british television

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.

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Some Avenging Thoughts on International Women’s Day

When Avengers first aired, it was a show starring Ian Hendry as Dr David Keel, and John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) was a secondary character. When Hendry quit after one season, the producers decided to make Steed the main character, and to give him a female partner. They hired Honor Blackman for the role, as Catherine Gale. Because they had a bunch of Hendry scripts left over, and because they didn’t have a budget to commission more, they ended up adapting scripts originally written for the male character of Dr David Keel to the female character of Catherine Gale.

The Gale era of Avengers was a watershed in television history. Catherine Gale was the first female character on television to be treated as not only the complete equal of her male partner, but as better than he was at some things. And not only that, it was done with utter seriousness: Steed was in no way threatened by Mrs Gale’s skills and strengths (in fact, he is regularly bowled over by her), and her character was not written either with lampoon of gender roles in mind or as any kind of misandrist.

Catherine Gale was a PhD in anthropology; a supremely intelligent woman who could think her way out of almost any problem; a judoka who could pummel the tar out of pretty much any opponent (Blackman actually learned judo for real for the role and did her own stunts); a crack shot and big game hunter; a freelance contractor who could do anything from help manage a charity to write essays about medieval couture to catalogue a museum. She helped Steed collar the bad guys on a regular basis, working side by side with him as his equal, not as his subordinate or sidekick. She never played the damsel in distress, and although Steed had to rescue her occasionally, she had her own chances to repay the favor when the baddies captured him.

Catherine Gale would become the inspiration for the character of Emma Peel, who maintained the relationship of equals and high level of badassery of her predecessor. Both characters have been a source of inspiration for generations of women audience members.

But it was Catherine Gale, PhD, a woman who took no shit and gave no fucks, who broke that barrier first.

So here’s to Honor Blackman and Catherine Gale, original badasses both.

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The Champions Meet the Avengers

thechampions-theavengers-01Herewith the continuation of my series examining confluences between two 1960s British television programs: The Champions and The Avengers. For the basics about The Champions, follow this link to the initial blog.

The Champions: Richard Barrett, Craig Sterling, and Sharron Macready

Case Study #2: Master-Minding the Panther’s Nutcracker

the master minds: written by robert banks stewart; julian wintle, producer; uk release date 6 november 1965
shadow of the panther: written by tony williamson; monty berman, producer; uk release date 15 january 1969
nutcracker: written by philip broadley; monty berman, producer; uk release date 2 april 1969

LOG LINE: A highly placed public servant breaks into a super-secure vault and attempts to take top-secret documents. He accidentally trips an alarm and is caught in the act. He can’t explain his actions because he has been brainwashed.

The beginning of the Avengers Season 4 “Master Minds”? or of the Champions “Nutcracker”?

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The Champions Meet the Avengers

thechampions-theavengers-01

The Champions: Richard Barrett, Craig Sterling, and Sharron Macready

In September 1968, ITV launched a new series called The Champions, which was created by Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner.  The Champions ran for only a single season (30 episodes), and starred Angela Bastedo as Sharron Macready, William Gaunt as Richard Barrett, and Stuart Damon as Craig Sterling. Macready, Barrett, and Sterling are highly trained agents of an international security service called Nemesis. Each of them has a unique skill set: Macready is a doctor and biochemist; Barrett an expert in ciphers and codes; Sterling is a former US Air Force pilot.

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Lost and Found

Recently it came to light that a lost episode from Season 1 of The Avengers, “Tunnel of Fear,” had been rediscovered in a private collection.

BBC Newsnight’s report about this includes a clip from the episode, which is supposed to be shown publicly for the first time in 55 years in Birmingham, England on 12 November.

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Steed threatens to blow the place sky-high with a miniature bomb (still from “Tunnel of Fear”)

(And shoutout to my fellow Tumblr avengerness for posting the Newsnight link.)

 

 

 

 

 

An Eagle, a Dog, and a Fox All Walk Into a Bar: Animal Symbolism in “Build a Better Mousetrap”

In a career spanning over thirty years of television directing, Peter Hammond frequently made creative — and even groundbreaking — uses of camera angle and props. Among the signatures of his style are shots requiring sometimes complicated alignment of the actors, innovative camera placement, and the incorporation of props and set furnishings into shots and scenes in ways that often have significance to plot or characterization or both.

According to imdb.com, Hammond directed a total of nineteen episodes of The Avengers, nine of which were from the first season and thus have unfortunately been lost, with the exception of “The Frighteners.” The other ten were from Seasons 2 and 3, all of which are extant, and elsewhere I have discussed how Hammond uses props and the alignment and placement of the actors’ bodies to help tell the story in the Season 3 episode “The Golden Fleece.” Here, though, I’d like to discuss a different element of Hammond’s directorial style: the use of animal symbolism as commentary on plot and character in another Season 3 story: “Build a Better Mousetrap.”

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The Art of the Two-Shot in “The Golden Fleece”

“The Golden Fleece” is one of the better episodes of the Gale Era, not only because of its relatively strong story and fine performances, but also because of the skillfulness of the direction. Throughout the episode, director Peter Hammond creates artful effects by using symmetry and mirror image in the blocking of the Steed/Gale two-shots. Shifts in which character is foregrounded along with the positions of the actors’ bodies relative to one another and to the space they occupy and, occasionally, shot length all contribute to the overall effect, and sometimes have significant interactions with the motions of the plot and the character arcs within it.

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