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Extreme Style & Steel: Patrick Macnee Of The Avengers Interviewed
Ian Johnston , March 24th, 2011 11:43

With The Complete Avengers 50th Anniversary Edition DVD set for release this May, we have a terrific interview from Ian Johnston with Patrick Macnee, aka John Steed, originally conducted in 1998 and which touches upon the show's legacy, unwitting speed addiction and bondage

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the universally beloved and quintessentially British swinging 1960's television show, The Avengers. It began in 1961 as a black and white straight crime show, featuring the late, great Ian Hendry as sleuth doctor David Keel working with one John Steed, played by the enduringly suave Patrick Macnee. Only two episodes of the first Avengers series remain, one not even featuring Macnee.

During the second season, Hendry quit for a movie career. After a short lived partnership with nightclub singer Venus Smith (Julie Stevens), Steed's real replacement partner for the departed Hendry appeared: Doctor Cathy Gale, an anthropologist versed in the art of judo and wearing tight black leather clothes. During the third series the programme changed from tales of espionage to lighter fare, while Macnee's Steed had evolved from wearing a film noir style trench coat into a dandy male Britannia figure, sporting razor sharp Savile Row suits, a bowler hat, an umbrella that contained a rapier and driving a green vintage Bentley (although Steed never carried a gun). Both Honor 'Kinky Boots' Blackman and Macnee became huge stars in the UK, with Blackman becoming arguably the ultimate Bond girl Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

In October 1965, Diana Rigg made her first appearance as Steed's new partner, Emma Peel, and Avenger mania moved into overdrive. The show, now in its fourth season with a blaring new Laurie Johnson title music theme, had radically transformed itself. Fantastical story lines which parodied numerous contemporary films and other popular television shows were now the order of the day, highlighting the couple's witty repartee and Rigg/Peel's cutting edge 60s fashions (including a range of colourful tight jump suits) and her advanced martial arts proficiency. Rigg left the series at the end of the fifth series filmed in colour in 1967, later becoming another Avenger Bond girl in the 1969 picture On Her Majesties Secret Service.

Rigg's departure really signalled that the end of the show was nigh; the producers realised that she could not really be replaced, so a very different type of female partner was assigned as Steed's companion - the inexperienced agent Tara King, played by Linda Thorson. The decision was meant to refer back to the early days of the show and Steed's partnership with singer Venus Smith, who had no special 'secret agent' abilities, but Thorson's character was an unhappy mixture of both spy and bungling amateur. The sixth season was The Avengers' last, ending appropriately just before the close of the 60s - the pop art spirit of the decade that the show had reflected to perfection. Remarkably, for a programme so much of its time, the popularity of The Avengers endures, among all ages, through the decades with endless re-runs and video and DVD releases, with this May seeing the entire series issued in a large DVD box set.

Of course, Patrick Macnee's inimitable Steed is the focal point of the affections of Avengers aficionados. Macnee was born in 1922, in Paddington, London. His father was a racecourse trainer, Daniel 'Shrimp' Macnee, while his mother Dorothea Mary caused a society scandal when she announced her lesbianism and subsequently lived with her partner, named 'Uncle Evelyn' by Patrick Macnee. It was 'Uncle Evelyn' who helped pay for Patrick's tuition fees at Eton. Public school was followed by service in the Royal Navy during World War II, in which lieutenant Macnee was awarded the Atlantic Star. His acting career began in Canada after the war, before he gained some notable roles in Gene Kelly's 1957 Les Girls and with Anthony Quayle in the 1956 British naval war film The Battle of the River Plate.

The interview below took place in May 1998, when Mr. Macnee was promoting the publication of his book The Avengers & Me. “All the women quite definitely turned me on,” Macnee wrote in the tome, “but enormous self-control and discipline instilled into one at public school as to what one should do – or shouldn't do – with a woman stopped me from doing anything.” The wonderfully frank and eccentric Macnee was a perfect interviewee and fully lived up to all expectations.

