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Reading between Designs

Reading between Designs
Visual Imagery and the Generation of Meaning in The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who

An analytical study of scenic and costume design in three 1960s television drama series.

May 2003
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267 pages | 6 x 9 | 68 halftones |

From the alien worlds of Star Trek to the realistic operating room of ER, the design of sets and costumes contributes not only to the look and mood of television shows, but even more importantly to the creation of memorable characters. Yet, until now, this crucial aspect of television creativity has received little critical attention, despite the ongoing interest in production design within the closely allied discipline of film studies.

In this book, Piers Britton and Simon Barker offer a first analytical study of scenic and costume design for television drama series. They focus on three enduringly popular series of the 1960s—The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Doctor Who—and discuss such topics as the sartorial image of Steed in The Avengers, the juxtaposition of picturesque and fascistic architecture in The Prisoner, and the evolution of the high-tech interior of Doctor Who's TARDIS. Interviews with the series' original designers and reproductions of their original drawings complement the authors' analysis, which sheds new light on a variety of issues, from the discourse of fashion to that of the heritage industry, notions of "Pop" and retro, and the cultural preoccupation with realism and virtual reality.

  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Design for Television as a Subject for Study: The Critical Background
  • Chapter 1. Making a Spectacle: Design for Television in the Arena of Cultural Studies
  • Chapter 2. Agents Extraordinary: Stylishness and the Sense of Play in Design for The Avengers
  • Chapter 3. Your Village: Cultural Traps in The Prisoner
  • Chapter 4. Worlds Apart: Originality and Conservatism in the Imagery of Doctor Who
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Piers D. Britton is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Redlands in Redlands, California. Simon J. Barker holds an M.A. in English from the University of Connecticut. He is currently an independent scholar of media studies in Mystic, Connecticut.


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The Avengers and the Sixties

Of the three series with which our book is principally concerned, The Avengers was unquestionably the most successful in its heyday. The series developed a huge international following during its run in the 1960s, and it has continued to enjoy wide acceptance and recognition among television audiences worldwide. Like a variety of other products of British popular culture from the period—albums such as the Beatles' Revolver and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, images of Twiggy, Mary Quant's "Chelsea Girl," the boutiques of Carnaby Street, and so on—The Avengers has become a prime signifier for the Sixties. Indicative of the ongoing potency of the series as emblematic of the Sixties is that a large portrait of Emma Peel, the Avengers superwoman played by Diana Rigg, adorns the cover of Windows on the Sixties, a recent collection of essays on eight "key texts of media and culture" from the period. The identification of The Avengers as quintessentially "of the Sixties" is justified in terms of simple chronology: The production history of the series spanned the decade, the first episode being recorded in 1960 and the last in 1969.

Like any decade-spanning phenomenon, The Avengers was not homogeneous. Compare an early episode, "The Frighteners," with the last to be made, "Bizarre." Except for the presence of special agent John Steed in both, the two productions have virtually nothing in common. Early Avengers episodes were shot in black and white and recorded live (i.e., continuously, with the scenes performed in broadcast order, since the editing of videotape was still impracticable in 1960). From 1964 on, the series was shot on film by Independent Artists, and from 1967 it was filmed in color. The difference in organization and tone between early and late episodes is even more striking. Partly because of its rapidly mounted, "live" character, "The Frighteners" has an immediacy, an almost improvised feel not present in "Bizarre." The latter resembles a slickly constructed mini-feature film, its dialogue impeccably delivered and its concluding set piece (a kind of "Keystone Kops" chase) as polished in realization as it was obviously long-rehearsed.

Yet notwithstanding its meticulous craftsmanship, "Bizarre" flaunts its artifice in a way that the earlier, more rudely constructed episode emphatically does not. A tale of commercial terrorism in London's demimonde, "The Frighteners," though using low-key lighting and such rhetorical devices as extreme close-ups, portrays its subject in a way that is clearly meant to be realistic. "Bizarre," on the other hand, tells the highly improbable tale of criminals' faking their own deaths and escaping to a luxurious haven beneath the "Happy Valley" cemetery. As if the silliness of the plot were not enough, the narrative presentation—accelerated-motion shots for the final chase and a cemetery set knee-deep in knowingly schmaltzy sentiment—throws the zany humor into even stronger relief. The development of British cinema in the 1960s was, roughly speaking, also marked by an overall shift away from social realism towards experimentation, a shift that bespeaks anything but homogeneity. Of course, "The Frighteners" hardly mimics the uncompromising idiom of such social-realist films as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and "Bizarre" is amiably undemanding in comparison with surreal fantasies such as Richard Lester's The Bed Sitting Room. Nevertheless, the fact that a single series could run the gamut of realism and fantasy within the space of ten years shows how rapidly tastes can shift and how little fashions respect the arbitrary demarcations of our decade-oriented calendrical system.

The massive aesthetic pendulum-swing in The Avengers also reflects the inherent flexibility of the drama series as a form. A series can be gradually reshaped during the course of a single season, and in the gap between seasons major renovation can take place without any real danger of alienating viewers. The producers of The Avengers regularly availed themselves of these opportunities for change.

Costume design furnished the most obviously avant-garde element in The Avengers, especially the startlingly "liberated" clothing worn by the main female protagonists. However, once Honor Blackman's leather fighting suits set a precedent for daring costume effects (fig. 2.1)—which helped make The Avengers the most talked-about series on British television—the very success of this image limited the possibilities for further invention.

Blackman was the earliest superheroine in The Avengers. So potent was her leather-clad image that her successor, Diana Rigg, was at first also obliged to adopt it. Blackman's original look even affected expectations of what Rigg's successor, Linda Thorson, would wear as the third Avengers girl, Tara King: though the leather was gone, the tomboyish pantsuits remained.

