ROOM 13 @ THE NICE ROOMS presents
Declassifying The Avengers’ Lost Year
by Alan Hayes
by Alan Hayes
Date of Article: 9th September 2014 and updated 19th January 2017
"I arrived on the scene midway through the 1960s and have been involved in cult TV fandom for over thirty years. Landmarks are my unintentionally hilarious debut as a Doctor Who fanzine editor in 1980 with Fury From The Deep (now published, warts and all, by Hidden Tiger Books, the popular tapezine Sonic Waves and more recently my acclaimed websites The Avengers Declassified Randall and Hopkirk (Declassified) and JSFnetGB It’s A Knockout.
I have also, with my wife Alys, tracked down and restored missing Avengers radio serials, produced reconstructions of lost TV programmes for StudioCanal and co-written books about the early days of The Avengers. In 2011 I turned my hand to publishing and started Hidden Tiger Books, which has a growing catalogue that includes cult TV reference works plus Sherlock Holmes and other fiction - in addition to the Doctor Who fanzine book already mentioned. I live in a lovely part of Hertfordshire in the UK, am very happily married, and both Alys and I are owned by a cat named Zoe - The real Hidden tiger!"
Alan, welcome to The Nice Rooms. I have to start by asking: "Why The Avengers?"
Hi Gary. Thanks for inviting me along to The Nice Rooms. I often find myself asking the same question, “Why The Avengers?” as I’ve long been involved in cult TV appreciation, since the late 1970s in fact, when I got hooked as a teenager by Doctor Who and joined the Appreciation Society. In common with many of the friends I’ve met through my love of the series, as time passed, I got into a much wider range of television and films to the point where Doctor Who was only a much-loved part of what I was passionate about. My first encounter with The Avengers was via its mid 1970s spin-off, The New Avengers, which I loved then and still do now.
In the early 1980s I belatedly discovered its predecessor care of Channel 4 UK’s very welcome repeat run of the later filmed episodes of the series. I must be honest and say that at the time, it was probably in the shadow of the likes of The Prisoner and Sapphire and Steel in my affections, but I recognised it as something special and different and enjoyed it very much.
It made a beeline for my heart and then never let go. I think what makes it such an incredible series is that between its genesis in 1961 and its cancellation in 1969 (or 1977 if we count The New Avengers, which I do!), it never stood still. It constantly evolved to the point where at times it feels like a procession of different series linked with a common character, John Steed. The Avengers is a series in which the flavour kept changing which makes revisiting it and skipping from one era to another a pleasure. When I decided I ought to learn how to build a website in 1999, I chose The Avengers as a subject, partly because it was not then well covered online, whereas other shows I loved were. Since then, my interest in the series has grown exponentially, and my appetite for production information and other morsels pertaining to the series has become a healthy obsession. At least I like to think it’s healthy!
My interest in The Avengers lays mainly with the less well-known eras of the series, and this is why I’ve come to co-write two books about the first series: The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes in 2013, and With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes a year later.These were later combined into a single volume called Two Against the Underworld and this was updated in January 2017 to incorporate fresh information including an in-depth examination of the recently discovered lost episode Tunnel of Fear. This is the only edition now in print and is available from Hidden Tiger Books.
Where did the name The Avengers come from in the first instance?
It seems that Leonard White, the series’ original producer, came up with the name and ran it by ABC’s drama supervisor Sydney Newman
Leonard White and Sydney Newman
Newman (who later went on to co-create Doctor Who) didn’t like the name The Avengers as he thought it smacked of revenge but was eventually convinced by White who resorted to a dictionary to explain that avenging was a more just pursuit than revenging! Newman has, however, occasionally been credited as having come up with the name, but this appears not to have been the case. The act that Keel and Steed are avenging in the first instance (in the first ever episode, Hot Snow) is the murder of Keel’s fiancée by a gang of drug dealers.
Going back to the programme's very beginnings in which Ian Hendry starred as Dr Keel; it was a very different format to the one most people equate Steed with wasn't it?
It was indeed, though there were signs of where the show was going even in those early days, with some episodes being set in typically "Avengerish" locales including circuses, zoos or funfairs, while others tackled science fiction and science fact concepts such as cryogenics, radiation, spacesuit research and even germ warfare. But you’re quite right, unlike in later years, Steed and his associate Dr Keel were downing glasses of scotch rather than champagne, and sometimes they even dispensed with the glasses! They would invariably be chain smoking through the episodes too. In fact, the title of the second book that Richard McGinlay and I wrote With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes, riffs on the German title of the series "Mit Schirm, Charme und Melone" (which translates as With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler) and contrasts the grimy, noirish beginnings of the series with its more famous eras which were typified by style, panache and lashings of the best champagne. It took a while for the bowler and umbrella to be introduced into Steed’s wardrobe, and both he and Keel occasionally donned stereotypical detective raincoats that would later become Columbo’s trademark. But they ditched those pretty quickly, thank goodness...
