By Will Barber Taylor
Action adventure films have been a staple of cinema for the past couple of decades. From Fast and the Furious to Die Hard, from Atomic Blonde to Lara Croft, the genre has earned millions of dollars for studios and creators alike and has garnered a slew of fans. Yet the core appeal of these brands began not with films but with exciting and inventive TV series produced during the 1960s on British TV. Transmitted around the world, the likes of The Saint, The Avengers and Danger Man transformed how viewers would see adventure.
During the 1960s television made great strides both in the realm of realism and fantasy. In the realm of realism, kitchen sink drama like Cathy Come Home and Coronation Street enlivened the nation to the lives of ordinary people, particularly those in the North of England. In the realm of science fiction, the BBC extended viewer’s imaginations with Doctor Who, A for Andromeda and Out of the Unknown.
Bridging the gap between realism and fantasy were the great action-adventure series that had elements of realism coexisting and mingling into staples of the science fiction and fantasy genres. The likes of Danger Man, The Avengers and The Saint captivated audiences with their fast paced, action filled stories that saw the heroes of them facing threats sometimes in the UK but often in exotic locations.
As foreign holidays were still for many an expensive luxury, the use of exciting locations was a key part to the success of these shows. Whilst series like Coronation Street could show the grit of home and Doctor Who could transport the viewer to other planets, programmes like The Saint allowed viewers a midpoint between the two; the locations were far away enough to seem excitingly new yet at the same time be close enough that viewers could daydream about flitting around the Riviera with Simon Templar.
The fact that many of these shows were also transatlantic in nature, funded by American producers and featuring American actors demonstrating that they were intended as much for an American audience as they were a British one helped make them seem like an exotic adventure. However, it was not simply the visuals that caused millions of viewers to tune into these programmes but the stories and characters that were the crux of these adventure series’ popularity.
John Steed, Emma Peel, John Drake, Adam Adamant, Simon Templar – these were the names that captivated viewers week after week as they tuned in to see what kind of escapades, they would be getting themselves into. As it’s clear from that list of names, whilst adventure series continually featured female characters, there was only one leading protagonist who stood out during this era. This was partly because in most of the series women were often seen as more plot devices – characters that were there to either spur John Drake or Simon Templar on or be seen as a “reward” for the male lead’s heroic actions. Emma Peel was certainly not that and is in many ways the template for the female action hero that we have seen much more of in recent years. Whilst she was not the first of the era’s female leads, that honour goes to her predecessor in The Avengers Cathy Gale, Emma Peel was the most assertive, funniest and engaging female lead in any of the 1960s adventure series.
Whilst Emma Peel was the most outstanding female character to feature in these series, there were of course many remarkable male leads such as proto Bond John Drake, raffish adventurer and thief Simon Templar and “man from the Ministry” John Steed. Each were cool, active and sophisticated heroes but like the change that was occurring around them in the 1960s they themselves changed. Drake was originally an American secret agent and Patrick McGoohan’s somewhat jilted American accent did not help the series. Similarly, John Steed famous for his bowler, classic three piece suit and umbrella, the epitome of the British gent was for the first three series of The Avengers seen in a trench coat and rather bland two piece suit. With the change in garb and accent was also a change in temperament.
Both the early series of The Avengers and Danger Man were formed by the Cold War, that would heat up during the Cuban Missile Crisis that occurred during the first season of Danger Man and the second of The Avengers. Whilst the world of spies was fantastical, the events of 1962 made them feel all too real and the programmes became more fantastical as a result with Steed and John Drake dealing as much with mad eccentrics as they did with agents from “behind the Iron Curtain”. This changing nature of the action adventure series during the mid 1960s proved to be the most lasting impact of the genre – the mixing of more fantastical elements with a dose of humour allowed the genre to become more defined that it had been in the past and distinct from science fiction and the gritty realism of the kitchen sink drama.
It is these changes that fundamentally transformed the approach to action adventure that successive TV shows and film makers took. Humour would become an integral part of series like the Mission Impossible films and the Expendables. The use of eccentric masterminds rather than enemy nation states would influence the Bond franchise as would the portrayal of Bond himself with Sean Connery’s performance more akin to John Drake than Fleming’s original creation. Whilst women in action adventure series would for decades after still often be seen in a more objectified role, Emma Peel’s example would set the bar and be a template for future action adventurers like Lara Croft. The television shows during the 1960s truly did change the approach to action adventure by injecting humour, in some instances strong female characters and a more escapist angle to the genre. They would set the standard for action adventure fiction for decades to come and it’s a good thing they did for the genre would be poorer without their contribution.