Lady Secret Agent Badassery

As I have noted elsewhere, there are many points of contact between The Avengers and The Champions, two British television series from the 1960s, and between The Champions and The New Avengers, which aired in the mid 1970s. In those previous blogs, I wrote about how elements of Avengers episodes are echoed in some of those from Champions, and then later how a New Avengers story echoed a Champions one.

Plots and villains and action aren’t the only places where these three series intersect, however. One important point of contact is in the character of the female secret agent. In Champions, this is Sharron Macready (Alexandra Bastedo), a medical doctor, biochemist, and agent of a private security service called Nemesis. Across the entirety of Avengers (including TNA), there were five female partners who worked with John Steed, but the one I’d like to concentrate on here is Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), since in many ways she has the most in common with Sharron.

Both Sharron and Emma are cast as intelligent, highly educated, strong, capable women who do important and dangerous work fighting villains and foiling dastardly plots in the company of a male partner or, in Sharron’s case, two male partners. Both women are relatively young, both widowed. But there are also important differences, especially in regard to the degree to which their male partners treat them as equals, in their relative engagement with the bad guys on a physical level, and the degree to which they perform aspects of their gender that are typically coded as “masculine.” Another important difference is that many of Sharron’s abilities are mystically derived or enhanced through her encounter with the Lost People in the Himalayas, whereas Emma’s are rooted in her native talent, her training, and her education.


Beginnings

When we meet Sharron Macready in the first episode (“The Beginning”), she is working with her partners, Craig Sterling (Stuart Damon) and Richard Barrett (William Gaunt), to steal some insect larvae from a Chinese lab. Soldiers on patrol see the scientist the Champions knocked out when they arrived, and sound the alarm. The Champions manage to get into their airplane and fly away, but not before some Chinese bullets hit one of the engines. Craig does his best to pilot the plane out of danger, but they can’t maintain altitude. And there are still the Himalayas to be gotten over.

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In Act I, we learn that: Sharron’s expertise with regard to the larvae is respected and trusted by her colleagues; that she is a widow who is still grieving for her husband, who apparently was also a Nemesis agent and was killed in the line of duty; that she is highly educated and highly intelligent; and that she is both much younger than either of her colleagues and that this is her first mission, whereas Richard and Craig are both old hands at the spy game.

Sharron’s greenness is especially apparent when Craig has increasing trouble controlling their flight: he tells them that they need to lighten their load, and quickly. Sharron begins to panic, shouting, “Are we crashing? We’re going to crash!” The men both keep their cool, even though they’re obviously stressed. Richard helps Sharron get command of herself, by ordering her to help throw things out the airplane door. Neither during this situation nor afterwards do either of the men tease or shame Sharron for her momentary lapse, nor is Sharron’s gender mentioned as the root of her panic. The men are frightened, too, and they remember what it’s like to be a rookie who has been tossed into the deep end.


“Craig, What Are You Suggesting?”

One of the things that the lead actors in Champions prided themselves on was the quality of the relationship among the characters they played. They very consciously decided that romance would not be a factor—it would have been awkward, anyway, given that they were a trio, not a duo—and that their characters would treat each other collegially and with an affectionate and respectful friendship.

The relationship between the men and Sharron is almost a fraternal/sororal one: they treat her somewhat like a younger sister, and she often relates to them as though they were older brothers. The relationship between the men is likewise more fraternal than anything else, at least to me.* And although Sharron is sometimes called upon to go under cover and use her feminine wiles to flush out the bad guys, she is never sexualized by her partners, and she never sexualizes them.

* There are fans who like to ship Craig and Richard, and while for my part I’m fairly certain that Craig is heterosexual I’m not so sure that Richard is: he’s shown as apparently being interested in women on occasion, but I can also see him being interested in other men.

Banter and crosstalk of a sexual nature is at a minimum among these characters, although not entirely absent, and takes place most often between Craig and Sharron. In “Shadow of the Panther,” Craig and Richard are attacked by one of the hotel workers, who takes two shots at Craig. He misses, but puts two bullet holes in Craig’s pillow. Once they’ve hypnotized the worker to remember nothing, the men go to Sharron’s room, where they tackle her because they think she has been turned into a zombie like the other guests. Sharron is not best pleased. She tells them why she was acting like a zombie, and that she had tried to warn them that the bad guys knew they were there. And then Craig makes a reference to the bullet holes in his pillow, which Sharron pretends to hear as double entendre, and pretends to be annoyed by.

