series, and their sweet countryside was not too dissimilar to my rural Connecticut. It seemed a world out of time, where nothing was truly dangerous or disconcerting- including murder. And boy, there was style! It was like discovering a three-dimensional reality founded on the aesthetic bedrock of those early sixties graphics I loved so much. The first Diana Rigg season drew particularly from that style, combining clean monochromatic photography, fashionable Pierre Cardin suits (also worn by The Beatles), black leather and boots (again worn by The Beatles), and vintage cars that sparked a young boy’s imagination.

As for John Steed, I’d never seen someone with such intelligence, charm, and warm humor. This was a man who adventured into a playful, eccentric world armed only with an umbrella and bowler hat. Although the association with traditional business attire was lost on me, I had deep appreciation for his gentlemanly appearance, calm authority, and a contagious twinkle in his eye. And Patrick Macnee’s Steed offered me a steady hand and some needed reassurance in an era of violence. Remember that in 1971 we were still embroiled in the Vietnam War. Death had become a part of the nightly news. And by six, I’d already seen my father beaten bloody by war veterans for having long hair (I was threatened, too), and tales of street riots, armed groups like the Black Panthers, and police filled me with anxiety. Below: Avengerworld book cover design.

One amusing memory is being in my aunt’s blue Dodge Dart when she and her counter-culture pals got pulled over by a police officer. While the big kids were trying to play it cool, I was espousing from the back seat about how we should take the cop’s gun away and throw it in the garbage can. The car filled with the sound of panicked teens shushing me. I couldn’t understand why they were upset with me. I knew I was right.

Throughout it all, there was John Steed, the hero who refused to carry a gun. His main shelter against the slings and arrows of the world was a rolled-up umbrella. Steed’s brolly was a versatile prop that functioned as a shield, camera (that photography connection again!), a humorous crutch, a dapper plaything, and a sword for casual sparring. At a time when technology and gadgets also carried a subtext of patriotism and warmongering, we American viewers admired Steed as a sort of gentleman-beacon, whose umbrella pointed the way back to civilization. And as a kid who collected hats and loved to act out characters for my dad’s camera, Steed offered the role of a lifetime. It was years before I found a bowler, or a 1960s spy-style suit, however, so any photographic record that survives captures me as cowboy and musketeer.

John Steed’s relationship with Emma Peel in The Avengers was also a wonderfully subversive force in my life. I wouldn’t see the Cathy Gale episodes until much later, so Diana Rigg’s character was my first experience seeing a powerful female role model on TV who resembled the strong, independent women in my own family. American television continued to reinforce post-war gender stereotypes for decades, so it was a revelation to see Mrs. Peel succeeding as equal partner, genius scientist and academic, judo and fencing master, and affectionate companion. She was also my first crush and I desired her perhaps as a mother, baby sitter, and best friend. In my solitary world, Steed and Peel must have become a kind of surrogate family, because Diana Rigg’s departing scene in The Forget-Me-Knot still fills me with a deep sense of grief. I’ve never been able to watch it again.

When I got a bit older I discovered The Prisoner, that short-lived masterpiece starring Patrick McGoohan. I admit I used to frantically type out the credits for each episode during the broadcasts, then add them to a folder of clippings from TV Guide to make my own episode synopses. Going into Anthropology/Sociology with a focus on Media in college was a natural course in life set down by my love for The Beatles, The Avengers, and The Prisoner. Before heading to college, however, we had a graduation reception at my boarding school, where the headmaster read out excerpts from our applications. It was hilarious to hear what some of us had written as eighth graders. When he read mine, the whole room just chanted my name because it was obvious who the culprit was. I wrote the person I most admired at that age was Patrick McGoohan for his work on The Prisoner and Danger Man. Given teenage development, it must have been his powerful expression of independence and denouncement of hypocrisy that I admired. Looking back at The Prisoner now, however, it might just as well have been its surreal quality and incredible art direction.

Elements from 1960s arts and entertainment continued to loom large in my imagination over the years, as I fondly looked back on stories like Goldfinger, The 10th Victim, Our Man Flint, UFO, and The Saint. Patrick McGoohan’s death in 2009 inspired me to start a website to celebrate my boyhood heroes from The Avengers and The Prisoner. It was wonderful to dive deeper into the work of people I had greatly admired as a kid, and to discover the great names behind the scenes, such as Roger Marshall, Brian Clemens, Ralph Smart, Sydney Newman, Dennis Spooner, Monty Berman, Terry Nation, and countless others. I settled on “Spy Vibe” as a title for my website and quickly enjoyed a growing on-line community of fellow spy enthusiasts and scholars. At the time of this writing, Spy Vibe is approaching two million visitors. Little did I know that Spy Vibe would lead me to a new book project about thrillers and the 1960s Spy Boom, as well as to a brief connection with Patrick Macnee at the end of his life.

