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In memoriam Patrick Macnee

His life was indeed memorable. Some snippets from the obituary for Patrick Macnee in the Times:

After just a week of filming the new show in 1961, the producer took him aside and told him, “Pat, you’re basically dull and you’re fired.” Macnee went home and devised a new character, altogether more intriguing than the beige-Mackintoshed functionary he had been playing. The new Steed was a combination of his racehorse-trainer father (known as Dandy for his sartorial splendour), the Scarlet Pimpernel as played by Leslie Howard and his wartime naval commanding officer. “I wanted an outward exterior of extreme style, and underneath, steel,” he recalled. He was rehired on the spot.

___

It was notable that, while Blackman and her successor Diana Rigg took down assailants, Steed did little beyond gesture with his umbrella . . . “I tried to use my ingenuity and gave the really dangerous work to the women, which I think is the way it should be.”

___

Macnee would go on to base much of the Steed persona on his father, who disconcerted fellow guests at dinner parties whom he suspected of being a pacifist by pulling an unloaded gun on them, and was deported from India — where he later settled — for urinating from a balcony on to the heads of high-ranking Raj officials.

His mother, Dorothea, who had aristocratic connections, was 22 years younger than her husband and left him when Patrick was eight for her lesbian lover, Evelyn Spottswood, an heir to the Dewar’s whisky family. Men were banned from the house and Patrick’s mother and new partner did their best to expunge any whiff of masculinity by trying to coax him into wearing dresses. The horrified young boy mollified them by wearing only kilts until the age of 11. Uncle Evelyn, as he was instructed to call her, helped pay his fees for Eton. There he expended most of his energy on setting up as a pornography salesman and bookmaker, using tips from his father. “I had £200 in the kitty when they caught me.” He was expelled.

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In 1942 he joined the navy, serving on motor torpedo boats based in Dover. The experience led to his refusal to carry a gun in The Avengers: “When they asked me why, I said that I’d just come out of a world war in which I’d seen most of my friends blown to bits.” When his boat was destroyed by a direct hit by the Germans, he was lucky enough to be back in port with bronchitis.

___

He wrote an agonisingly honest biography, Blind in One Ear, in 1988. He laid bare his feelings about the parting of his parents when he was still a child and recorded, too, Honor Blackman’s memorable reply when he once tried to seduce her after work. She said, “Come off it, Patrick, I’m sweating like hell, my feet are killing me, I smell like a polecat and the answer is no.”

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23 comments to In memoriam Patrick Macnee

  • Paul Marks

    Good – although the character John Steed did use a firearm on occasion. He just did not flash firearms about – if he had one in his hand he meant to kill someone.

    One could never actually know whether the character of John Steed was carrying a firearm or not – he was always “unarmed” until it suddenly turned out that he was armed.

    Also the character also used unarmed combat methods – both in the Avengers and the New Avengers.

    For example, in a disagreement with “Gambit” (a much younger character – who was actually trying to prevent Steed going into danger in a trap set by the brother [or de facto brother] of the character, who was working for the KGB) the character of John Steed just knocked him out – by blatant cheating.

    When Gambit later complained I think the answer from Steed was “fighting is not a game”.

    The character was the ultimate English gentleman in outward appearance – but “not quite a gentleman” in his methods.

  • bob sykes

    Don’t forget his cameo in “A Christmas Carol.” The original one starring Alastair Simms. The only good one.

  • James Strong

    Full marks for trying to seduce Honor Blackman.
    Full marks also for his calm acceptance of her refusal and turning it into a gently amusing anecdote.

  • JohnK

    I fail to see any great moral superiority in eschewing a firearm in favour of a swordstick.

  • Patrick Crozier

    I am very much enjoying the current re-run on British television. How many other shows from that period get the same honour? Star Trek, those Doctor Whos that managed to survive the BBC archiving process and not much else.

    It is remarkable how the show changed over the course its original run. At first Steed was the sidekick – indeed the earliest extant episode of the Avengers doesn’t even feature him. The lead was played by Ian Hendry and – with the murder of his his character’s fiancé – there was some genuine avenging to be done.Then Steed became the lead with a female co-star. I understand this was unheard of at the time. And then there was the move from video to film, from Cathy Gale to Emma Peel and from some grounding in reality to outright fantasy. And at the very end of that amazing run one of the most touching scenes in all television.

    I find it interesting that although no one seems to rate Macnee as an actor, Ralph Fiennes also had a go at Steed and made a right pig’s ear of it.

  • llamas

    @ Bob Sykes:

    ‘Don’t forget his cameo in “A Christmas Carol.” The original one starring Alastair Simms. The only good one.’

    Agreed. But it is Alastair Sim. Not Simms. Wonderful actor.