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Sharron: I was merely trying to warn you what to expect.
Craig: Well, it came. You should come and see my pillow.
Sharron: Craig, what are you suggesting?

ladysecretagents.darkisland.02In “The Dark Island,” Craig and Sharron are posing as a husband and wife whose yacht was grounded on the reef that surrounds a mysterious uncharted island where a planter is colluding with Chinese agents to spark World War III. Naturally, the planter who is holding Sharron and Craig as his “guests” puts them in the same room, with a double bed. They take turns showering and, being a gentleman, Craig lets Sharron go first. We know this because Sharron is already lying on the bed when Craig emerges from the bathroom, whistling. Then he sits on the bed next to her and tests the springs, which he pronounces “not bad at all.”

But despite the bed bouncing and their states of relative undress, and despite their obvious affection for and comfort with one another, there’s no real romantic charge, here. They’re both joking about the fact that the bad guys think they’re married. Craig has no intention of taking advantage of the situation, and neither does Sharron. They flip a coin to see who gets the bed and who sleeps in the chair.

Of course they never have to use either the bed or the chair: events accelerate pretty quickly after dinner, and before the evening is over they’re busy saving the world with Richard’s help. Presumably once the mopping-up is done they spend the night on the USN aircraft carrier stationed nearby that has been monitoring their mission, presumably each in their own cabins (or maybe the two lads sharing theirs together).


“Thrown by a Lady!”

The gifts of the Lost People to the Champions include superhuman strength and heightened reflexes. In prologues to some of the episodes, Sharron is shown as employing this strength to do things like protect herself from men who are getting handsy and to get her car out of a spot where it has been boxed in.

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Sharron sees that her car is boxed in.
Two drunk guys say that they’ll lift the car out for her.
Sharron picks it up and moves it herself.
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Sharron picks up two hitchhikers.
The one sitting in front decides to get fresh.
They enter a tunnel.
Sharron exits the tunnel, having tossed the hitchhikers out.

Although there’s some kind of physical altercation with the bad guys in every episode, Sharron participates in these as a combatant a bit less often than the men do. The times when Sharron does actually fight, it’s usually a fairly brief affair, with just a blow or two exchanged, while the men’s fights are a bit more protracted. Although the men sometimes try to keep her away from the action, when they do see her fight they’re not threatened by it. They think it’s pretty cool that she can kick ass like they can, and they’re proud of her abilities.

ladysecretagents.darkisland.01As I mentioned above, in “The Dark Island,” Craig and Sharron are posing as a husband and wife and have been taken prisoner by the planter. Richard, on the other hand, parachutes in to pursue the investigation from another angle. He discovers a nuclear missile silo and reports his find to Craig and Sharron. When Richard is captured, his colleagues escape the planter’s house where they are being held and beat up the guards just outside. Sharron and Craig take an equal share in the guard-pummelling, and Craig’s congratulatory smile at Sharron shows pride, not condescension or surprise that she would be able to fell the guard by herself.

ladysecretagents.bodysnatchers.01In “Body Snatchers,” Richard stumbles across a scheme to use cryogenics to preserve the bodies and brains of politicians and military men in order to be able to tap their knowledge of security issues even decades after they have died. Richard is captured by the baddies and put into one of the cryogenic chambers. While Richard is in the process of being frozen to death, Sharron and Craig arrive at the estate where the experiments are taking place. Sharron tells Craig to let her handle it, and he does, confident that she can deal with the guard they’ve just encountered. Sharron tries to talk their way in, but when the guard doesn’t play nice, she thrashes him. Craig is obviously proud of her, and even though his later nod to her is a bit condescending (not shown), I think it is intended more as big-brotherly pride rather than an attempt to diminish her or minimize her contribution.


“And Keep Your Pretty Head Down”

When it comes to areas of Sharron’s expertise, there’s never any question that she should be the one to do the work, and never any doubt that she is completely capable of doing it. She removes a radio transmitter from Craig’s ear, she performs autopsies and surgery, and the men defer to her completely in those and other things. There are also several episodes where she takes the lead in the investigation.

However, the degree to which Sharron is treated as a true equal by the men she works with—Craig, Richard, and Tremayne, the CEO of Nemesis and the Champions’ boss—wavers throughout the series. Occasionally they talk down to her—Tremayne’s “good girl!” in “The Experiment” is particularly galling—and every once in a while Richard and Craig try to keep her out of the action entirely. Sometimes their sexism is more subtle, as with Craig and Richard’s response to Sharron beating Craig at chess in “A Case of Lemmings”: Craig seems surprised to have lost, and Richard, who had been watching the game with a smile on his face, becomes suddenly sober when Sharron checkmates Craig.

 

The degree to which Sharron puts up with sexist behavior from her supervisor and colleagues also fluctuates. For example, she accepts Tremayne’s “good girl” praise with what seems to be unaffected pleasure. However, when Craig and Richard try to sideline her (which the silly beasts occasionally do), she doesn’t let it stop her. She knows her worth, and she owns her right to be a part of the team. When Craig and Richard try to cadge all the fun for themselves, she doesn’t usually fuss or complain: she just watches the men go off to do whatever manly thing they have planned, and then she quietly and effectively continues her end of the investigation on her own, handles whatever situation she encounters with aplomb, and usually ends up making a vital contribution to solving the case.

