Friday, December 3, 2010
"Mrs. Peel -- We're Needed! -- Now More than Ever!"
I spent a delightful evening the other night with John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel in "The Town of No Return." It's been close to a decade since I've invited The (original) Avengers into my home, and y'know what? That's too long a time!
Steed and Mrs. Peel are old friends. It's a series I've watched many, many times -- yet somehow it's always fresh.
Diana Rigg is so assured as Mrs. Peel that it's easy to forget this was her debut episode -- and what a terrific introduction to the character it is. The chemistry between Rigg and Patrick Macnee is immediately apparent; and they're given a lot of time to warm up before the plot really starts to happen and things get dark indeed.
The last time I worked through the series, I wrote a piece on the show for my long-dead literary 'zine. Now seems like a good time to trot it out again. Some of the writing is immature and vulgar, but I stand by the sentiments.
We’re happy whenever one of our favorite television shows from the 1960s is made into a godawful big-budget summer “spectacular” Major Motion Picture. Inevitably, this “blockbuster” is dismissed or forgotten, as it deserves to be, the producers lose buckets of money, as they deserve, and the original television series benefits from all the hype by re-emerging in syndication or on home video, often remastered and looking better than ever.
This is particularly the case with The Avengers. Any attempt at filming The Avengers without Pactrick Macnee in the pivotal role of John Steed is misguided from the get-go, and last year’s version featuring Ralph Fiennes as Steed and the ever-diminishing Uma Thurman as Mrs. Emma Peel was a miscalculation of jaw-dropping proportions, proving the arrogance of '90s film producers, who seem to believe only in what’s synthetic; or at the very least to believe that nothing lives or breathes which cannot be replicated artificially in a studio laboratory.
To look at the original and the replicant side by side is to look at difference between life and anti-life — yet in this case the living thing owes its continued existence (on video) thanks to the construct. In the thirty years since its original run, The Avengers has aired in North America only twice, usually with five minutes or more hacked out of the running time of each episode. Video releases have been spotty and of low quality. Thanks to A&E, and to Hollywood’s belief that nothing is sacred, a restored, uncut Avengers is available to us again — for the first time.
We doubt that this effect will alter the world of so-called entertainment — but it should. The Avengers was radical in the '60s — by rights it should seem tired and dated when compared to television programming in the '90s. It does not, which should frighten you down to the soles of your feet. As radical as The Avengers was thirty years ago, today it’s at least three times as radical, three times as fresh, three times as daring. In part, this has to do with the producer’s arrogance mentioned above, the belief that creative people are no longer needed in the production of film or television. But it also has much to do with the broader effect of that arrogance, which has been to create a culture that has taken two technological steps forward and three spiritual Giant Leaps backward.
The Avengers is everything '90s cultch is not: colorful, intelligent, charming, playful, dignified, exciting, stately, witty, powerful and just a little bit impudent. Try getting that from a cola nut — or from any Hollywood company actively producing new material for television, all of which seems hyper-serious, weighted by muddy, muted colors, a relentless pursuit of the relentless, dull pseudo-documentary style, posturing doctors, lawyers, bare-assed cops, all sweaty protagonists snarling at the camera as they draw arbitrary lines in the sand. The Avengers proves that we are not only dumbing ourselves down but losing our sense of humor and our flair for style.
In this The Avengers owes not a little of its success to blind luck: the sort of blind luck that can only occur when creative people are given the power to make their own decisions. It is next to impossible for this kind of Happy Alchemy to occur at any level in the culture that has evolved over the past two decades. Why? Because all the components that could bring it about are missing. Principally, these are:
--> Producers who are creative people first, business people second — if at all. There have always been money men: people with no creative inclinations or ability who run the business end of things and reap the lion’s share of the rewards. We can’t kick about this, it’s more than a simple fact of life: it’s a darn good arrangement so long as the suits know their place. But the Reagan-Bush years were so kind to suits that vast numbers of them began to get uppity and think that they could handle creative work without the participation of creative people (nearly everyone notices the danger flags, but the balance of power has shifted so far to the right that “creatives” can’t do much more than lick their wounds). The Avengers profited from something almost unheard-of today: a couple of writers were more or less given complete control to produce the show their own way. When the suits stepped in and tried to take the reigns from Avengers producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, as they did at the end of show’s fifth season, the show’s quality nose-dived so dramatically that Fennell and Clemens were finally brought back on board: too late to save the series from the corruptive cookie-cutter Suit Influence that had already set in. Let’s put this as simply as possible: people should stay away from things that they don’t understand. By definition, suits try to reduce everything to numbers: but drama doesn’t work that way. Even when the numbers are in place, suits lack the ability to make them add up to anything.
