Sunday, 20 December 2015

2015 In Memoriam: Patrick Macnee

25th June 2015 – Patrick Macnee, 93

("Patrick Macnee Columbo 1975" by NBC Television - eBay itemphoto frontphoto back. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - )

British actor best known for his role as John Steed in The Avengers.

“On the day of his West End lead debut in the summer of 1942, Macnee received his call-up papers from the Royal Navy. The film role went to Stewart Granger, and Macnee went as an ordinary seaman for training at Porthmadog, North Wales. Further instruction followed at Brighton, Devonport and the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, and Macnee emerged as a sub-lieutenant. He went on to serve as a member of the Eighth Gunboat Flotilla, based in Dartmouth, South Devon. Between then and D-Day in 1944, Macnee took part in patrols of the English Channel. By his own admission, his was a quiet war, but when things turned for the worse, providence took a hand, as he explained to TV Times: "The only time I missed going on a mission the boat was sunk. I'd caught bronchitis and was in the Chichester Hospital when it happened. I didn't know about it until I'd reported back to base. A lot of the crew were killed, but the captain and my replacement survived. It was extraordinary. I had been on scores and scores of trips before missing the one that proved fatal, yet the odd result was that it had no particular impression on me. We were immune to shocks in those days. We treated it all very casually, which is easier to do when you're in your early 20s. I was only 25 when I came out of the Navy."
Alan Hayes and Richard McGinlay, Avengers Declassified obit

His early life (spent with a bullying father in the horse racing trade, and a lesbian mother, who dressed her son up as a girl) and war times shaped the rest of his life, leading to an actor who struggled to deal with his own personal issues whilst trying to do his best for his other actors.

He had roles in memorable films from the start of his career, appearing as an extra in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and as the younger Marley in the Alistair Sim Scrooge. A steady TV career blossomed with the BBC Sunday night theatre spot and the American CBC slot.

He did the tour of the American supernatural anthology series of the 1950's, appearing in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in the One Step Beyond episode Night of April 14th, in which a woman's premonitions of incoming danger meet head on with tickets for one of history’s great disasters, Macnee playing the unassuming husband. Watery graves was a similar theme for his Twilight Zone episode, Judgment Night, where his cheery and jovial McLeod plays a great counter to Nehemiah Persoff’s tortured U-boat commander. [If you’ll excuse 56 year old spoilers, Macnee is actually playing one of Persoff’s dead victim, which makes the juxtaposition all the more striking.]

He was offered the role in The Avengers as side kick to actor Ian Hendry. However, Hendry’s own health problems meant a swift exit from the show, and so Macnee found himself the lead in his own TV show.

It was originally intended that John Steed (who to begin was a colder, calculating character) would have a cavalcade of helping hands depending on the mission in question.

This view was quashed when, in the first broadcast episode of Season 2 (Mr Teddy Bear, the 8th episode filmed) and the audience was introduced to the judo wielding anthropologist Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman. [Her commanding role, a rare strong co-lead role for an actress in 1962, was aided by the fact that Ian Hendry had quit on such short notice the production just handed his lines in the script to Gale.] The team of Steed and Gale was a ratings hit, and proved a template for the rest of the shows run.

“In 1960, the series Police Surgeon, produced by ABC with Ian Hendry as its star, had come to an end. The writer Brian Clemens was asked to devise a show on similar lines, but more light-hearted, and came up with The Avengers, in which Hendry would be a doctor, David Keel, being helped in his search for revenge on the drug-dealer killers of his lover by a shady and enigmatic man, John Steed, from some mysterious intelligence service. The show was immediately popular, with Hendry and Macnee investigating assassinations, lethal radioactivity, missing scientists and political extremists. Macnee was told to develop the character of Steed in any way he fancied. “They were very sweet people and they just gave me the name,” he recalled. “They said: ‘Have you read the James Bond books? Go away and make up a character.’” When Hendry left the show after the first series, the emphasis shifted towards the flamboyant Steed. From the time the series took root in 1961 until 1969 when it was wound up, and by which time a third female sidekick, Tara King (played by Linda Thorson) had joined him, Macnee as Steed was the constant factor.”
Dennis Barker, Guardian obit

It was during the period Honor Blackman appeared on the show that the transformation of Steed, from unflinching and cold secret agent, into the suave, bowler hat wearing English gentleman of the establishment happened.