    The best thing about the original Avengers were the cars. There is one Jaguar saloon that I can still see in my mind’s eye, they should have built it, they’d have sold a million. But Joanna Lumley on a motorcycle was just silly.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Runcie Balspune

    Worth mentioning that in the New Avengers “Target!” episode Steed is the only agent who scores 100% on the shooting range, Purdey only manages 99% and “it’s the 1% that kills you”.

  • Watchman

    Has anyone ever thought English gentlemen really fought like a gentleman? That seems to ignore the lesson of history (and most of the best fictional English gentlemen characters are pretty vicious fighters). So Stead was realistic in that way – including letting someone else do the fighting where possible.

    And I thought the world had agreed the Avengers film should never be mentioned again.

  • Brad

    For me he will always be the “There are those who believe…that life here began out there…” guy from Battlestar Galactica (the original)…

  • Laird

    I agree with Patrick Crozier: I’m a huge fan of the TV series (I have a DVD set of all the Emma Peel episodes), but the Avengers movie was horrid (even though McNee made an [invisible] cameo “appearance” in it). I recently watched it again just to be sure that my memory of it was correct, and it was. Fiennes is a good actor, and perhaps would have made a credible Steed given a decent script and competent direction, but sadly neither was the case.

    I never noticed his cameo in Alastair Simm’s “A Christmas Carol” (agreed; that’s the best movie version, and though there are a couple of others which are decent). I shall have to look for him the next time I watch it. Can you tell me which scene?

    I haven’t seen too much of McNee’s oeuvre, although what I have seen I’ve liked. (I very much enjoyed his comedic turn in “Naked Space”.) Still, it’s difficult to see him as anyone other than John Steed (just like I can’t see Hugh Laurie as anyone but Bertie Wooster). He will be missed.

    At least we still have Diana Rigg.

  • mojo

    Old Dad sure sounds like he was a kick in the pants.

    Adios, Mr. Steed.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    mojo,
    Quite. While I cannot endorse Macnee Senior’s behaviour (he being the one “who disconcerted fellow guests at dinner parties whom he suspected of being a pacifist by pulling an unloaded gun on them”), I can acknowledge a certain appropriateness in thus confronting someone with the immediate necessity of living up to – or for all they knew dying for – their previously stated moral principles.

  • Mr Ecks

    Laird:Re Scrooge– MacNee is in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas past takes Sim back to witness his younger self–played by George Cole–start employment with Mr Jorkin (Jack Warner) having left the employ of old Fezzwig in search of advancement. MacNee is the young Marley and the two play a short scene together. Marley next appears in the form of Michael Horden. The scene is about 32 minutes into the film.

  • Laird

    Mr Ecks, thanks, I’ll be on the lookout for it next time.

  • I loved The Avengers. They recently showed a few reruns on US cable and then stopped for some damn reason.

    I have a question for all you British TV experts our there in Samizdataland.

    What, if any, were the connections between The Avengers and The Prisoner? Did they share the same writers, producers or directors ? Production designers ?

  • Greytop

    Oh how I wish I had known that story about the Ms Spottswood heir to the Dewar family fortunes years ago. I worked for a time with a lad who dated a girl with the surname Dewar who, as best I can recall, was slightly embarrassed by her connections with the whisky family. I put it down at the time to the way young people tend to sneer at their family money but maybe it was because she knew what few of us did.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Taylor, I’m no expert in TV history but I don’t recall that the creative personnel overlapped that much. The Prisoner was created by Patrick McGoohan himself and George Markstein. The Avengers was created by Sydney Newman. Plenty of actors of the period did appear in both programmes, as you would expect.

    They did have a lot in common though. The biggest common factor was probably the general 1960’s “look” – bright colours and psychedelic, futuristic touches in the style of clothing, women’s makeup, furniture – and, of course, the futuristic touches extended to the storylines. Both were filmed in places that are normally regarded as safe, pretty and slightly twee; famously the architect-designed Welsh tourist village of Portmeirion for The Prisoner and leafy, commuter-belt west Hertfordshire for The Avengers. So both gained extra creepiness from the feeling that death lurked behind a pleasant facade.

    Both were science-fiction influenced spinoffs of much more conventional adventure series. Many people remember that The Prisoner was a spinoff of Danger Man; not so many remember that The Avengers came from an almost-forgotten series called Police Surgeon.

  • RAB

    I too loved the Avengers, as a child of the 60’s. The thing is it was so quintessentially British. Steed, and all the ladies, especially Blackman and Peel, had an air of infallable insouciance, British stiff upper lip and great British understated humour. When the Feinnes American movie came out I studiously didn’t watch it, knowing that Hollywood would screw it up and completely miss the point, as of course they did.

    And the plots were so inventive… The Cybernauts, mind control, death rays, islands off Scotland that were Russian submarine spying posts etc etc. Wonderful imaginative stuff!