Hello, Mr. Macnee?

Patrick Macnee: Is that Ian?

Yes, it is.

PM: Oh God bless you, how are you? Hello, Pat Macnee.

Hello, very nice to speak to you. Was it at all painful racking over the past for the book?

PM: No, not really because it was so long ago. I did the show in the 1960s for nine years and for another couple of years in the 1970s, so it's not as long ago as the war. I remember the Second World War; I was in the Navy, throughout the whole of it, in the Channel and the North Sea. I remember that more vividly because most of my friends were blown to bits. It's all relative, isn't it?

Yes. Your 60s drug experience was a little different to others, wasn't it?

PM: If you had a weight problem or a heart problem, which is a problem I've had, you were treated from Harley Street, and you where treated with whatever it was. Linda Thorson had a weight problem and so did I, so I went to the doctor in Harley Street and he prescribed me this stuff called Durophet, which I assumed was for weight reduction. So, I went away and took it religiously and, of course, found out that I was a speed freak. I didn't realise I was on amphetamines, which of course is absolutely disgraceful. I talk about it because it no longer matters, because people have drugs of their choice - this wasn't a choice, it was a prescription affliction. And of course it got me. My weight went down dramatically because I didn't eat, I never stopped talking and speed means what it says. It does two things which are dangerous: it hastens the ageing process, and you lose your eyesight within about six weeks. It does devastating things to your face, as you know, [like] famous people you've seen after they have done five years on cocaine, for instance. I only had this, thank God, for about 18 months. I was a pain in the arse to everybody, and acted terribly badly because my timing was off, remained thin, and then when I went to Australia they didn't have Durophet: I had go off it.

That was my only experience of it and the only reason I mention it is because, one, you don't understand why your behaviour is so reprehensible to other people and your friends and colleges. And secondly, a lot of people don't realise they are on drugs, because they are prescribed by eminent physicians in Harley Street or whatever area it happens to be.

The fashions in the show were groundbreaking. How much input did you have?

PM: Almost total, because I originally played Stead in a trench coat - [a] belted trench coat with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth. I was told to go away, and 'for Christ's sake do something quick'. So, I came up with the Scarlet Pimpernel, from the Baroness Orczy stories, who was famous for being foppishly dressed and all that while rescuing Aristos from the guillotine. I wanted an outward exterior of extreme style, and underneath, steel. That was quite a good idea because it's very English, you know - particularly at that time.

Are you proud of the show today?

PM: The thing I'm really proud of is that I never carried a gun. I said that I wouldn't carry one; when they asked me why, I said that I'd just come out of a World War in which I'd seen most of my friends blown to bits. In a way, I was politically correct at that time. It was rather extraordinary - I don't take all the credit for it. But the main credit of that show - which was a comic strip, The Avengers - we started off doing it live but when the women came, it coincided with the rise of women's lib. So women were totally excited to see, in what was after all a comic strip type show, a woman [who] actually does things. You won't believe it now because women run the roost, so to speak. At that time, to see a women like Diana Rigg, with that beautiful auburn hair throwing men over her shoulder, then tossing her hair out of her eyes, smiling and saying 'Where do we go next?' was highly attractive - particularly to young women. And to young men, particularly with the clothes, because they were... err, revealing and interesting. Suddenly a woman was vibrant in a medium in which [that] normally didn't happen.

One episode of The Avengers, 'A Touch Of Brimstone', was banned in America wasn't it?

PM: Well, that was because of the whipping, the snake around necks and all sorts of unmentionable things. Oh, it was full of bondage. I mean, I was into all those things as a young man, and most people were, whatever they did. We used to put them in as a joke, more than anything else. We couldn't believe it when we got letters saying, 'I always ride to church in my plastic Mac, and do let me tell you about it…'

I mean, I'd never heard of rubber fetishism. They made a stage version of The Avengers and it was done by a rubber fetishist woman who dressed everyone in rubber. Well, of course, only a certain number of people are interested in it. And if you grow ahead of your time, which you do in a war - you grow up very quickly, between the ages of 20 and 25 - you have ideas because you haven't more time to put them out, so you might as well get them in quick. Which is what we did with The Avengers, we piled in everything that we could think of.

