Thursday 1 May 2014

The New Avengers (1976-77)

I know that The New Avengers has its detractors but I’ve always been fond of this series. I’ve been slowly working my way through the series again and I’m finding that it holds up rather well.

I think a lot of people underestimate the difficulties the producers faced in resurrecting this show. By the mid-70s, after series like Special Branch (at least in its last two seasons), Callan and The Sweeney,  British TV audiences had become accustomed to a lot more realism and a lot more violence in their action/spy series and if The New Avengers was not to look incredibly dated there was simply no alternative - they had to ratchet up the violence. The problem was how to do this while still retaining the essential Avengers flavour. I think the results worked better than anyone could have expected. 

And in 1976, with Patrick Macnee eight years older and quite a few pounds heavier and with the requirement for more violence and more action, there was no real choice other than to introduce a second male character who would be an action hero type. Many fans of the original dislike Gambit (Gareth Hunt) intensely but I found that he does eventually grow on you.

The revamped series did have two major assets. The first was a generous budget which allowed for lots of location shooting and some quite impressive sets. Brian Clemens has said he wanted the look of The New Avengers to be feature film quality. Watching the show on DVD it’s clear he went pretty close to achieving this objective.

The second big asset was of course Purdey. For my money Joanna Lumley is very nearly as good as Diana Rigg, if not just as good. She handles the comedy very adroitly and she’s superb in the action sequences (she was an athlete at school and trained as a dancer so she knows how to move). And she trades witticisms with both Steed and Gambit quite delightfully. If the scripts had been able to maintain the level of wittiness of the original I think she’d be recognised as the best of the Avengers girls. 

The producers were certainly not unaware of her sex appeal. Within the first three episodes we see her in bed, ripping off her skirts for a fight scene and romping about in her underwear. 

The show hit the ground running with the first episode, The Eagle's Nest (an episode I’d never seen prior to this), getting great value from a wonderful guest star in the person of Peter Cushing. It’s obvious that the producers wanted this opening episode to look impressive and spent lot of money on it. It pays dividends.

The Midas Touch is pure Avengers with mad scientists and a diabolical criminal mastermind. House of Cards is more a pure Cold War thriller, reminiscent of the Cathy Gale era but with a lot more action. The scene where Purdey flattens the Russian spy with a single punch to the jaw is particularly memorable and Joanna Lumley makes it look utterly convincing.

Episodes such as Cat Among the Pigeons, House of Cards, Tale of the Big Why and Target! (scripted by Dennis Spooner) compare favourably to anything done in the original series. The climax on the shooting range in Target! is a wonderful action set-piece.

The one real weakness of this series was its reliance on too few writers. This was probably due to the chromic financing problems that beset the series throughout its run. At one point   Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens were paying the entire cast and crew out of their own pockets and thirty years later both were still owed money by the financiers. So financially there was probably little choice other than to have Brian Clemens write most of the episodes himself. 

The series ran into production problems halfway through with its French and Canadian backers causing difficulties. The general consensus is that the first thirteen episodes were pretty good while the later episodes (some of which were filmed in Canada) saw a major falling off in quality. There’s some truth to this although some of the later episodes are actually quite decent, and a few (such as Angels of Death) are excellent. 

It has to be admitted that there are certainly a few real clunkers in this series, like Trap and Gnaws

The unevenness of the scripts is a problem, but a bigger problem is that there’s not quite enough of the wit that characterised the original series. That’s a pity because when the three stars do get a good script to work with there’s plenty of chemistry there. Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley play off each other quite well, when the scripts give them something to work with. Patrick Macnee doesn’t always seem entirely comfortable and he had mixed feelings about the series. 

On the whole the good episodes do outnumber the bad and some are very good indeed. If nothing else the series is worth watching for the fact that it launched Joanna Lumley’s career, and Purdey remains one of her most memorable roles.

The Region 2 boxed set boasts extremely good transfers which highlight another of the series’ strengths, the generally high production values. The New Avengers is considerably better than its reputation suggests and is worth a look. Recommended.

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