Sunday 9 August 2015

The Avengers - the Tara King era, part 1

Having just bought Optimum’s wonderful series 6 boxed set of The Avengers I am naturally going to be talking quite a bit about the Tara King era of The Avengers. I’m intending to spread this out over several posts. Firstly because the Tara King era is criminally underrated but secondly because this final season saw several marked changes in direction and it falls naturally into two parts.

One of the reasons The Avengers had such a long run was that the series was radically reinvented at regular intervals, these reinventions being almost invariably associated with a change in producers. The first season (with Ian Hendry as the star) was a gritty realist spy drama. The next two seasons saw Steed playing opposite three different sidekicks before Honor Blackman established herself as his main partner. The series started moving in a more fantastic direction but a fair amount of the original gritty realism remained. A major change occurred in 1965 with the introduction of Diana Rigg. The series took on its most familiar form - surreal, tongue-in-cheek and utterly fantastic (in both senses of the word). The series also switched from videotape to film, the budgets were increased and production values were very much higher.

It was therefore no real surprise that the departure of Diana Rigg in 1967 would signal another change in direction. Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens were dumped and John Bryce, who had been responsible for most of the Cathy Gale episodes, was brought back as producer. Bryce wanted to return to the more realistic style of the Cathy Gale era.

The immediate problem was to find a replacement for Diana Rigg. The selection of Linda Thorson remans somewhat controversial among fans to this day. She was very young (just twenty) and frighteningly inexperienced. 

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Bryce was a fine producer but he had no experience in doing a filmed series, which of course requires a very different approach compared with videotape. Shooting started to fall behind schedule. Linda Thorson was clearly nervous and uncertain. Worst of all, no-one liked the first few episodes made under the new regime. The American ABC network was particularly unhappy (and The Avengers was much too expensive a show to make without a guaranteed sale to a US network). It was obviously time to hit the panic button. Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens were hurriedly recalled to take over as producers and save the ship which seemed to be in imminent danger of foundering. Seven Tara King episodes had already been made and the US network, now reassured, gave the go-ahead for a further full season of twenty-six episodes.

If the Tara King era as a whole is underrated those seven original episodes are even more maligned. They do present a bewildering mixture of styles and approaches, the character of Tara King is all over the place and they are certainly uneven. Having said that, they do have their moments and they are worth seeing. 

One other very big change was that Tara King would be a very different sort of partner for Steed. Steed’s other partners had all been amateurs and had all been apparently recruited by Steed on his own initiative and on a semi-official basis. Tara on the other hand was a professional spy. This changes the dynamics between the two leads in interesting ways. The Steed-Mrs Gale and Steed-Mrs Peel pairings had been relationships between equals on a personal level, but on a professional level Mrs Gale and Mrs Peel were Steed’s assistants (albeit very competent ones). On the personal level there’s more of a teacher-pupil thing between Steed and Tara (he was the agent who trained her after all). She clearly sees him as just a bit of a father figure. Professionally though they both have a job to do, they both get paid for it and they get on with it. The dynamic between them would change again in the later episodes with the advent of Mother.

It’s not easy to make a judgment on the John Bryce-produced episodes. Invitation to a Killing was partly reshot, cut from its original 90 minutes to 50 and renamed Have Guns - Will Haggle. The Great Great Britain Crime was never aired and no longer exists although bits of it turned up later in Homicide and Old Lace. In fact the only one of his episodes that survived intact was Invasion of the Earthmen.

Invasion of the Earthmen is one of the most reviled of all episodes of The Avengers. Terry Nation’s script was certainly somewhat unorthodox for this series and there are times when it looks disturbingly like an episode of Star Trek. Or even Doctor Who. Not surprising really, given that Terry Nation had written several classic Doctor Who stories (and he invented the Daleks). The basic premise is pure science fiction. There are of course hints of science fiction in various episodes of The Avengers but this one takes that tendency much much farther.

Being one of the very very early Tara King episodes, Tara has not yet been fully established as a character and more importantly the Steed-Tara relationship was still rather sketchy. Linda Thorson’s inexperience shows at times. On the whole though her performance is reasonably satisfying. Thorson and Patrick Macnee would quickly develop the right chemistry between the two lead characters and already the signs are promising.

