September 4, 2009


David Cameron can learn from The Avengers: Sinclair McKay says the Tory leader could do worse than emulate his fellow Old Etonian — the elegant, ruthless, cucumber-cool TV hero John Steed (Sinclair McKay, 2nd September 2009, The Spectator)

In the 1960s — the decade in which deference dissolved, and Harold Wilson’s raincoat became the synecdoche of a political era — Steed was the acceptable face of toffdom. (Incidentally, imagine such a hero on ITV now!) Whereas Fleming’s 007 was a bully and a snob, Steed was never less than charm itself with the lower orders.

Whether dispensing advice on how to handle an umbrella to an inept agent (‘Not so aggressive with the umbrella,’ Steed says. ‘Spritely. Not eager. Eagerness is the next worst thing to enthusiasm’) or remaining resolutely glib in the face of jeopardy (when up before an impromptu firing squad, Steed is asked for his last request. ‘Would you cancel my milk?’ he says), Steed embodied a very attractive approach to practical problem-solving. That was: keeping it light and, as Macnee once told me, ‘leaving it to the very last minute to manoeuvre out of trouble’. Go on, Mr Cameron — isn’t that healthier than Mr Brown’s incessant nail-gnawing?

Steed endeavoured to keep himself out of the class debate. In one episode, charm-school baddies have trussed Mrs Peel up with some public school neckties. As Steed struggles to free her, he observes: ‘Nothing so unbreakable as the bonds of the old school tie.’ But as Steed demonstrated, one’s own schooling never had to be brought into it. It was simply there, as a given, neither to be shouted about nor concealed.

And it was very much a case of iron fist, velvet glove. Even though Steed never used a gun (that umbrella had multiple offensive uses instead, including a concealed sword), he was smilingly ruthless. ‘That was very, very dirty,’ Mrs Peel remarks after some absurd fight sequence. ‘I never promised to fight fair,’ purrs Steed. Perhaps these days it is a slightly Mandelsonian quality, but is it any the worse for that? [...]

And how the Americans adored Steed! When the series went into colour in 1967, it was the first British series to be networked coast to coast (it is still repeated over there, on endless loops). Indeed, in recognition of this, the show’s chief writer and producer Brian Clemens sought to intensify the Englishness of the thing, resulting in all those beautiful shots of utterly deserted London streets, and endless green meadows (the production team never used extras — as well as making an empty landscape or cityscape an arresting visual leitmotif, the watch-phrase was: ‘If they’re in shot, they’re in the plot’). Steed was a figure that many Americans would have recalled from war films, cucumber-cool to an insane degree. Imagine if that style of insouciant Englishness were to have the same charming effect in Washington now. Indeed, we may need it. to compare the show to today's British spy drama, Spooks, where the operatives are yuppie bureaucrats, the Americans are bad guys and al Qaeda the good, or at worst the misunderstood.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 4, 2009 7:31 AM
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