Experimentation with clothing in The Avengers peaked early, for the highly idiosyncratic, studiedly old-fashioned style of clothing worn by the male lead, Patrick Macnee, was fixed before the establishment of Honor Blackman's leather-clad look. Scenic design took a while to catch up with costume, not reaching the height of its flamboyance until the late 1960s. Nevertheless, set design was one of the most progressive elements in The Avengers, regularly marking the stages on the way towards the full-blooded antinaturalism that the program ultimately embraced. Between 1965 and 1969, production designers Harry Pottle, Wilfred Shingleton, and Robert Jones contributed decisively to the changing ethos of the series, just as predecessors such as Patrick Downing had helped to define The Avengers as a stylistically distinctive and "off-the-wall" show during its second and third seasons.

The gradual shift of design idiom in The Avengers, from the realist beginnings to the wacky conclusion, would make for an engaging full-length analysis. However, our focus here is solely on two aspects of design for the series during the years when it was produced by the film company Independent Artists (1964-1969): first, the distinctive costume image created for John Steed, the hero played by Patrick Macnee; second, scenic design during the fourth season (1965-1966).

The fact that such luminaries of the fashion world as Hardy Amies and Pierre Cardin designed outfits for Steed has been discussed elsewhere; our concern is much more with Macnee's role in devising and developing his character's wardrobe. No one has hitherto dealt fully with the vicissitudes of the Steed image or with its subtleties. Far less has attention been given to the impact that Steed's appearance had on the character of The Avengers as a whole. As we will show, the ramifications of Steed's idiosyncratic style were complex, and its effect upon the overall character of the series cumulative: Steed's dress and manners set the tone for the pointed class values of the program and, even more crucially, provided a nice foil to the radically novel clothing of his female accomplices.

"Avengers" style has traditionally been embodied in the mod/trad duality of the clothing worn by Steed and his female companions and the overtones of masquerade and gender-bending in their costumes; this style expressed the tensions that lie at the heart of The Avengers. In France, the series was called Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir (Bowler Hat and Leather Boots), acknowledging that Steed's hat and Mrs. Peel's footwear could serve as a distillation of the peculiar identity of the series. Early publicity for the movie version of The Avengers (Jeremiah Chechik, 1998) consisted almost entirely of stills that reaffirmed the mod/trad contrast between Steed and Mrs. Peel (as Steed always addressed her, with slyly overstated propriety). In these photographs, the new Steed and Mrs. Peel stand side by side against a neutral background, very much as the originals had done in the opening title sequence of the 1967-1968 season.

Yet even if Steed's bowler and Mrs. Peel's boots—or indeed, as we will argue below, the bowler alone—could represent the stylistic distinctiveness of The Avengers, the principal characters' costumes were certainly not the be-all and end-all of the designers' visual originality. Toby Miller has suggested that the wide appeal of the show was based on a "combination of exaggerated civility, casual violence and sexual subtlety, all accomplished on a spectrum of style." The breadth of this spectrum was given visual expression by scenic designers whose work reflected the whole gamut of narrative conventions quoted and parodied in the scripts. The subtlest and most innovative of these designers was Harry Pottle, art director for the fourth season (1965-1966). Pottle created a flexible idiom in which generic conventions as diverse as gothic horror and drawing-room comedy could appear to be natural bedfellows. This synthesis of widely divergent effects was unprecedented not only in The Avengers but in British television at large; Pottle's work paved the way for the brashly eccentric settings created by Robert Jones in many episodes of the following two seasons. Pottle's images were also distinguished by the way in which they interacted with the dialogue: some straightforwardly supported the mood, while others counterposed or even contradicted it. In fact, his brand of dry wit, very much like that of principal writers Brian Clemens and Philip Levene, was characterized by that provocative and knowing irony.

Style, Stylishness, and Stylization

The idea that The Avengers possessed style or stylishness is central to perceptions of the program. Publicity for the 1998 movie proclaimed that agents John Steed and Emma Peel were "Saving the World in Style." Stylishness is also a recurrent theme in Toby Miller's critical study of The Avengers, raised by the author and by the enthusiasts whose views he cites. The principal fan-chronicler of the series, Dave Rogers, observed that "for sheer unabashed style there has never been another program quite like it." Tempting as it is to add more voices to the chorus, we cannot simply celebrate The Avengers as preeminently "stylish" without further qualifying the claim.

Stylishness exists only in the eye of the beholder as a rather nebulous value judgment: it defines nothing in itself. This is not to underrate the respect that the idea of stylishness can command in metropolitan society. Fashion is entirely concerned with defining and redefining stylishness, and many choose clothing and furnishings based on a notion of what is stylish.

For the work of costume or scenic designers in television, however, the term "stylish" has little usefulness, even as an accolade. For example, a designer working on a contemporary drama like EastEnders, which is set in the depressed inner-city locale of Walford, is unlikely to produce imagery that could be called "stylish" in the generally accepted sense of the word. Indeed, few television dramas overtly set out to be stylish, courting praise in those terms alone. Yet there is often what might be termed a stylish approach, a stylish vision, underlying almost any kind of design for screen entertainment. By this reckoning, therefore, the term should not be glibly used to set the visual content of one program above that of another: the ugliest or most apparently unstyled sets and the least striking costumes may, in reality, have been subtly crafted by a very "stylish" designer.

If there is little virtue in describing design work for The Avengers as stylish, it does seem genuinely meaningful to claim that the series was about stylishness—or rather about preoccupation with notions of high style—in a way that few other television programs or films have been. Of course, the detective-cum-counterespionage premise of The Avengers did not place fashion and lifestyle in the narrative forefront to the same extent as, say, the Audrey Hepburn vehicles Funny Face (1958) and Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) or, for that matter, the satirical comedy series Absolutely Fabulous (BBC TV, 1992- ).

Nevertheless, as Kingsley Amis once nicely observed, there is a palpable sense that Steed and his partner of the moment were "inspired amateurs who knock off a couple of world-wide conspiracies in the intervals of choosing their spring wardrobe"—the latter being an altogether more demanding and significant activity. The emphasis in the series, especially after the arrival of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, was more on the sangfroid with which the Avengers generally dispatched their opponents than on the narrative thrust of the actual conflicts. The pre-title sequence used in America for the 1965-1966 season clearly establishes the mood of unruffled epicureanism: John Steed and Mrs. Peel, confronted with the corpse of a man in waiter's clothing, take no interest in the body, but concentrate instead on opening and sampling the bottle of champagne that the dead man had been carrying.

