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A small remembrance of something more stoic: Patrick Macnee and The Avengers

British actor Patrick Macnee, best known for creating one of the most memorable characters in television history in his role as the solid, stoic secret agent John Steed in The Avengers was born 100 years ago today. Here’s a personal remembrance 

I was an introspective, sensitive, creative, and often diffident kid who, before I bought records, idolised homegrown screen characters like James Bond, Doctor Who… and John Steed, the formidable bowler-hatted hero of The Avengers, played by Patrick Macnee in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The programme was thrilling and dynamic, and wove together classic English eccentricity, the Swinging Sixties, high camp and surrealism. It also made a star of Macnee and his strong women sidekicks Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, and Linda Thorson as Tara King.

The original series ended two months before I entered the planet, but Macnee, naturally, reprised the role in 1976 when ITV launched The New Avengers, which partnered him with Joanna Lumley as the bowl-cutted Purdey, and Gareth Hunt as perpetually smirking ‘bit-of-rough’ Mike Gambit.

Through it all, the character of Steed remained unchanged: suave, stylish, outfitted in Saville Row’s finest suiting, his trademark bowler hat in place and his deadly weapon (an umbrella) poised ready to take out the toughest opponent.

Apparently, the brolly was McNee’s idea. He’d been a naval officer in World War II and had emerged from the experience with an intense dislike of violence of any kind, so much so, that he steadfastly refused to be pictured with a gun. ‘I’ll carry an umbrella,’ he suggested at an early script meeting and everyone went along with that. It was an inspired idea.

Simultaneously the epitome and an affectionate parody of the urbane English gentleman of the Edwardian period, Macnee’s portrayal of the stoic, stiff upper lipped Steed drew in no small measure from his own life. It was easy to warm to him because he was respectful, poised, witty, intelligent, self-effacing, and honourable — precisely the kind of man I wanted to grow up to be when I put away childish things.

With hindsight, it’s easy to see how the character presented another type of masculinity which I found more attractive than some cockney git from On The Buses always up to no good. Always one to keep his emotions in check, Macnee claimed this was based on his own ironic approach to life, as during his wartime service many of his friends had been killed, and the old Etonian acquired a “wry detachment” which he liked to think he’d infused into his most famous role. 

Of course, the problem with a successful show like The Avengers was the danger that it might typecast its iconic stars. Rigg had no problem escaping its clutches, becoming a major player in the theatre, but McNee didn’t manage a great deal else other than some largely forgettable television and an occasional movie cameo. There he played a shady psychiatrist in Joe Dante’s The Howling, a delightful turn as Sir Dennis Eaton-Hogg in This Is Spinal Tap.

There was even a so-so showing in a Bond film, opposite his pal Roger Moore. In the 1985 caper A View To A Kill, he plays 007’s driver, a role he effectively reprised in the music video for the Oasis single Don’t Look Back In Anger, Macnee’s last notable appearance.

John Steed would remain his signature role, as much a fantasy image perhaps as those created by his female co-stars. In real life you suspected you would grown frustrated with someone like him. With his Gentlemen’s Clubs, his impeccable manners and his old style courtesy, Steed was, even in the sixties, something of a dinosaur – but Macnee’s charming manner made you believe that underneath it all he was a frightfully nice chap — the sort of gent that should you bump into him in real life, he’d be every bit as charming as his fictional counterpart. 

Yet despite that veneer of upper-middle-class respectability, his upbringing was in fact highly unconventional, and he went on record to bemoan how his family life had been chaotic and dominated by a “tight group of women” that included his mother Dorothea, an Earl’s niece turned lesbian.

Talking of which, not long after moving to London in the autumn of 1992, I found myself at a gay house party in King’s Grove, Peckham and asked my friend Bruce who the jolly queen was sashaying round the living room in best jocular mode, entertaining anyone who’d stop, look and listen.

“Oh, that’s James. His brother is Patrick Macnee from The Avengers, but it’s probably best you don’t mention that if you speak to him — they don’t get on.”

And I think it’s patently obvious from the forced bonhomie and somewhat awkward body language that was certainly the case, if the 1984 episode of This Is Your Life with Patrick as its subject is anything to go by (here).

Interestingly, to put his long life into context, Patrick was five years Jimmy’s senior. Big brother was celebrating his 30th birthday on the day King George VI died and Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne. He died in sunny Southern California the day before Obama announced gay marriage was to be made legal across the entire United States of America. The date was 25 June 2015, though in most countries it was already the 26th — my birthday. 

It’s always a jolt when you read that one of your earliest heroes has died. MacNee was 93 years of age, which by any standards is a jolly good innings, as Steed himself might have observed.

Happy birthday old chap. Rest in three-piece.

Steve Pafford

Daniel Patrick Macnee, actor, born 6 February 1922; died 25 June 2015

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