Who was your favourite Avenger girl?

PM: You can only answer that two ways: one, flippantly, because people usually say, 'Who was your favourite partner?' and I'll say, 'Ian Hendry.' Which is true, because he created the show and he was a wonderful, very exceptional man. I was deeply fond of Joanna Lumley, and all the other three were all quite remarkable. I just don't know, at this stage, and I don't think it really matters.

If I was Sean Connery, I would have been macho. I always remember Honor Blackman going to the Bond film saying, 'Oh, he wouldn't let me get away with that.' Implying, you always did. I'd grown up with a lot of women. My mother was a famous lesbian in the 20s and 30s and I grew up with only women, so I was used to getting on with them. It just struck me, in fact now, Jerry Weintraub has been telling people that he's going to have the women dominate to Ralph Fiennes, who is one of the best actors in the world. And I think Ralph Fiennes will be wonderful as Steed. I hope he invents it all over again, makes it a new character, you know.

Will you be involved in the forthcoming Avengers remake?

PM: Oh no. The better it is and the bigger it is, the better for me. I have a two and a half % profit participation in the television show. The better it does the better for the sales of cassettes and what have you, you know?

I thought you might have a cameo role?

PMe: At 75 why does one have to do that? Roger Moore didn't have to act with Val Kilmer in The Saint. On the other hand, Roger owns part of The Saint and his voice is on the soundtrack towards the end of it. No, I couldn't be of any value to them at all.

In the television show, the character was described as 'Steed stands there.' Apart from that there was no description, background, anything. And he doesn't come from a book, you see. He was just made up. They made the name up, they put him there, and I made the part up. I'm very proud of making the part work, in my terms, but I hope to god Ralph Fiennes does it in his terms. He doesn't need to have to go around in bowler hats carrying an umbrella, for God's sake.

You played a part in the 007 film A View To A Kill. Did you ever want to play Bond?

PM: No, I disliked the Bond character intensely. I was told in 1960 that if I read the Bond books it might help with my character, this character called Steed. I told them that I found him perfectly repulsive, sadistic and disgusting, and I loathed that title 'Licensed To Kill'. In fact, the Bond that I did I just went in and played this little part, and thank God they built it up and it was very nice and I enjoyed it. But the character of Bond... no, he's the very antithesis of Steed, in fact. He uses women as battering rams, and uses his gun at every conceivable moment. I tried to use my ingenuity and gave the really dangerous work to the women, which I think is the way it should be. Women seem so anxious to go to war. All right, let them go to war then we won't have to.

You were in an Oasis video. I was wondering how that came about. Had you heard their music?

PM: No. They rang me up and said that they wanted some old actor who people vaguely remembered form the past, and they'd thought of a few people, and as I lived just down the road would I go to Pasadena. I went and met these delightful young men - I've read the most astonishing things about them since then, it was only about a year ago. We had a lot of fun, we laughed a lot, ponced around and made a video.

So they were well behaved then?

PM: Oh, they were adorable.

And Spinal Tap, was that as enjoyable experience?

PM: Oh yes! I love the things you mention, because I'm an iconoclast - I've always been a bit eccentric and I love to do things nobody else does. My films range from The Creature Wasn't Nice, Lobster Man From Mars, Hot Touch, Sweet Sixteen and Spinal Tap. I went to Rob Reiner; it was his first film, and these wonderful people, Chris Guest, a marvellous young writer, these dear people who asked me if I could make up a little scene as some character. I asked, 'What do you want me to be?' They said they wanted me to be the head of a record label, and this was on the morning of the shoot! There was no script or anything, and so we made it up.