Have Guns - Will Haggle had a particularly turbulent history. John Bryce had intended to introduce Tara in a special 90-minute story, Invitation To a Killing. After his departure Fennel and Clemens gave Ray Austin the job of turning it into a normal 50-minute running time through drastic editing and some reshoots. As a result there are some glaring continuity errors. What really counts against this one in the eyes of many fans though is that it doesn’t really feel like an Avengers story - it seems more like a straightforward action adventure spy story. It does however provide an interesting change of pace and it has a lot of action scenes and they’re very well done. It’s perhaps not a great episode but it’s intriguing and it has some very good moments. Along with Invasion of the Earthmen it offers a tantalising hint that John Bryce might well have taken The Avengers in an interesting direction had he been given the chance.

Two days after shooting commenced on The Curious Case of the Countless Clues John Bryce received his marching orders so this is very much a transitional episode. The plot is clever and well-constructed but it has the underlying realistic basis that Bryce hoped to restore to the series. It’s the kind of story that could quite easily have come from the Cathy Gale era. On the other hand there are some whimsical touches that indicated the direction in which Fennell and Clemens intended to take the series. Philip Levene’s script is a playful spoof of the detective stories of the golden age, with a detective named Sir Arthur Doyle (complete with deerstalker and magnifying glass) and three villains named Earle, Stanley and Gardiner (Erle Stanley Gardner was of course the author of the Perry Mason mysteries). This one has Tara in a wheelchair after a skiing accident but she still gets to play a very active role in the case. It boasts a clever plot - a series of murders with way too many clues, in fact so many clues that no-one could possibly miss them. Despite being incapacitated Tara proves herself to be more than capable of looking after herself and she gets an exceptionally good fight scene. Since John Bryce was still the producer when the cameras started rolling this was obviously one of the episodes he commissioned and it’s yet another indication that perhaps he really did know what he was doing.

Get-a-Way! has a wildly implausible premise that is a bit too obvious but it has some major pluses - the monastery prison is very cool, Andrew Keir is excellent and most of all it has Peter Bowles giving one of his best Avengers guest starring performances. Split! had been written as an Emma Peel episode. It’s credited to Brian Clemens although apparently the original version had been by Dennis Spooner. The re-writing might account for the slightly disjointed feel (and it’s rumoured that some scenes had actually been shot a year earlier). 

Look - (stop me if you've heard this one before) But There Were These Two Fellers... is perhaps the most controversial episode in the entire history of The Avengers. Many fans hate it; many adore it. I adore it. It has more inspired silliness than any other episode but the point that is often missed is that Dennis Spooner’s script has a dark edge to it. This is a story about clowns but they’re clowns who are ruthless killers. There’s always something slightly sinister and tragic about clowns and it brings this out extremely well. It’s a story that could have become maudlin (a rest home for washed-up vaudeville artists could have been desperately sad) but Spooner avoids this pitfall. This episode is often laugh-out-loud funny and in general the tone is light and breezy but there’s always just that slight hint of darkness. It’s also the episode in which Linda Thorson shows that she really does have what it takes to be an Avengers Girl - her comic timing is impeccable. It’s also an important episode in that the Steed-Tara dynamic starts to work, and work well. It’s close to being my favourite episode from any period of The Avengers.

These first seven episodes (including The Forget-Me-Knot which I’ve written about elsewhere) form an odd kind of mini-series. They are not so much uneven in quality as uneven in tone. That can be disconcerting but on the whole they provided a by no means disastrous beginning to the Tara King era. In fact it’s clear that the series was a long way from running out of steam and it was equally clear that Linda Thorson had a great deal of potential. All seven are worth watching and a couple are bona fide classics.


  1. I love the Linda Thorson "era." Much like I love the 007 film her predecessor Diana Rigg went on to star in - On Her Majesty's Secret Service - both were maligned at the time of their debuts but have become classic.
    Sort of an anticlockwise legend but legend nonetheless.