 This, of course, lead to the long lasting appeal of the show: you can have world weary spies the world over, but only one John Steed.

In 1965, Blackman left the show (to continue her rise to becoming one of Britain's well regarded actresses), and the show brought in the character for which Steed became most recognised in partnership with: Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg.

""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.  ‘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.’”
Patrick Macnee, interviewed by The Lady Magazine, 2014

The Macnee/Rigg partnership was an instant success, their genuine friendship and ability to add the most knowing of readings into lines adding to create the sort of on screen chemistry casting directors dream of.

The Avengers moved into colour from 1967, and it is Series 5, the colour episodes with Steed and Peel, which are the best known, repeated worldwide endlessly. They squared off with allies and enemies alike of the cream da la cream of British acting: Jon Pertwee, Bernard Horsfall, Geoffrey Bayldon, Colin Jeavons, Ron Moody, Christopher Lee (a school friend of Macnees), Brian Blessed, Michael Gough, Peter Cushing and hundreds more.

It was a show which would have Ronnie Barker as a villain (and in a surprisingly underplayed role too), and Donald Sutherland as a Russian spy. Some of the classics of this era include The Superlative Seven (featuring the aforementioned Sutherland), Epic (a Diana Rigg focused episode, featuring a tour de force by Peter Wyngarde, having a ball as an actor sending up the entire Wyngarde school of acting) and Death’s Door.

Macnee was adamant that Steed never carried a gun in the series. Whilst he could use weapons when it became strictly necessary – there is an amazing scene in Death’s Door when facing execution, Steed uses the laws of physics to propel a spent bullet from a steel wall into his would be assassin – Macnee’s character never walked into a weapon with a deadly weapon. Well, other than Gale or Peel, of course.

“Returning to London in 1960, Macnee was contacted by the The Avengers creator, Sydney Newman, "a lovely little Canadian", who offered him the part of Steed. "No one here had heard of me. I got it because he knew my work from Toronto." So Macnee became partner to Ian Hendry's police surgeon in the original, all-male series. After a few weeks, however, Newman called Macnee into his office. "Patrick, I'm afraid you're just not working out. You don't seem to be anything. Go away and think of something." Macnee came up with the Savile Row suit, bowler hat and umbrella and made the part his own. "I took some elements from my Dad," he explains. "He was a horse trainer and a real dandy. He'd always wear big velvet collars, a cravat and a carnation in his buttonhole."”
Patrick Macnee interviewed by Leise Spencer, Independent 27 May 1997

Alas, all good things only last two series, apparently.

The show which was championing women's rights on the small screen was trying to trample them behind the scenes, and Rigg was unhappy to learn that for her first series, she had earned less than the camera men. She threatened to resign unless she got a payrise.

Macnee himself also threatened to leave the show unless something was done, and so the producers, begrudgingly, increased Diana Rigg’s pay by £300. Then they worked on a successor for her role.

“Pat (Macnee) and I had a tremendous rapport, which made everything move well. Usually we decided between ourselves how a scene should be played. Quite often it meant that we had to rewrite bits of scenes. Sometimes we'd be doing this at 8:30 in the morning.It was hard work. And they don't yet know how to treat actors and actresses in television series. Without going to the extremes of film-star cosseting, they could accord them a little more consideration.”
Diana Rigg, Sunday Express 13 October 1968

“Our work on the Avengers led to a lasting friendship.”
Diana Rigg, Daily Mirror 11 June 1982

“Patrick was a very dear man and I owe him a great deal.”
Diana Rigg, BBC, June 2015

“You couldn’t have a Mrs. Peel without a John Steed.  He set it up and she knocked it down, and he retorted with an offbeat response.  It was the perfect chemistry and connection between those two wonderful eccentric actors that made the show such a cult classic.  The natural patter, the shared whimsical sense of humor, the chaste flirtation, the throw away double entrees and the freedom to ad-lib beautifully together made Macnee and Rigg one of the most original, and most delightful, screen pairings of all time.  It was so magical that when Diana Rigg left the series after three years, whoever ITV paired with Macnee didn’t have a chance.  It just wasn’t the same.”
Sam Tweedle, Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict June 26 2015

The show carried on for one more year without Rigg, with Linda Thorson as Tara King. The last series is perhaps unfairly overlooked, but on watching some recently, you can see Macnee’s heart isn’t in it anymore. There are the odd great episode to come (Jon Arnold swears by Look – Stop Me if you’ve heard this one before but there were these two fellers...) but the show rapidly ran out of steam and ended in 1969.

