Not The Avengers, the US superheroes in the current Marvel big-screen movie franchise. I mean the cult 1960s British TV series The Avengers.
This month 23 years ago – on 31st October 1979 – I interviewed writer Brian Clemens, the man behind British TV successes The Avengers and The Professionals. The result of this chat appeared in issues 29 and 30 of the magazine Starburst which was published, at that time, by Marvel Comics.
This is the first half of the first part of that interview…
Brian Clemens, a great British television writer and descendent of Mark Twain
Brian Clemens was born in Croydon in 1931. He started writing at the age of five when he produced a slim volume called Brocky and The Black Adder about a badger and a snake. When he was ten, his father asked him what he wanted to be. He said he didn’t want to be an engine driver like everyone else: he wanted to be a writer.
The next year, his father bought him a typewriter and young Brian’s first paid story appeared in The Hospital Saturday Fund Magazine the year after that; his fee was one guinea. He was twelve. All his uncles were mechanically-minded but one in particular used to bring him books – everything from engineering manuals to Tolstoy.
During the War, young Brian was evacuated to Hitchin, Hertfordshire, and didn’t go to school due to a bureaucratic foul-up. The authorities in Croydon thought he was being educated in Hitchin and the people in Hitchin thought he was being educated in Croydon.
“I didn’t go to school for very long,” he says. “My education was simply reading a lot of books and going to the cinema.”
Work started at fourteen.
He wanted to be a journalist but couldn’t get a job because he had no academic qualifications. Eventually, he became a messenger boy for an advertising agency in Fleet Street and worked his way up to become a packer. Then he did two years National Service in the Army: an experience which, he told me, matured him and gave him a useful background in weaponry.
“I’d never shot a gun before,” he says, “but I found I was a natural shot. So they made me a training instructor and I spent two years training people how to kill other people. It’s been useful to me in my writing because, in the course of that, I went to the Army Smallarms School where you get the chance to fire everything. I’ve fired flintlock rifles and flamethrowers and Thompson sub-machineguns and everything.”
On leaving the Army, he was offered a job as a private eye with John Smart’s Detective Agency in London.
“But,” he says, “it would have meant going to Leeds for three months to train – why Leeds, I’ve never found out. I was just coming out of the Army, having been away from home, and I didn’t really fancy going to Leeds so I didn’t take the job. Otherwise I suppose, by now, I’d have a hat like Humphrey Bogart.”
He ended up working as a copywriter at the J Walter Thompson advertising agency and then he had a lucky (but complicated) break. One of the JWT girls happened to play bridge one night with someone who was looking for a writer for somebody else’s film company. She suggested Brian Clemens.
As a result, he started writing for the legendary Danziger Brothers, churning out scripts for cheap second features.
Danziger film written by Brian Clemens
“The Danzigers were smashing,” he says, “because they used to move from studio to studio and use old sets and props. If they moved to MGM, they might have a submarine, The Old Bailey and a dozen Father Christmas outfits. So they’d say: Write an 80-minute film that incorporates all three. The Danzigers used to ask me to write one half-hour a week and occasionally they’d give me 10-12 days to write an 80-minute B-feature. They paid me a flat sum every week; I didn’t get paid by the script and there were no royalties. But they were very kind to me and the nicest thing was that virtually everything I wrote was made.”
Even then, Clemens was prolific. When he arrived at the Danzigers’ there were three other writers. After about three months, he was the only writer because he could be depended on to turn out something worthwhile every week.
Eventually, his talent led him to ABC Television (later part of Thames Television) who intended to re-vamp their series Police Surgeon, which starred Ian Hendry and co-starred Patrick Macnee. The re-vamped series was called The Avengers because Ian Hendry’s screen fiancée had been killed in Police Surgeon and the Hendry/Macnee characters were out to find her killers and avenge her death.
It was a rather gritty, realistic series and Clemens remembers his first sight of Macnee was when he saw him “slurping in through the door wearing an old raincoat rather like Columbo.”
“There wasn’t really a format for the series,” Clemens remembers. “Everybody tries to take the credit for creating The Avengers, but it was self-generating, really. It was just a doctor (Hendry) and a special agent (Macnee) and was quite terrible – a million miles away from what the series became.
“The first one was all about razor-gangs. It was trying to be ‘real’ – a bit like Edgar Wallace, I suppose. I wrote the first episode and then, I think, two or three more for Ian Hendry.
Honor Blackman in kinky leather
“Then Ian left the series and they were stuck with six scripts for Ian (written by various writers) and they couldn’t afford to commission new scripts. So they brought in Honor Blackman and she played the man’s part.
“It was around that time that Patrick Macnee was looking for something to do with his character, which didn’t do anything on the page. He was really a stereotyped Scotland Yard man. He came in and said Yes guv and No guv and things. So Patrick put on a bowler hat and picked up an umbrella and I think it was him who said to Honor Blackman: Why don’t you wear trousers and boots? I like them. Then it kind of escalated and the writers really caught up with it after Pat and Honor had set it going on a trend. We overtook the trend and made it even more consciously trendy after that.”
The ‘forgotten’ Avenger – Julie Stevens as Venus Smith
The first Avengers series after Ian Hendry left had actually featured two girl assistants each appearing with Patrick MacNee on alternate weeks – Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and Julie Stevens as Venus Smith.
Publicity described the Julie Stevens character confusingly as a “zany, zippy bargee’s teenage daughter and nightclub singer, who has a penchant for helping Steed in his battle against international crime.” However, after one season, Julie Stevens became pregnant and left the series. (She appeared on the BBC TV children’s series Play School shortly after her son was born and then continued to make occasional appearances on children’s television.)
Honor Blackman remained in The Avengers series, became a star, then joined James Bond as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. I have always thought The Avengers’ increasingly surrealistic style affected the style of the Bond films, which had started out as straight action films but then veered off into fantasy. Clemens is not sure if he agrees:
“Whether it was The Avengers that affected them or whether it was just the climate and we were reflecting it more accurately or faster than Bond, I don’t know. I wanted to make an Avengers feature film in 1964 and, if we’d done it, we would have made a fortune because we’d have been ahead of Bond.
“It’s really a question of trends: optimism and pessimism. A lot depends on the economic climate. Some of the frothiest things came out of Hollywood during and after the Depression – and I think that’s going to happen again now. Spoofiness has become acceptable.
“If they re-ran The Avengers of the mid-1960s now, I think they’d be an enormous hit in the same way as Monty Python. I remember I used to watch At Last! The 1948 Show! and nobody else used to watch it, but now Monty Python’s big business. The 1948 Show was ahead of its time. The Avengers was always a cult show, not a mass-appeal one; it got ratings, but it was never in the Coronation Street or Sweeney class. It could be now: I think it would appeal enormously to a generation that isn’t really aware of it.”
TO BE CONTINUED… HERE