At Last, ‘The Avengers’ Starring

Honor Blackman

By Craig Henderson

Well, here's where it gets tricky, both for fans of The Avengers and for A&E Home Video. The “Avengers 64” set of four DVDs (or six VHS tapes if you're so inclined) is the first American video release of the legendary Honor Blackman episodes of The Avengers. A&E has been moving backward in its Avengers releases, starting with the color Diana Rigg series, followed by the monochrome Rigg episodes, and now the final 12 episodes of the 52 made during the two Blackman series.

But in this case it makes sense. These are among the best episodes that co-starred Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, John Steed’s first female partner, and the most likely to appeal to American viewers unfamiliar with this early version of The Avengers. Starting at the beginning of the Blackman era would have been a grave mistake because, the sad truth is, those episodes are pretty bad.


Even these final 12 — the dozen episodes that were originally broadcast in England at the end of the 1963-64 season — will be a hard sell to many American viewers because they were produced not on film, as the Rigg episodes were and American adventure shows always are, but in a TV studio on video tape. That was and to a large extent still is customary in British television but to American eyes it makes for a rather odd looking show.

That's why The Avengers didn't sell in America until it went to film on the first Rigg series. And with no American nostalgia for the Blackman era, DVD sales will have to depend on curiosity more than anything else. But anyone claiming to be an Avengers fan owes it to himself to see these long lost gems.

Some viewers actually have seen these episodes, if they caught the first and only American telecasts of the Blackman shows on A&E for a few months in 1991. But even if you taped those, you can toss them now. They were, in the grand tradition of cable television, severely cut to cram in lots and lots of commercials. And while they were ballyhooed then as recovered and restored treasures, it’s obvious the episodes on DVD (uncut, of course) have been restored to a higher quality — probably the highest possible considering the Blackman episodes survive only as kinescopes (films shot off a TV monitor). The original video tape apparently disintegrated years ago.

Despite the somewhat clunky television staging — outdoor scenes are obviously studio sets; the fights are performed by the actors themselves, so you can almost see them struggling not to hurt each other — the show is more than saved by the snappy scripts. The 1963-64 series is the one sold around the world that made The Avengers an international sensation (except in America), and it’s easy to see why. This is the season that the show truly became The Avengers as we know and love it, with the style that was perfected in the first Diana Rigg series. The amusing dialogue and incidental bits of business gave the show its charm and panache, and made Steed and Mrs. Gale far more appealing characters than they had been in the earlier series.

And if you’ve never seen any of the Blackman shows, well, what a blast it is to be able to watch so many “new” episodes of a truly classic series. Imagine uncovering dozens of previously unseen episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible or Secret Agent made at the peak of those series’ quality. Going virtually unseen in America makes the video release of the Blackman episodes a unique event.

And what a pleasure to watch these characters in action. Patrick Macnee had Steed down pat by this time, the innate, offhand charm disguising the sudden ruthlessness. Mrs. Gale is far more than a prototype of Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Peel, despite the similarities in leather outfits and hand-to-hand combat techniques. Cathy is every bit as smart and sexy as Emma, but she’s also a cooler and flintier character who disapproves of Steed’s callous methods and doesn’t hesitate to tell him so. Three-and-a-half decades later, the very idea of a strong, independent female character who’s obviously smarter than her male partner and who tosses hulking villains over her shoulder is not so astonishing, but it’s still perfectly clear why Cathy Gale was a sensation in the early '60s.

Some of the highlights in the Avengers 64 set include “Mandrake,” a big favorite with British viewers after it was revealed that Blackman threw a stuntman so hard during a fight in a graveyard that he was knocked unconscious. “The Charmers,” an episode penned by Brian Clemens, who went on to become the writer and producer most associated with The Avengers style, clearly was pointing to the show’s future with its charm school that secretly trains spies and assassins. In fact, this episode is one of several Blackman scripts that were remade during the Rigg color series.

“Lobster Quadrille,” the final episode of the Mrs. Gale era, ends with Steed relieved to find that Cathy has survived yet another deadly situation that he dragged her into, and joking about her going off to “pussy foot” around some vacation spot. By that time, Blackman had announced she was leaving the show to play Pussy Galore in “Goldfinger.”


Considering the source material is those ancient kinescopes, the picture on all of these episodes is remarkably good. Not as beautiful as the black-and-white cinematography on filmed Diana Rigg shows, but still burnished to appealingly steely shades of gray.

And surprisingly, the sound has been cleaned up to a much greater clarity than the sometimes muffled squawks heard during A&E's 1991 telecasts. British television sound used to be notoriously bad anyway and some of the soundtracks on the Blackman shows had not survived well. But it's obvious the sound has been through a state-of-the-art tweaking for DVD release and all of the dialogue is now perfectly audible.

The only DVD extras are a few production stills from each episode.


The Avengers on DVD are available in stores or on-line from A&E's web site, www.originalavengers.com. Each disk contains three episodes. Two-disk boxed sets are $44.95.

Released March 2000