He was best known for his role as John Steed in the iconic 60s British TV series The Avengers, many episodes of which I watched on one of the freeview channels during the winter. There was something rather special about it, and the daily routine of spending 8-9pm watching an episode of The Avengers in the warm glow of an open fire was something to be savoured. Apart from its charm, at once both quirky and supremely elegant, one notable feature stood out: It was remarkably un-sexist for its time.
The format of the show had a government agent called John Steed investigating strange goings on and righting wrongs in the company of a female partner. Three actresses played the ‘Avengers girl’ through the seven years of its run, the longest-serving, most celebrated, and generally most popular being Diana Rigg who played Emma Peel.
John Steed and Emma Peel were always equal partners; there was none of the usual masculine bias which characterised almost everything at a time when Germaine Greer was only just getting started. Mrs Peel could fight as well as Steed, think as well as Steed, was every bit as resourceful as Steed, and could charm the men just as well as he could charm the women. Their partnership was characterised by unswerving mutual respect, and that was most unusual in the 1960s. (And I gather they were good friends in real life.)
It’s also interesting that when Diana Rigg left the show to be replaced by the much younger Linda Thorson who played Tara King, things changed. Tara King was much more Steed’s often breathy and sometimes breathless assistant. Steed was in charge, and the producers also introduced a more overt element of romantic interest between the two, something that had only been subtly hinted at during the Emma Peel years. That was maybe a return to normality, although it has to be said that Linda Thorson did have something a bit special. While Diana Rigg had the poise and natural beauty, Thorson had eyes that could tickle a daisy one minute and blow the moon out of its orbit the next. McNee himself once said that she was the sexiest actress he ever worked with.
But now I’m rambling. The point is that Patrick McNee played a major part in creating something unique in the world of entertainment, something that I’m sure will live on for a long time to come. So thank you, Patrick. May the next stage be full of sexy, beautiful, and supremely capable women with whom you can forge equal partnerships. And I hope they bury you with a bowler to take with you across the Styx.
Steed and Mrs Peel