The late Brian Clemens was the man who made The Avengers a TV legend. Back in 2011 Kerensa Creswell- Bryant met a hero of the small screen…
A never before published interview with the late creative force behind The Avengers.
Writer and producer Brian Clemens OBE passed away in January 2015 after a career spanning some of the most influential and best- loved British television series of the 1960s and ’ 70s. He brought boundless inventiveness and a gift for creating iconic characters to The Avengers, paving the way for onscreen equal rights with the portrayal of Emma Peel: the first TV heroine with intellect, athleticism, social status and screen time equal to that of her male counterparts. Clemens didn’t create
The Avengers but it’s his vision of a stylish, quintessentially British spy- fi world – deadly and quaint in equal measure – that the series is remembered for, five decades later.
Following the success of The Avengers Clemens went on to create ’ 70s hits The New
Avengers and The Professionals, contribute scripts to The Persuaders! and co- create the ’ 90s techno- thriller series Bugs. He brought his wit and imagination to the big screen, too, writing and producing Hammer’s Captain
Kronos, Vampire Hunter and Dr Jekyll And Sister Hyde. He also penned the screenplay for the 1973 Harryhausen classic The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad.
In tribute SFX presents this previously unpublished interview, conducted at Clemens’ Bedfordshire home in the company of his wife Janet in 2011.
Can you describe the era when The
Avengers arrived on our screens?
There was a feeling of a run- down country. At the same time there was a relaxation of social pressures. As a young man, the world and a lot of pretty women were your oyster. The acceptance of accents developed, then you got designers who’d never been to academies and photographers like David Bailey. All the guidelines were being blurred. The programmes began to reflect that.
The Avengers was part of that backdrop. Steed should have been on the Beatles’
Sgt Peppers album cover. He’s up there with Andy Warhol and that mob. When television first came, it was almost entirely run by people who’d been in the theatre. Towards the end of the ’ 50s the British film industry started to die off. People were queuing up to work on The Avengers. We had Star Wars’ Gilbert Taylor as our cameraman, Alan Hume who did a lot of the Bond and Carry On films, and we had Laurie Johnson score for each one – prior to The Avengers he’d scored for Kubrick on Dr Strangelove. I worked with
Born Free’s Jimmy Hill and wonderful Ealing comedies director Charlie Crichton, who taught me a lot about humour on screen. The Avengers became a bit like The
Morecambe And Wise Show; every actor wanted to be on it too. They got paid, and it was great fun.
Sounds like the dream job… I sometimes worked 18 hours a day on The
Avengers and never begrudged a moment of it. All I remember is laughing all the time. It was halcyon.
What did you draw on for story ideas?
As a child books were orgasmic to me. That and listening to the radio in bomb- shelters got me wanting to write. I’ve never lacked ideas. Dennis Spooner used to say The Avengers was in my head, and in a sense it was. I always knew when I was discussing a story, or some idea somebody had brought in, I’d instinctively know if it was an Avengers story or not. We could do anything in The Avengers, as long as it was done well, and it had its own kind of logic. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve written, I’ve always written as though I’m writing the very best I can. I always said if we can’t do the Titanic properly, I’d rather we do the greatest rowboat disaster ever filmed.
The Avengers has an enduring legacy. What’s the secret?
Everything is key in making The Avengers successful. When I see [ the words] “A film by Joe Bloggs”, they’re kidding themselves. Films are made by about a hundred people. Not only was it good because it was produced so well, but the other thing was that it was different. Its difference is still applicable and its humour still works, and its charm. I’ve always believed that you can do anything on any subject at all, as long as you do it with style and good taste. It’s not a problem series. It’s England, as we like to think it was, but never was. It’s the England that the Americans imagine; either The Avengers’ men in bowler hats being very courteous to women, or it’s covered in fog. It made no concessions. We were totally uncompromisingly British, and it worked.
You co- created the sequel series The New
Avengers. How was that experience?
My idea was to do the series, set it up, write two, and then step back and go off and work on The Professionals, but we had a terrible script editor who came in. I went on a short holiday, Albert [ Fennell – co- producer] was in Toronto, and when I came back, nothing had happened, no progress at all. I had to sit down and write two scripts quickly otherwise we’d stop production. You can never stop production. In those situations I’m very aware of the budget as I’m producing too. We got super notices on the first one, saying “Back and better than ever”. But then the cracks started showing, only because we were being funded by a crook, who ended up in prison. When it all went pear- shaped, Albert and I said we can’t have actors and writers not being paid, so we bankrolled it to a tune of around £ 80,000 each. When it suddenly sold on network we thought “Phew, the money’s finally coming in now”. We weren’t paid by EMI for maybe 25 years though. Albert was dead by then, so he never benefited at all. That’s the nature of the business. The rotten people survive forever. But I’ve always been a man of my word, I hope. I pride myself on it. The French [ co- production] episodes weren’t too bad, but significantly I was there all the time. Unfortunately, the last five or six episodes are not as I’d had wished them, because financially we had to kind of hand them over to the Canadians – lovely people though they may be, they’re not Avengers folk. They were still good episodes; made badly but still in fact really good scripts.
The Bond films and The Avengers were the two spy- fi hits of the ’ 60s. Did the Bond phenomenon influence you at all?
I think Bond was influenced by us! After the first season, I wanted to make an Avengers feature – if we’d made it, we’d have had pre- dated Bond by 12 months or so. Significantly though, Bond, although officially an American movie, is very much a British concept, and that’s why it works. Looking back and seeing Roger [ Moore]’ s films, they have a cheeky wit about them, which is smashing. I think that’s what’s lost in the new ones. You have quite a taciturn lead in Daniel Craig. I think he’s Bond’s driver for me, he’s not smooth enough. He’s a fine actor, but for me he’s not Bond. They are also treading a very strange path. Because of the success of the Bourne films, they bring that element of reality in, which sits very unhappily with the spoofiness of Bond.
Had James Bond met Emma Peel, how would she have reacted to him?
I think she would bristle a little bit with Roger’s Bond, but he’d have changed to suit her. With Sean’s Bond she might have demanded a little more respect. Fascinating thought, actually.
That would have been fun to witness. And Steed’s reaction?
I think Steed would secretly be thinking “New boy” about Bond. Though he’d never say it.
If The Avengers were brought back for this generation, who would you cast as Emma Peel?
There are several possibilities, I think. Keira Knightley, for example, but I can’t really apply myself to that as it ain’t gonna happen, I don’t daydream. The thing about Diana and all the Avengers girls, when they’re not actually throwing someone through a window, they’re very feminine and vulnerable. Most American women are not vulnerable. I think the most difficult casting, which happened in
The Avengers movie, which I had absolutely nothing to do with, thank god, was finding a Steed. You need to believe that he has the backbone of an agent. Every so often he’d smash someone with his bowler hat; he had that ruthless quality.
Which of your characters has the most of you in it?
Gosh, nobody’s ever asked that before. Well they’re all me because I’m a Walter Mitty. You should ask my wife, she’s more equipped to say! I think I’d have liked to have been Steed. Good clothes, good food and wine and pretty girls [ flashing a smile to Janet].
Brian Clemens 30 July 1931 – 10 January 2015.
The New Avengers was Clemens’ last time with Steed and co.