While the first series certainly has elements of film noir, there was also a lightness of touch employed in making them, particularly in reference to the relationships between Keel, Steed and the other series regular, Carol; Keel’s nurse and receptionist at his Chelsea practice. It wasn’t all grim and humourless, there were always light-hearted moments (and sometimes, episodes), too.
The accent was on adventure and excitement, though being made on videotape and sometimes even being transmitted live from the studios, the production was considerably more limited than the film series in terms of what it could do and where it could go. There were occasional pre-filmed inserts that were shot on location or - sometimes - in the studio if a sequence, maybe a fight, was thought to be particularly demanding from a technical or artistic standpoint. These were played into the final recording during the performance. There were action sequences, though it was not possible for these to be as deftly choreographed as their film series equivalents. Essentially there was a far greater reliance on dialogue than in later years. The upshot of this is that the early years of the show, between 1961 and 1963, were generally less formulaic and predictable than the series later became. In my opinion, imagination was the big loser when the series made the transition to film. Those early productions are creaky, cheap ‘n’ cheerful, but to me they are the finest years of the series in terms of dramatic content, acting and unpredictability.
Interesting that you said that Series 1 visited "Avengerish locales including circuses, zoos or funfairs" is there any truth that Ian Hendry (who played Dr David Keel) used to work in a circus?
He did indeed. While he
was training as an actor in London he befriended Nicolai Poliakoff, who was
better known as Coco the Clown, a veteran circus performer of some considerable
stature. Ian was mesmerised by Coco’s routines and asked to be taught a few
tricks. Coco obliged and, in return, Ian became for a while Coco’s personal
secretary while continuing his studies at the Central School of Speech and
Drama. Hendry became very adept at these tricks though he must have
had an natural talent as, after all, he had led a motorcycle display team
during National Service. He would apparently perform the tricks that Coco
had taught him for anyone who cared to watch, right up until his last
years. He appeared on Coco’s This Is Your Life programme in 1962. This favour
was returned, in Coco’s absence, by the clown’s widow who was a guest in
Hendry’s own This Is Your Life edition in 1978. There was a great bond between
the three and Ian always credited Coco as a great influence on his life and
career. There were plans to exploit Hendry’s circus skills in The Avengers, but they never really came to fruition
Patrick Macnee was very much the co-star at the time wasn't he?
Absolutely. Macnee was the add-on, though of course an important one. The series came about in the wake of the cancellation of an earlier Ian Hendry series, Police Surgeon, and The Avengers was created solely as a vehicle for Hendry. ABC bosses were desperate to keep him working for them as they saw him as a hot property, a star of the future.
Macnee was chosen at least partly because the producer, Leonard White, and ABC’s supervisor of drama, Sydney Newman had worked with him in Canada at CBC. But there would have been no Avengers without Ian Hendry. In the first year it was Hendry's show, and Macnee was the second lead,
though the recovered episode Tunnel of Fear clearly shows that towards the end of that first year Macnee was beginning to steal the limelight from his friend Hendry.
Turning to The Avengers radio series: What’s the story Alan behind the series itself, the role you played in tracking down the missing episodes and your role restoring them?
The radio series was licensed by EMI, who owned The Avengers in the 1970s. It was produced between 1971 and 1973 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Many of the cast were English ex-pats, including an excellent John Steed in Donald Monat. The series was stripped Monday to Friday on the Springbok Radio station (and this was at a time before South Africa had television – their service started in 1976). Each story was adapted from the original television scripts (film era only) and serialised in 15-minute chunks with each serial lasting between 5 and 8 episodes. Unfortunately, due to the cost of audio tape, the serials were not preserved. Instead, they were taped over with new programmes once they had been broadcast. This brought about interesting situations, where a “repeat” of a serial would actually be a re-recording because the original tapes were gone!
Fortunately, there were people out in the wilds who were taping the programme each night at home, and while we don’t have access to a full run (which could have been as many as 80 serials), 19 complete serials – and one incomplete serial – survive as a result of these enthusiasts’ endeavours. Two such people, John Wright and Barbara Peterson, kindly got in touch with me after I’d started running The Avengers on the Radio website and said “We have these recordings, would you like them?” Silly question!
