With his tailored, three-piece suit, bowler hat and umbrella, Patrick Macnee was a most unlikely icon for the Swinging Sixties. But as secret agent John Steed in enduringly popular television series The Avengers, he served up a mix of charm, excitement, irony and surrealism that continues to appeal to audiences today.
The Avengers began in 1961 as a relatively routine crime series, with Macnee playing second string to principal star Ian Hendry. It was rebooted the following year, with Honor Blackman as Macnee’s new partner, Cathy Gale.
She was the first of several female partners who would often go to Steed’s rescue and polish off the villains, to be thanked in due course by a wry smile and witty remark.
Although The Avengers is often seen as part of the boom in secret agent programmes and films that followed the early James Bond movies, the second series began in September 1962, just before the first Bond film, Dr No, opened. And The Avengers always had a unique appeal.
Macnee was very involved in the development of his character. He said he found James Bond, as created in the Ian Fleming novels, “sadistic and disgusting” and wanted to create a much lighter character. After the early episodes, Steed eschewed firearms, though his umbrella did conceal a hidden sword. Macnee, whose own personal story was as colourful as anything on television or film, said: “I’d just come out of a world war in which I’d seen most of my friends blown to bits.” He was ill on shore when the torpedo boat on which he had been serving was sunk.
The Avengers was a pioneer in presenting intelligent and highly capable female protagonists. “It was the first show that put its leading man and leading lady on an equal footing, and showed a woman fighting and kicking and throwing men around,” Macnee said.
It was at its best when Macnee teamed up with Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel, though he would normally refer to her as Mrs Peel. Their flirtatious relationship provided the series with an ongoing story thread that left viewers desperate for more.
In an interview a few years ago, Macnee said: “She made The Avengers the enormous success it was because she was in the first episodes made for American TV when they hadn’t seen a woman in a skintight leather catsuit throwing men around. It was all repressed sexuality, of course.”
Latterly, The Avengers had some quite outlandish plots, with carnivorous alien plants, a frozen Hitler and killer robots, the Cybernauts, who preceded Doctor Who’s Cybermen. But the details of Macnee’s early life might have been dismissed as far-fetched had they had been produced by scriptwriters.
He was born in London in 1922. His father was a racehorse trainer who drank heavily and whose snappy dress sense earned him the nickname Dandy. Macnee later drew on him for Steed’s appearance.
Macnee’s father “ran off” to India, while his mother Dorothea, who was descended from the earls of Huntingdon, moved in with her lesbian lover, Evelyn Spottswood, an heiress from the Dewar whisky family.
Macnee revealed the unusual details in his memoirs, Blind in One Ear. He was told to call his mother’s lover Uncle Evelyn. Interestingly, Steed’s boss in The Avengers in later years was a man known as Mother. Macnee’s mother and “uncle” banned men from the house and wanted him to wear dresses. He compromised with a kilt.
Uncle Evelyn helped pay for Macnee to go to Eton, but he was expelled for selling pornography and operating a bookie’s business.
He went to drama school in London, served as a navigator in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and began getting parts in BBC dramas in the late 1940s. He was Edgar Linton in a dramatisation of Wuthering Heights and Malcolm in Macbeth. He then spent much of the 1950s in Canada and the United States.
It was The Avengers that made him a star, and only then after the false start of series one, which was designed as a vehicle for Ian Hendry, who had played a similar character in the now-forgotten show Police Surgeon.
The Avengers evolved into something weird and wonderful when Rigg came on board, its appeal encapsulated in a pre-credit sequence in which Macnee takes the foil off a champagne bottle and Rigg shoots out the cork. They swap enigmatic little smiles and clink glasses. His John Steed was relaxed and knowing, forever playing to the audience, but never overdoing it.
Macnee did one series with Hendry, two with Blackman, two with Rigg and one with Linda Thorson. In 1976, The New Avengers teamed Macnee with two younger agents played by Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt.
Despite his disdain for Fleming’s creation, Macnee did appear in the James Bond series (as did Blackman and Rigg). He played an agent who has to pretend to be Bond’s chauffeur in A View to a Kill. The set-up provided the opportunity for much joshing between Macnee and Roger Moore, who was a personal friend, though the relationship hardly rivalled that of Steed and Mrs Peel.
It was difficult for Macnee to emerge from the shadow of Steed. He starred in the 1981 horror film The Howling and had a memorable role in This is Spinal Tap, as record company boss Sir Denis Eton-Hogg. He played Dr Watson in three television movies, once with Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes and twice with Christopher Lee. He also played Holmes once.
His continuing popularity with young audiences was underlined by appearances in Pretenders and Oasis videos and he voiced the character of Invisible Jones in the misconceived 1998 feature film of The Avengers.
He had lived in the US since the early 1970s, was married three times and divorced twice. His third wife died in 2007. He is survived by two children from his first marriage.