You are hereMagazines 2000-2009 / Patrick Macnee
By TOM SOTER
for SCARLET STREET, 2000
Patrick Macnee is on a tear about his wife’s dogs. “David Frost once asked me why I refused to return to England. And I said, ‘Frankly, until you let my wife’s dogs into the country, [I refuse].’ They haven’t...because of rabies. My dogs haven’t picked up even a tick in 12 years. But they’re letting all the human rabies into Great Britain at this very moment as we speak through the Channel Tunnel – I call it this monstrous hole – and yet they won’t let [in] my wife’s little dogs. And David Frost said, ‘I think they’re changing the rules’ – which they just have last week, for every where in the whole world, including Slovonia and behind the Ural mountains and the depths of Istanbul. But they haven’t from the United States because it’s such a dirty, rabies-ridden community. The irony one has to employ to sort of understand the people who [make these laws]... they don’t let two little dogs in because of the quarantine. I find the anomaly quite ludicrous.”
It is a passionate monologue – a rant, even – quite unlike what one would expect from the man who was the elegant, oh-so-proper English gentleman spy, John Steed, on television’s long-running The Avengers. Macnee is in the news once again because.The Avengers is back in crisp new DVD and video incarnations from A & E Home Video. After years of being seen in fading, worn-out prints – often as pirated tapes – the new editions are a revelation.
For that, fans can thank Macnee. He unearthed the original negatives and was responsible for sorting out copyright and ownership questions – there were claims that the series was in the public domain – and then facing down the video pirates to court. “We defeated the pirates,” says the 78-year-old Macnee. “It was an eight-year undertaking. It’s interesting to read in the Los Angeles Times how surprised they were at the success of the newly constituted, digitally restored Avengers. And they have sold one million units in less than a year.
“Now, it’s funny that A & E Networks should put that out, particularly as I have two-and-a-half percent of the profits. But for me and my accountant, this situation wouldn’t exist at all because they were being pirated for 35.years. In other words, you see in sleazy video stores a sort of sleazy cassette way in the back which was called The Avengers. And it had been taken from showings on television with commercial breaks. It was in an excreable state. So they suddenly had to pay us an enormous amount of money and it’s made life a lot easier for me. It’s given me a sort of old-age pension...And I don’t have to turn up for work every morning at 5:30. I’m laughing. That’s the story basically.”
Not quite the whole story, however. Born in 1922 to an upper-class English household, Patrick Macnee was brought up with “good manners” – but also learned quickly to appreciate and sympathize with the bizarre. At an early age, his mother left his father, an alcoholic racehorse trainer, and took the young boy to live with her lesbian lover. Known as Uncle Evelyn, the lover. paid for Patrick’s schooling at Eton.
“What was eminent about that bringing-up is that a man was not allowed in the house at all,” Macnee says. “They had to come in through the back door. All the people who worked on the farm were never allowed in the house. I think they allowed the men once a year for pheasant shooting in September. Now, I took it for granted that I lived with lesbians. I didn’t even know what lesbians were. I just didn’t see any men, that’s all. But I didn’t grow up homosexual because I’m not homosexual. I can’t take any credit for that. I just like women.”
At public school, Macnee developed an interest in acting. After five years at Eton, the Macnee family had a run of bad luck, and their finances dwindled. On the advice of the actress Margaret Rawlings, he applied to Webber-Douglas drama school in South Kensington and won a scholarship. He stayed for a short time and then moved into repertory theater. He found a variety of roles and also met his first wife, Barbara Douglas, during run of Little Women.
In 1941, he joined the navy, where he was part of Eighth Gunboat Flotilla at Dartmouth. “I sometimes say to my wife, ‘Darling, look, don’t repeat everything, don’t talk to me as though I were a small child. Please, I was a naval officer in the second world war. For five years.’ ‘Oh, were you? Where were you?’ I say, ‘In the channel in the North Sea. I was at D-Day.’ ‘Oh, really, did you see all that that we saw in [Saving] Private Ryan?’ ‘I killed 18 people in three days.’ ‘You didn’t! How dare you say a thing like that! You never killed anybody!’ I say, ‘Darling, how do you think we made the world safe for all you little people from 1939 through 1946? If we didn’t kill people.’ ”
Discharged in 1947, Macnee returned to the theater and raised a family (a son and daughter) and also obtained small roles in films, among them Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948). In search of work, he went to Canada where he built a reputation on television (he appeared in a live American TV version of A Night to Remember in 1956).