Consequently, my wife and I have John Wright’s off-air tapes here at home (the 19 surviving serials) and were able to borrow Barbara’s incomplete serial to add to the archive. Over a ten year period I restored these recordings and made them available via the website with the permission of the South African archives (who also received copies).
How did Richard McGinlay, Alys and yourself come to write your first Avengers book The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes?
Well, it all dates back to about 2009. I’d been fortunate to get hold of a handful of scripts for lost Series 1 episodes and presented detailed synopses based on them at my then new website The Avengers Declassified. This led to Jaz Wiseman, who was already a good friend, approaching me to work on the special features for the reissue of The Avengers on DVD in the UK by Optimum Releasing.
I didn’t realise back then that this would lead to me co-producing with my wife Alys 14 reconstructions of the Series 1 episodes! In these programmes, we married up Tele-Snaps (off-screen photographs taken in 1961 and preserved by Leonard White) and off-screen Tele-Snaps and on-set stills with newly recorded narrations to explain the stories as best we could. The ones we didn’t do were not possible due to a lack of photographic materials.
A little while later it occurred to me that the narration scripts could be expanded for the website and at that point, Richard contacted me by email and volunteered to help complete the expanded synopses for Series 1. The project grew and grew as we obtained further scripts and other resources. Eventually we realised that the work we were doing was quite pioneering, at least for The Avengers, and gradually the idea of producing something more permanent than a website came to us. By this time I’d already self-published a couple of books under the banner Hidden Tiger: a collection of stories written by my great-great uncle Francis W. Strapp during the 1920s and '30s when he lived in Australia entitled Tales from the Moonstone Inn and a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories written by my younger brother Paul which we called Requiem for Sherlock Holmes. The Avengers seemed the perfect next step in this line. As for the subject material, with all the research that Richard, Alys and myself had done regarding Series 1, it was an obvious choice.
The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes was designed to look at Series 1 of The Avengers from the perspective of it being lost to us, at least in the most part. The idea was to breathe life into the narratives to make them accessible in as much detail as possible for the first time since 1961. Therefore the book dealt with each episode as a chapter and told their stories in present tense as if the reader were watching the episode unfold before their eyes.
We also investigated the question of how the episodes came to be lost, how some were found, and what the chances of recovery are. The book was published in the summer of 2013 and met with positive reviews. One reader even said it was the best Avengers book he’d ever read, which was very kind and unexpected. This has certainly made us ensure that anything else we write is as good as we can make it, and not just “good enough”.
We soon realised that this wouldn’t be the case as we endeavoured to revisit each of the narratives, particularly those for which sources of information were scarce (there were nine episodes for which no scripts were known to exist; eight now that Tunnel of Fear is back ). For those we employed a little detective thinking; working out logical explanations that might link the unconnected plot details we had. We also used our knowledge of the other episodes to suggest likely scenarios that felt authentic. Of course, as we did this we explained our reasoning in note form in the book, so that it was clear where the educated guesswork came in. With a complete revisit of all the material, plus an essay to be written, our two month estimate was about four times that in reality.
It’s unclear exactly when the Series 1 episodes went missing but we have some information that clarifies things slightly, and this, and the recovery of material in America (where it was never shown!) and what the chances are of further finds, are dealt with in a lengthy chapter in Two Against the Underworld . In a nutshell, this isn’t a situation like that with Doctor Who, which was sold overseas from the beginning. The Avengers didn’t break the overseas market until Series 2. No episodes of Series 1 were sold overseas until the 1990s (by which time there was just one episode, The Frighteners, in the archives). To make matters worse, and this is something that seems staggering today, 10 of the first 12 episodes of Series 1 were not even shown all over Britain! London viewers, for instance, only saw 16 of the 26 Series 1 episodes... But the whole story is in the book Two Against The Underworld.
The Avengers 'Hot Snow' (1961) | Opening Credits - Ian Hendry (as Keel) Patrick Macnee (as Steed)
The fact of the matter is that The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes was not our first idea for a book about Series 1, and the second one was actually planned and in preparation before the one released first!
