She was my first crush, back when I was something like eight years old, and she’s certainly one of the strongest influences on my intellectual development (if any).
Emma Peel, as portrayed by Dame Diana Rigg, is one of the icons of the 1960s, a sex symbol, and one of the earliest strong, empowered female leads in television entertainment.
The story is well known – The Avengers started out as a crime drama featuring Ian Hendry as Dr Keel and the late, lamented Patrick Macnee, as undercover operator John Steed.
With the end of the first season, Keel departed and was replaced by doctor Kathy Gale, as portrayed by the gorgeous Honor Blackman – and a legend was born.
Much of the look-and-feel of the Avengers comes from the Gale era (1962-1964), starting with Steed’s Saville Row look complete with bowler and brolly.
The axis of the action shifted, too: while still being the professional of the duo, now much of the action and fighting became the department of the female lead; Steed became a suave, tongue-in-cheek character1, helped in his adventures by a smart, pragmatic woman that dressed in leather and practiced karate.
It was a triumph.
In 1965, Blackman left (to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), and the series went big time – a syndication deal for the USA, technical improvements, and a new female lead.
She should have been called Samantha Peel, shortened into Mantha Peel2, but then good taste prevailed, and Mrs Emma Peel got a name.
As for the actress portraying Steed’s new partner, the final selection singled out 27 years old Diana Rigg, a solid theater actress.
With the arrival of Rigg in the show, The Avengers became the stuff of legends.
What is it that makes Emma Peel so heart-stopping?
Granted, young Diana Rigg was absolutely gorgeous, and the costume department provided her with a striking, iconic wardrobe.
But the real factors that contributed to the success of the Peel character – and of the Peel/Steed team – were probably two, strictly intertwined.
The Emma Peel character is wonderfully designed – she is a strong independent woman, probably a widow (her husband disappeared while flying over the Amazon), a creative artist and a perfect foil for Steed. Her dialogue is sparklingly written, and her smooth, elegant moves – Rigg practiced tai-chi instead of Blackman’s karate – came together in creating an alluring, credible character.
The chemistry between Steed and Peel – and between Macnee and Rigg – was also essential. This is not meant as a way to downsize the work Diana Rigg and the writers did, but really the character Emma Peel works so well because she is part of a couple, she is half of a greater hero.
The result of placing Rigg and Macnee together on screen is a joy to behold: there’s the fun, the fast banter and the jokes, the perfect timing and the relaxed self-assuredness of two dancing partners, and also a subtle, inobstrusive sexual tension that the viewers can get – if they are old enough – and appreciate.
The exact nature of the relationship between Peel and Steed – apart from avenging crime and pursuing increasingly surreal bad guys – is never made explicit.
They hang out together, they drink tea and champagne, they chatter amiably and joke together.
It’s elegant, rarefied, classy, and – in retrospect – somewhat hot.
Granted, the fortune of the series during the Peel era also depends on a number of technical factors – better sets, tighter scripts, a unique design that was influenced by the Swinging London and influenced popular culture back.
But the characters and their interplay is still fundamental.
Is Emma Peel and anti-damsel?
It is true that she is captured, tied-up, menaced and kidnapped with a certain frequency. And it is true that Steed has to rescue her in more than one occasion.
But it’s Peel’s attitude that is as anti-damsel-y as possible. Mrs. Peel is in control, she is self-assured and independent.
She can do the saving as often as being saved and in a single, striking episode, The House that Jack Built, she reacts to the persecution of a stalker by using her intelligence and spunk, one of the fines examples in TV history of a strong woman hitting back on a hideous stalker.
Rigg did not enjoy very much her stay on the show – according to MacNee, she revealed him she considered him, and her driver, the only friends she had on the show. In 1967 she left the show – Mrs Peel’s husband was found in the Amazon, and Emma went back to her old life3.
During her reign as Emma Peel, The Avengers had gone color, and was one of the most popular shows on TV.
Probably for this reason, the production decided to change everything – a doubtful “return to realism” was pushed on the scriptwriters, and Mrs Peel’s place was taken by Tara King – a stereotypical spunky girl, the sort that uses a pan to fight off bad guys, and is desperately in love with Steed. Brian Clemens, the original brain behind the show, took a leave, and when he came back the series was crippled.
The Avengers would never be the same.
But Emma Peel, alone or in the classical Steed/Peel combo had become the stuff of legends.
To me it taught that girls could be cool too (hey, I was 8!), but I’m pretty sure it forever twisted my perception of the fair sex, setting me on a course I’m still following today: the best princesses are the ones that don’t need rescuing.