  2. I watched the episodes originally as a kid, and don't recall being impressed with Linda, perhaps because I--like so many--really missed Mrs. peel. But recently, I've caught her episodes, and I love her and (most) of them! She was great, and her character is far more appealing to me than Mrs. peel was. I appreciate her more aggressive attitude, and the fact she'd charge a bad guy on sight and wipe the floor with him, compared to Mrs. Peel, who was a bit more laid back and defensive. Also COLOR was nice to finally have! So, 50 years after the originals, the Tara King episodes have proven to be my favorites, and seem to me to be some of the best-written despite some that are rightfully panned. Linda was a great choice to replace Diana Rigg, and but for having to settle comfortably into the role as any performer would, didn't disappoint me in what I wanted in the character. The only thing that bugged me was that sort of pixie hair style she had at times. I preferred her hair in its other styles

  3. I loved Linda Thorsons portrayal of Tara, unfortunately Linda was treated appallingly during her stint on the show. In one episode she spends virtually the entire story asleep, and in another, I think the title was Killer, she is replaced by another actress, who of course can do all the things that Tara cant, like fight and generally not have to be rescued by Steed.
    Diana Rigg would never have been treated in this way, the producers couldn't even leave her hair alone, apparently they insisted on her being blonde, bleached her hair, which then fell out and she ended up having to wear numerous wigs. The character was all over the place, and it was the fault of the scriptwriters who couldn't make up their minds who they wanted Tara King to be. It didn't need to be that way, sure Linda was inexperienced, but they had an opportunity to mould and develop the character in a way they couldn't do with the characters of Cathy Gayle, and Emma Peel.
    If you watch the episode, All done with mirrors, you will be left thinking "If only", in the story with Steed under a kind of house arrest, Linda carries the entire episode, single handed, and along the way takes part in some of the best fight scenes in the entire series, Tara could fight as well if not better than Honor Blackman or Diana Rigg, if only she had been allowed.

    1. If you watch the episode, All done with mirrors, you will be left thinking "If only",

      I agree entirely. It's a great episode and Linda Thorson is terrific.

      From what I've heard Patrick Macnee treated her very decently. He felt that if she were given a chance to settle into the role that she'd be absolutely fine. And he was right.

      Unfortunately Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell just didn't want her in the series at all. And she knew they didn't want her. It's tough on any actress knowing the producers don't want her.

      The final series was doomed by the insistence of the American network on sacrificing the series by putting it up against ratings juggernaut Laugh-In. Apparently in other markets the Tara King episodes were immensely popular.

    2. I never understood why the Tara King series ara always seen as less than the Gayle/Peel series. I always had the opinion that the more human and realistic approach was actually what was most appropriate at the end of the 60s. Linda got little help developing her character and (fresh out of school) did most of it herself with the help op Patrick. That is under the pressure a remarkable achievement. 'All done with mirrors' shows the talent very well. Too bad a lot of scripts didn't really utilize the Tara King Character at the max. And then of course there are the eyes and the voice.... No other avenger girl could match those ;-)

  4. I love all the Avenger lady partners!!! When I was a child in the early 70s, The Avengers was a breath of fresh air; a show where a woman could fight? It was phenomenal, and still is(just finished watching two eppies)!! My first Avenger-lady was Emma Peel, then Tara King; Cathy Gale, I've seen in recent years(I guess the ABC network didn't show her eppies when i was a little girl). Too make a long story short each lady brought something to the show in their particular era. But Tara was my fave.

  5. I couldn't agree more. With reference to the episode Killer, in which Linda is replaced by another actress, Jennifer Croxton, Linda had apparently planned a holiday so that is why she was absent for this episode. If you watch the extras on the series six box set, you will find a couple of the writers waxing lyrical over Croxton, saying how athletic she was and saying if only we had had her from the start. This is absolute nonsense, this is how the character was written for this episode, but with Linda they were constantly changing their minds on how her character should be played, in one episode she takes on and defeats a male karate expert, then in another, she cant fight her way out of a wet paper bag.
    All of the actresses who played the Avengers girls, brought their own unique style and identity to the characters they played, its just a pity that Linda didn't get the chance to grow her character over more seasons, and be more appreachedated.

    1. Cathy gale was good and her episodes were more realistic then Mrs peel. Tara king early episodes were great and seem to be more of a believable then her preasseers.