Showbiz hardly needed another secret agent. At the movies, Sean Connery’s 007 had Thunderball rolling and Dean Martin’s Matt Helm was saving the world in The Silencers. On TV, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart were top 20 hits and Bill Cosby had broken the covert operatives’ color barrier with I Spy. Then along came The Avengers, arriving on ABC from England in March 1966. Right away, even uncouth Americans could see this wasn’t just another secret-agent show.
Campy and kinky, splashy yet sly, The Avengers had started out some five years earlier as conventional cloak and dagger. But by 1965, when “talented amateur” Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) joined “top professional” John Steed (Patrick Macnee) on the Empire-saving beat, the show had evolved into a cheeky lark. Dispensing with foreign intrigues and nuclear threats in favor of pitting its dynamic duo against cartoony villains—mad scientists, murderous robots, sinister secret societies—the Avengers that America first saw found a way to spoof spies, British stuffiness, and ’60s hip all at once.
Now making its U.S. video debut with 12 remastered episodes from the 1967 season, its first in color, The Avengers reached its satiric height just as the swinging ’60s were kicking into high gear. The same ferment that inspired the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the summer of love found a more playful outlet in an action heroine who wore ultramod fashions, winking plots about killer kitties (“Pussies galore,” purrs Mrs. Peel, surrounded by felines programmed to attack), psychedelic interiors, and what we now might call a Monty Pythonish irreverence for anything too jolly, old, or English. Sometimes the series kidded other TV shows, as in the Batmanesque “POW! SPLAT!” finale of “The Winged Avenger.” Sometimes it made fun of itself, most memorably in “Epic,” which ends with Mrs. Peel taking a shortcut back to her apartment by kicking down the wall to the adjacent set. That was The Avengers‘ way: Its grandest flourishes were also throwaway jokes.
For all its stylish invention, The Avengers might never have made it to video—or inspired the big-screen version that debuts Aug. 14—without two vivid protagonists who kept it all almost real. Rigg’s Mrs. Peel wasn’t just a blithely witty beauty in eye-popping catsuits. She painted, sculpted, did scientific research, wrote articles about bridge, and routinely out-clobbered all comers. And by the Rigg years, Macnee’s dapper, jaunty, cheerfully ironic Steed had evolved into a perfect parody of a perfect gentleman, a spy who preferred to dispatch villains with his reinforced bowler, his gadget-packed umbrella, or other available props — such as the handy mirror he uses to deflect a lethal laser in “From Venus With Love.”
Together, Macnee and Rigg were an effervescent team, breezily matching bons mots, taking turns rescuing each other (for such a tough customer, Mrs. Peel spent an unaccountable amount of time in bondage), and, mission accomplished, retiring to his flat or hers to sip champagne, trade quips, and leave the rest to our imaginations. Long before Mulder and Scully weren’t kissing, Steed and Mrs. Peel kept us wondering. But with them it wasn’t “Will they or won’t they?” It was “Do they or don’t they?” This ’60s survivor would like to think they did. A