Because I spend far too much time being bitchy in this column – or, as Dylan put it, cantankerous – I have decided to simply gush about something that I’m totally into … this week. It’s even weirder, because it’s a TV show. But really, it should have been a movie series.
I have recently begun watching one of the most camptacular television shows of all time. No one does camp like the 60s did camp, and The Avengers is one of the more iconic shows of the period. Even if you haven’t seen the show, you immediately recognize Diana Rigg’s leather catsuits and Patrick Macnee’s debonair umbrella and bowler, not to mention the outlandish plots: man-eating plant from the Moon, turning a department store into a massive bomb, resurrection of the Hellfire Club (which is mostly an excuse to get Diana Rigg into a dominatrix outfit). This is the stuff the Mike Myers references in Austin Powers. The Avengers is the ultimate swinging London show.
I think a good bit of the fun has to do with the actors. There’s an inherent glee in Steed and Peel as they take on the diabolical masterminds bent on taking over the world, one nuclear submarine at a time. The wink at the camera, the knowing twinkle in the eye, the sideways grin … they recognize that it’s all a bit of a joke, but it’s a fun joke and one we can all participate in. Macnee and Rigg were excellent performers – he got his start alongside Olivier and Redgrave, she graduated from RADA (and later appeared opposite Helen Mirren, Judy Dench and Ian Holm in a filmed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). They neither take themselves seriously, nor do they seem to be doing this just for a laugh.
Macnee’s elegance is effortless – compare him to Ralph Fiennes as Steed in the painfully bad film 90s remake if you don’t believe me. He doesn’t posture; there seems to be nothing odd about a 60s male carrying around an umbrella and bowler hat, or wearing a three-piece suit, or driving a vintage Bentley. Far from being an uptight and archaic form of masculinity, Steed is very much a modern man. He avoids the chauvinism of James Bond, despite being a good ten years older than his female counterparts, and his more self-satisfied moments are skewered by a sly smile from Mrs. Peel. But he’s not a buffoon who relies on the strength of the women around him. He’s very much his own man, perfectly capable of breaking a man’s arm and curling his nose at a multiple murder as though the yogurt had gone off.
Then there’s Diana Rigg, in the role that made her an adolescent fantasy for more than a few generations of men. But she’s also a hero (heroine?) of mine. It’s odd to realize that Mrs. Peel, leather catsuits and all, is far more feminist than anything on television today. This is a woman who not only wouldn’t put up with Don Draper, but would positively laugh him out of the office. She’s a physicist in her spare time, more proactive than a team of Bond girls, and even when in distress manages to call the villain out. The Avengers in general is amazingly forward-thinking. Although we can expect Mrs. Peel to be in distress at least once an episode – tied to the rack, tied to the railroad tracks, almost crushed by … something – it’s all in good fun: she’s never in trouble for more than a few seconds, and usually winds up saving Steed’s ass in the interim. Steed declines to treat her as anything but an equal and she, in turn, will put up with nothing less. As the men simper and flirt around her, she glances at them casually, as though they are all pretending to be James Bond and she has no time for that. The only man she responds to is Steed; he also, coincidentally, is the only one who treats her as an equal and not a sex object. Compared with the Bond films, The Avengers should be endorsed by Betty Friedan.
Today we have a tendency to view the 60s as the hippie-flower-child era – or, alternatively, as the skinny tie and horn-rimmed world of Don Draper and Co. Neither of which seem quite fair, if you watch the actual films and tv shows coming out of the era. We simply cannot pull off 60s camp without making it parodic. The Technicolor gaudiness, the men in three piece suits, the women in go-go boots and the swinging music are too much of their time. Even the movies that attempt to do the 60s leave it looking bizarre and unrealistic. I think that the problem is that we assume the media of the time did take it seriously. Watching The Avengers, I realized that they didn’t. They were fully aware of how ridiculous, how strange, how totally bizarre the whole concept was.
I’m not a fan of the Daniel Craig James Bond films mostly because the campy self-awareness of the 1960s has been lost. There is no smile at the camera, no time to giggle at the silliness of a woman named Pussy Galore or a villain obsessed with gold. I think we may have lost the balance they did so well in shows like The Avengers and films like Goldfinger. Where are the tough women and the debonair men? Where is that knowing twinkle? Where is the wink at the camera? I can’t picture Daniel Craig winking.
There I go again, being cantankerous. Watch The Avengers. It’s kind of awesome. Next week, I’ll tell you how terrible the movie is.