I'm extremely proud to have been in it. And Michael McKean I worked with later in the best show I've ever done, called Dream On, which I think is a wonderful series; I did one episode of it. I do things… I was in a coach the other day. I've just been in a series called Spy Game, in which I got the best review of any of them in the TV Guide three weeks ago and the show was cancelled three weeks later. Unbearable really. I do my own show; I have a weekly show called Mysteries, Magic and Miracles on the Sci-Fi and Discovery Channel. At 75, that's nice, you don't have to jump out of windows or do things that disturb your arthritis.

You were in a show with Hulk Hogan, weren't you?

PM: I love it, they are still showing it every week. He's got a twenty million dollar contract and he does his wrestling every day - and they show Thunder In Paradise every day after it. I did very well out of it.

Did you get on with Mr. Hogan?

PM: Oh, I love him dearly. I tell you the only reason that series isn't still running today: we did it in Disney World in Orlando, and they gave us all their facilities free, until they put an Uzi machine gun into Hulk Hogan's hands. Can you imagine a man all the kids love because he can do it with his own strength... they put a GUN in his hands and were then surprised when Disney said, 'You're going to pay for everything, you're not going to be on our ground anymore. How dare you do that to our folk hero?' It's like putting an Uzi in Superman's hands.

I don't understand the people… You see, the people who make a lot of television are really sleazy, awful, nasty, unimaginative people and the people who actually do them, like us, are rather marvellous. And I hate it when they muck up a good show. And Hulk Hogan - Terry, his name is - is one of the dearest people in the whole world.

You made a single in the 60s, 'Kinky Boots'. Was that an agreeable session?

PM: Oh, no. We did it at the height of our fame in the 60s; Honor Blackman was far more famous than I was. She said, 'Come along, do it.' I said, 'Look, I've never had a music lesion in my life, I can't even come in on time.' They had to tap me to come in on time. It was absolutely ridiculous. When it was originally released, in the days before money changed, we made about 7 and six pence in royalties over ten years. Suddenly in 1990, one of those famous boys [Simon Mayo] on the early morning shows discovered it, put it on Top of The Pops and it went to Number Three! Can you believe that? On Top Of The Pops? 'Kinky Boots'? And of course, in retrospect, it's very funny.

The lyrics were written by Herbert Kretzmer, who wrote most of the lyrics for Les Misérables, and Dave Lee, who I think is now dead, was a great, great jazz musician. They were wonderful people. The one they did with Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren ['Goodness Gracious Me'] made millions - ours just wasn't very good, but it had a second life. I always believe in the second life. Things... if they don't work the first time, very often they do the second.

Let me tell you something: I have written another book. Blind In One Ear - I don't know if you've ever had it or read it. That was about my so-called life, if you get my meaning. My mother, as I've said, was this famous lesbian in the 20s and 30s, and I went to Eton and all those sort of things. That's about the life, but this book The Avengers and Me is especially about the show. I pinched the idea from Bill Shatner on Star Trek; he wrote a book then asked all his friends and colleagues to contribute, which I did too. I think the old Avengers deserves that - it's played throughout the whole of the winter on Channel Four, now they're making the film. It seemed like a good time to make a little chronicle. It's fairly dull, but not all that dull. But I'm careful - I don't say they cheated me here, or they did that there. There's no point: 'she did this or did the other...'

It's water under the bridge?

PM: It is water under the bridge, but there is quite an interest in it. The most interesting thing about the book is that it's very colourful; we have got lots of pictures. It's worth reading.

Thank you very much indeed for giving me this time.

PM: Thanks, Ian, it was a pleasure. The sort of questions you asked me enabled me to… I'm very much of today, you know? 75 means nothing. Oddly enough, when I did the show I was 37. I felt a hell of a lot older at 37 than I do at 75. God bless you and good luck in everything you do.

The Complete Avengers 50th Anniversary Edition DVD will be released on May 9. You can pre-order the collection here.