The Avengers on DVD!

In Germany, it was known as With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler, charm being the operative word. No adventure series relied more on the innate charm of its leads, Patrick Macnee as John Steed and Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel, than The Avengers.

More than three decades after it first became an international hit, the series still has such cachet that the home-video arm of cable's A&E Network is continuing its high-profile video release of the show (in its native England, The Avengers is in the midst of an even bigger video release of every episode in the series and its New Avengers sequel).

What's largely forgotten is that Rigg co-starred in the show for only two years. Superficially, the difference between those two series is the first was shot in black-and-white, the second in color. Naturally, A&E released the color episodes first, on videocassette then on DVD. Never mind the show was past its peak at that point. Only after those episodes sold well did they get around to the far superior monochrome series, released earlier this year on cassette and now on DVD.

As an ardent fan and learned student of the vaguely defined tongue-in-cheek spy thriller — and someone who was smitten instantly not only by the black leather-clad Mrs. Peel but by every aspect of the show — I guarantee you that the 26 black-and-white filmed episodes of The Avengers cannot be beat. Some episodes are, of course, better than others, but every single one is well worth watching. And sustaining that level of entertainment over 26 episodes is certainly a rarity in television. Only the first season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. comes close. In sheer volume, The Avengers trumps a single movie, no matter how brilliant. North by Northwest, The Manchurian Candidate, From Russia With Love — all sheer bliss, but over in less than two hours.

Of course, The Avengers had a big advantage over other TV series: It had several years to hone itself to perfection before making its international debut. Completely unseen and unknown in America, three full seasons of 26 episodes each were produced in Britain before Diana Rigg ever entered the picture.

Way back in January 1961, the very first episode of The Avengers aired on a few stations of Britain's commercial TV network. The starring role was not dapper secret agent John Steed but Dr. David Keel, a young physician played by an up-and-coming actor named Ian Hendry. Patrick Macnee, a journeyman performer for almost two decades, had never been a huge success and was about to dump acting altogether for the security of producing TV shows. He was lured back before the cameras by Sydney Newman, head of Britain's ABC television franchise, who insisted Macnee was the only man to play a mysterious government agent type in a new ABC series.

With stars in place, the first episode was broadcast Jan. 7, revealing how Dr. Keel's fiancee Peggy was murdered by drug smugglers after accidentally coming into possession of a shipment of heroin. The despondent Keel is contacted by a mysterious fellow calling himself Steed who reveals the motive for Peggy's murder. With Steed's assistance, Dr. Keel sets out to avenge his fiancee's death — hence the show's title.

It was a start, but fans of the Mrs. Peel era would be hard put to recognize this as The Avengers. Early publicity shots show Keel and Steed as cliched gumshoes, clad in trench coats, cigarettes dangling from their lips. And a huge drawback to an adventure series was the production itself— staged in a TV studio and recorded on videotape, the standard approach in British television. (It was Sir Lew Grade's ATV company that pioneered filmed British TV shows with The Adventures of Robin Hood and went on to produce The Saint, Danger Man, Secret Agent, The Prisoner and virtually every other British adventure series except The Avengers.)

Nevertheless, Newman insisted from the beginning that the show take a stylish approach with a sense of humor to stand out from standard crime melodramas. And these early episodes did establish certain Avengers traits: Steed's sudden appearance on the scene to solve a bizarre crime that frequently involved espionage or homegrown threats to the government; his unorthodox use of an amateur assistant; and the first traces of his Edwardian dandy wardrobe.

After broadcasting 26 episodes on an increasingly irregular schedule throughout 1961, the show had established a bit of style when it was ended abruptly by an actors strike. During the six-month interruption, Hendry decided his future lay in movies and informed Newman he would not return to The Avengers. What seemed like a fatal blow to a series just getting itself established fortuitously gave Newman the chance to recast the show with the bright idea that would make it world famous: Steed's new amateur assistant would be a woman.

Lots of detectives and adventurers had girl sidekicks, most of whom tagged along just to cause problems for the hero. The forward-thinking Newman had other ideas. Steed needed a partner who was his equal, a thoroughly emancipated, new '60s woman quite capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much, instead of being rescued by Steed every week. Someone not the least bit intimidated by Steed or by the villains he sent her up against. In short, make Steed's new partner a woman but write her as if the character were still a man.

