Welcome to Feather Dusters at 400 Yards, my blog about the British television series The Avengers. There’s a lot of cool stuff to explore in this groundbreaking series that spanned the entire decade of the 1960s: the characters, the performances, scene and episode analysis, technical aspects of the production, and more. Plus there are pages for Avengers fanfiction, music videos, and fan art! Links to audio versions of my blogs and fanfic are available on the podcasts page. So click on a tag or a category or something in the navigation menu, or just keep scrolling, and explore along with me.
In his book The Complete Avengers, author Dave Rogers reports that relatively early in the production of the first series, producer Leonard White felt it necessary to circulate a memo reminding everyone involved in making the episodes about what the characters and the show were supposed to be like. (15) White wrote descriptions of each of the main characters, and outlined some of the aesthetics and philosophy of the show in an attempt to make sure it stayed on the track he wanted it to follow.
This memo is reproduced in Rogers’ text, and includes White’s description of Steed, then a secondary character to Ian Henry’s David Keel. White gives hints as to what Steed is like both as a person and as an agent, and some of the language he uses deserves unpacking because of its homophobic subtext. Below is the portion of the memo that is devoted to Steed. Some of the verbiage has been redacted because it is not relevant to the current discussion, and all emphases and punctuation other than ellipses are in the original.
4. STEED is the professional undercover man. He is suave, debonair, a ‘man-about-town’. A sophisticate but not lacking in virility. His ‘sports’ are probably horseracing, dogracing, beauty competitions, etc.
He has an eye for the beautiful and unusual – be it objets d’art or women. He will never be serious with any one woman, however. He is very experienced.
⊗ Content notice for disabled-as-villain trope, ableism, and ageism
Another in an occasional series about disability in The Avengers
When a Ministry agent winds up dead in an alley with a receipt from a London department store in his pocket, Steed and Mrs Peel are called in to see whether they can find out what is going on. They infiltrate the store, Mrs Peel by getting a job as a worker, Steed by prowling around and asking questions of the staff. Steed learns that a company official has an office on the top floor that’s accessible only by a restricted elevator. Steed sneaks into the elevator and takes it to the top floor, where he finds himself in a kind of attic that is filled with all sorts of antiques. There’s an old rocking horse, a windup phonograph, and even an antique car.
Among those antiques lives Horatio Kane an elderly man in a wheelchair who used to be the president of the store, but who has since been forced out because of his age and disability. Further, he has been relegated to this attic space, which Kane says is called the Department of Discontinued Lines. Kane clearly resents having been sidelined, and he channels this resentment into a plan to blackmail the British government into paying him five million pounds or else he will blow up all of London with a nuclear bomb that he has forced a kidnapped scientist to build and that has been hidden in the bowels of the store.
Writers frequently employ the word “amoral” when describing the character of John Steed in The Avengers, a description that goes right back to the very genesis of the show and the character. Sydney Newman, one of the creators of the show, said that he wanted to create a character that was “a spy, an MI-5 type, someone [David Keel, the main character,] wouldn’t approve of so that sparks would fly between them. Perhaps someone amoral, suave and brainy who wouldn’t deign to dirty himself by physically fighting, preferring a silenced gun or a sword-cane.” (Sydney Newman, Head of Drama: The Memoir of Sydney Newman)
Other writers have continued to describe Steed this way, but given that he was supposedly one of the good guys, fighting villains of various stripes alongside Ian Hendry’s David Keel, in what way was he supposedly “amoral”? This can be a bit difficult to investigate for those early episodes, given that the vast majority are lacking except in camera script, but even those scripts can give us some insight into the construction of morality that was at play as the writers of Season 1 and Patrick Macnee gradually fleshed out the character of John Steed, and especially in creating Steed in opposition to David Keel.
I just posted a new spot of fic, written in the holiday spirit.