Book review: With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes – an unauthorised guide to The Avengers series 1

I well remember my first viewing of a series 1 episode of ‘The Avengers’, in fact the only one in existence at that point, which was 1993.  Channel 4 showed this episode, called ‘The Frighteners’, and my perception of the series as being around Steed with his bowler hat and umbrella, with a lady sidekick who wore leather and displayed some keen karate moves, was dispelled completely.  Also shaken, and just a bit stirred, was my perception of Ian Hendry, the actor who had died a decade earlier and who I only really knew from his guest appearances in ‘Jemima Shore Investigates’ and ‘Brookside’.  Here, as the main man in ‘The Avengers’, as Dr Keel, was this young, vital, and rather attractive chappie.  And thus was my interest piqued.

Sadly, since that day twenty-one years ago only an episode and a half from the first series have come to light, both in 2001 (‘Girl on the Trapeze’, which did not feature the character of Steed at all; and the first act of the opening episode, ‘Hot Snow’, which gave us the answers to the questions “Why is the show called ‘The Avengers’ at all?” and “What is ‘hot snow’ anyway?”).  They are good enough to leave the question ‘if only’, regretfully hanging in the air, and in some ways the missing Series 1 episodes are only just behind ‘Doctor Who’ in the holy grail of archive television’s ‘most wanted’ titles.

Fast forward to 2014, and this book has been released, written by Richard McGinlay and Alan Hayes, both devoted enthusiasts of the series, who previously collaborated (with Alys Hayes) on a sister book, ‘The Strange Case of the Missing Episodes’.  This time ‘With Umbrella, Scotch and Cigarettes’ (what a great title!) looks at production, transmission of and reception to the twenty-six episodes taped as Series 1, and as such is brim-full of facts, figures, opinion, insight, and line drawings (one has to go to books like Dave Rogers’ ‘The Complete Avengers’ to see still photographs from the show, even if one or two of those were mistakenly identified as belonging to episodes where no archive exists).

Those of us who eagerly purchased the Optimum DVD release of ‘The Avengers’ series 2 just to get the surviving series 1 episodes as extra (and the wonderful accompanying book of John Cura telesnaps from the missing episodes) are aware of the work which has gone into restoring many of the episodes from still photographs and from-script narrations.  More on this particular activity can be found at The Avengers Declassified, where Hayes goes into detail of the work he and Jaz Wiseman put into bringing 14 of the missing episodes back to life.  (A minor quibble on this might be that one has to purchase the whole of ‘The Avengers’ series on disc to get to see all of them, but a true fan would not begrudge the expense).

So Hayes has proved his credentials before this book made it to press, along with fellow fan McGinlay, and together they have produced a piece of work that will make any fan of ‘The Avengers’, however casual, hungry for more.  Those missing episodes are brought to life using a system of sectioning for the chapters – from ‘production brief’ and ‘field report’ to ‘matters arising’ and ‘mentioned in dispatches’ (where contemporary sources such as interviews and articles are discussed).  The sections on the stars themselves are interesting, but peripheral – Hendry fans can refer to the engrossing book ‘Send in the clowns: the yo-yo life of Ian Hendry‘, by Gabriel Hershman, to gain more insight on ‘the original Avenger’, while Patrick Macnee has written his own autobiographies which touch on his long association with the character of Steed throughout ‘The Avengers’ and its successor ‘The New Avengers’.

If you are at all interested in the genesis of a series which many simply associate with Steed and Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), or Tara King (Linda Thorson), this book should make you look again,  If you watch one of the surviving episodes, with the John Dankworth score, you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and feel the smog of a city in conflict, where the doctor and the stranger who is slightly aside of and above the law start by ‘avenging’ the murder of a girl who has simply been in the wrong place and the wrong time, and then put themselves in various dangerous situations throughout the series. The same feeling comes across as you read this book.

The character of Dr Keel was written specifically as a vehicle for Ian Hendry when his previous TV outing, ‘Police Surgeon’, was cancelled (a series which has fared even worse, with only one surviving episode) – when he left to try his luck on the big screen it must have seemed as if the big time was calling, and while it never did, the body of work he left behind does prove there was a gifted actor who was simply passed by (see ‘The Lotus Eaters’, made for TV in the 1970s, for proof of that).

This book brings us back to a time when ‘The Avengers’ was a very different series, with Steed as second fiddle and a far grittier style than that we saw in the Gale-Peel-King days.  Both styles have their place, but it is a real shame that we cannot properly assess the contribution of the Dr Keel years.  So hooray for this book, which fills the gap in an entertaining and informative way.  Highly recommended, and available from www.hiddentigerbooks.co.uk.  Incidentally, an ad at the end of the book hints at a similar venture in planning for the missing episodes of ‘Police Surgeon’ – they have an interested buyer-to-be right here.

About Louise Penn

Writer, reviewer, fan. View all posts by Louise Penn

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