Photographs by Tom Hustler, kindly supplied to The Avengers Declassified by Jaz Wiseman and Ian Beazley

The 1971 theatre production of The Avengers was an unusual and unwieldy beast. Hugely ambitious and technically challenging, it was hailed in pre-publicity by John Mather, the show's producer, as the show which would "blast the British theatre into the Seventies". Sadly, this proved to be an unfortunate boast, as the production was notoriously beset with technical problems and met with a series of scathing reviews in the national and theatre press. Both these factors contributed to a hasty curtailment of the London West End run, and that was very definitely that.

A scant few months earlier, the situation had looked decidedly more rosy for The Avengers. News of the imminent production had ignited considerable interest from the British media right from the day it was announced in April 1971. Several national newspapers carried brief interviews with John Mather, in which he claimed that the groundwork was done and that a script (by Avengers scribes Terence Feely and Brian Clemens) was in place, but that he now faced "the difficult task of finding the stage equivalents of the Patrick Macnees, the Honor Blackmans and the Diana Riggs of this world". He had in fact approached Macnee to reprise his role of John Steed in this stage adaptation, but the popular Avengers star – an experienced stage performer – had declined the offer as he strongly felt that The Avengers was not suited to any dramatic media other than television. "The stage is a place that should look dazzling and beautiful, but basically remain a place for the exchange of ideas, dialogue and characters – and not whiz-bang-wallop," said Macnee when interviewed in the late Eighties for Dave Rogers' The Complete Avengers book.

John Mather was not disheartened by Patrick Macnee's decision and announced in May 1971 that actor Simon Oates was to be the man to play John Steed under the proscenium arch. Oates was well-known to the British public for his role in the hugely popular and hard-hitting BBC television drama series, Doomwatch, in which he played Dr John Ridge, part of a government department investigating environmental issues. Ridge was an intelligent and dapper ladies man and Oates' assured performance in the role undoubtedly brought him to Mather's attention as a possibility for Steed, particularly as the character had been redefined for the stage as something of a tiger with the fairer sex. His partner, Hannah Wilde, is apparently the only woman who has the willpower to hold out on his advances! Oates had also previously appeared in The Avengers opposite Patrick Macnee on two occasions, in You Have Just Been Murdered (1967) and Super Secret Cypher Snatch (1968). When approached to play the role, Simon Oates was at first wary. "I made a point of ringing Patrick Macnee, not least because Pat is a great friend of mine. I was thinking that there might have been something devious going on. Were they trying to blackmail Pat into accepting the role, using me against him? Were they saying to him that if he wouldn't do it, we can easily get someone to take the role off you – we don't really need you. I was concerned because, after all, it was his show." Macnee was grateful for the call and told Oates to accept the role with his blessing. Dave Rogers, the author of several authoritative books on The Avengers, was one of the fans of the series lucky enough to have seen the play staged at The Birmingham Theatre. In his accounts of the stage play, Rogers remarked that "Simon Oates, immaculate in his trendy suits, shooting jackets and Cuban heel shoes, made an excellent Steed". Six years after the stage play, Oates could be seen for one last time in 'Avengerland', playing the part of Spelman in Hostage (1977), a second series episode of The New Avengers.

Joining Simon Oates on stage would be a principal cast most of whom had previously taken part in The Avengers on television. Sue Lloyd, the glamorous co-star of the ITC espionage series, The Baron, had appeared in A Surfeit of H20 (1965) and was making her London stage debut when she portrayed Steed's sidekick, Hannah Wild (a character name recycled from The Superlative Seven (1967), also written by Brian Clemens); arch-villain Madam Gerda was to be played by sultry femme fatale, Kate O'Mara, who had previously graced the episode Stay Tuned (1969) with her presence and the talented comedy actor and writer, Jeremy Lloyd, veteran of two Avengers episodes – From Venus With Love (1967) and Thingumajig (1969) – was booked to play Carruthers. Anthony Sharp, playing Walters, the government Minister for Internal Security, was the exception to the rule, in that his appearance in the series was at this point yet to come. He would go on to feature in To Catch A Rat (1976), a superb first series episode of The New Avengers.