One example of this is in “The Night People.” Sharron goes to Cornwall when she’s on leave, intending to indulge one of her interests: architecture. She goes to the local stately home to ask for a tour, but gets in hot water when she discovers that the owner is up to no good. The owner effectively kidnaps her, keeping her hostage in his home. Richard and Craig eventually find her and set her free, but when they get to the foot of the stairs the men try to leave Sharron behind while they go deal with the villains. She simply waits until they’re gone, and then pursues her own investigation. She doesn’t need their permission to participate in the case, and she finds some important clues at the very same time the men find some of their own.

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Craig: Okay, you stay here, and keep your pretty head down.
Richard: Remember, you’re on leave.
Sharron: Yeah, that’ll be a no, boys.

In “To Trap a Rat,” the Champions are trying to track down the players in a drug ring whose activities have led to several overdose deaths in London. Sharron goes under cover as an addict and makes contact with one of the distributors. A few minutes after Sharron finishes her encounter with the distributor, the men try to keep her out of the chase, telling her to follow them in the car. It turns out that having her stay with the car is key to their ability to continue to tail the bad guy, but Sharron is irritated that she’s left behind after having been the one to take all the risks so far.

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Sharron: He’s on his way to contact his supplier.
Richard: Just a moment. You’ve done a wonderful job, but it’s our turn, now.
Sharron: But I wanted to….
Craig: Follow us in the car.
Sharron: … Jerks.

These instances where Richard and Craig try to keep Sharron out of the action seem to be an attempt to keep all the fun for themselves, rather than an inability to believe that Sharron is capable of handling those situations. This doesn’t really make their behavior less sexist, but it does show that they’re not acting out of the kind of malice that often goes hand in glove with sexist behavior. These situations also show that Sharron refuses to internalize that sexism. She knows she has a right to participate fully in every investigation, and she asserts that right whenever the men try to keep her back, with beneficial results.

Further, Sharron sometimes actually tells them to stand down, as happens in “Shadow of the Panther”.  To Craig and Richard’s credit they take the hint and back off without question or rancor and without any hint that they are simply humoring her. They trust that she knows what she’s doing, they acknowledge that she is the lead investigator, and they follow what she says needs to be done. In the end it is Sharron’s actions that solve the case and save the lives of her colleagues and the guests that have been zombified.

ladysecretagents.ghostplane.01All that said, there still are a few episodes in which Sharron becomes a damsel in distress. The most prominent such moment happens in “Ghost Plane,” when Sharron is discovered eavesdropping and the bad guys lock her in a walk-in freezer that is set to a horrifically low temperature. For some reason best known to herself, Sharron seems to forget that she can super-strength her way out of a situation like this: she neither tries to fight her way out of being put into the freezer despite being many times stronger than both of the men who have captured her, nor does she really try to break down the door once she’s locked in and the baddies have gone. Instead, she frets as she slowly starts to freeze, and nearly dies while waiting for someone to rescue her.

Side Note: In fairness, there are other episodes (I’m thinking particularly of “Happening”) where a male character (in this case, Richard) also seems to forget that he has superpowers, so I’m not quite sure what Sharron’s difficulties in “Ghost Plane” mean, if anything.

One important point in the men’s favor is that they tend not to treat Sharron as a damsel in distress if she isn’t, in fact, in distress. When Craig and Richard get angry at Tremayne for basically throwing Sharron to the wolves in “The Experiment,” their fear for her safety isn’t because they think she’s unfit to do a dangerous job on her own, but rather because Tremayne sent her into that situation without sufficient backup, which is a reckless thing to do with any agent regardless of gender.

When Craig and Richard find out where Sharron is, they don’t shoulder her aside and try to take over: they communicate with her using their special powers, telling her to stay put and keep working the case, demonstrating that they trust her to continue to do her job until they can find a way to get her out of there safely. It’s not until she’s drugged and tied up by the bad guys that the men rush in to fight the villains. While Craig and Richard are dealing with the ones they encounter, the drugs Sharron was given wear off and she very capably handles those who have closeted themselves with her and are trying to get her to talk.

It’s also important to note that Sharron is not the only one of the three who occasionally needs rescuing. Sometimes it’s Craig, sometimes it’s Richard, and Sharron helps to rescue her colleagues in some of those instances, just as they help rescue her.


“She’s a Very Unusual Woman”

So as we can see, Sharron Macready has some important traits in common with Mrs Peel: like Emma, Sharron is a highly educated scientist who can hold her own in a fight, and she’s an important member of a crime-fighting team, where she is treated as an equal (for the most part) by her male colleagues.

