In 1979, I chatted to writer Brian Clemens, the man behind British TV successes The Avengers and The Professionals. The interview was published in Starburst issues 29 & 30.
Yesterday I posted the first half of the first part of that interview. Now the second half…
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The two words that epitomise everyone’s memories of The Avengers are visual style. How did that develop? According to Brian Clemens an important factor was economics.
“A lot of the evolution of the style was really because they didn’t have any sets. (Director) Peter Hammond was always shooting through wine glasses because, if he moved the camera over here, they didn’t have any windows or walls. A great deal of the evolution of the style was pure economics.
“But, having seen the way it was going, when we started making the shows on film (with the Diana Rigg series) I introduced certain ground rules: that there shouldn’t be any blood, that women shouldn’t be killed and the streets should only be populated with people in the plot. They tended to be empty streets because if you put Steed, who is an anachronism – a pantomime character – alongside any reality, then you’ll stop believing in him.
“It’s really in the mould of a Doris Day comedy, where there are no upstairs rooms. The world of fantasy only works if you totally believe in the world it’s enclosed in and we tried to do that in The Avengers. In some of the plots we broke the rules. We did have one where it was necessary to show ordinary, busy streets in order to then say Now there’s nobody there. Generally speaking, we abided by the rules, but the rules were always totally flexible. One could always bend the rules for the sake of an exceptional plot.”
Another part of The Avengers’ style was the inversion of the dramatic cliché.
“We did that an awful lot,” says Clemens, “like Sherlock Holmes planting clues. And we had a marvellous teaser once with the body outline marked out on the floor and this chap comes in, they shoot him and he falls into the outline. We were always doing that sort of thing.”
The series got more and more bizarre and, as well as debunking Sherlock Holmes, famous film plots started turning up – High Noon, The Maltese Falcon and Tarzan movies were just some.
“At one time,” says Clemens, “the premise was that once we attacked a subject nobody could ever do it again for real. But, again, we were ahead of our time and it didn’t totally work in international terms because, when you got to the Teutonic masses or the mid-West, they were all taking it for real. Today I think it would have a completely different impact.”
Throughout the various Avengers series, Clemens’ influence was considerable. On the early videotaped series, he had just been an occasional writer. After the Honor Blackman series, he was offered a job as general videotape producer-director at ABC Television. He turned this down when he was offered a job as script editor and associate producer on the new filmed Avengers series starring Diana Rigg.
“What they wanted,” he explains, “was someone who knew The Avengers and knew film and I was the only person who was qualified.”
Today he has no regrets about turning down the producer-director job. “If I’d produced and directed on tape, I could be sitting with Sydney Newman now. (Former Head of Drama at ABC and the BBC.) Sydney was a brilliant man but didn’t make any impact internationally. The thing about getting involved in something that was very successful internationally was that I could go to Hollywood four years later and people had heard of me and knew what I’d done.
“I don’t hold a great brief for America. But unfortunately, as we have no film industry, if you want something to be done these days, you have to think of America as the mecca of film-making. It’s sad. I mean, five years ago, I wanted to make Britain the Hollywood of television product – which it could easily be if you could find anybody who’s willing to take a chance. And it’s not much of a chance.
“If you’re a millionaire and I say to you Give me a million pounds and I’ll invest it in television product, you might not do a Jaws, you might not make £50 million, but you wouldn’t lose your million. I don’t just mean The New Avengers. Almost anything. I don’t think anything I’ve written has been transAtlantic, but they’ve always sold internationally and I don’t just mean America. Thriller has sold in 90 countries and The Avengers has sold in something like 120 and The Professionals is selling. I don’t think indigenous success (in Britain) means quite so much. It means people in the local pub like you, but it restricts you ultimately.”
One reason Clemens’ work has always sold internationally is probably because he writes strong plots and, if he has to be pigeonholed at all as a writer, he could be called a ‘plot’ man.
“Yes,” he says, “I suppose I am a plot man. Of late, I’ve tried to be more, but I am a plot man. I think that’s fair. I’ve never pretended I’m a brilliant writer, but I can think up 400 plots today, if you want them, and some will be quite new.”
So is it an innate skill?
“I think it must be, yes. Or it may be that I’ve seen so many plots I understand them so well… I understand that, if you change one brick, you’ve got a different plot.”
Another trait that often surfaces in Clemens’ work is a quirky humour.
“You see,” he says, “humour is enduring. It’s like Dickens. Nothing could be more dated than Dickens – he’s talking about social injustices that have gone 50, 60, maybe 100 years ago. But, because he’s funny and he’s warm, we still relate to him. I think modern writing and modern concepts… People are resisting being funny or warm as if making people laugh or cry weakens them. I think that’s ridiculous. It’s just as dogmatic as certaiun MGM products of the 1950s which portrayed the American way of life as it wasn’t.
“Now we’ve got another way of life (on screen) which isn’t really like that either. It’s only showing one half of the truth. I don’t believe people can survive in our society without crying or laughing. You couldn’t. How could you exist in some of those coal mining places up North or in Wales if you didn’t have that asset of being able to release the optimism within you? I think it’s terribly important.
“Over the last six or seven years on television we’ve had a lot of programmes showing that people who lived between 1910 and 1950 had a terrible time. My father and mother grew up in the East End of London just beyond the turn of the century. My father’s written about it and told me about it and I’d rather be there then than here now. I run two cars and have a good life, but his life was richer.
“He was an engineer, but he lived in a real slummy area and all his memories are rich – even the bad memories are rich. My memories are bland compared with his. I didn’t suffer and struggle at my age as he did at the same age. At the end of the First World War, my father walked something like 22 miles a day just looking for work. He didn’t like it at the time but, along the way, he met all sorts of interesting people.
“At least he knew he was alive. Sometimes I think you have to have a little bit of suffering to me made aware that you’re alive. I think the antithesis of that is California, where they’re all very much alive but many of them might as well be embalmed.”
TO BE CONTINUED… HERE…