That simple yet revolutionary idea eventually made The Avengers a world-wide smash. But this still was not Emma Peel. Newman came up with a character he named Catherine Gale, an anthropologist who was also knowledgeable (much more so than Steed) in other sciences; a woman who learned to handle a gun and fend for herself on an African plantation; a widow whose husband was killed in the Mau Mau uprisings; and a judo expert.

To play the part, Newman agreed to cast his least favorite on the short list of actresses being considered: Honor Blackman, who, like Macnee, had been around for years without landing a breakthrough role. But recognizing the opportunity of a lifetime, she seized this one in her teeth.

Again the series was studio-bound and videotaped, with an occasional exterior on fuzzy 16mm film rolled into the tape. But the show continued to polish its style and the Mrs. Gale character was a sensation. By the end of this second series, The Avengers was firmly established as one of England's most popular and sophisticated shows — despite the fact that by American standards it still was an amazingly crude production (American viewers finally got the chance to see the Blackman episodes when A&E ran them in 1991).

The second Mrs. Gale series (1963-64) was really the beginning of The Avengers as we know it. The witty, intimate repartee between Steed and Cathy, the outlandish crimes that turn out to have perfectly logical explanations, and the eccentric masterminds behind them, Cathy's judo bouts and black leather fighting gear, Steed's old world charm — finally it was all in place. Someone even learned to edit video tape, giving the show a faster pace.

This series is the one that was sold in dozens of countries, making The Avengers a world-wide hit — except in the United States, where a taped adventure show just wouldn't do. The logical step was a new series on film. Then Blackman announced she, like Hendry, was leaving the show for greener pastures, specifically the role of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

The Avengers did not appear during the 1964-65 season, as plans were laid for the new and improved film series and the search began for Steed's new partner. Rather than recast Cathy Gale, the producers decided on a new character. Legend has it a publicity assistant thought she had to have "man appeal" or M appeal — Emma Peel! The newly christened character wasn't really much different from Cathy Gale: a widow, highly intelligent and self-sufficient, with a scientific bent, a talent for judo and karate, and a taste for black leather.

The right actress to play Mrs. Peel was soon discovered — Elizabeth Shepherd. Who? Elizabeth Shepherd, a quite competent and respected British actress at the time. An entire episode, "The Town of No Return," was shot with Shepherd as Mrs. Peel before the producers decided they'd made a terrible mistake. Shepherd was let go and another search turned up a young Shakespearean actress named — yes, of course — Diana Rigg.

So here at last was the ultimate version of The Avengers, the series at its pinnacle. Macnee had perfected the character of Steed. Rigg, only 27 at the time but a superb actress with commanding presence — and a strong contender for the title of most beautiful woman in the world — knew instinctively just how to play Emma. She and Macnee developed an instant rapport, a playful camaraderie and understated intimacy that made the characters and their relationship as intriguing as the plots (agents Mulder and Scully have nothing on Steed and Mrs. Peel).

The scripts were little gems of mystery and parody, sending up the clash between Steed's old world and Emma's swinging 60s, with a Cold War background that made the plots against beloved England perfectly logical, within the parameters of The Avengers that is. Beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Laurie Johnson's jaunty music were the icing on the cake.

For 26 weeks in England, from October 1965 through March 1966, and for 21 weeks in the United States, from March to September 1966 (going to film finally sold the show in America, to ABC), this perfect TV series was broadcast and then was gone.

[And all you pop-culture revisionists touting episodes that were "banned in America," please note that ABC did run only 21 of the 26 episodes — because the network bought The Avengers in November 1965 but had no open timeslot to put it in. When Ben Casey completed its fifth and final season in March, ABC put on The Avengers in lieu of Casey reruns. The show ran from March 28 through Sept. 1, then the new TV season started and five episodes never got on the air.

[One of them was indeed the so-called banned episode, "A Touch of Brimstone," the one in which a band of rowdies dress Mrs. Peel as "the queen of sin," replete with Victorian corset, high-heel boots, spiked dog collar and a huge, live snake writhing about her body. Yes, that was a bit much for 1966 American television, so if ABC had to choose five episodes not to run, naturally that was one of them. But it was hardly "banned." Every episode went into U.S. syndication in 1969. And in fact that sequence had to be cut slightly to get on the air in England.

