The world lost two great men yesterday: because Patrick Macnee was John Steed and John Steed was Patrick Macnee.
The “espionage craze” of the sixties gave us Spies high and Spies low. It gave us James Bond of course, but it also gave us the Mission: Impossible team, John Drake, Matt Helm, our man Flint, Kelly Robinson & Alexander Scott, Solo & Kuriaken, Maxwell Smart, Boris Badinov, and a host of others. It was deep and far-reaching in our culture in a way that it has never been since. Those of us born in that era grew up with spies in our blood.
For some of us, the greatest among all of these were The Avengers. If the name evokes images of star-spangled costumes and green-skinned behemoths, you are thinking of the wrong Avengers. That group took their name from a small team of British spies made up of both professional and amateur operatives: most often it was a team of two, sometimes as many as three or (rarely) four, but from the mid-1960s through the early 80’s the pivotal member of that little team was John Steed.
Steed has been characterized “the perfect British gentleman,” but for me that description falls far wide of the mark. It’s true that Steed had the polish of an English gentlemen, but English gentlemen do not go around hitting people over the head with bowler hats lined in steel. English gentlemen are often stuffy and conservative; Steed was neither of those things. Rather, John Steed was a man of the world, who knew how to enjoy life and how to get right down into it and play without ever mussing up his suit.
It was this playfulness of spirit that marked Macnee and Steed. Other actors have portrayed Steed over the years, but have always ended up embarrassing themselves in a role that was never meant for them. Ralph Fiennes infamously played Steed in a disastrous “major motion picture” (opposite an equally miscast Uma Thurman and Sean Connery, whose portrayal of the villain pretty much consisted of trotting out his own worst personality defects for the world to see) that captured the quirks of the beloved TV series but missed its heart. Fiennes emphasized the “English Gentleman” bit and came off a right twat: never smiling, never enjoying himself.
The John Steed I knew (and the man who created him) was generous with his smile. He had a great, warm smile and he shared it even with his enemies. Like Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, his smile was disarming, and it might proceed a generous serving of champagne or a blow across the face. Life’s a game, after all, and what’s the point in playing it if you can’t enjoy yourself — whether you’re fighting an Evil Genius or sharing some well-earned downtime with your stunning partner in Avenging?
The Avengers was a shining moment in television history, especially for the two seasons that featured Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel; and Patrick Macnee was its heart.
As an actor, Macnee did not have a broad range and was the first person to admit this. He was more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it, and in fact had given up acting entirely when the role of John Steed in The Avengers came along. Perhaps he knew instinctively that it suited him. Perhaps he thought of it as a lark. Certainly when the equally playful Diana Rigg joined the cast, the show became something akin to the games of espionage that we played in the long summers when school was out. This was where John Steed and Patrick Macnee became one — and the two became the most wonderful role model that any young man could have.
For in the face of Great Evil, John Steed paused and raised a glass. He took the time to let his partner know how very much he enjoyed their company. Then and only then, armed with grace and Good Feeling, would he plunge into the fray.