Thursday September 21, 2017
When I first looked at The New Avengers box set, my initial thought was ‘What a splendid advertisement for British Leyland cars’.
Forget that 1977 TV advert with a ‘Frenchman’ stood in front of the Eiffel Tower stating that ‘zis Allegro is the best foreign car I have ever owned!’ – this was some of the best publicity BL could have hoped to receive.
The Christmas edition of Autocar 1976 excitedly reported on how ‘Leyland, with an eye to the export market, were keen to see the Range Rover in there’ and so Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt with flared trousers and a saturnine scowl) was issued a white example.
As befitting his seniority, John Steed used an RR ‘with the full customisation treatment’ while Joanna Lumley’s Purdey favoured a gold MGB Roadster or a yellow Triumph TR7.
There was also an XJS – ‘a natural for the long cross-Continental trips that such a jet-set team were bound to undertake – and a (pre-production) Rover SD1 that was intended to be Steed’s principal car.
Naturally, the John Steed motor fleet included a 1928 Bentley 3-Litre, but it was now augmented by the ‘Big Cat’ Jaguar XJ12 Coupe that was a replica of the famous Broadspeed racer.
The wings and front spoiler were extensively modified, and the tyres were replaced by low-profile racing units on wide alloy wheels although the engine and transmission were from a standard car.
Post synching would take care of any necessary dramatic sounds and the Cat was often piloted by a bowler-hatted stuntman as Patrick Macnee – never a keen motorist by all accounts – rarely drove it.
All looked set for a revamp of the Avengers of the 1960s that would entertain, amuse and serve as a marketing tool for BL.
The show’s producer Brian Clemens deliberately wanted his central trio to drive British cars, which would be wholly in keeping with the image of The New Avengers, but the problems he encountered became television legend.
The SD1 constantly malfunctioned, and the unreliability of the XJS meant that Clemens had to borrow a second car from a dealership (note the dent that alternately vanishes and reappears).
Financial backing for The New Avengers was from French and Canadian consortia, which would explain the overseas locations for several editions of the second series.
There is no great hardship in watching Steed and Co. drive through Paris in LHD Rover 3500s and that splendid Renault, the 30TS, but the final Canadian-set drama are, quite simply, painful to view.
At least there are some very diverting cars – an export specification TR7 and XJS plus, to please all enthusiasts of Japanese machinery, a Toyota Corolla Liftback. The swansong of Season 2 was Emily, which features a 1941 Plymouth De Luxe alongside an embarrassed looking main cast.
Over four decades later, The New Avengers has a considerable period fascination, some early appearances by John “Boysie” Challis and Pamela Stephenson but a lack of coherent direction. Angels of Death, featuring Caroline Munro in a green Mini Mk. IV, was a definite highpoint but it was always going to be a difficult challenge to improve on the original series.
Some episodes anticipated The Professionals – indeed Obsession famously has a pre-CI5 Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw as guest villains – and others try to recapture the surreal frivolity of the Diana Rigg era.
The first season featured major guest stars of the calibre of Peter Cushing or Ian Hendry (the first Avenger), but this was eventually faded out as funding problems started to affect the show. And this may only be my erroneous impression of the show, but quite a few narratives had Gareth standing by his XJS and issuing his patent scowl.
After Clemens had finished shooting The New Avengers he embarked on The Professionals, with the British Leyland agreement still in place; Steed’s SD1 became George Cowley’s official transport. Of the other cars, the ‘Big Cat’ sold at auction for £69,440 in 2015 and it would be most splendid to see this fine Jaguar-invention as opposed to a pastiche of the 1961-69 Avengers and at its best, it almost achieves those goals. Plus, it is hard to resist a box set that looks like the 1977 BL all-model catalogue come to life.