Diana Rigg's Emma Peel partnered Macnee's Steed in The Avengers from 1965 to 1968
Thursday, 03 April 2014

'A gentleman never compares one woman to another'

In this enchantingly frank interview, iconic actor Patrick Macnee tells Barbra Paskin about The Avengers, feminism and the day he nearly died in the Second World War

Written by Barbra Paskin
Iconic star of The Avengers, Patrick Macnee smiles knowingly and dodges the awkward question that I have dared to toss his way: Who was the most appealing of the three actresses who played opposite him in the landmark 1960s TV series?

Then, in those precise measured tones that made him an enduring success as super-cool British agent John Steed, he responds wryly: ‘The very first thing you learn if you’re a gentleman is that you never compare one woman to another. That’s the way of all death. You get a big pointed high heel in your groin and you’ll never walk again!’

Ninety-two-year-old Macnee is as suave and debonair as ever; the consummate British gentleman as he recalls the years when he starred with Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson: ‘They were all wonderful, great fun to be with, accomplished thespians, and we were lucky to have them – that’s all I’m going to say on that score!’

You can see, though, that the actor who made Steed a hero to millions around the globe is truly proud of the series’ greatest accomplishment – it provided the groundbreaking opportunity for women to play leading action roles on television.

‘I like to feel it was the really good thing that we did; we made men and women equal.’

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Honor Blackman kicked it off when she was cast opposite Macnee in the role that was intended to be for a man. Originally, Macnee’s John Steed played third fiddle to series star Ian Hendry. But when Hendry left The Avengers after the first season, Steed moved up to centre stage. For his partner, the producers decided to refashion the Ian Hendry character into a woman. And along came Honor Blackman.

He guffaws as he recalls the moment of revelation among the TV hierarchy.

‘I remember the top brass being incredulous: “a woman?” Initially they just didn’t think it would work – that men would accept a female with the ability to knock the socks off a villain. And at first it was especially hard for men to accept women in that kind of role.’

Warming to his point, he adds: ‘The wonderful thing was it made women feel they didn’t just belong in an apron in front of a stove cooking for the kids. It made them delight in the awareness that they could get out there and do it all, fight men, take on villains, all the kinds of stuff we showed in The Avengers.’

Macnee acknowledges that opening doors for female opportunity wasn’t the original intent of the series. ‘But since The Avengers, dozens of gals have become very successful action heroes – take Angelina Jolie, for example.

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‘I’m very proud of what we achieved for women with The Avengers. I don’t think we knew that we were doing it at the time; it just seemed that a woman would make the ideal foil to my John Steed. And so she did.’

Talking exclusively in his spacious Rancho Mirage home near Palm Springs in the California desert, Britishborn Macnee is thrilled his show still attracts fans more than 50 years after its launch. The series, which was recorded live, has been digitally remastered on HD discs and a commemorative book, The Avengers: A Celebration, ‘flew off the shelves like hot cakes! It’s very exciting. After all, it’s not every day someone of my age can embrace a resurgence of popularity.’

He believes that what made The Avengers a success was ‘it did something different and did it better. It was beautifully written, the ideas were very good, way ahead of their time and they incorporated fantasies for people who dreamed of doing exciting things.

‘That’s why viewers loved it so much… they could live out their fantasies through what we were doing on television and The Avengers gave them the supreme opportunity.’
MacNee-Jun26-03-590Macnee, who looks back on a 60-year track record in British and American movies – starting as an extra in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version of Hamlet – still has the jaunty ‘Steed’ bowler hat he introduced into the show to give his character more impact.

‘Sometimes, just for fun,’ he chuckles, ‘I try it on again – and it still looks good.’ And he recalls it was pure luck – together with a timely twist of fate – that he landed the role that made him famous.

He’d already emigrated to Los Angeles, but happened to be on holiday in London in 1960 when they were casting for Steed. ‘And, bingo! I had the job… it came right out of the blue.’

While he’s adored in the US for epitomising the English gentleman, Macnee, who became an American citizen in 1959, finds the ‘English’ image marginally ironic, since his ancestry is actually Scottish. ‘But I’ll never forget my British heritage,’ he assures. ‘Especially those dreadful Second World War years when I was a 19-year-old. I think of them constantly.’

Serving as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy on a Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) and awarded the Atlantic Star, he narrowly escaped a watery grave on several occasions. Fortunately for him, he was hospitalised with bronchitis the night the Germans scored a direct hit on his MTB, killing many of his shipmates.

‘Naturally, I’m glad I survived,’ he reflects softly, ‘but I’ll never get over the guilt of not being with them. The faces of some of those men will always be with me.’

On a happier note, he fondly remembers his early years of growing up in the British countryside that he loved so much. ‘My dad was a horse-race trainer. I grew up with the horses, under the horses, on the horses. I loved to ride. I went to the city sometimes, but it was in the country that I felt most at home and I must admit I especially miss the green lushness of the Sussex Downs.’

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Yet he now feels a similar affection for the California desert: ‘Which, contrary to popular belief, teems with life, birds and animals, lots of beautiful wild flowers and of course the cacti that bloom during those brief spells when it rains.

‘I came here and felt the warmth and loved it instantly,’ he admits. ‘What I most appreciate about it is that you can go out without bumping into a lamp post every time you turn around. It’s the space that I love so much. The mountains and the desert space make me really happy and give me a sense of freedom.’

Although he doesn’t say it, it’s hard now to persuade this nonagenarian out of his comfortable desert home to make the long journey to England. ‘I don’t like to travel too much these days,’ he remarks, with only a twinge of regret. ‘I’m 92, you know, and I’m really becoming a bit of a stick-in-the-mud as I grow older.’

His health also precludes long trips. He’s dodgy on his legs and often resorts to using a wheelchair. Added to which, for the past few years he’s been suffering from a mild form of Alzheimer’s. Yet Patrick Macnee is still the charmer today, and women continue to love him, as they have since he first emerged as Steed in The Avengers.

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The feeling is mutual. ‘I’ve always felt women were equal,’ he enthuses. ‘Women in my opinion are far more important than men because they do all the work.’

Such diplomacy, I tease, but he protests at that. ‘I’m not being diplomatic, it’s a genuine thought. I’ve always admired women more than men. I mean, my God, women procreate, they enable other little people to come out and carry on the world!’

Married three times, he’s been a widower for the last six years. ‘I’m happy in my dotage with my pets and children,’ he jokes. ‘I live with my son Rupert and daughter Jenny who are making my “third act” quite wonderful.

‘The fact that they still talk to me is in itself pretty amazing!’

He’s inseparable from Fiona, his last wife’s Yorkshire terrier, who threatens to bite anyone who approaches her master – ‘She’s my protector.’ And if he gets lonely, there’s always BG, the African Grey parrot, who talks up a storm and sounds at times like John Steed, having picked up Patrick’s still very British intonation.

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‘I try to have a conversation with him,’ he says ruefully, ‘but he talks so much I can’t get a word in edgeways.’

So how does he feel about The Avengers having survived over 50 years? ‘It’s astonishing – that’s more than half a century,’ he says with his still highly distinctive and mischievous trademark smile.

‘It’s amazing that both the show and I are still alive and kicking. I must have been doing something right!’

The Avengers: A Celebration: 50 Years Of A Television Classic, by Marcus Hearn, is published by Titan Books Ltd, priced £24.99.



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