An interesting aside concerning Sue Lloyd's role is that Hannah Wilde may possibly have marked the Avengers debut of an actress later made famous by the series – Joanna Lumley. Lumley auditioned for the role but was not successful in the venture. When interviewed by Dave Rogers for Look Who's Talking, an interview special Avengers fanzine, she recalled that, "I was turned down because I was an unknown at the time and, because the male lead they'd chosen also wasn't very well known, they decided to go for someone more famous and in fact, they chose Sue Lloyd". Lumley's own date with The Avengers came along five years later – and today she is one of the UK's best loved personalities.

The somewhat onerous task of realising Mather's bold and ambitious ideas for The Avengers fell to the experienced and much-loved comedy actor Leslie Phillips. Phillips is best known for his roles in the early Carry On... and Doctor film series, where he regularly played the likeable, suave romantic lead. In recent years, Phillips has marked himself out as one of Great Britain's most talented and well-respected veteran actors. He was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2008 New Year's Honours, to mark an incredible seventy-five years in showbusiness.

In transferring The Avengers to the stage, while Mather, Feely and Clemens wished to preserve the adventurousness of the series, they opted for a much lighter touch than was witnessed even in the later episodes. 'Comic', 'kinky' and 'sexy' were clearly the buzzwords employed when writing the script, hence O'Mara's Madam Gerda came to be kitted out in thigh-length boots and a shiny black PVC suit (which unfortunately creaked terribly with every movement the actress made and made it exceptionally difficult for her to sit down), a cast of thirty young and attractive female extras in figure-hugging outfits were to be seen on stage, and John Steed was given a succession of clever lines and quips, some of them rather risque.

The plot itself was somewhat simplistic compared to the average Avengers episode, leaning more towards the pantomime form than that of straight drama. Madam Gerda was a typical pantomime villain, painted in the broadest of broad strokes, the leader of the cheesily monickered 'Forces of Evil' and out to otherthrow the governments of the world for no adequately explored reason. Moreover, she plans to infiltrate international spy networks using the McGuffin of invisibility, made possible by the ultimate Fifties B-movie clichι, the Giant Computer Brain – or George for short. Peter Cook's E.L.Wisty would have been proud – a stage teeming with thousands of invisible nudists. For some reason, again not adequately explained, Steed is the only person who can see the invisible dolly-birds, and ultimately defeats Gerda and her henchwomen, but not before he's been subjected to a court-martial and is stripped of his rank and licence.

Co-writer Terence Feely later claimed that the stage play had allowed he and Brian Clemens to let their imaginations run free. "We had a wild story, far wilder than anything that appeared on television," he recalled in the late Eighties, "because we said that if we were going to do it for the theatre we had to be further out than anything the audience had seen on television – otherwise, why should they come to the theatre?"

As has been mentioned, the show was technically very demanding. Sixteen separate high-tech sets were built for the show, ranging from a helicopter cockpit with a dangling rope ladder (from which Kate O'Mara fell painfully in one performance) to government offices and Steed's Bentley to the Brain Room of the Master Computer, most of them complete with tricky props and operational functions. Not unlike the television series, back projection of pre-filmed backgrounds was also employed for a number of scenes. In her 1998 autobiography, It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, actress Sue Lloyd revealed that the show's technical requirements far exceeded the norm at a provincial theatre like The Birmingham Theatre in the West Midlands, where the production received its premier run. "The sets were so complicated that on the first night, we had to borrow all the stagehands from Birmingham's other theatre, the Alexandra, to help out."

The show opened at The Birmingham Theatre on Thursday 15th July 1971, playing there for ten days, with its final performance on the night of Saturday 24th July 1971. The cast and crew then travelled down to The Prince of Wales Theatre on Coventry Street in London's West End, where set-up work and further rehearsals commenced. A mere nine days after the final Midlands performance, The Avengers premiered in the West End.

