brian cle­mens

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…

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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.

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