If The Avengers was focused upon stylishness, then, conversely, stylishness—in mid-1960s Britain, at least—was to no small extent focused upon The Avengers. In this respect, the series is without precedent or real successor in the history of television. The "Avengerwear" credited to Frederick Starke, a collection of what might be termed "brutalist" clothing designed for Honor Blackman in her role as Catherine Gale, was given its own press launch in 1963. Two years later, the wardrobe created by John Bates for Emma Peel was marketed by Bates' fashion house, Jean Varon.

The series also influenced the design of other products. Some, like a set of wristwatches based on those worn by Diana Rigg in the series, were specifically created as Avengers merchandise. In other cases, props specially made for the series were imitated by unlicensed manufacturers. For example, in "What the Butler Saw" (1966), a set of lamp stands shaped like Minoan bulls were created to adorn the bachelor pad of an amorous air force officer. Within six months of the broadcast, copies of the design had, according to one of Pottle's draftsmen, been marketed by a London department store: the image, or its overtones of virility and eroticism, was evidently considered highly saleable.

However, it is not, of course, simply because of its widespread impact on the contemporary scene that we have chosen to devote a chapter of our study to The Avengers, nor, for that matter, because the program is now universally perceived as the epitome of elegance and sophistication. If stylishness was the central concern of The Avengers, what made the series outstanding in design terms was its bold and witty use of stylization. In view of the general fetish for naturalism, The Avengers maintained a level of studied artifice that was quite extraordinary, given that the series was a mainstream, prime-time drama in both Britain and the United States.

Design and the Postmodern in The Avengers

At its most provocative, The Avengers deliberately undermined the reality of its own diegesis. The most extreme example of this occurs in "Epic" (1967), in which a crazed film director, Z. Z. von Schnerk, forces Emma Peel to take the central role in a film about herself. In the tag scene, she and Steed are seen relaxing in what appears to be her apartment, until she kicks down one of the walls, revealing that it is in fact one of von Schnerk's sets. The humor is double-edged: while exploiting the central conceit of the "play within a play," the sequence also forced viewers to confront the fact that they were watching a contrived dramatic production. In other words, the very essence of escapist entertainment was momentarily compromised.

While the wit embodied in the closing scene of "Epic" is palpably "deconstructive," most of the humor expressed in The Avengers' imagery is best described with reference to a related cultural outlook—postmodernism. We will, in fact, use the epithet postmodern a good deal in this chapter. It should therefore be registered at once that the term is highly problematic and needs some elucidation. If the word "stylish" is of questionable value because it is used categorically without actually meaning very much, then "postmodern" is ambiguous for precisely the opposite reason—it is a lexicographer's nightmare, being massively overburdened with irreconcilable meanings. The only wholehearted consensus among scholars and critics who have sought to characterize and define the "postmodern" is the tacit acknowledgment that the existence of such a term is needful. In other words, thinkers seem to be in broad agreement that there is a discernible phenomenon, a "something" that has superseded or transformed modernism, the cultural movement that supposedly held sway as an ideal from, roughly, the first to the sixth decade of the twentieth century.

That the postmodern should have such a tortuous etymology and be so uncertain in its parameters is curiously appropriate, for many of the thinkers who have used the term have related it either to eclecticism in aesthetic taste, or to indecisiveness about goals and trajectories, or to the cancerous multiplication of data, stimuli, and choice in the information age. Insofar as there is intrinsic meaning in postmodernism, therefore, it may be said to be that it describes a culture steeped—not to say bogged down—in plurality.

For all that the term did not enter common usage until the early 1970s, the application of the word "postmodern" to cultural trends of the 1960s is now thoroughly sanctioned by precedent. However, this is not our justification for using the term in relation to The Avengers. Nor, for that matter, are we merely taking our cue from Toby Miller, who devoted one whole chapter of his book on The Avengers to "The Postmodern" in the series. Our choice is specifically governed by the fact that design in The Avengers was characterized by what the architectural historian Charles Jencks has termed the "double-coding" and "multiple-coding" properties of postmodernism. In Jencks' formulation, postmodernism is an attitude of mind that allows for different, often opposing values and meanings to be "encoded" into a single work of art. The important point, however, is that these divergent or contradictory principles are allowed to coexist within the given work without there being any resolution of the tensions between them. This notion of double or multiple coding is extremely apt for the imagery in The Avengers, which, for example, constantly juxtaposes the progressive with the conservative, managing to celebrate and mock both of them at once.

Also germane to The Avengers is the inherently parodic character that many people have recognized in postmodernism. Because the postmodern outlook is one that delights in juggling and juxtaposing different paradigms, it is almost inevitable that the postmodern mindset should have a strong inclination towards burlesque. In order to play with two or more divergent ideas in an open-ended way, one has to maintain a large measure of detachment from both; and detachment, in turn, is very readily attended by the ironic and parodic. Among commentators on the subject, Umberto Eco has been especially attentive to the particular tenor of postmodern irony. He characterized this irony by the use of a metaphor which, though oft quoted, is worth repeating again here, because it seems so apposite to The Avengers that it might almost be extrapolated from one of the show's scripts.

I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, "I love you madly," because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly." At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony.

Steed and his companions personify just this kind of ironic aloofness. Loss of cool, for them, is quite clearly a fate worse than death. Conversational ease and relaxed grace are maintained even in the most dangerous situation and in face of the deadliest opponent. Moreover, in maintaining this studied calm, bordering on ennui, Steed and Mrs. Peel not only convey that they have seen it all before, but seem to acknowledge tacitly that the audience has also seen it all before. What Eco describes as "the challenge of the past" was present in The Avengers in that the series always embraced cliché, stereotype, and nostalgia as warmly as a bad B movie, but did so with infinite knowing. The Avengers was never in any danger of becoming hackneyed in itself, for the simple reason that it dined on platitudes. The conventions of a certain genre might be exploited for all or part of a given script, but at the same time generic clichés would always be adroitly lampooned and deconstructed. No particular genre was ever seriously or consistently espoused in the series. In the context of The Avengers, one cannot really speak of the genres of the macabre, the thriller, science fiction, and so on: one has to envisage these terms placed in the inverted commas that denote irony or sarcasm.