I was fortunate to spend time during the summer of 2015 touring many film locations from The Avengers with fellow fans and writers. I can't begin to describe how nurturing and transformative the experience was, except to say I finally felt as though I had found my tribe. Many of the attendees had written extensively about classic spy shows, Gerry Anderson, and Doctor Who, and it seemed every moment we shared was filled with joyful discussions about our various new discoveries and projects. And my upcoming book offered me a chance to photograph artifacts from 1960s spy shows and to interview some original cast and crew. The full-circle moment had come earlier in late spring, when Patrick Macnee had agreed to contribute to the project. I had a deep feeling of coming home, as it were, and couldn’t wait to continue our correspondence.

On the day after my extended tour of location sites ended, and a day after I shot the photograph below, I received the sad news: Patrick Macnee had passed away. I was already on to a new chapter of the trip to see friends in Cambridge and I was really missing our Avengers group. I woke early and walked along the water, trying to process the emotions. It had only been a week since I re-sent a long interview to Patrick Macnee and communicated with him about doing a foreword to my book. Now that he was gone, I was filled with a sense of loss for my childhood hero.

It was Macnee's John Steed who first introduced me to the world of spies and who led many of us, by his special gift of charm and sly humor, through years of well-dressed adventure. James Bond expert Ajay Chowdhury asked me recently over fish and chips (next door to Eon!) why I had such an affinity for British characters over ones from the US. I tried to describe elements that were more common to stories from the UK, such as charm, flair and eccentric wit, but I failed to mention one of the main ingredients that Macnee and his countrymen (and women!) often brought to their work. Yes, Macnee had a special twinkle in his eye that expressed flair and humor, to be sure. But study any scene with John Steed and you will notice a look that revealed a man enjoying the moment and his fellow actors with deep affection, as well. You'll see that look of affection all through The Avengers, The Persuaders, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Doctor Who, etc. Watching my friends' faces light up in conversation during the UK trip, I witnessed their own spirit of affection, like Macnee's, and found their energy inspiring and contagious. Macnee’s Steed remains a nice reminder that we are here to share things that bring us joy and community.

Patrick Macnee helped to set me on a course in life that eventually led to Spy Vibe and to meet an extended family in England and Wales, so I'm left with a feeling of gratitude for his great gift. Walking along the river alone after hearing the sad news of his passing, I stopped to express my grief and support to Patrick's son, Rupert. I also felt regretful that I hadn't reached out sooner. Rupert wrote back right away to let me know that his mom and dad used to visit on Sundays while he was at Bedford in the early-mid 1960s. As a family, they would go on drives in the country and enjoy having tea together in Cambridge. It was such a generous story to share with me at that moment, only a day after his dad had died. It made me realize we were all processing this loss together as a community. And even though I found myself in a new city, I still hadn't strayed from Patrick's path. And by sharing our stories, we were keeping the home fires burning for a special man.

When Patrick Macnee wrote his Avengers memoirs with Dave Rogers in 1997, he spoke of creating John Steed as an amalgam of his father (a dandy racehorse trainer), his commanding officer in the Navy, Bussy Carr, and The Scarlet Pimpernel (a righteous adventurer who disguised his power under the mannerisms of a dandy fop). Macnee also mentioned looking back toward men of the Regency era. When Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke in 1852 at the Catholic University of Ireland about the role of later Regency gentlemen, he could have been talking about our hero:

“It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain… He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him… The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast- all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at his ease and at home… He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd.” (Newman/The Definition of a Gentleman).

Based on the way his co-stars have described their experiences of Pat’s friendship and support on the set of The Avengers, I believe Cardinal Newman’s words may sum up how we all may remember Patrick Macnee and the character he created.

Although Patrick is gone, our lives are forever filled with the magical elements of intrigue, style, imagination, and affection that he cultivated in us through The Avengers. Because of his friendly ways and dapper dash, we continue to visit that cultural landscape of well-dressed adventure. And every time we discover a new artifact or an interesting quote or graphic from those golden years, maybe readers are just like me- suddenly six years old again, curled up and safe on the couch… waving our umbrellas like John Steed. 

Portions of this essay may appear in my forthcoming SPY VIBE book from Hermes Press (Stay tuned!). Above: my photograph of the John Steed figure and car by Corgi (Alan and Alys Hayes collection). Enjoy this post? Please consider making a small donation via my Paypal tip-jar at top-left of the page. Thank you! -Jason

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