John Steed and Mrs. Peel: a Dance of Archetypes
The Avengers, not to be confused with Marvel Comics’ superhero franchise, was what has become known as a ‘spy-fi’ British television series created in 1961 and running until 1969, produced by Associated British Corporation within the ITV network. ‘Spy-fi’ is a subgenre of spy fiction that includes elements of science fiction, although the series was initially envisaged as a police drama. In the beginning, it focused on Dr. David Keel, played by Ian Hendry and his assistant John Steed, portrayed by Patrick Macnee. After the first series, Steed became the main character - Hendry left, and Steed was partnered with a succession of female assistants, including Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), and Tara King (Linda Thorson). It was during the Emma Peel period that elements of science fiction and fantasy were introduced, as well as comedy, with an emphasis on British eccentricity. Towards the end of its run, the show was being shown in more than 90 countries and remains a cult favourite today, especially those eccentric Steed/Peel episodes: in 2007, The Avengers was ranked #20 on TV Guide's Top Cult Shows Ever.
To understand part of the reason for its popularity, and to take an unusual look at its strengths, we need to put aside the idea that a character in a work of fiction is a creature designed to reflect reality. As is discussed in great depth in the book How Stories Really Work, instead of thinking of fictitious characters as ‘beings’ in their own right, with the writer and actor striving to make them appear lifelike and 'real' to readers or viewers, we should consider for a moment the novel idea that they are artificial constructs, made of ‘holes’.
As soon as one grasps that, one begins to see a startling tapestry of archetypal figures throughout fiction. In The Avengers, we see two of these figures, most notably portrayed in John Steed and Mrs. Peel, playing out a kind of ‘dance’ which can be comprehended and even predicted once one understands the fundamental nature of characters as a whole.
In short, Diana Rigg portrays Mrs. Peel on screen, but is actually a feminine archetype on another level. This figure is common and almost identical in fiction: in comedies, romances and adventure stories, tragedies or ironic stories, female characters are often no more than personified ‘gaps’ or walking ghosts in one form or another, ranging from Lady Macbeth to Miss Havisham, to the Marvel character the Black Widow (ironically a member of Marvel’s Avengers and partly inspired by Mrs. Peel herself). Tragedies and ironies take this to an extreme, with female characters becoming more intensely empty, resulting in suicides, hauntings, madness and other kinds of living death. In The Avengers, Mrs. Peel’s main ‘emptiness’ is suggested by the constant use of her name - the audience is reminded by it in every episode that she is a widow. Her existence is portrayed as somewhat isolated, right until the end of her tenure in the series, at which point she is reunited with her supposedly-lost husband, Peter Peel.
Mrs. Peel is constantly placed in danger as part of the premise of the series, acting as some kind of unofficial agent for the British government, but as the show continued she was often placed in bondage or extreme peril of her life. Contrary to this, and very unusually even today, she was also portrayed as being quite capable of looking after herself physically and intellectually.
We are so accustomed to think of fiction’s characters as living, breathing people that to begin to think of them as constructs built with the raw material of emptinesses can be a difficult step. We have to keep in mind that this is art, that none of it has necessarily any direct connection to 'real life' or masculine or feminine genders necessarily. We are talking about fictional constructs and the effects that they are used to create in stories.
This idea is even more obvious when we examine Steed, who fits the archetype of the Warrior Figure. Extremely common in fiction, obvious as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, or Hans Solo in Star Wars, less obvious as Fielding in A Passage to India or Sirius Black in Harry Potter, the warrior figure has common traits across the world of fiction: they begin as duplicitous; they are shown to have a dark side, perhaps not to be entirely trusted; they have a shadowy background. Ambiguity is their characteristic quality at the start.
Uncertainty about them creates a gap, an unknown. Importantly for our current purposes, in many comedies and adventure stories they emerge as the love interests for the hollow female figures - examples abound, including Darcy and Captain Wentworth in Austen’s novels, who begin somewhat overshadowed but who are redeemed by their heroines later. In Tragedies and ironic tales, these warrior types are often the 'heroic' counterparts to the anti-heroic protagonists: Laertes to Hamlet, Malcolm to Macbeth, Boo Radley to Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield to John Travolta’s Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Warrior figures eventually shake off these suggestions of duality, though. Their vacuums are filled, they come into the light, and they become kings, generals or leaders, doers, men of action and command. It is Aragorn who wins the military side of the War of the Ring, Hans Solo who rescues Luke, Fielding who stands up against British injustice in the trial of Adela, Sirius Black who commands power in Harry Potter. Pride and Prejudice’s Darcy loses his pride and becomes a mover of events; To Kill a Mockingbird’s Boo Radley comes out of hiding to save the children; Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield rejects his criminal background and decides to 'walk the earth’. And we see this mirrored in Steed’s development.
Working in the shadows, during the first season of The Avengers Steed's character was quite far removed from the suave, sophisticated gentleman he became during the Gale and Peel eras. As Dr. Keel's sidekick he dressed in a trenchcoat and suit, though the famous bowler hat and umbrella appeared quite early. Due to budget constraints, Macnee supplemented his on-screen wardrobe with numerous items from his own wardrobe, including the bowler and umbrella, and, warned to ‘spruce up’ his character by producers, by the second season, Macnee further embellished his attire, lost the trenchcoat and was found wearing the tailored three-piece suits and bowler hats with which he was afterward identified.
But his couture was only part of the transformation: in the beginning, little was known about him nor who he worked for. At times, he was shown answering to a figure known only as ‘One-Ten’ later to ‘Charles’, but for most of the Gale-Peel era the source of his orders were unexplained. By the time he was working with Mrs. Peel, though, he had become a much lighter figure, almost the caricature he was to become after that.
So what are we left with in terms of these character archetypes during the Steed/Peel era? Mrs. Peel, the female figure, embodied emptiness; and John Steed, the warrior figure, emerging as a dynamic leader from the shadows. It is that contrast, that underlying archetypicality, which creates the undercurrents in the enticing performance between them - will Mrs. Peel’s emotional emptiness ever be filled? Will Steed’s debonair advances ever find satisfaction?
Their characters’ relationship was full of dry, sardonic wit and professional respect. Script editor, associate producer and main scriptwriter for The Avengers Brian Clemens rejected Macnee’s idea that Steed and Mrs. Peel were having sex regularly, claiming instead that they'd had an affair before Emma's first appearance in the series. Part of what fascinates us as viewers, though, is this underplay of powerful fictional archetypes.
For more, see the book How Stories Really Work.