He had trouble finding jobs, however, and eventually took an associate producer position in England on The Valiant Years, a documentary series, based on Winston Churchill’s memoirs. When the producer of that program was suddenly fired, Macnee took over. It was then that Sydney Newman called. The TV producer had worked with Macnee in the past. And when he was preparing The Avengers, he thought of the actor for the Steed role. It was a “George Sanders type” who was supposed to be slightly mysterious, slightly shady, and very elegant. (The producer even wanted Macnee to wear a Sanders-like moustache; but the actor refused.)
Macnee agreed to co-star. Yet for a series that would become known for its light-hearted approach to murder, the first season of The Avengers was certainly gritty and hard-hitting. “Hot Snow,” the initial episode, was dark, realistic, and, because it was shot on videotape and live-on-camera, very stagy. Its subject matter was most unAvengers-like, dealing with drug-smugglers (a hot button issue), bereavement, and the seedy underside of British crime.
When Macnee’s first partner, Ian Hendry, left the series after 26 episodes, producer Leonard White wanted Honor Blackman for the part. But White faced complaints from Newman and others who felt that Blackman was completely unsuitable, since, until then, she had played vapid wives and a variety of other colorless characters. Newman argued that Blackman was saccharine and too genteel for the role. He wanted Nyree Dawn Porter.
“It is true that being a natural blonde – my very first cutting in any newspaper says, ‘A peaches and cream complexion,’ and all that kind of stuff – I was very typically British, which implied, I’m afraid in those days, not spunky,” Blackman recalls. “So, yes, probably it was a surprise [when they chose me].”
The character Blackman would ultimately play in The Avengers was named Cathy Gale and was modeled on a number of women who had inspired Newman: the anthropologist Margaret Mead, Margaret Bourke-White, a well-known Life magazine photographer who took on dangerous assignments; his own wife; and a woman he had heard about in Kenya. According to Macnee, at the time of the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya, Newman had “read of a redoubtable lady whose farm had been besieged by native insurgents.”
Because of his background, Macnee found it easy to get along with Blackman. “I never thought about it,” the actor says. “But growing up, all I knew were women. So...it didn’t phase me at all. I asked Honor Blackman when she went and played with Sean Connery in the Bond film [Goldfinger], she said, ‘Oh, he wouldn’t let me get away with a thing.’ Implying that I left her get away with almost everything, which I did.”
The actor recalls that he refused to lift any traits from the literary James Bond in his creation of Steed. “We were before the Bond films,” he notes. “Somebody gave me a Bond book [at the time the series began] and said, ‘I think this will help you with your character.’ I read it and found it, as I always have, totally repulsive. Bond is a repulsive man. A sadist. He’s completely upper-class, frightfully snobbish. He’s exactly like Ian Fleming was. Ian died of drink and tobacco just like that, way before his time.No, Bond is totally reprehensible to me.”
Steed was instead crafted as a parody of an English gentleman, but one who treated women as equals. His relationship with his partner was defined early on as one of mutual respect, tempered by Mrs. Gale’s dislike of Steed’s unscrupulous methods. She was the “know-it-all” to whom Steed came for assistance; he was the man with the mission. “To me the great secret of The Avengers is the knowledge that woman can not only keep it going with men. but can top men, and can rescue men and they can treat men as their friend and equal without emasculating them,” Macnee says. “There’s too much made of male-masculine thing, I think. ”
The live-on-videotape aspect of the series added to the excitement of the show’s early years. “The point is live television is live television,” Macnee says. “I did that in New York in the ‘50s and you’re not at your best, let’s face it. You’re sort of tentative, you’re nervous...When you have to do a series like The Avengers which, for four years was live [on tape], you really had to be on your toes. And I think if you’re on your toes, your brain works better, and I think what I did show in that show for all those years was a brain and [that I was] a sort of alert person.”