    To answer Taylor. Patrick McGoohan was pretty much responsible for the Prisoner all on his own, but both series were the product of their forward looking time, and we have not seen its like since.

  • Laird

    “both series were the product of their forward looking time,”

    I’m not sure I buy that. Yes, both employed some of the same ’60s “look”, as Natalie said, but if they were “forward-looking” it was in very different ways. The Prisoner was looking forward to a dystopian, controlling, panopticon state. To the extent The Avengers was looking forward it was only with respect to scientific advances (generally used for evil); it was very much a supporter of the state. (In those respects the Avengers movie got it exactly right, whereas The Prisoner TV miniseries of a few years ago got it precisely wrong.)

    Taylor seems to think there were similarities between the two series. Frankly, I can’t see that at all, other than The Prisoner’s (short) run coinciding with the last years of The Avengers. To me, the feel and tone of each is entirely different.

  • RAB

    Laird. When you are in the middle of a stream… let’s call it the 60’s, you go with the flow, the current carries you on, hopefully to a better more enlightened and happier place than you are at at the moment. You don’t necessarily see or feel the currents that surround you. That only happens in retrospect.

    Both The Prisoner and The Avengers were products of their time. The first warning about totalitarian conformity and loss of individual identity and the second exploring and having fun with new scientific advances (as you put it). There was a programme over here called Tomorrows World, which promised that the day after tomorrow was going to be paradise. We would all have flying cars and jet packs and constant practically free energy and and… Well it got cancelled long ago because none of that stuff turned up. But you can’t fault the optimism of the time. It was wonderful to be alive then and feel that those possibilities could happen.

    There were other innovative tv progs back then. Google the Men in Room 17 and find a prog that had two Oxford dons solve crimes without ever leaving room 17. It didn’t last for more than two series, and the reason I remember it so well is that they played GO, the Japanese board game akin to Chess (in its intellectual scope). I was fascinated and went out and got a set. Been a player ever since.

  • llamas

    @RAB – continuing my new career as ’60’s-UK-TV-Nitpicker-in-Chief, I’d point out that the name of the series is ‘The Man in Room 17.’ I thought for sure that nobody else would even remember this show, but of course I am wrong.

    Regarding similarities in various TV shows of that era – as mrs llamas has pointed out to me in some of our Netflix/Youtube forays into the days of my youth, oftentimes, the similarities have as much to do with camera and recording technique as with the actual stories – there’s a particular ‘look and feel’ to the way that many of these shows were recorded that is very recognizable. The look is washed-out, very grey and monotone, and the scenes generally have very few extras and some very strange props.

    There’s similar styles in US TV shows from the ’70s and ’80s that are just-as-recognizable. The reason that the Blaxploitation parody movie ‘Black Dynamite’ works, but the Starsky and Hutch movie doesn’t, is that the first one gets the recording technique of the early 70s just right – very strong colours and an overexposed look, that made the streets of LA look like the Sonoran desert. By contrast, the S&H move looks like it was shot in 2004, and so the visual connection to the original is completely lost.

    The other reason you see similarities in UK TV shows, again pointed out by mrs llamas, is that all these shows were drawing from a very small pool of character actors – you will see the same actors again, and again, and again, in minor roles spanning 20, 30, sometimes 40 years of UK television. It’s a game for us now, to spot and identify a UK TV actor and try to be the first to guess where else we have seen them – like 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, only more direct. When she watched ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, she was amazed – it’s Shoestring! Then she watched Miranda Hart’s TV show, and here comes Phillida Trant from Rumpole, 35 years later. I don’t think that many US TV character actors have that sort of career span, and it creates a sort of continuity that is quite noticeable.

    llater,

    llamas

  • RAB

    Mrs llamas is correct. Our actors get recycled over and over. Yes it’s a small, but exceptionally good, pool.

    Wasn’t she/he in (delete as you please) … Morse/Frost/Miss Marple/Midsomer Murders/ 2 Pints of lager and a packet of crisps/Lark Rise to Candleford? We keep remarking, as the plot unfolds.

    I was watching an old episode of Bergerac the other night, and our next door neighbour, who is an actor, was in it as Jim’s sidekick Willy. Noteable lines… Fancy a cup of coffee guv? and I’ll bring the car round… He’s the Vicar in the Archers now. Christ he must have a lousy agent! cos even our comedians are working, John Sessions, Jose Lawrence, all the dudes from League of Gentlemen are never off the screen. And Honor Blackman and Sian Phillips are still going strong too.

  • Laird

    FWIW, over here our SyFy (sic) Network reuses many of the same actors, too, who are recycled through TV series and made-for-TV movies. I’m always remarking the he or she used to be in this show or that. There are a couple of actresses in (separate) brand new series who surprised me because they are/were also in on-going series and I didn’t know that their characters had been killed off (at least one has already, in the season premier of her old program; I’m still waiting to see how they deal with the other).