From the Archives

Stylish 'Avengers' returns on A&E

"The Avengers," a British series that ran on ABC from 1966 to 1969, resurfaces in all its suave and satirical grandeur today on cable's Arts & Entertainment network.

Not included, happily, is "The New Avengers," an inferior sequel from Britain that CBS briefly tried as late-night programming in 1978.

Instead, A & E will air all 134 of the episodes that paired Patrick Macnee first with Honor Blackman, then with Diana Rigg and finally with Linda Thorson. The black-and-white episodes--encompassing all of Blackman's work and a portion of Rigg's--did not air on ABC, although the latter did have a run in syndication.

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The A & E package is out of sequence, opening with Macnee-Rigg episodes, followed by Macnee-Thorson and then Macnee-Blackman.

In a curious scheduling move that is bound to severely limit the show's audience, A & E is airing "The Avengers" on the West Coast at 3 p.m. weekdays, with repeats the next day at 8 a.m. In addition, all 134 episodes will be played in weekly installments on Saturdays at 3 p.m., beginning this week.

"The Avengers" airs three hours later in the East. Not until 1992 will A & E have a second satellite transponder that will allow it to have separate feeds for different time zones.

So until then . . . set those VCRs. This stylishly urbane, creatively written series about two British undercover agents is treat time.

Actually, "The Avengers" has several distinct personalities, with Macnee being the tie that binds them as the tough but charming John Steed, who lives among antiques, drives vintage cars and wears a bowler and Edwardian-style clothes that give him the look of a man astride two centuries.

The 1962-63 episodes with Blackman as Steed's partner--the cool, judo-efficient anthropologist Catherine Gale--were shot on videotape, and have an interesting, live-TV look that seems almost rudimentary compared with American TV production from the same period. Moreover, many of these episodes are pure adventure yarns with dated Cold War themes.

Flash forward now to the Thorson stint in 1969, when "The Avengers" was definitely in decline and Thorson appeared totally lost and almost spacey as Steed's new partner, Tara King.

Ah . . . but separating Blackman and Thorson was tall, lithe Diana Rigg (these days the host of "Mystery" on PBS) as that wonderfully wry, very, very mod widow Emma Peel. (Her long-lost husband was ultimately discovered only when Rigg decided to leave the show and a device was needed to explain her absence.)

As Steed-Peel, Macnee-Rigg was arguably the best, freshest, most-appealing evil-fighting pair ever to fill the small screen, their playfulness approaching the blithely carefree and cheeky banter of William Powell and Myrna Loy as Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles.

Many have tried, but probably only Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in "Moonlighting" came as close to the Charleses as Macnee-Rigg did. Unlike the Charleses and David and Maddy in "Moonlighting," however, Steed and Emma were not romantically inclined, despite sharing infinite sly glances. No kisses. Not even a pass. So platonic were these two, in fact, that Steed never once addressed his partner as Emma, only as Mrs. Peel (just as he addressed Blackman's character only as Mrs. Gale).

After Rigg joined Macnee, the series tilted toward quasi-science-fiction themes, and many of the black-and-white episodes with Rigg have a strikingly dark and mysterious hue.

Typical is one called "Two Many Christmas Trees." It's as good an hour of TV as can be found anywhere, using frightening images from quirky angles to ominously shroud a story about Steed being tormented by nightmares that merge with reality. It seems that a telepathic spy ring is at work. That this is weekly television is boggling, for it's brilliant.

The color episodes beginning today are more whimsical, with their comically eccentric characters broadly played to the hilt by the usual store of fine British character actors. Each episode begins with Steed showing up out of the blue and handing his partner a small card saying: "Mrs. Peel, we're needed."

Their presence is needed in today's premiere to investigate the strange deaths of members of the planet-watching British Venusian Society, whose bodies have been bleached white by a speeding ball of light that no one can explain.

On Tuesday, grown men are mysteriously reduced to quivering, whimpering, babbling infants, and Steed and Mrs. Peel want to know why. On Wednesday, a fellow secret agent is found floating in the Thames with an ancient dagger in his back and a 16th-Century bullet in his chest. It seems that Steed and Mrs. Peel will have to do some time traveling.

What a bitingly black sense of humor this series exhibits in parodying British convention and depicting an upper-class English realm that exists today probably only in the fantasies of tourists. Meanwhile, the delightful Steed and Mrs. Peel tackle life and each assignment with supreme bemusement while never taking themselves very seriously.

If only more of American TV were like them--still fun and contemporary after all these years.

"The Avengers," you're needed.

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