“There were no retakes,” Blackman adds. “If somebody died in front of the camera, you stepped over them and took their lines. It really was a nightmare. I must say, that was one thing about Patrick. Sometimes, he used to wing it. And he would always, miraculously, get back to your cue. It was quite extraordinary. You’d think, ‘Now where’s he gone now? Will I ever be able to answer the sentences made?’ And then he’d always come back to his cue. He was quite amazing like that.I’m a very solid performer. I like to know what I’m doing. And certainly if you’re working with someone like Patrick who flies occasionally, it’s as well that one of us is the substantial person.”
Blackman dropped a bombshell in 1964, when she announced that she was leaving the series to take on the part of Pussy Galore in the third James Bond film, Goldfinger. As he had when Hendry left, Macnee thought that it would mean the end of the series. Although many felt that Steed was the backbone of the show, Mrs. Gale seemed to be its main draw.
After a much-ballyhooed search, Blackman was replaced with Diana Rigg. The new character was originally called Samantha, but later renamed Emma Peel (a play on the words male appeal: “m-appeal”). Like Mrs. Gale, the character was a widow. Macnee and many critics feel that the black-and-white Macnee-Rigg season of 1965-66 was The Avengers at its best. The series took on an even more outrageous tone and was more tongue-in-cheek than ever. It also became more sophisticated and stylized, which was now possible because of a switch from videotape (and the slightly stilted, live-on-tape presentation) to film. (The conversion was made as a way to sell the series to the important American market). Film allowed for higher production values, more outrageous plotting, and higher caliber directors.
By 1966, The Avengers had a worldwide audience of over 30 million viewers in 40 countries. Between 1961 and 1969, it spent a total of 123 as one of the top 20 series in Britain, and in 1967, its peak year, it was the third most-watched program of the year, on the top ten chart for 23 weeks. And that success continued, unabated, into the 1990s, when the series was called the most profitable British export of all time.
Macnee is not modest about his contributions to that success. “The wit in me is me,” Macnee says, “and [from the series’ chief writer and producer] Brian Clemens. I like to think I’m wittier than him and he does the plots. So the wit is me. The attitude is me.”
Macnee continued in the role following Rigg’s departure in 1967, and co-starred with the 20-year-old Linda Thorson for 30 episodes before hanging up his bowler hat in 1969. He then appeared in various forgettable films, and, more memorably, for two years in Anthony Schaeffer’s Broadway play, Sleuth, starting in 1974. In 1976, he returned to the part of Steed in a 22-episode revival called The New Avengers, opposite Joanna Lumley (pre-Absolutely Fabulous) and Gareth Hunt. “I was not too fond [of that series] because it was badly thought out and it wasn’t ahead of its time, it was behind its time. And I don’t like that,” he says. “I was in the first motor torpedo boat flotilla in the war, not the second.”
Even though he expressed antipathy towards James Bond, he later followed in the footsteps of Honor Blackman (Goldfinger) and Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and took a part in 1985’s A View to a Kill. “I was doing a Magnum PI, which I enjoyed very much...and Barbara Broccoli – who is now the producer of the Bond films [and Bond producer] Cubby Broccoli’s daughter – had a boyfriend on it, and she saw me work on this thing and apparently she went to Cubby Broccoli and said, ‘What about Pat Macnee for the part of’ – it was a jockey at that time, ‘in A View to a Kill?’ And he said, ‘I think he’s a bit big for a jockey.’ And they rewrote it. I just read a thing called The Bond Dossier, which gives me a wonderful write-up which said, ‘If only the character had gone on longer, he would have been a good partner for James Bond.’ Which was a nice thing to say.”
He adds: “The cameramen, all the technicians, they were all people, strangely enough, who had worked on The Avengers. And Roger Moore is an old friend; we were in Hollywood together in the early ‘50s. So we have known each other, all those sorts of people, for years and years and years. So you play the thing with confidence. It’s just like [on] that Bond film, I treated it as though it were another Avengers.”
He appeared in a two-part episode of Battlestar Galactica as The Devil, co-starred in a failed adventure series, Gavilan (1982-83), and a failed comedy program, Empire (1984), and then had various guest shots on a wide range of American TV series, most recently on Diagnosis Murder, with Dick Van Dyke. He played a spymaster involved with former TV spies Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Barbara Bain (Mission: Impossible), and Robert Culp (I Spy). “It was so sweet,” he recalls. “Dick Van Dyke, said, ‘You know, Patrick, I’m so glad you’re in this thing because, up until now, the last two years, I’ve always been the oldest person.’ What a lovely man.”