Much of what can most obviously be identified as postmodern in The Avengers is, of course, incorporated into the scripts. What was exceptional about the series, however, was the extent to which design played an active and independent role in what Eco calls "the game of irony." Designers' activities were not confined to underscoring the parodic elements in the narrative by means of, say, a particular choice of costume for Steed and his partner or by the use of humorous exaggeration in the décor of a set. Design also frequently embodied anomalies, ambivalences, and unexpected juxtapositions not inspired directly by the script, which therefore made their own peculiar kind of mental demand on the viewer.

The best example of this is the blurring of gender boundaries, or at least the upsetting of gender norms, in the clothing of Steed and his first two female partners. Little or no reference was made in the scripts to their singular modes of dress. Yet the costumes suggested some fairly obvious paradoxes. "I was the woman and she was the man," Patrick Macnee once remarked of Honor Blackman's character, Cathy Gale. Indeed, the typical dress of Steed and Mrs. Gale lends some credence to this (see fig. 2.1). Her celebrated leather bodysuits were "butch" in the same measure that Steed's more foppish garb was "pansy." However, even the kinkiness of these images—enhanced, of course, by their juxtaposition—was misleading. For all her physical prowess and scientific detachment, Mrs. Gale was typically feminine in her compassion, while the often harsh and relentless Steed was definitely not as ineffectual and softly effeminate as his clothing might suggest.

The Steed Image

In the pages that follow, we pursue half of the mod/trad dichotomy by looking at the sartorial image of John Steed, which became enormously influential both on enduring perceptions of The Avengers and, rather more remarkably, on the character of the series itself. This last point is of great importance to the overarching arguments of our book, concerned as this study is with the expressive power of design and with the way that its meanings can hive off from the original narrative premise of a television series. The Steed image proves that a design component can establish itself not just as a media icon but also as a prime transforming force within the overall stylistic development of the series itself.

The second aspect of the Steed image that we will explore is its contribution to the studiedly ambivalent sexual identity of the character. We have already mentioned that Steed's playfully dandified sartorial style was strongly at odds with both the "tough" modes affected by his female accomplices and the harsher aspects of his own persona. To understand better the "multiple-coding" of the image, we will examine closely the way in which Steed's suave and individualistic attire related to contemporary trends in men's fashion. His dress provides an interesting reflection (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say "refraction") of the way in which gender norms were being upset by cultural sea changes in the mid-to-late 1960s. Consideration of this issue will lead us, in conclusion, to argue that there is a strongly "postmodern" flavor to the Steed image.

First, a short outline of the internal history of the Steed image—its evolution, its rationale, and its vicissitudes. The story of the emergence of "Steed style" has been oft told in both scholarly and appreciative literature on The Avengers and also in the memoirs of Patrick Macnee, who played the character. Macnee was intimately involved in the shaping of Steed's style, but he has acknowledged that designing the costumes was a collaborative effort, in the first instance with wardrobe supervisor Audrey Liddle: "I didn't really design them, of course, I just said how I'd like this, how I'd like that, and the wardrobe people [Liddle and Head of Wardrobe Department at ABC, Ambren Garland] passed my ideas along to the tailor."

The impetus to create the classic Steed image actually came from Sydney Newman, the Head of Drama at ABC TV who devised The Avengers. Early in production of the first season, Newman suggested to Patrick Macnee that he abandon the trench-coated, gumshoe image that he had so far shared with his costar, Ian Hendry. Newman felt that Steed, the amoral, ruthless, yet charming counterweight to Hendry's hero, should dress in a more flamboyant manner. Macnee, together with Audrey Liddle and his tailors, devised a striking new image that cleverly belied the more inhuman aspects of the character:

I thought of Regency days—the most flamboyant, sartorially, for men—and imagined Steed in waisted jackets and embroidered waistcoats. Steed I was stuck with as a name and it stayed. Underneath he was steel. Outwardly he was charming and vain and representative, I suppose, of the kind of Englishman who is more valued abroad. The point about Steed was that he led a fantasy life—a hero dressed and accoutred like a junior cabinet minister. An Old Etonian whose most lethal weapon was the hallmark of the English gentleman—a furled umbrella.

Over the next four years, working with Liddle (and later with Frances Bolwell and Jackie Jackson) and his cutter at Bailey and Weatherill of Regent Street, Mr. James, Macnee took Steed's foppery to ever greater lengths. He wore trilby hats and curly-brim bowlers; silk shirts, invariably with spread collars; Chelsea boots in patent leather and suede; and an array of ever more distinctive sports jackets and suits. Although the generally close-fitting styles of his clothes were consonant with 1960s fashions, Macnee's outfits had a number of peculiarities that subtly set him apart even from the senior civil servants and wealthy industrialists with whom Steed mixed. All these refinements were redolent of the Regency period from which Macnee took his inspiration. Jackets were rather long and markedly waisted, while vests were almost always straight-cut across the bottom; in each case, the allusion to early-nineteenth-century modes was unmistakable. Other echoes of the period included covered buttons, braiding, elasticated trouser bottoms, and revers on the jacket cuffs (see fig. 2.1).

The distillation of the Steed style was fully accomplished in the first series of The Avengers shot on film, production of which began in May 1965. Macnee's subtle variations on conventional gentlemen's attire were also most adventurous during this season. For example, shooting on film meant more location work out of town, and Macnee devised appropriate accoutrements for these excursions, becoming the huntin', shootin', and fishin' man of rural pursuits. Hunting overtones were especially strong in his new country outfit, which consisted of a rust-colored jacket, buff trousers, and a checkered stock. For headgear, Patrick Macnee adopted a unique flat-topped hard felt, apparently of his own design, which hovered in shape between bowler and the top hat still sometimes worn with hunting pinks. A long cane replaced his umbrella.

