Bowler hats, kinky boots, scheming scientists and preposterous plots are probably the first things that spring to mind when The Avengers is mentioned to anyone of a certain age.
Images of the dapper John Steed and the leather-clad Emma Peel driving around the English countryside thwarting bonkers baddies may be most familiar to audiences today, but rewind a few years to the series early days and you’ll find a much different series.
Designed as a new starring vehicle for actor Ian Hendry, familiar to British audiences as Doctor Brent in TV series Police Surgeon, The Avengers premiered in 1961 with a new theme tune and a new premise.
In the pilot episode, of which only the first 15 minutes still exist, Dr Keel’s (Ian Hendry) girlfriend is killed before he then comes into contact with the mysterious Steed (Patrick Macnee) who is investigating the crime.
Determined to “avenge” the murder, the pair would go on to solve various crimes and misdemeanours for another 23 episodes, before a strike cut the season short and the creators retooled it to promote Macnee to series lead.
The return of the show for a second season, complete with new co-star Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), would see it become appointment television, if not for the strong scripts then certainly for its treatment of woman as equal – if not superior – to their male counterparts.
This newly minted set comprising the whole of season two and what remains of season one, has instantly become one of the must-have’s of the year.
While it’s true to say that early episodes are somewhat creaky and that there’s little of the pizazz associated with the show in its later incarnations, this is a chance to watch the evolution of an iconic series.
Patrick Macnee holds the viewer’s attention whenever he’s on screen, the programme becoming a mere procedural drama when he’s not around. The shadowy nature of Steed in this period will come as something of a shock to those more used to his clearly well-intentioned deeds of the Peel years and it’s often not clear who he’s working for or if his intentions are entirely honourable.
Though others help Steed in these Avengers, most notably Jon Rollason as Dr Martin King and Julie Stephens as nightclub singer Venus Williams, it’s Gale who would capture the viewers’ attention.
Of the 26 season two episodes, flashes of the series’ future penchant for turning the seemingly ordinary into something sinister do crop up, with deadly nuns (Dead on Course) and killer clowns (Conspiracy of Silence) part of the odd goings on.
Duller adventures do crop up, but it’s important to remember that the longer scenes and different pacing are reflective of TV production methods of the time.
Extras on the box set are too numerous to list, but include commentaries, episode introductions, surviving footage from Police Surgeon, DVD-Rom material and extensive photo galleries.
Working both as a rattling good adventure series and as a part of TV history, The Avengers should be on every TV fans Christmas wish list – roll on Season 3!
The Avengers is out now from Optimum