He also cameoed – voice only – as an invisible spy in the big-screen version of The Avengers in 1998. He doesn’t mince words about that movie. “The Avengers is a little television show and that’s what it is. And a very good television show. But it never should be a movie. The movie’s proved it. I felt so sorry for Ralph Fiennes [who played Steed] because I read that script and it was rather good. And, do you know, the producer, [Sy] Wyntraub, he insisted that the woman be dominant. Of course, that ruins that show altogether. So consequently all the scenes that they had done together, they cut all of Ralph Fiennes’ stuff out.
“Howard Rosenberg gave a lovely contrast between that film and The Avengers television,” he continues. “There’s a sword fight – Uma Thurman [as Mrs. Peel] and Fiennes have a sword fight – and I and Diana Rigg had a sword fight [in the TV series episode, “The Town of No Return”]. At the end of the one with Uma Thurman, Uma Thurman wins. Now in the other one, I win, and then she, Diana Rigg, comes out from behind the curtain, and says, ‘You cheated.’ And I say, ‘Well, I never said I’d fight fair.’ Now, that’s The Avengers.”
Still, his last piece of television acting was a far cry from The Avengers: a series starring Hulk Hogan. “I can’t remember the bloody name, we did it in the desert, in the Disney World in Florida, and it was with Hulk Hogan, and it was marvelous. It was about a ship, a boat, and I played a very good part in that, only a couple of years ago, made by the people who make Baywatch.”
Surprisingly, Macnee – who had frequently been voted best-dressed man of the year in the 1960s – also spent time in a nudist colony. “Somebody asked me [about that] on a talk show, and, by mistake I timed it very well. I said, ‘Yes, indeed, I was in a nudist colony’ – and the next line, if you time it right, can get the laugh – ‘but, you know, I love to play tennis. But I’m unable to serve with two balls in my hand. I have no clothes on. I have nowhere to put the two balls.’ ...The truth of it is, was I was in it for a time because I wanted to see what everyone else looked like with no clothes on. Because if you’ve lived a life completely clothed, it’s rather fun to see people stark naked, particularly attractive people. Now I, quite frankly, wanted to go to, having lived with lesbians, and done this and been in a very overdramatized sort of life and been in the war, I wanted to just see this nice sort of simplicity of nudity. Yes, I enjoyed it very much.”
He adds: “People are idiots because they can’t face a truth. Undo a bandage and there are six stitches underneath. It’s not three, six. We’ve got to face little truths. We’ve got to see cancer where it is. We’ve got to try and do something about things by facing it.”
The actor is blunt about his own talents. “I was no great Shakespearean actor. I can admire Ian Holm, the shortest King Lear. I can admire Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is superb. I can admire all of these, but they’re not role models...They wanted me to understudy Paul Scofeld. Let’s say the greatest actor who ever lived, who’s still alive is Paul Scofeld, in my opinion...they’re great, great stage actors. Acting is, probably – all in all, you have so much practice, you can’t go to a television studio every day and do Seinfeld and not learn something, can you? You bloody well ought to be good...”
He continues: “People said, ‘Well how do you base your character?’ Well, people talk for hours on Entertainment Tonight on how they play that rather thin, worked-out character...the way life is. you don’t think at the beginning of every day, ‘Now what would my character say if I go out and find the pool is empty?’ You just react. That’s the way to do a series. To just be you, as a person, reacting to the day as life goes. And we had to do that.”
Currently living in southern California with his third wife, Macnee doesn’t expect to appear before the cameras again – he is quite happy with his new career as narrator of audio books by Jack Higgins and others – claiming, “I wouldn’t put my fat face in front of a camera for all the tea in China – nooo.”
He is gratified by the continuing popularity of The Avengers, which he thinks has a lot to do with the series’ distinctive British sensibility. “The lovely thing about Diana, and I think about myself, was that we were generally surprised that we were able to bring all these things off, which is very British. The British always say, before they knock you straight in the teeth, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but...’ I love the whole British thing – and it happened in the Second World War – of leaving everything to the very last minute and then winning. The surprise element is great fun. And the iconoclast feeling gives me pleasure. It bores other people. They say, ‘Do you always have to go against the grain?’ And I say, ‘If I think you’re idiotic, whyever not? Yes.’