Macnee later noted that he felt the show worked best because Steed and Peel, and Steed and Gale were equals, and that he felt the producers were trying to make the Tara King character more of a “subservient” one which hurt the dynamic of the show.

Macnee kept busy however, with a steady role in TV, including roles in Dead of Night, Battlestar Galactica (as the Imperious Leader), and in The New Avengers, in which Steed made rare appearances as a sort of Charlie from Charlie’s Angels. He had roles in The Howling, Hart to Hart and Murphy’s Law. His appearance as Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in This Is Spinal Tap was meant as one of the few clues that the film was not an actual documentary.

He also has a very Steed like role in the final Roger Moore Bond film, A View to a Kill. As a child, my mum taped the film for me, but cut out the scene in which Macnee’s Sir Godfrey Tibbett meets his demise, so I was to assume, until I got the Bond Compendium in 1998, that he just sodded off half way through and secretly saved the world.

“I disliked the Bond character intensely. I was told in 1960 that if I read the Bond books it might help with my character, this character called Steed. I told them that I found him perfectly repulsive, sadistic and disgusting, and I loathed that title 'Licensed To Kill'. In fact, the Bond that I did I just went in and played this little part, and thank God they built it up and it was very nice and I enjoyed it. But the character of Bond... no, he's the very antithesis of Steed, in fact. He uses women as battering rams, and uses his gun at every conceivable moment.”
Patrick Macnee, interviewed by Ian Johnston in 1998

Into the 1990's, appearances in Murder She Wrote and Diagnosis Murder happened, and he had two last great appearances before retirement.

In The Ray Bradbury Theatre, he played Stendahl in the wonderful Usher II, gaining every ounce of sympathy possible from the Poe inspired multiple murderer. And in Frasier, in that wonderful episode The Show Must Go Off, in which Niles and Frasier meet their childhood hero actor only to find out that he is an exceptionally large ham (played by a Derek Jacobi having a blatant whale of a time), in the final act, the actor’s father shows up, played by Patrick Macnee!

"I loved him. I think he was so much a part of our lives, obviously a huge part of mine, having been lucky enough to work with him for two whole years. I loved him dearly. The funny thing is he thought he acted Steed - but he was Steed."
Joanna Lumley, This Morning

His debonair style came to use as the host of Mysteries, Magic and Miracles, in which I first saw him, over twenty years ago. Since then, he had remained one of my favourite actors, and so we have discussed a few of his great roles.

“When you watch The Avengers now, it seems campy and good-natured, but with a huge subversive streak. It’s dripping with love of the old England, with its quaint villages and jolly-gruff aristos, but also helps to chip away at that mystique since everyone always turns out to be secretly in league with mad scientists. And The Avengers is quintessentially of its time—it’s tied to the 1960s Carnaby Street fashions, as well as the Beatles-era social revolutions. You only have to look at the disastrous 1998 movie version to see how muchThe Avengers depends on a 1960s sensibility.”
Charlie Jane Anders, io9 obit

“Everybody loved Patrick Macnee. It wasn't just the millions of Avengers fans who wished they could be like him – urbane, courageous, witty, irresistibly sexy and self-assured, like his secret agent character John Steed. It was all his friends in real-life, his co-stars and the big names who clamoured to appear on this international TV hit beside him. I never heard any of them say a bad word about Patrick. He was like a real-life Steed: the perfect gentleman. During the two years in the Sixties that I played his Avengers partner, the besotted Tara King, I learned to know him deeply. He was a complex man, full of charming eccentricities, the product of an extraordinary childhood and three nightmarish years fighting a war that would haunt him for the rest of his life. But above all he was protective. From the first day we worked together, Patrick made me feel safe.”
Linda Thorson, Patrick’s Passing.