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A CLASS ACT
By TOM SOTER
When I tell people that I admire the work of Patrick McGoohan, many often look blankly at me, which invariably prompts me to say, "You know, the British actor who played a spy on TV from the 1960s." And then a look of recognition appears and the reply will be: "Oh, right, from The Avengers."
Right genre, wrong series.
It was 2000 and I was working on my second book, Investigating Couples, an examination of the connections among three series: The Thin Man (from the 1930s), The Avengers (from the 1960s), and The X-Files (from the 1990s). At the time, A&E Video was just releasing an authorized DVD edition of The Avengers, and through the good graces of a publicist at A&E, I not only got copies of the series, but also an opportunity to interview (though not meet) Patrick Macnee, who played the suave secret agent John Steed on the 1961-1969 series.
He was living in California now, forsaking the damp weather of England for the sunny climes of California. I called him at the appointed time and was excited to hear the familiar voice at the other end of the line. I thought we would talk about The Avengers straightaway, but Macnee began a long, rambling tirade against international immigration rules and customs officials.
"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, almost nutty monologue – a rant, even – quite unlike what I expected rom the man who was the elegant, oh-so-proper English gentleman spy, John Steed, on The Avengers. I began to worry that Macnee had gone round the bend.
But soon he was talking about the series, and this time he went on about James Bond. He recalled that he refused to be influenced by the cinematic superspy.“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, he noted, was instead crafted as a parody of an English gentleman, but one who treated women as equals. His relationship with his first female partner, Mrs. Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) 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 said, finally sounding more rational. “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 said. “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 told me later. “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.”
I had the same feeling when talking with Macnee. He would wander off subject, talking about dogs and videotape pirates, but then, with wit and verbal adroitness return to the subject at hand. In the end, he was as gracious and charming as I remembered Steed to be.
That wasn't the end of Macnee and me. My next contact with him came when I sent him a copy of the published book, sometime in 2002. Most interview subjects, I have found, rarely respond when an article I have written appears – unless there is an egregious error. (And even then, sometimes, they don't speak up unless prodded. I remember an early interview I did for a community newspaper with a polite Englishman named Timothy Dawson who ran a used bookstore. I called him after the story appeared on some matter and asked him how he liked it. He said, "It was terrific, Tom. There was just one little thing," he said with typical British understatement. "What's that?" I asked. "Well, my name is Mawson not Dawson." I was mortified, but he told me not to think twice about it.)
So it was with some surprise that I received a handwritten note from Macnee on his own stationary. It was a disjointed, rambling letter marked by an enthusiastic tone: "You got it right," he said at one point. He included a check for 10 books, saying he wanted to send one to longtime Avengers writer/producer Brian Clemens. The letter was signed, "Love, Patrick."
Eccentrically charming as this was, it wasn't my last contact with the actor. Some weeks later, I was about to appear a store event to promote my book. I was waiting to begin when I was told by a clerk that there was "someone named Patrick Macnee on the phone" for me. Thinking it must be a prank, I took the call. The familiar voice was on the line.
"Tom, it's Patrick here, just wanting to wish you the best of luck in your presentation tonight. And if anyone should ask, tell them that John Steed is alive and well and living in retirement in southern California. My very best wishes to you and success for you and your wonderful book."
Now, that's what I call a class act.
October 25, 2010