May this fair dear land we love so well
In dignity and freedom dwell
Though worlds may change and go awry
While there is still one voice to cry
There'll always be an England
That’s what I see when I watch The Avengers. I see England.
It’s England awash in sophistication and civility, with respect for tradition and for the crown; a place where gentlemen know about well-bred horses and tailored suits and fine cheese and good wine, prefer vintage cars to new ones, and refuse to get flustered even in the face of killer robots and invisible assassins.
It’s a nation populated by whimsical eccentrics who own shops that sell nothing but honey, or throw Christmas parties where attendees dress as characters from Charles Dickens novels.
And it is home to John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel. Have there ever been two characters that better personified an idealized vision of their nation of origin?
Steed could not have come from anywhere but England. His sartorial style, impeccable manners and aristocratic worldview were fashioned by a culture where such traits delineate a gentleman. His wine-tasting duel in “Dial a Deadly Number” is one of my favorite scenes in the series:
“Chateau Laffitte Rothschild…1909…from the northern end of the vineyard.”
Only Steed would find a dead foreign agent on his carpet, and lodge a complaint to his superiors because it’s “very untidy.”
Such a formidable chap required an equally eminent counterpart, and here The Avengers excelled first with Cathy Gale, and most notably with Emma Peel – scientist, journalist, mistress of martial arts, and an exquisite English rose who shares Steed’s gift for understatement. In “The Living Dead” she describes a nuclear annihilation plot as “highly uncivilized.”
Their remarkable rapport, consisting of equal parts mutual respect and affection, playful banter and sophisticated romance, remains unsurpassed by any two characters in television.
The England of The Avengers is not England as it is now, and not even the England that existed at the time the episodes were filmed. It’s an enchanting blend of reality and exaggeration, and every time I go there I look for signs of that civilization.
Finding them was always special – one could easily imagine Steed buying a bottle of champagne at Berry Bros & Rudd on St. James’s Street, or spotting Mrs. Peel in the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason, where afternoon tea has been served since 1707.
However, even if this England never fully existed, I think the idea of it is worth preserving and cherishing. But any attempt to explain why will require some tiptoeing, as it brings us in proximity to current political topics that induce people to start shouting at each other.
Let’s try it this way: for many classic TV devotees, part of the appeal of older television shows is their window into a specific place and time that we would love to visit.
For those of us who didn’t get to travel from an early age, shows set in other countries gave us our first looks at what life was like there. When an episode would be set in England or France or Germany or Italy, we were given a distinct portrayal of those places.
It was different from how our own country was represented on TV; partly because we lived here and didn’t need to learn about it from television, and partly because America has always been a product of people from all over the place, each contributing to the melting pot.
I’m sure most of us realized that all men in London didn’t wear bowler hats and carry umbrellas, and all French waiters didn’t wear striped shirts and berets. But when we saw these European locales, and they seemed so specific and exotic and appealing, it was natural to hope that, for those of us fortunate to go there, they would fulfill those original visions, naive as they might have been.
The Avengers was quintessentially British, a celebration of a culture that was delightful but not very diverse. Was that national culture and identity important? Or should culture be what naturally evolves over the decades and centuries?
I don’t know. And as I said this brings us into dangerous territory. But it makes me happy that as long as we can watch Steed and Mrs. Peel, the England in which they lived will always be preserved, whether it was ever real or not.