In his more characteristic guise as the man about town, Steed's formal dress also underwent evolution in the first filmed season of The Avengers. This latest development produced what was to become, in effect, the archetypal Steed image. What most obviously distinguished his two new suits was that each had a velvet collar, a feature more usually associated with gentlemen's overcoats and riding coats (fig. 2.2).

According to Macnee, at least part of the reason for this was that it contributed to the overall effect of supple contouring:

I like the idea of velvet for the collars, it helps mould and complement the suits. There are no breast pockets and only one button to give the best moulding to the chest. Plus a deliberately low waist, to give the effect of simplicity, but with an individual style.

Overt preoccupation with Steed's clothing within the individual episode narratives reached its height at this time. Steed was often shown finishing dressing or beginning to undress. In "Dial a Deadly Number," for example, Steed receives a female visitor while in the middle of his morning routine: the fact that he has not yet put on his waistcoat allows her to exchange a bomb for his pocket watch. In "The Cybernauts" Steed calls at his flat between two undercover operations because he is going to impersonate a journalist. When Mrs. Peel enters, he is already in the process of changing into an outfit with "a literary sheen" In the tag scene of "The Murder Market," he is seen changing suit and tie in the back of a limousine, this time for no readily discernible reason. The apogee of this dressing-and-grooming theme occurs in "Two's a Crowd," in which Steed adopts the guise of a shady male model, Gordon Webster, who is in turn called upon by Russian spies to impersonate Steed. The contorted scenario allows for plenty of detailed discussion about the niceties of Steed's personal habits and etiquette.

Even when the main action is not concerned with Steed's grooming, the viewer's attention is often specifically directed to his clothes. In an early scene of "Dial a Deadly Number," a supercilious banker tells Steed that the financial institution he represents still judges creditworthiness by the color of a man's socks. The shot of the two men conversing cuts to a close-up of Steed's lower half, as he gently hitches up one trouser leg to reveal suitably staid black hosiery; the camera then pans up to show his quizzical expression.

In 1966, Steed's tailoring was taken up by the world of haute couture. For the first color series, ABC TV commissioned Pierre Cardin, whose star was in the ascendant throughout Europe at this time, to design the principal items in Macnee's wardrobe. After 1967, suits in the mode popularized by Cardin, with high-fastening, double-breasted jackets and "pencil-line" trousers cut straight from knee to ankle, were promulgated in Britain by Savile Row tailors and department stores alike—and, interestingly, the style was referred to as "Edwardian." Macnee and others had also used this word to describe Steed's style of dress. Macnee, voted one of the Ten Best-Dressed Men in the World in 1963, was now modeling Cardin's clothes in a prime-time series shown in both Britain and America. This can only have helped the designer's growing reputation. For Macnee, on the other hand, it was neither a financial success (he was persuaded not to sign with Cardin for the marketing of a "Steed" line) nor an enhancement of his performance. In fact, Cardin's designs were a travesty of the Steed style and all but undermined the character's credibility.

At best, Cardin paid faint lip service to the established Steed idiom in his designs for Patrick Macnee. A charitable explanation for this, put forward by Anthony Powell, the costume designer on the 1998 Avengers movie, is that Cardin, as a Frenchman, could not help but dress Steed in "what the French imagined was the British gentleman's style," the result being, in Powell's view, "totally wrong." A more cynical assessment would be that Cardin's approach was wholly self-serving and that Steed was shaped to the Cardin image, not vice versa.

Although the waisted line of Macnee's lounge coats and the straight-cut vests were retained, most other distinctive features of Steed's earlier outfits were discarded. Cardin's innovations, most notably the introduction of double-breasted jackets, invariably produced an effect that was at odds with what had gone before. Suit fabrics became coarser and more brashly patterned; straight-cut trousers replaced peg tops; and Macnee's neatly geometric Windsor-knotted ties often gave way to showy, bulky ascots. Most discordantly of all, the Steed hallmark of low-fastening jackets, generally with a single button and sans breast pocket, was ignored by Cardin: the new lounge coats and sports jackets were invariably high-cut with three-buttons and usually with a breast pocket. In short, Cardin's style was squared-off where Macnee's had been streamlined, and the new outfits had the unfortunate effect of emphasizing the actor's tendency to plumpness.

As if the new outfits themselves were not enough of an insult to Macnee's vision of Steed, the coup de grâce was that, as a Cardin clotheshorse, the actor was now obliged to wear formal garb throughout the whole of each episode, even when Steed was supposedly relaxing in his flat. Steed's sensitivity to the etiquette of dress—a prime element of his old-world gentlemanliness—was overturned at a stroke. In previous seasons, when he was off duty in his apartment, or in circumstances that demanded informality, Steed was typically seen wearing a black polo shirt or turtleneck sweater, sometimes with a chunky cardigan (see fig. 2.16). Now, seated on his scarlet Chesterfield settee wearing a loudly over-checked, brass-buttoned Norfolk jacket, cream shirt, and spotted ascot, the avowedly overweight Macnee looked not merely effete but—to use an expressive piece of British slang—"poncey."

The association with Cardin was relatively brief. In what turned out to be the final season of The Avengers, broadcast in 1969, Macnee abruptly abandoned the Cardin wardrobe and restored the style that was proper and peculiar to his screen character. Although the series was by this time more distant from day-to-day normality than ever, Macnee even returned to the traditional practice of dressing informally for scenes with a domestic setting—though his new leisure wear was rather brasher and more "youthful" than before. Indeed, for all that it provided a return to the Steed image, the final season ushered in a number of significant changes to the character's status that deprived both him and the series of their subtlety.

If The Avengers lost some of its finesse during its last season on the air, it lost none of its playful daring. However, by 1976 when it was resurrected as The New Avengers, its ludic quality, which Steed's sartorial image in many ways epitomized, was gone. Even the Steed image itself was briefly threatened, as Macnee met with some difficulties acquiring an appropriate wardrobe for his reprise of the role. His outfitters tried to persuade him to adopt the fashions of the mid-1970s, but since these were diametrically opposed to the established Steed style, the actor stalwartly resisted. As a result, the dapper Macnee was a sartorial anachronism and stood in the strongest possible contrast to one of his costars. Gareth Hunt, who played Steed's youthful sidekick, Mike Gambit, wore the loud modes of the moment: broad-shouldered and wide-lapelled jackets, kipper ties, and flared slacks, or safari outfits (fig. 2.3).

