This summer we were saddened to learn that Patrick Macnee died at the age of 93. Sunday Swift recalls his iconic Dandy character John Steed in Swinging Sixties Spy-Fi series The Avengers.
John Steed is one of the first images to spring to mind when one thinks of 1960s TV series The Avengers. He is the constant figure that links the noir style of the first series, the dream-like cartoon of the final series and everything in between. The Avengers created a surreal world where nothing was normal and aesthetics were paramount. It was a world where one goes in for an eye-exam and, instead of identifying letters of the alphabet, one must recognise the differences between men’s hat styles. Seeing is not enough: one must be discerning and dedicated to the gentlemanly aesthetic.
It comes as no shock, then, in a world so focused on style, that a dandy character like Steed would develop. Arguably, given the more serious and noir-like tone of the programme before Macnee debuted in the episode Hot Snow, one could even suggest that it was Macnee’s flair that transformed the programme into the techni-coloured and highly stylised programme we remember today.
“Cravats were in there first. Ties are symbols of conformity. Cravats have flair, masculinity. You won’t find a tie in my wardrobe.” Patrick Macnee
Even if you don’t remember all the episodes, you’ll remember that man in a bowler hat, Chelsea boots and tailored suit. Piers D. Britton and Simon J. Barker even suggest that Steed’s image “even more than Cathy Gale’s and Emma Peel’s leather boots, became the visual essence of The Avengers.”
Curiously, though, despite becoming one of the most iconic images to represent the programme, Steed was originally a stereotypical, mysterious man in a trench coat and a trilby with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, lurking in the shadows to whisper secret information to David Keel (Ian Hendry).
Macnee wrote in his autobiography, The Avengers: The Inside Story: “Nobody told me how I should play Steed, or relate to people. I never, ever got a brief. It was never written down. The script for Hot Snow, the first episode in December 1960, said: ‘Keel is about to push the bell button when the door is flung open. Steed stands there.’ Just that, nothing else. No description. Nothing. So I just made him up. The added threat of instant dismissal three weeks later enabled me to create him myself, very quickly. […] He was never a character in literature like Bulldog Drummond, Simon Templar or James Bond, or a personality somebody else had first created in another medium. Steed was never written down.”
Through Macnee, Steed was transformed – and in doing so, Macnee transformed the programme itself. He infused Steed with very specific, iconic vestimentary images to create a sartorial soufflé: the playful theatrics of Sir Percy in The Scarlett Pimpernel; the British understatement and wit of Major Hammond in Q-Planes, the precision and correctness of the great Beau Brummell himself, and the Edwardian dandyism of Patrick’s own father ‘Shrimp’, were all integrated into Steed’s identity. Macnee wrote in Blind in One Ear, “The only difference between Macnee and Steed was one between a silk topper and a bowler.”
In addition to all of these influences, there was also an intentional move on Macnee’s part to distance Steed from James Bond. Creator Sydney Newman had originally been inspired by Casino Royale for Steed’s character. Macnee writes, however, that “In this book were scenes of the most unbelievable sadism, horror and beastliness, and graphic descriptions of the villain hitting Bond’s testicles with a carpet beater – terrible, ghastly stuff. To my thinking, this seemed to be the opposite of what I was interested in. Bond used women like battering rams and seemed intent on drinking and smoking himself to death.”
Macnee showed himself something of a forward thinker in his attitude toward women in particular – not only did he reject the violent, womanising action figure of Bond, but he also fought against the studio when they complained Steed was not ‘masculine’ enough against his partner Emma Peel. But the audience, like Macnee, understood what the studio did not. One of the greatest attractions of The Avengers was the fluidity of gender: the gentleman dandy in the bowler who could talk himself out of a crisis, and his mod female dandy partner could kick her way out.
But it wasn’t just the change in aesthetics that made The Avengers such a success – anyone can put on a nice suit. What mattered most was how well he wore it. Macnee gave Steed panache and style, and very specific expectations about the correctness of a gentleman’s appearance. In interviews during The Avengers’ original run, Macnee stated that clothes and accessories “should reflect personality. Steed’s things are light and flibbertigibbet. I use the Edwardian look – it’s different. I have a number of peculiar likes and dislikes. They mean a lot but I can’t give reasons for them. I’ve chosen my clothes on my own instinct completely.”
His instincts proved in good taste – in 1963, Macnee was voted one of the Ten Best Dressed Men in the World. In fact, Steed’s wardrobe was so striking that Pierre Cardin and Hardy Amies invited Macnee to help design a line of men’s apparel based on Steed’s own wardrobe – an offer he later regretted turning down.
It was his concern with the precise details that made Steed unique – Macnee proved knowledgeable about men’s fashions, and how to use them to make statements about one’s persona. Both Macnee and Steed proved to have a flair for iconoclasm, and used clothes to protest against what they saw as a mundane society. In an interview in 1967, for example, Macnee stated, “I want to outlaw ties. Useless garments. Nasty, dangly, stringy things. Serve no purpose at all. I wear them as little as possible. And I hope the men of Great Britain will follow my example. Cravats were in there first, you know. Wasn’t until 1840 that a few traitorous eccentrics abandoned ’em for those dreadful ties. Ties are simply symbols of conformity. Cravats have flair, masculinity. You won’t find a tie in my wardrobe.”
Macnee also loved “exceptionally wide cuffs. No good reason – except that I can wear enormous cufflinks” and embraced the pin-stripe suit despite (or, perhaps, like his affection for the cravat, because of) the fact that it had gone out of fashion. His famous umbrella? “Nothing special about that – except that it must have a knobbly handle. I detest smooth handles. That’s terribly important.” The fashions change considerably throughout the show, but once that whangee-handled gamp is introduced, Steed is rarely seen without it. Macnee explained that, as a war veteran, he chose the brolly because “I prefer umbrellas
And that famous bowler hat that came in co-ordinating colours to his tailored blazers? “A devil to iron,” Macnee explained. “No common bowler. One flat-irons it on the side.”
The fashions might have gone a long way to securing Steed’s popularity, but one must never forget that Macnee’s comic timing had the power completely to change a scene. That Old Etonian charm came with a mischievous glint in his eye, which told you to take nothing seriously – because neither Steed nor Macnee seemed to be. He met the mundane with slightly surprised, widened eyes and raised eyebrows, but the dastardly villains with ridiculous plans were usually met with a subtle smile and a waggish riposte.
In announcing Macnee’s passing on his website, his family wrote, “Macnee was an ambassador for the tradition of the British gentleman, with his special brand of congeniality, humour and intelligence, his remarkable physical agility, and his unfailing good manners, sense of decency, and fair play. His comments and responses to questions were laced with a tongue-in-cheek, somewhat subversive sense of irony, along with a lightning-fast wit”. Patrick Macnee was, of course, much more than the character of John Steed; and yet, in creating a figure of such legacy, part of Macnee will endure as that man in the bowler hat, Chelsea boots and tailored suit. The “ambassador for the tradition of the British gentleman” will live on.