Mark Steyn on the (not-technically) original Avengers star:
But for a while Americans liked The Avengers, and it lingered in the memory so warmly that, three decades later, Hollywood opted to do a big-screen, big-budget remake. Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed, sportingly agreed to do the usual cameo — in this case, as a ministry bureaucrat rendered invisible in some research mishap and now consigned to a cramped office in a Whitehall basement. As I say, he was invisible, so we heard Macnee’s affable drawl (he had a smile in his voice, even when beating up the bad guys), but the audience never saw him, which was probably just as well — because, if they did, they’d remember the sheer affability of Macnee’s Steed. He was never a conventionally handsome leading man — he had a bit of a dumplingy face — but he brought a bonhomous ease to the role of the unflappable secret agent: the bowler, the brollies, the buttonholes and the Bollinger seemed like natural extensions of his charm; you can understand why groovy birds like Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson would dig such an ostensibly squaresville cat.
He wasn’t supposed to be the star. The Avengers began in 1961 with Ian Hendry as a mystery-solving doctor David Keel. Macnee returned to England from an indifferent theatrical career in Canada to play the role of Dr Keel’s assistant “John Steed”. But then the star departed, and Steed found himself carrying the show with a succession of glamorous gal sidekicks — Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, Linda Thorson as Tara King. They were very literal sidekicks in that they kicked to the side, being masters — or mistresses — of martial arts, doing most of the heavy lifting while Steed occasionally boinked someone over the head with his bowler. Many years ago, Dame Diana told me “Emma Peel” came from “M Appeal”, as in “Man Appeal”. But Steed always called her “Mrs Peel”, just as he called her predecessor “Mrs Gale”, because he was a gentleman. And the ladies always called him “Steed” because they were one of the boys, as in that English public-school thing whereby grown-up chaps who know each other well address each other by their surnames (“I say, Holmes!” “Yes, Watson…”).
The Avengers was created by Sydney Newman, the greatest of all Canadian TV producers (he also inaugurated Dr Who), but hit its high-water mark under Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell. In the early days, they didn’t have a lot of money, but they spent it wisely. The difference between the two principals was defined in what they wore and what they drove: Steed favored a vintage Rolls or Bentley, the ladies the latest convertible sports car. After seeing Mrs Peel drive one, my dad bought a Lotus Elan — a beautiful ride with a fiberglass body that crumpled to dust when a truck brushed us ever so lightly on the Route National 7 in France. The ladies wore fab gear from Carnaby Street, while Macnee, ditching the trenchcoats he’d worn in the first series, opted for a slightly heightened version of an English gent’s get-up that he designed with help from Pierre Cardin. Laurie Johnson wrote one of the best telly-spy theme-tunes and the opening titles are pure style: Mrs Peel shooting the cork off the champagne bottle, Steed’s unsheathed sword-stick swiping a carnation and sending it flying through the air for Mrs Peel to put in his buttonhole.