The fastidious Steed, however, remained true to form in peg-top trousers and waisted jackets with lapels almost as reticently narrow as those on his 1960s outfits. He also retained his bowler hat and furled umbrella, which placed him in a social minority that was by then verging on extinction: at that date, few men wore hats at all, and only the truest of true-blue traditionalists wore bowlers. Yet by this point, it would have been virtually impossible for Steed to appear without these accoutrements: they had become his "trademark."

Macnee's small victory over a transient fad in the 1970s may seem to be of no more than anecdotal interest, but this is far from the case. The preservation of his image served to emphasize that Steed had become a media icon: he had become "the man in the bowler hat." This was, in fact, the end of a process whereby Steed's style gained ever greater influence over the total character of The Avengers.

Even today, John Steed's bowler and brolly constitute one of the best-known and most evocative images ever to emerge from a television series. Not only can these items "stand in" for Steed, but to a great extent they do the same for The Avengers. Men's hats and accessories, in fact, have often played what might be termed synecdochic or metonymic roles in the mass media since the end of the nineteenth century. The most obvious example is Sherlock Holmes' deerstalker cap and calabash pipe, which can conjure up the character—and, indeed, the whole genre of British detective fiction—without any other referent; indeed, it is hard to see a deerstalker in any context without thinking of Holmes.

Yet Conan Doyle's detective is not at all the same kind of fictional character as Steed, for the latter was to all intents and purposes created by Patrick Macnee in performance. Consequently, the bowler and brolly have become as much a signifier for Macnee as for Steed. Macnee's case is different again from that of silver-screen stars such as Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, or Frank Sinatra, all of whom can be represented by their headgear—respectively the top hat, the snap-brim, and the trilby. Astaire's topper is certainly not his prime signifier, nor the snap-brim Bogart's, whereas Macnee's international fame is entirely bound up with his portrayal of a man in a bowler hat. It is noteworthy that while biographers of Bogart, for instance, tend generally to eschew the now-classic publicity still showing him in snap-brim and trench-coat, the cover of Macnee's autobiography has him in his Steed costume, doffing his bowler and toting his umbrella.

To be wholly associated, as Patrick Macnee is, with one's screen alter ego is not in itself unusual. Stars of "Golden Age" Hollywood comedies such as Groucho and Harpo Marx, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy, are for most of us identical with their cinematic personae (an association that is encouraged by the fact that these clowns generally retained their real names in performance). The elision of player and character has again become widespread since the television series as a form came into its own, though the phenomenon seems confined to comic or character roles. Tom Baker's autobiography, like Patrick Macnee's, is adorned by a close-up of the actor in costume for the role with which he is principally identified—in this case, the fourth incarnation of Doctor Who.

However, Macnee's is still a special case. Well-known as the images of Baker have undoubtedly become, he did not embody the series in which he starred. The Steed image, on the other hand, even more than Cathy Gale's and Emma Peel's leather boots, became the visual essence of The Avengers. Stuart Craig, the production designer on the 1998 Avengers movie, indicated not only that the recreation of the Steed look was a sine qua non for the new film, but that this potent image effectively served as the benchmark for all other design choices in the film, more or less forcing the decision to represent "Avengerland" as a Britain in which the 1960s never ended:

A chap in a Savile Row suit with a rolled umbrella was pretty extraordinary then; and it's even more so now. As a cliché image of England it's kind of okay. If you try and present it as totally contemporary, you'd have trouble, I think, selling that in America. I think you were duty-bound to leave it there in the 1960s.

Yet the importance of the Steed image for The Avengers was more than that it transcended the reality of the series: to a great extent, Steed's appearance actually determined that reality. Brian Clemens, who together with Albert Fennell produced the show from 1965 until 1969, has made the following remarkable claim about the way in which he construed and controlled the Avengers aesthetic:

I laid down the ground rule that no woman should be killed, no extras should populate the streets. We admitted to only one class . . . and that was the upper. As a fantasy, we would not show a uniformed policeman or a colored man. And you would not see anything so common as blood in The Avengers. Had we introduced a colored man or a policeman, we would have had the yardstick of social reality and that would have made the whole thing quite ridiculous. Alongside a bus queue of ordinary men-in-the-street, Steed would have become a caricature.

Clemens' assertion about the tenor of the show was substantially borne out, though all of the conventions described were occasionally overridden during his tenure. Any recreational or commercial institution in The Avengers is marked by its exclusivity, be it marriage bureau, country club, or department store. Oxford accents are the norm, except for the odd local yokel, who is usually drawn as either amiably dotty or psychotic. Clemens' fantasy world also kept its color bar to an extent that is retrospectively a little disturbing, with black African characters appearing in only four of the episodes made during his tenure.

In fact, it is easy to expand on Clemens' claim for Steed's centrality in the series' ideological matrix. For example, as Steed is the epitome of unforced good manners, so representatives of "the other side" are usually characterized by their egregious behavior, their pettiness, and, above all, their snobbery. Obsessive-compulsives, embittered has-beens, and Eastern Bloc diplomats trying to affect English manners are implicitly or explicitly ridiculed and effortlessly floored, over and over again.

Clemens emphasized the need to prevent Steed from seeming like a caricature. Many of the scripts for The Avengers were set in heartlands of Tory power occupied by ministers and merchant bankers. Here, studied conservatism of dress ensured that the bowler hat, like the morning coat, was not yet an anachronism in the 1960s, and Steed looked perfectly at home (though even in this context, as will be discussed below, his dress remained subtly distinctive).

