Saturday, June 27, 2015

RIP Patrick Macnee: British Agent John Steed Has Left His Earthly Ministry

What an eventful week: the Rev. Clementa Pinckney was laid to rest—after being murdered in his own church—with a deeply moving funeral service in Charleston, where Brother Obama gave a lovely eulogy, which was quite literally while the news of the Supreme Court upholding Marriage Equality in all fifty states was announced and filled social media.

And in other news, Patrick Mcnee died at 93 at his home in California on Thursday, June 25.

It turns out that the last two items are connected. And you know how I love connections.

Patrick Macnee of course created John Steed, the top British spy of the English TV series The Avengers who had vague professional allegiances (MI5? MI6? There are only occasional mentions of even a minister.)

Macnee was born in London in 1922. His father trained racehorses and drank, and his mother

"took refuge in a circle of friends that included Tallulah Bankhead and the madam Mrs Meyrick, before absconding with a wealthy lesbian, Evelyn. Young Patrick was brought up by the pair and was instructed to call Evelyn “Uncle."

From the Telegraph obit. [Bucket list confession: I want to do something in my life that merits me a Telegraph obituary. They are the most beautifully written of all obituaries.)

Uncle Evelyn paid for Macnee's education at Summer Fields, and Eton, which of course gave him the RL experience to infuse his spy with such panache. And so we all say, "Thank you Uncle Evelyn."

See, that's the thing about Marriage Equality: people have FOREVER found their way to loving and dealing with who they truly are. Now it's more institutionally fair, no small thing.

Why The Avengers . . . Still
Each generation . . .around the world . . . finds and loves this early TV show. It has an exquisite combination of style, dialogue, wit, and chemistry between John Steed and Mrs. Peel. (Cathy Gale and Tara King have their own fans, but I am not among them).

I first saw the series in reruns on Sunday afternoon when I was very young and my father was watching. Details are vague, but I remember that checkerboard filmed for the American audience to help us understand. Not sure what the exact correlation is there, but it t dazzled me.

"Extraordinary crimes against the people, and the state, have to be avenged by agents extraordinary. Two such people are John Steed, top professional, and his partner Emma Peel, talented amateur. Otherwise known as The Avengers."

When I later watched reruns as a teen, it was the unique and appealing relationship between a worldly man and an independent, braniac woman who happens to be stunning that kept me watching.  Mrs. Peel is a scientist, something played out more explicitly in the black and white season than the color.

Patrick Macnee had the unique professional opportunity of projecting his own creativity into the character he was hired to play: the journey started as a very shadowy, poorly limned second banana to Ian Hendry in the earliest series called The Avengers. When Hendry left, the show focused on Steed and his "secret agentness" and a civilian partner, Cathy Gale, was introduced.

When Honor Blackman left the series, Diana Rigg stepped in after a big search and a short, false start with Elizabeth Shepherd, who did not have much on screen chemistry with Macnee.

It's the chemistry between Macnee and Rigg that allowed the production team, including Brian Clemens, Julian Wintle, and Albert Fennell to let Steed & Mrs. Peel bring a very special élan to the TV landscape along with that partnership, first messaged meeting up on the chessboard, and then so simply with legs up on a desk.

There is a delicious sexual tension between the duo, with hints that they may have been lovers in the past before Mrs. Peel married, and that they are FOBs while Peter Peel is lost in the jungle from a plane crash.

Emma Peel: You know my wavelength.
John Steed: I do indeed.

That Hour That Never Was

A Touch of Brimstone

How to Succeed . . .at Murder

Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Station
Who's Who????

The Winged Avenger

Steed has impeccable manners, a ruthless streak, English reserve, a Bentley, Savile Row then Pierre Cardin suits, the perfect incarnation of an umbrella: he was the ideal of "English to the core" for post-War TV culture. 

The stories are imaginative and sometimes crazy, tiptoeing into science fiction in The Man-Eater of Surrey Green, mind control in Too Many Christmas Trees, and a villain who wants to drown the world with a rain-making machine in Surfeit of H20 (which was the basis for the "film which will not be named.") It's the total package for a fan.

When Diana Rigg left the series, her last line of dialogue as Mrs. Peel to Steed is

"Always keep your bowler on in time of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds."

Sweet advice, which I hope also served Macnee well over his long life. 

Fan Tributes
This is a short, poetic look at the duo, set to Norah Jones singing "The Nearness of You."

And this is a great look at Mrs. Peel, set to The Kinks.


Anonymous said...

I think you meant to say born in 1922 to make him 93 at death.

Ellen O'Neill said...

Thanks Anon. Fixed.

Anonymous said...

Loved this piece and wonderful pictures of the couple.