[Just for the record, the other episodes ABC did not run are "Honey for the Prince" (containing another risqué sequence with Mrs. Peel undercover in a harem), "Silent Dust," "Quick-Quick Slow Death" and "A Surfeit of H2O."]

Naturally, with the continued success of the show around the world and now in the United States, another series was planned, this time in color. But those episodes, broadcast in England and America in 1967 and '68, were more silly than witty, more interested in spoofing than intriguing, and were saddled with dreadful, comic book-level science fiction: shrinking rays, killer androids, anti-gravity devices, mind-transfer machines. It may have been an inevitable decline, but it still was a keen disappointment.

After her second series, Rigg announced she too was leaving the show. The Avengers got one last series and Steed got one last partner: Tara King, played by Linda Thorson, an actress far too young and inexperienced to follow Rigg and Blackman. The show completely lost its bearings, staggered between farce and melodrama and went off the air after an extraordinary eight-year run.

The 1976 revival, The New Avengers, with a fiftyish Steed mentoring a younger male and female team, never really worked. The execrable 1998 movie is unworthy of mention in the same breath with the TV series, though at least it underscored the fact that Macnee has always been underrated for his crafty portrayal of Steed. It takes a lot more talent than even a technically proficient actor like Ralph Fiennes can muster.

So it all comes back to the incomparable black-and-white Mrs. Peel series. The opportunity to own those episodes — looking better than they ever have with the original films cleaned up and digitally transferred to DVD — would get my highest recommendation except for this caveat. The complete-and-uncut claim — it's a lie. Incredibly, infuriatingly and unbelievably, every episode A&E released on videocassette and DVD has both its opening and closing titles cut.

The pre-credits opening — Steed and Mrs. Peel strolling across a gigantic chess board to discover a dead waiter clutching a bottle of champagne, while the narrator explains how "extraordinary crimes against the people and the state have to be avenged by agents extraordinary" — it's not there. A&E may defend this by noting that sequence only appeared on the American version of the show. The British version began with the credits and theme sequence that followed. True enough, but the chessboard sequence has always opened the American prints of the show and this is supposed to be the definitive American video release. You know, DVD region one, won't play anywhere else?

Harder to explain or excuse, the current owner of the show, the French media company Canal Plus, has eliminated the British ABC company's logo — the inverted triangle above the words ABC Production — at the end of the closing titles. Where once the picture faded to black after the last set of credits, then faded in on the logo as the theme ended, now the picture fades to black and simply stays black as the theme ends. No logo.

Which is simply maddening but not as horrifying as what Canal Plus has done to the TV version it's now distributing. When the TV Land cable network ran four of the black-and-white Avengers episodes in its spy show marathon last summer, the closing titles of those episodes were time-expanded so the credits ended just as the theme did. No fade, no logo, no sign there ever was a logo.

And more inexplicably, Canal Plus allows the ABC tag to remain at the end of the color episodes, where it was redesigned to spell out Associated British Corporation.

As corporate screw-you's go, this one is right up there with Paramount's video release of Star Trek, "complete and uncut, exactly as they originally appeared, except of course we've eliminated the original theme music from the first five episodes and substituted something from later in the season, but if we keep quiet and wait long enough maybe no one will remember there ever was an original version of the theme." And hey, if Big Brother can airbrush his former friends out of existence, who cares about a few teasers and logos, right?

I'd hoped to finally retire my old Avengers tapes, recorded from Public Television broadcasts so long ago that they were running ratty old 16mm prints instead of video transfers. But now I can't. My tapes sure don't look as good as pristine DVDs, but at least they really are complete.


The Avengers on DVD are available in stores or on-line from A&E's web site, www.originalavengers.com. Every disk also contains production stills from the episodes on that disk. A&E prefers to sell them in two-disk boxed sets for $44.95 each. Single disks are $24.95 each.

Avengers 65 DVD set 1, six B&W episodes on two disks

Avengers 65 DVD set 2, seven B&W episodes on two disks

Avengers 66 DVD set 1, six B&W episodes on two disks

Avengers 66 DVD set 2, seven B&W episodes on two disks

[released August 1999]

Avengers 67 DVD set 1, six color episodes on two disks

Avengers 67 DVD set 2, six color episodes on two disks

Avengers 67 DVD set 3, six color episodes on two disks

Avengers 67 DVD set 4, seven color episodes on two disks

[released April 1999]