That said, there are, of course, some important differences between the two women, in their personalities, relationship to partner(s), combat skills and participation in fights, and degree to which these women are treated as equals by the man/men they work with.

As people, Emma and Sharron are very different. Emma has a very wry outlook on life, a fine sense of humor, and a magnificent sense of the absurd, while Sharron is significantly more serious and doesn’t smile or crack jokes quite as often as Emma does. Sharron also is still grieving her husband, whereas Emma seems to have passed beyond that. I suppose, then, that in terms of personality Sharron is a little more like Cathy Gale than she is like Emma, although even Cathy is a bit more lighthearted than Sharron is. (Please note that I’m not privileging any of these above the others: these are descriptions, not value judgements.)

Unlike Sharron, who relates to Craig and Richard as a colleague, a friend, and at times something like a younger sister, Emma is in a romantic relationship with her partner, and while she and Steed both work very professionally together, as Sharron does with Craig and Richard, there is that added level of care and affection in Emma’s relationship to Steed that goes along with being in love with someone. This romantic relationship also spawns a much greater incidence of banter tinged with double entendre, including the occasional thinly veiled dick joke. Although Sharron is not really averse to this kind of humor and even employs it herself, she does so only rarely, and as far as I can recall it doesn’t get as close to explicit as it does in Avengers.

Although Sharron is able to fight and generally acquits herself well in combat situations, she does not fight very often, and her fight choreography is usually rather simple, whereas Emma fights in every episode, sometimes having extended battles with the villains involving different styles of martial arts. I think there are several factors at the back of this difference. Emma Peel, like her predecessor Dr Catherine Gale, was drawn from the start as an expert in unarmed combat. That expertise apparently was not baked into the character of Sharron Macready, although presumably she would have had some combat training as part of qualifying to act as a Nemesis field agent.  Because of the way the character of Emma Peel was drawn and what she was expected to do, Diana Rigg was given a certain amount of training in martial arts so that she could perform the portions of her fight choreography that did not necessitate a stunt double. From what I see on the screen, I am guessing that Alexandra Bastedo did not receive the same amount of prepping that Rigg did, and Sharron’s much simpler fight choreography reflects this difference in the actors’ training.

I think that in terms of character creation it was decided from the outset that Sharron would not frequently participate in fights, although the premise of the show required that there had to be some opportunity for her to show off her super strength from time to time. And although I have no way of proving whether it was a reason for giving Sharron fewer combat opportunities, I do believe that Diana Rigg was/is significantly more athletic and physically talented than Alexandra Bastedo was, which gives the character of Emma Peel a rather larger movement palette than Sharron Macready has.

It’s also partly a question of character personality. While both Emma and Sharron are very feminine, and while they both have a degree of athleticism, Emma has a tomboyish streak that Sharron lacks. Emma is much more adventurous and fun-loving than Sharron is, and she also takes a much more practical approach to her combat wardrobe. Whenever Emma has to go into the villain’s lair, she wears some kind of fighting suit and sensible shoes, and she never carries anything in her hands, whereas Sharron is rarely seen in anything other than skirts and heels, and she almost always carries a handbag of some kind. Sharron’s wardrobe, like Emma’s, is lovely and stylish, but is not quite as practical for villain-thrashing purposes.

And last but not least is the issue of how these characters relate to the men they work with, and how the men relate to them. As we have seen, Craig, Richard, and Tremayne do relate to Sharron as an equal and treat her as a competent professional for the most part, and although they do exhibit pride in her skills and abilities, occasionally they speak to her condescendingly and even try to keep her out of the action from time to time, for no good reason. I suspect that their behavior in this respect has to do partly with her gender and partly with her youth: Richard and Craig are much more experienced agents and are rather older than Sharron, while Tremayne is old enough to be her father and is her supervisor.

Neither condescension or an attempt at sidelining ever happens between Steed and Emma. Steed always presumes Emma’s competence, he never talks down to her, and he never tries to keep her from participating in an investigation in any truly material way. Despite the fact that Steed is rather older than Emma, that age difference is never used by Steed as an excuse to treat her as anything other than his equal, and her gender certainly is never considered a reason to consider her as someone less skilled or qualified than himself.


The character of Sharron Macready, while differing from Emma Peel and Catherine Gale in some important ways, nevertheless depends on and is drawn from the precedent the two Avengers women set, and on their legacy of badassery. Like Emma and Cathy, Sharron is a strong woman, confident in her abilities, who does a difficult and dangerous job. She is fortunate to have three colleagues who despite the occasional sexist lapse do treat her as the competent professional she is and who see her as a complete person and an important member of the team. Although The Champions only ran for a single season, by including the character of Sharron Macready the series nevertheless made an important contribution to the history of strong female lead characters presented on British television.

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