However, as 1970 approached and the series was more heavily laced with the quirky and the surreal, the process of molding the world of The Avengers around Steed underwent exponential growth. The appearance in 1969 of Steed's superior, Mother, a formidable but engaging "old school" complement to Steed himself, signaled the universal gentrification of characters in the show. By the final season, the ranks of the great and the good had embraced such bizarre figures as Bertram Fortescue Winthrop Smythe, the aristocratic chimney sweep in "From Venus with Love" (1967), who went by the name of Bert Smith for the sake of commercial credibility, while business establishments were invariably the crème de la crème of their trade. A good example was the Classy Glass Cleaning Co. in "The Super Secret Cypher Snatch" (1969) whose motto was "We're behind all the best windows." Some establishments were even purveyors exclusively to the nobility, like Martin's Toyshop and the Guild of Noble Nannies in "Something Nasty in the Nursery" (1968).

By the end of the series, Steed was not merely one toff among many but one eccentric toff among many. Once distinctive by virtue of his subtle traditionalism, Steed ended up being distinctive chiefly because of his familiarity. By contrast, when the character returned during the mid-1970s in The New Avengers, he was visually isolated in a world where bowler hats were the province of undertakers and senior citizens. In this new series, no attempt was made to integrate Steed with his environment. Even the narrative acknowledged his displacement from the contemporary scene, for he had moved from his London dwelling, 3 Stable Mews, to semiretirement in a country house. The very name of this rural home, "Steed's Stud," which (like Stable Mews) puns suggestively on the equestrian overtones of "Steed," invites the inference that the character is now in some degree a racehorse who is out of the running.

In fact, the denial of the Steed-oriented values of the old series went much further in The New Avengers: Brian Clemens, once again coproducer, broke his taboo of acknowledging a class other than the upper and did so in a decisive way. Though Steed's new female companion, Purdey, played by Joanna Lumley, was in the well-bred mold of Mrs. Gale and Mrs. Peel, Steed's male colleague, Mike Gambit, played by Gareth Hunt, was unabashedly a member of the lower classes by birth. The only thing that made Steed acceptable in this alien world was his iconic status: The viewer accepted the bowler and brolly because they were sported by Steed; conversely, the character would have seemed more of a hoary anachronism, not less, if stripped of his identifying attributes.

To focus exclusively on its enshrinement as a media icon or its role as an over-determinant for the character of The Avengers as a whole would be to bypass much of the expressive subtlety of the Steed image. Our second major theme is the intersection of the "Steed style" with contemporary men's fashion and, more particularly, with the dissolution of normative gender identities in the mid-1960s. We have already noted the brief convergence of costume design for Steed with Parisian haute couture in the "collaboration" between Macnee and Cardin. As we will discuss, the failure of this association, which is palpably attested by the fact that it was so short-lived, was symptomatic of there being limits beyond which the Macnee image had little meaning, or at least, no further currency. Five years after being voted one of the ten best-dressed men in the world, Macnee was in danger of becoming a dinosaur and found himself having to compromise not merely with an individual such as Cardin but in effect with the tumultuous forces of youth culture at the close of the 1960s. Indeed, we will argue that the Steed persona, so long daringly subversive in its distortion of gender norms, was ultimately debased by an attempt to embrace the new machismo of late-1960s "psychedelic" culture.

In shaping the Steed image, Macnee was, of course, not devising a sartorial style for its own sake: he was building up a dramatic character. Because of Steed's status as a media icon, it is easy to forget that the character's mode of dress had, from its inception, a clear role within the diegesis of The Avengers. Steed's sartorial narcissism, like his insouciant sense of fun, was one facet of a complex persona and counterpoised less amiable traits such as a rakish attitude to women and an implacable ruthlessness. For example, in "The Town of No Return," one scene finds Steed, dressed up in his most splendidly dandified overcoat (with velvet shawl-collar, enormous mother-of-pearl buttons, and flared sleeves), cavorting with child-like delight on a schoolyard merry-go-round. In the next, he restrains an imposturing enemy with the handle of his umbrella and, in order to extort information, he calmly sets fire to the man's moustache.

Beyond the confines of the narrative, the social significance of Steed's apparel is that it situated Patrick Macnee as the object of the male viewer's acquisitive gaze and by extension placed him in a key position within the discourse of male fashion during the 1960s. Steed's suits, eventually marketed to the public at large by Macnee's tailors, Bailey and Weatherill, became the openly acknowledged focus of male desire and identification, in effect sexualizing the Steed persona almost as much as the "kinky" leather and stretch-jersey sexualized Cathy Gale and Emma Peel.

Earlier, we quoted Macnee's remarks about the special style of jacket that he devised for Steed (c. 1964) with a single low-placed button and a velvet collar. His comments are interesting for two reasons. First, they reflect a changed attitude toward male grooming around this time. Such openly expressed interest in clothing had long been represented by men as unbecoming their sex. Yet Macnee's musings on the cut of his suits indicate that the cultural climate of the mid-1960s sanctioned, even fostered, male preoccupation with dress.

Macnee's insistence on the desirability of garments "moulded" to the body also gives focus to the problem of defining, or at least interpreting, the sexuality of the Steed image. In contour and silhouette, Steed's suits, while scarcely "butch," were assertively manly. Jackets and waistcoats closely followed the figure, giving particular emphasis, as Macnee clearly wished, to the chest, which is traditionally an important locus of male sexuality. As Stella Bruzzi stressed in her discussion of the "continental look" outfits worn by the gangsters in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992), close-fitting suits, though "far from overtly sexual," may nevertheless serve as "symbols of virile, active masculinity." The early 1960s saw the heyday of the "continental look," but even by Italian and French standards of the period, Steed's suits were specially productive of the bella figura; indeed, no less than Mrs. Peel's stretch-jersey "Emmapeelers," his clothes fitted him like a second skin.

Yet if Steed's suits enhanced his aura of masculine cool, the associations of his style of dress somewhat complicated his sexual identity. Looking back on the series in 1984, Brian Clemens reflected that the program could not have been made in the United States, because an American television-production company would never have tolerated "an effete-looking hero in a bowler hat carrying an umbrella." Even Macnee himself, writing in the 1990s, referred to Steed as "this rather strange, old-fashioned man who dressed in sort of pansy clothes."

