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The Tara King-Era of The Avengers - An Interview with Avengers-Expert Nicholas Sheffo

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2016

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Before we dig into the Tara King-era of The Avengers, do explain, to the completely uninitiated, the concept of the TV series as such, and maybe also give us a bit of a historic breakdown as what happened prior to the Tara King-era?

 

Well, the series actually began as a variant of Police Surgeon in the early 1960s, a series with the great actor Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel. Associate British Corporation revived the show with changes, kept Hendry and character actor Patrick Macnee showed up as a mysterious man named Steed. Keel's wife is killed when she is mistakenly delivered a serious batch of illegal drugs and killed to be silenced and not identify the criminal. Steed joins Keel and that becomes the basis for the series as serious police drama, a hit shot live for TV which few taped/kinescoped copies of the show have survived.

 

With the Bond films doing so well, Keel left when an actor's strike took place for a very successful feature film career (though he would return to hit TV as well) and the makers were left with unused scripts. Honor Blackman was cast as Ms. Catherine Gale, Steed's new partner, and his mysterious side emerged more fully as a spy. Thus, The Avengers continued to be a hit and the Blackman/Gale Era was so groundbreaking and cutting edge that the tone was set for the show, still shot live and taped for posterity. At one point, a 70mm action feature film as proposed, but Blackman left the show after a few seasons and that film fell through. All knew the series was moving on to 35mm film.

 






That would remain so for the rest of the series, Julie Stevens' Venus Smith (an occasional partner during the Gale era when Cathy Gale was not around) did not continue and Elizabeth Shepherd (Damien: Omen II) was cast as Mrs. Emma Peel, but after 1.5 episodes shot, she was let go, though she was great in the short-lived UK spy TV show The Corridor People and continued her already successful career. Diana Rigg replaced her, those shows were reshot, the filmed show (black & white for starters) was an international sensation and the rest is history.

 

So what led to the creation of Tara King, and what were her characteristics that would set her apart from Emma Peel (as played by Diana Rigg), who was immensely popular at the time?

 


After the black and white Rigg/Peel shows did so well, Rigg almost left unless her salary was raised bigtime, but Associate British and ABC-TV in the U.S. agreed to it and the full color episodes were as big a hit. To match the spy craze by then, the show became even more creative and outlandish. Eventually Rigg left, and co-producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennel were to leave at the same time, both moving onto feature films and other projects. New producers came in and they created young Tara King as Steed's new partner, but this was not working out either, so Clemens and Fennell came back and the episodes made were never officially shown in their entirety, though parts were recycled into a few episodes. Clemens thought she was too young and any woman of that age would be too young for Steed, but she was already signed, so Clemens and Fennell got to work on a new even more eccentric and outlandish version of the show.

 

Do talk about Linda Thorson, who got to play Tara King, for a bit, and how did she come on board even?

 

Miss Thorson is Canadian and she beat out a series of actresses for her physicality and appeal, so she was signed. After some training and weight loss with a too-strict diet to lose weight, shooting began and John Bryce was producer. He was a writer on early episodes of the show, producing on the Blackman/Gale shows, Associated thought he could make the show different again, but something did not click. Thus, he was out.

 

The three episodes produced by John Bryce - how do they hold up to the rest of the series (if one can tell from their botched up state)?

 

Bryce was at least trying to make it work. I like the dark look and potential they offered, with Invasion Of The Earthmen unintentionally funny at times, but (as someone pointed out) was making a commentary on the side on Star Trek (the uniforms and optimism can turn to conformity instantly) before the show was the phenomenon it has become today, has her as very able-bodied and did not betray the uniqueness of the show. Have Guns - Will Haggle has some of this too, but the show is uneven, while Homicide & Old Lace inserts Patrick Newell as Mother, telling his aunts a Steed/King tale that is a recycling of an unused Bryce show, again showing a different kind of dark approach, but he was not invented yet until Forget-Me-Knot. Newell was a fine actor, but many think the Mother character was a bad idea that slowed the show down.

 

You also have to talk about Tara's introductory (and Emma's farewell) episode, The Forget-Me-Knot?

 

Clemens did something not done for the show before, a transitional episode. The Forget-Me-Knot would be a farewell to Rigg and revised introduction to King, who Clemens made a spy in the making (Agent 69!) and knows Steed's reputation as one of the greatest single spies ever. When bad things start happening (Mrs. Peel disappears, Steed suddenly has no memory), she gets into action. With this, Tara was brunette again (she wore a curly blonde wig for some reason on some of her unseen shows) and the series was on the go again. It is also a great episode, but a new darker tone set in since Clemens & Fennell understood that the Steed/Peel chemistry had concluded.

 

What can you tell us about Tara/Linda Thorson's audience reception and fan appeal?

 

US audiences thought two brunettes in a row was too much and thought she was too much like Rigg, yet she was popular in Canada, the UK, some other international markets and especially France. There, the show was a massive success, led to Thorson having a huge hit record there and remains the favorite season of the show. Fans who like her like her look, her own kind of practical wit, a certain sporting edge that makes her different from her predecessors and Thorson is simply likeable overall.