Contemporary accounts of the brief run at the Birmingham Theatre are not particularly forthcoming today (with the exception of Dave Rogers' recollections in his books), but it rapidly becomes clear when reading reviews of the West End run that this proved a very troubled production. The level of technical ambition behind The Avengers clearly exceeded the limits of what was ultimately practical within the constraints of its budget and the short rehearsal period before the public performances.  Interviewed in August 1987 for the BBC2 programme, On Stage, Sue Lloyd commented that "Kate O'Mara was supposed to be invisible at certain times and special effects allowed her to vanish into special props which would part to let her inside. There was this trick sofa, which had been designed to swallow up. Unfortunately, what happened one night, was that she pressed the button and nothing happened. After several uneasy moments, she gave up trying and tiptoed off the stage. In the next scene, Jeremy Lloyd came on and was supposed to be sitting down for a straightforward tea scene. He no sooner sat down when, wham, the sofa opened up like giant jaws and poor Jeremy disappeared into it." Sue Lloyd went on to recall that the cast and audience were in fits of laughter at this, not least because her co-star's head and shoulders remained stuck out at an odd angle from the malfunctioning sofa, his outstreetched hands, still clutching the cup of tea, flailing helplessly in mid-air. "Normally, I'm good at ad-libbing," Lloyd said later in her autobiography, "but the killer sofa was too much for me. I couldn't go on. I stood there, rooted to the spot, shaking with laughter. All I could think was that Jeremy looked exactly like Archie Andrews, the ventriloquist's dummy. I tried to pull him out, but it was no use. The sofa wasn't giving up it's victim lightly. In the end, they had to bring the curtain down and send in a couple of strong stagehands to release him."

Another memorable mishap, also related by Sue Lloyd, this time in her autobiography, again concerned Kate O'Mara. "In one scene, the set included a number of decorative columns which appeared solid, but which were in fact elasticated. Kate had only to lean against the column, part the hidden seams, slip inside and the seams snapped shut behind her, completely concealing her inside. On this particular night, as she disappeared into the column, the elastic snapped shut, biting off Kate's hairpiece in the process. The evil Kate had gone, leaving behind her, dangling in mid-air, what appeared to be an outsize tarantula spider. The tarantula stubbornly refused to move, and remained dangling throughout the scene, bristling alarmingly at the other actors, who had to pretend to be extremely short-sighted every time they passed it." By all accounts, these kinds of mishaps could hardly be described as isolated incidents.

Writing in Plays and Players in September 1971, reviewer Michael Coveney noted that he saw actors "bump(ing) into furniture in the black-outs, only to be seen still bumping into furniture when the lights came up. It was only out of a masochistic sense of duty that I stayed to the end". Sadly, Coveney's comments were fairly typical of the reviews the play received. In the same piece, he uncharitably compared Simon Oates' movement on stage to that of "a flowerpot man on hot coals" and, quite justifiably, questioned why John Steed now "drinks wine of doubtful vintage straight from the bottle and drives a Bentley that looks like a disused dodgem car". Meanwhile, Arthur Thurkell, in an August 3rd 1971 review for the Daily Mirror national newspaper, slated the production as "a sorry disappointment" that offered nothing much besides "consistent drivel". He singled out the "amazing performance" of Anthony Sharp as the Minister for Security as one of the few compensations, before noting that he had a sneaking suspicion that Madam Gerda's brainwashing computer had "nobbled the authors of this strange mish-mash in which the machines are more interesting than the characters".

One of those "nobbled" authors, Terence Feely, put his side of the story when interviewed by David Richardson for TV Zone magazine in 1993: "It didn't work because the producer said he could do the effects, and Brian and I suspected he couldn't." Mather had apparently talked them around to his way of thinking, saying that he would employ Edwardian era stage illusions and employ a real magician to co-ordinate them. "We trusted the guy and it didn't work." Even the Bentley they had been encouraged to include in the script for Steed to drive didn't come anywhere near expectations. "It was a cardboard cut-out that was pushed on by two stagehands who just stopped before you see them. It was a mess..."

And so the die was cast. Unable to weather the storm caused by the reviews and entice the paying public into the auditorium each night, The Avengers limped to its inevitable early closure at the Prince of Wales Theatre just three weeks after its London premiere. A sad end to an ambitious endeavour.

Alan Hayes

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