--> Production designers who aren’t afraid to dazzle the eye — in the service of the story. Visually, '90s television isn’t completely dull — only the programming falls into that category. In the days when color was new to television, it wasn’t just the sitcoms that were bright and visually exciting. Designers for shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, Star Trek and The Wild, Wild West went out of their way to provide us with colors and images that were not merely exciting, but focused the eye and the brain delightfully on the story at hand. Especially in the case of The Avengers, the playfulness of the production designers actually enhanced the playfulness of the stars and the producers: this is a far cry from design for its own sake. In the early eighties, so-called “reality” shows like Hill Street Blues began to mute the color scale and provide us with faux noir imagery that would have had more dramatic impact if the shows had simply been filmed in black and white. Today, muted colors and dull images are the industry standard for dramatic programming — meanwhile, commercial designers have reacted to this mudslide by dazzling us on a scale beyond the wildest hallucinations of the hippie-culture '60s. But when all of our most interesting work is being done in the service of Madison Avenue, the value of creative design is flipped on its back — and culture begins to die a long, lingering death as it flails about helplessly trying to find the ground.
--> Directors more interested in storytelling than dazzling the viewer. We believe that good storytelling is dazzling in itself, and that eye-catching visuals are the province of the designer. Thirty years ago, most television directors learned their craft working as assistants to Hollywood’s greatest storytellers: they knew how characters and the elements of plot worked because it was in their blood. Today, most directors have their training on MTV with high-gloss music videos whose object is in direct opposition to character, conflict, sustained tension or mood. This has damaged our culture in ways that are probably irreparable. Drama requires thought and development, whereas scenes in a music video are measured in the fractions of a second and images are forgotten in an eye-blink. By definition, a character can only work on one level in this kind of structure — sometimes these characters are literally flat, removed from any context of background and turned sideways until they vanish. At the surface level these short films are often very effective, which is why they have successfully weaned us away from things like depth, purpose, layers and commitment. But a music video lasts only a few minutes: feature film and hour-long TV drama require more, and modern directors are emotionally and intellectually unable to provide the necessary substance.
--> Actors more interested in acting than in becoming a “personality.” Being British was a distinct advantage for The Avengers — that advantage reached the pure definition of Happy Alchemy when Diana Rigg was cast opposite Macnee as the swashbuckling amateur, Mrs. Emma Peel. That’s M-Appeal, for Man Appeal. Rigg had that in spades, but she had something better: classical training, instinctive talent, and an affinity for working hand in glove with her co-star that we think is unmatched anywhere in the history of series television. Rigg was as interested in success as anyone (her stint as a Bond Girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service proves that) but she wasn’t about to let ambition keep her from doing the job at hand.
It’s pleasing to note that Macnee and Rigg put themselves forward by not putting themselves forward — by refusing to pose and pretend. There seems to have been a remarkable quality of genuineness and generosity on the sets of The Avengers. None of actors can be said to be sleep-walking through their work: indeed they seem to be challenging each other to be real within the context of the series unreality, and having a jolly good time in the process.
Above all, a sense of drama — and especially melodrama — that does not take itself too seriously. The Avengers’s lightness of touch meant that an accelerated sense of fun could be applied to straight-forward, nearly realistic stories, while an aura of calculated dread and menace could be brought to bear on tales that would otherwise be too ridiculous for words.
Here again the British way of thinking comes to the rescue: because humor has been an essential element of British drama since the days of Shakespeare and Marlowe. There must be cycles of tension and relief, a sense that human drama is actually comedy underneath it all and that the gods — often represented by the audience — are having a good laugh at the expense of mere mortals. In High Art, the worst of Eugene O’Neil and Arthur Miller often collapses under its own weight because it offers us nothing to laugh at. This principle reaches its deadliest point when art is not a factor, in the biceps-flexing movies of Stallone and Willis, where smash-cut is piled on smash-cut and the audience is expected to swallow it all with nary a flicker of a smile. Danger and an onrushing sense of hyper-catastrophe — a sort of mandated super-seriousness that isn’t seriousness at all but mere straightfaced posing — is the tone of '90s drama... the empty embodiment of runaway self-importance, a culture that clings too tenaciously to the wrong things. The two faces of John Steed are the perfect example of this. In the original series Macnee’s Steed was always smiling: and it was a genuine smile, full of humor, even when he was about to punch some villain’s lights out. As Steed in the new big-screen Avengers, Ralph Fiennes can barely manage a pained wince. “Dignity,” he seems to be declaring. “Dignity for its own sake.” Macnee never had to ask for dignity. He didn’t give a rat’s ass for the stuff. He had plenty of it in store, which was why he could afford to be charming.
In that sense, The Avengers was a more realistic show than many more serious programmes then or now. It’s a living example that television is, or once was, capable of offering so much better when creative people are allowed to do their work without a Suit looking over their shoulder.
Why does The Avengers matter? Because people create culture and culture creates people. We become what we watch. Steed and Mrs. Peel, with their commitment to set things right while still taking the time to enjoy everything that life has to offer, are the best models that anyone could have.