The subject of the first year of The Avengers has been tackled before by other authors but not in the sort of depth that we’ve endeavoured to go into – incidentally, in saying that we do not mean any disservice to any of those authors. Most Avengers books aren’t anywhere near the length of With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes (which was almost 400 pages) and none of those works devoted themselves to just one year (except our first one!). We packed it with information, a lot of it new, and included two lengthy essays to top and tail it. We were also delighted to include a series of illustrations, commissioned from artist Shaqui Le Vesconte. We originally approached Shaqui as, being an unauthorised publication, we can’t use photos from the series, so we thought having some artwork would be nice. Having seen what Shaqui came up with, we are now absolutely delighted that we couldn’t use photos, as his illustrations are so much better!
We also included about 60 pages of appendices which covered unused storylines, the further adventures of Keel and Steed, a merchandise guide and a chronology of events. So yes, there was plenty more to be said about Series 1!
Well, I’m sure that some of our readers thought it a step too far, and we can understand why they might think that. We did it for two reasons, the first of which was that there was confusion caused by having two books out about one series of The Avengers, and people were thinking that With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes was simply The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes reissued under a new title. Therefore we sought to address this issue by releasing a third book with another title (so in some ways maybe adding a whole new layer to the confusion!). The second reason was that in the year or so since the second book was published, we tracked down still further information and realised that a new, combined edition could also give us the chance to further update the text.
We also decided that we would properly integrate the material from the two books, so that it read as a single work – it would have been easy to stick The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes book at the front and the With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes one at the back, just like those ‘omnibus’ versions of collected novels, but we wanted to do a more thorough job than that. Of course there was also material that was necessarily duplicated from one book to the other, and combining the books in that way would mean that people would find the same material duplicated at certain parts of the book. Not ideal. Therefore we went through the content of both books in great detail and produced a book that preserved everything unique from both of them while we added a lot more besides, including a brand new essay about Ian Hendry’s departure and how it affected the series, and synopses for the episodes Girl on the Trapeze and The Frighteners, which we had chosen not to include in The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes (because they aren’t missing episodes!).
And now in 2017 this book has been reissued.
What prompted the new edition?
When we published Two Against the Underworld we thought, “that’s it for us with The Avengers”. We didn’t have any great interest in continuing through the series with similar books, as other writers have already covered that ground – and the episodes all survive, which gives us less to say. We had planned out the whole series as follow-up books, but really I don’t think our hearts were in it. We got on with other projects and thought no more of The Avengers, other than to watch and enjoy it… and then the news broke that, against all the odds, a lost episode of Series 1, called Tunnel of Fear, had been found and recovered. We were fortunate to see the returned print at a Missing Believed Wiped event in Birmingham in November 2016 and suddenly our book was totally out of date. So, we set about working on a second edition of Two Against the Underworld.
We were able to add an in-depth synopsis of the recovered episode, and revist its chapter and the book as a whole, adding information about the production of the episode and more general points that we either had not addressed before or could elaborate on in the light of what Tunnel of Fear revealed to us. It’s a great episode and treats us to our first glimpses – well, since 1961 – of the great dane Juno as Steed’s dog Puppy and also the earliest appearance in existence of Steed’s boss One-Ten, played by Douglas Muir. As I mentioned before it also shows a series in transition, as the balance of power is tipping towards Patrick Macnee’s John Steed character.
The nature of the episode’s recovery is also explored, with quotes from
those involved in the find. This also led us to revisit the missing episodes
chapter, and update it with the latest developments, some of which are quite
Yes, Richard and I have been sidetracked by writing the books. It’s unfortunate, but we feel the books are more important – and permanent. However, there’s a wealth of information at the site, mainly about the less well-known eras and spin-offs of the show. Series 1 is covered, but not in the same detail as in the books, while spin-offs like the stage show, the radio series, the recent fan animations and Big Finish audio adaptations are also covered in some depth.
So what does the future hold for you and Richard?
Well, we are already working on the next project, a book about a series, Police Surgeon, which will be familiar in name – but not necessarily any more than that – to Avengers fans. We began writing it in tandem with With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes, and it has just kept growing; it has been a fascinating series to investigate. We’re now putting the finishing touches on it, having started work in it in 2014, and expect it to be published in mid-2017 or earlier.
As with The Avengers book, we’ve been lucky enough to have the assistance of people who worked on the series, help from archives and libraries, and it’s all very exciting. After that, I think we will probably collapse in a heap before returning to posting interesting updates to The Avengers Declassified!
your kind questions - I’m honoured to have a place in such a nice set of
Nice Rooms! It’s been a pleasure.
grateful thanks to Alan Hayes for the interview.
Alan's associated websites can be found by clicking on the following:
http://www.hiddentigerbooks.co.uk/jsf/ (It's A Knockout)
gR/ aH 2014 /17