 

Some of your favourite Tara King episodes?

 

Besides what works about the Bryce-produced shows, the later episode Pandora shows the growth of the Steed/King relationship and is one of the smartest King shows, False Witness is a real gem, Game really smart, All Done With Mirrors very effective and they show the kind of episodes the makers needed to make more of. Other shows took risks, but they were often more abstract, had in-jokes many missed and were a bit too comical too often. Some have great moments, but the overall episode comes up short.

 

Tara King's run on The Avengers lasted a mere 33 episodes before the show was cancelled in 1969 - so what led to the cancellation?

 

Since ABC on the US funded the majority of the show an shooting in color was not cheap, it needed to be a hit there and was not, beat by the surprise success of the cutting-edge, videotaped, advanced-editing (for the time) NBC hit political variety comedy series Laugh-In that ABC put it up against. The King episodes were already not doing that well, so that was the end of it. Associated British soon transformed into Thames Television and still had another tougher spy show hit at the time with Callan featuring the late, great Edward Woodward (The Equalizer) as the tough title hit man for British Intelligence who always rightly fought with his bosses as much as against enemy spies.

 

Even if it's not Tara King-related, you just have to talk about the revival series The New Avengers from 1976/77, and how does it compare to the original series?

 


Well, it actually is Tara-related because a champagne commercial Macnee and Thorson did for French TV - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzRyw4NGzRQ - while the show was still a hit (then continuing to be so in syndication in many countries, with color shows being seen belatedly that way as color did not arrive in many countries until the early 1970s) led to talk of a revival series and a French financier got the ball rolling on a new show. He thought they were getting Thorson back, but a different show was formed with new characters. Macnee was back as Steed, a then lesser-known Joanna Lumley was cast as Purdey and the late, underrated Gareth Hunt was cast as Mike Gambit in Clemens' attempt bring the show in the world of the realistic. The results were more mixed than he might have realized and the show ended after only two seasons. It is good at its best for what it is, now a minor classic, but did not go as far as the Rigg or Thorson shows, though it could have. The Gambit character did inspire the leads in the controversial Clemens/Fennell police action drama The Professionals CI-5, which was just restored.

 

What got you interested into The Avengers in the first place, so much so that you've become an expert over the years?

 

I remember seeing a bit of the shows when I was too young to remember, then the late 1970s CBS reruns of the Color Rigg shows got me back on track, then The New Avengers (like Return Of The Saint) made their U.S. debuts on the same network at 12:40 AM in the morning EST! Sad CBS got those shows brand new and just dumped them at a time when most people could not see them. I was already a huge Bond fan, so it logically followed to get back into them as part of a massive embracing of the genre.

 

Online as well as offline sources to learn more about The Avengers and Tara King?

 

Too many to note here, but the actors and some of the behind-the-scenes people have written great books on the show, Dave Rogers wrote some great books on the show on his own (and a few with Macnee), Marcus Hearn wrote a solid book for the show's 50th anniversary and Toby Miller's deep analysis of the show is a must-read. The fan websites are some of the best of any fan sites ever created, so visit them all. The show can never be in print on home video enough and I've reviewed some of the seasons on the FulvueDrive-in.com website.

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

Well, it is a series Lord Lew Grade (whose ITC Productions was a giant U.K. TV powerhouse) tried to create hits like it and The Saint with Roger Moore arrived at about the same time as The Avengers. The Persuaders (with Moore & Tony Curtis), Man In A Suitcase, Department S, Jason King, The Protectors (with Robert Vaughn), The Adventurer (with Gene Barry) and Secret Agent aka Danger Man (with Patrick McGoohan, later leading to The Prisoner) are among his responses to the show. Former Associated British head Sidney Newman helped to create The Avengers, then moved to the BBC and created Doctor Who, so at the 'Beeb' tried his own attempt at another Avengers with Adam Adamant Lives! with Gerald Harper as the title spy, frozen near dead in 1901, only to be remarkably unearthed alive in 1967. Not bad, but Newman could not get it to work and it was cancelled.

 

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Some of the greatest talents in UK film and TV history worked on The Avengers from costume designers, production designers, actors, writers, cinematographers, directors and so many others that the show's credits read like a who's who of the industry. Other films and TV shows had great talent too, but the convergence on The Avengers tends to be particularly exceptional and remarkable.

 

As of this time, the show's filmed episodes have all arrived on Blu-ray in the UK, but only the color Rigg episodes were issued in the US on Blu-ray by Lionsgate, a real shame considering how much the Rigg shows sold through the roof restored on VHS, then DVD (putting A&E Home Video on the map when they were considered a tiny company). It is a show that continues to be very influential (so many spy shows and detective shows want to be The Avengers, but rarely do they come close), is still too unseen or revived. The 1998 Uma Thurman/Ralph Fiennes/Sean Connery feature film was a total disaster to the point it buried the original shows too much and despite the director's claim his longer version was some kind of art film, the damage is done. I like those actors and am glad they overcame that one.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

Thank you for having me!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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