Macnee's and Clemens' implication that the Steed image carried overtones of effeminacy or homosexuality is not without indirect precedent from the years of production. This is not to say that there is a lack of evidence for Steed's being wholeheartedly, if not quite wholesomely, straight. Early in the series, Macnee described Steed as "a wolf with the women," and his more or less openly lecherous repartee with his professional partners, as well as with numerous incidental female characters, represented a leitmotiv in Steed's behavior.

Nevertheless, the original producer, Leonard White, obviously felt some insecurity about Steed's sexual orientation. In a production memo drawn up six weeks into the first recording block, White describes the character as "a sophisticate but not lacking in virility" and, as if to validate this uneasy claim, goes on (rather repellently) to cite beauty competitions as among Steed's "sports." Immediately thereafter, Steed's sexual tastes and proficiencies are clearly defined: "He has an eye for the beautiful and unusual—be it objets d'art or women. He will never be serious with any one woman, however. He is very experienced." White's anxieties are repeated a little later, when he remarks that Steed has "'special' tastes," adding defensively, "Some might think these slightly decadent—but they would be wrong."

If it is reasonable to assume that for White, as later for Clemens, Steed's tailoring—a conspicuous expression of his "special" tastes—potentially denoted effeteness, why should this be the case? After all, as late as 1955, Ronald Searle could represent garb very like Steed's as the epitome of stuffy, late-imperial rectitude, in his cartoon of "the Major" (Steed himself, incidentally, possessed this rank) (fig. 2.4).

However, precedents for Steed's style of dress certainly existed among upper-crust homosexuals as well as other members of the British elite during the first postwar decade. The fashion cultivated in these circles was referred to as the Edwardian revival—and it is no coincidence that, as noted earlier, the epithet "Edwardian" has also frequently been used to describe Steed's costumes. Indeed, Steed's clothing c. 1965 closely resembles the "Edwardianism" of Cecil Beaton's outfit in a photograph of him taken in 1955: Beaton's narrow-brimmed bowler, Chesterfield overcoat with stitched lower edge and velvet collar, calf-skin gloves, tapering trousers, and spread-collared shirt all seem to foreshadow Steed's costume.

However, there is an important distinction to be made between Steed and his real-life precursors. Cecil Beaton, Oliver Messel, and the young officers of the Guards who, according to Farid Chenoune, cultivated the Edwardian mode as a response to the perceived vulgarity of the "American fashion invasion" clearly took themselves very seriously. Macnee's Steed, on the other hand, twirled his umbrella and tapped his bowler to a jaunty angle with knowing irony. No viewer could really believe that Steed was committed to his traditionalism, far less that he was unaware of his affectation. On the contrary, it is quite clear that in adopting this mannered style, Steed was playing games with those whom he encountered—and, by extension, with the audience. This ironic detachment was conveyed through Macnee's insouciant facial expressions and deftly parodic gestures, but it also had a more concrete manifestation. As noted briefly above, except during the Cardin interlude Steed's "off duty" scenes found him wearing heavy turtleneck sweaters or polo shirts, often with cardigans. These casual garments, though still flattering, were as studiedly neutral and commonplace as the rest of Steed's wardrobe was arresting and idiosyncratic.

Yet, just as television critics seemed unable to grasp that The Avengers was not conceived as a "straight" spy series like its contemporary, Danger Man, the producers of the show were apparently incapable of recognizing that the overtones of camp in the Steed image were deftly managed and that the whole thing amounted to a "wink at the audience, a joke shared with them." At the time of Diana Rigg's departure from The Avengers in 1967, fears that Steed was unmasculine were aired again, this time by ABC chief executive, Howard Thomas. His reservations did not concern Macnee's appearance, but centered on Steed's being portrayed as so absurdly weak that Emma Peel was always needed to rescue him from danger.

Even though his comments were not specifically image-related, it cannot be coincidental that a radical change of look for Steed followed Thomas' diatribe. There were immediate attempts to emphasize Steed's heterosexual virility in the scripts. Much is made of his "Achilles' heel," a susceptibility to women, in the first episode to feature his new partner, Tara King, played by the 20-year-old Linda Thorson. Tara is evidently quite ready to indulge Steed's "weakness": she proffers him her phone number within a few minutes of their first meeting.

Rather more visceral transformations followed for Steed and Tara early in 1968, for both Macnee and Thorson were prescribed amphetamines to help them lose weight. As a result, Thorson's remaining puppy fat disappeared, while Macnee shed thirty pounds. It has been stated that the seams of his Avenger suits were taken in to match his slimmer figure. However, it was not the Cardin range that was altered: a few episodes into the new season, the credits began to read "Patrick Macnee's suits designed by Himself," and Steed was back once more in his old clothes.

There were no new departures in the design of Steed's dress after the Cardin interlude: Macnee returned to the suits with velvet-collared, one-button jackets that he had designed to "mould" to his physique. Macnee now had four such velvet-trimmed outfits, all in different shades, and the style came to serve virtually as Steed's uniform. The appeal of these suits for the actor was, surely, twofold: As Macnee's most distinctive designs, they reaffirmed the creative control he had lost to Cardin, and, perhaps more importantly, they flattered his new physique (reaffirming also Steed's masculinity). Macnee has been candid about his fears of appearing "like Methuselah" beside his ingenue companion, and, interestingly enough, once he had regained a well-toned figure, the actor made his first concession to prevailing youth trends by growing a substantial pair of sideburns. Indeed, though Macnee was by this time nearer fifty than forty, Steed was represented as a more conventionally virile figure than ever before in this era of the student uprisings and the Summer of Love.


“The power to influence our concept of style lies in the hands of designers in television. Most people today can recognize ‘a look’ that a character projects. Steed and Emma Peel [of The Avengers] were the first to convey ‘a look,’ and their designers should be saluted. At the heart of this book lies the story of how the look came about.”
Madeline Ann Kozlowski, Professor of Drama, University of California, Irvine, and Emmy Award-winning costume designer for Pryor’s Place


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