|James Chapman, Saints
and Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s, (London: IB
Tauris, 2002), 282pp. Pb. ISBN: 186064 754 5 £14.95
Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler
When Marx commented that history repeats itself, the second time as farce, he could not have imagined a remake of The Avengers, featuring the faintly scary image of Ralph Fiennes with a bowler hat jammed down over his eyes like Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davis. If you wait long enough, though, kitsch and nostalgia will come round again and be lauded as the height of fashion. But James Chapman’s highly accessible and readable Saints and Avengers reminds us of the originals behind those ill-advised remakes of the likes of The Avengers, The Saint and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Chapman has gone for what he calls the historical-cultural approach. He carves a minute trail through classic 1960s British adventure series and the ITC production line which fuelled them. The roll-call of shows is like a cult TV fan’s dream - Danger Man, The Avengers, The Saint, Adam Adamant Lives!, Man in a Suitcase, The Champions, Department S, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Jason King and The Persuaders! Chapman uses production documents, scripts, publicity material and reviews to explore the critical and popular reception to the shows.
All well and good in that his great strength is his breadth of reference and meticulous research. Chapman identifies links across a range of media, including other TV shows, films, crime fiction and thrillers. But the whistle-stop tour through the shows inevitably means a lack of depth when it comes to close study of issues such as the role of women and attitudes to homosexuality. The former is touched on in the discussion of The Avengers (which small girl didn’t want to be Diana Rigg, or, later, Joanna Lumley?), while the latter is glossed over despite the magnificently camp Jason King.
What of the period, though? Think Cold War. Think Swinging 1960s. Chapman is particularly strong on the feel of the era and of the political climate. He says: “The ‘pop series’ … is a product of the social and cultural changes of the 1960s and revolves around the themes of modernity and consumerism” (p.14). So when Adam Adamant, the Victorian crime fighter frozen alive in 1902 is brought back to life in the mid-1960s, there is naturally plenty of scope for shots of our bemused hero staring at mini-skirts, the Underground and girls in trousers.
The book kicks off with a look at Danger Man, which starred the American actor Patrick McGoohan as the secret agent hero. The show - not one of the more abiding memories for the cult fans - is a logical choice as Chapman points out: “The success of Danger Man determined Lew Grade’s international production strategy for the next decade and turned the secret agent adventure series into a prominent vehicle for the economic and cultural export of Britishness” (p.51). With the exception of Adam Adamant Lives!, a BBC production, the other shows were all part of what was in effect an ITV repertory system, with the same writers, production team and many of the same actors popping up time and again. McGoohan, for example, segues from Danger Man into cult classic The Prisoner - a show which Chapman inexplicably passes off in a couple of pages rather than giving it the space it richly deserves.
That Britishness is a theme Chapman returns to time and again. In the chapter on The Avengers, he quotes scriptwriter Brian Clemens as saying the show’s appeal was based on its ‘is there honey still for tea’ Englishness (p.52). His study of The Avengers is a fascinating one, as that show stands head and shoulders above the rest, ranging as it does from its early days as hard-edged crime thriller, through off-beat to verging on fantasy/science fiction. And it’s hard to disagree with Chapman’s assertion that The New Avengers seems much more dated than the original “due, perhaps, to the sense that whereas the 1960s still exert a strong hold on the popular imagination, with many of the styles of the period still voguish, the 1970s in contrast are widely regarded as “‘the decade that taste forgot’” (p.94).
Not all the shows have stood the test of time so well - and even the most dedicated will admit that watching one or two of them was like hearing the bottom of a barrel being scraped very loudly. Chapman, though, points out some redeeming links, such as the very average The Champions influencing the likes of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Invisible Man. He’s harsh on the “seedy” original of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), but adds that the recent off-the-wall remake has much more in common with shows such as Buffy, Roswell and Angel, rather than the original.
In his conclusion Chapman also throws the action forward to those harder-edged shows of the 1970s, such as The Professionals, The Sweeney and Hazell - although, interestingly, he pretty much ignores the cop shows of the 1960s. But what he does bypass is the fans’ reception to the shows - something possible to track down via magazines and fan clubs of the time. After all, the 1960s and 1970s was the era of fan clubs (anyone else still have their badge and boomerang from the Tinger and Tucker club?) And he’s unnecessarily haughty about the potential for ‘alternative’ readings. With The Persuaders! he discusses the beginning of the tradition of ‘buddy’ shows, but brushes away the fact that some might validly read Danny and Brett’s relationship as rather more than ‘chalk and cheese’ friends. Cue thousands of slash fans laughing uproariously.
Sharon Wheeler is senior lecturer in print journalism at the University of Central England in Birmingham. After working as a sports reporter, she fled freezing rugby press boxes for the relative sanity of academia. She spent far too long reading obscure gay and lesbian crime novels for her MPhil and now spends far too long watching videos of The Professionals.