A hat of his time

Patrick Macnee, aka John Steed, quintessential Englishman, cult hero of `The Avengers', tells Leise Spencer about his lesbian mother, bowlers, brollies and the joy of being a one-part wonder
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The Independent Culture
At Toronto's Harbour Hotel in 1977, Patrick Macnee found himself in a lift with Peter O'Toole. Asked by the actor what he was working on, Macnee said he was filming The New Avengers. "But Patrick," replied O'Toole, "you're always doing The Avengers!" As the urbane, amoral secret service man John Steed, Patrick Macnee created one of the best-known TV characters of the 1960s, and it's a role that has stuck with him ever since. Sitting in Brown's Hotel in Mayfair, the umbrella may have been replaced by a walking stick, and the lascivious good looks now curling into Mr Punch, but Macnee still emanates the same fruity Old Etonian charm.

After a career that has spanned Hollywood, Canada and Australia, the 75-year-old actor has returned to the series in a new "behind-the-scenes" book, The Avengers and Me. It was "sheer luck", Macnee says, that he was offered his most famous role. Abandoning a "hopeless pounds 12-a-week career" in England he had emigrated to Canada in the 1950s, where an infant TV industry had already attracted the likes of William Shatner and Christopher Plummer. While "Billy" and "Chris" played Hamlet and Macbeth in armchair theatre, Macnee played the Cassios and Horatios, "because I was all they had".

Returning to London in 1960, Macnee was contacted by the The Avengers creator, Sydney Newman, "a lovely little Canadian", who offered him the part of Steed. "No one here had heard of me. I got it because he knew my work from Toronto." So Macnee became partner to Ian Hendry's police surgeon in the original, all-male series. After a few weeks, however, Newman called Macnee into his office. "Patrick, I'm afraid you're just not working out. You don't seem to be anything. Go away and think of something." Macnee came up with the Savile Row suit, bowler hat and umbrella and made the part his own. "I took some elements from my Dad," he explains. "He was a horse trainer and a real dandy. He'd always wear big velvet collars, a cravat and a carnation in his buttonhole."

At the beginning the series was filmed live. Finding it hard to learn his script, Macnee evolved Steed's languid delivery from an acting technique that involved walking around the set very slowly as he tried to remember his lines. He also drank hard to soften the grind of rehearsals, script rewrites and 5.30am starts. "We all drank. At that age we never thought of the future at all. I didn't stop until someone told me that if I didn't, my liver might never recover. It did, but look at Peter O'Toole, he's only got half a pancreas."

Only when Hendry's dour hero was replaced by Honor Blackman did The Avengers really take off. Kitted out in black leather outfits - "to stop her trousers from splitting and showing her knickers when she did judo" - Honor Blackman's "kinky" action heroine kick-boxed the show into success. Brainy, physical and sporting a mean garter gun, Mrs Catherine Gale was a revolution in women's roles. "The Avengers really gave women a dignity and strength," argues Macnee, "if only on a comic-strip level."

While Blackman trained to become a brown belt in judo, the closest Macnee came to a stunt was having his Bentley pushed into frame. "I've always been completely unphysical," he smiles serenely on the afternoon of the FA Cup Final. "I was forced to play games at school but I never enjoyed them. There's an important soccer match this afternoon, but it bores the arse off me watching people kicking that stupid little ball. Anyway all that stuff about people doing their own stunts is rubbish. You're paid enormous amounts of money by the insurers not to do them."

Camp scripts stuffed with bondage, innuendo and kitsch violence made The Avengers synonymous with Swinging London, and when Macnee and Blackman collected a Variety Club Award in 1964, The Beatles were among the other prizewinners. "They used to work next to us at Teddington Studios," recalls Macnee, "so we knew them already. We used to see the Rolling Stones there, too," he adds, "although they were hardly known in the same way. The Beatles commanded a certain respect, but the Stones were seen as scruffy, dirty people. Scum, really."

Although the success of the series rested on the then risque role reversal of the two partners, Macnee argues that he "wasn't submissive but equal. I just let the women get on with it, but I don't think it made me less of a man." Indeed, it wasn't until he recorded the 1964 novelty single "Kinky Boots" that Macnee discovered what "kinky" meant. "It didn't exist as a word when I was at school but the sexual deviation certainly did." Brought up by an alcoholic lesbian mother, her lover and their friends, Macnee believes his unconventional childhood helped him to forge a good rapport with his screen partners. Gallant about them all, he became closest to Diana Rigg and Joanna Lumley, whose leggy, toothy Purdey was the best thing about the 1970s New Avengers - a blowsy, unsuccessful bid to revive the series. "Di Rigg had wonderful grace and co-ordination. Lumley was good, too. I adore Lumley, she's a special, special person." On screen and off, Macnee had no amorous success with either of them.

Despite topping the cult series That Was the Week That Was in the ratings, Macnee and Blackman made "awfully little" money from The Avengers. "We weren't even allowed to do commercials," sighs Macnee. "The producers said it would demean the series. I don't know why they were so precious, the first reviews we got said, `the commercials are slightly more amusing and interesting than the show itself'." When Macnee asked for a percentage of profits, he was told, "we don't need you that much, Patrick, we'll just get a younger man". "The management called us `The Talent', but treated us like chimney sweeps."

Honor Blackman escaped to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, but not before suggesting the whisky-swilling Macnee see a psychoanalyst. "I thought it was nonsense," chuckles Macnee, "but when I finally went I was tremendously grateful. You have to try to realise why you're going wrong, sort the bloody thing out with primal screams and that kind of thing. Talking about things made me able to function."

Now retired to Palm Springs, Macnee spends his time walking on the beach and going on cruises with his third wife, Baba. Even at sea people want to talk to "Steed". "People identify you with the character, but I never drank champagne. I never drove fast cars. It was my second wife who said I ought to buy a Jaguar, before that I borrowed an old Vauxhall." Seeing the actor among the floral tea cups and wood-pannelling of Brown's politely insisting on a slice of orange rather than lemon for his mineral water, it's hard, however, not to think of Steed stirring his tea anti-clockwise, and Macnee will admit to a residual possessiveness about the part. In the new Hollywood version of The Avengers, which is shooting here next month, Ralph Fiennes plays the louche hero. "I heard that they're giving him a rose in his buttonhole," says Macnee, "and I said, `Steed never wore a rose, he wore a carnation', it must burgundy and tucked deep into the buttonhole'. Then I thought, `Oh my God, what am I saying, Steed doesn't have to do any of those things. Who cares?'"

He's more concerned by accusations that his "quintessential Englishman" abandoned his country in 1969 for an easy ex-pat lifestyle abroad. "For a start, I'm not English. I'm a rather wild Scot," he smiles. "And anyway, The Avengers was finished." With bland Linda Thorson replacing Diana Rigg, the sixth series certainly saw the formula beginning to look a bit tired - and Macnee a bit fat. Worried he was looking too portly, the producers sent him to a Harley Street doctor who prescribed him the slimming drug Durophet. "They sent me there to lose weight, and it fell off me," says Macnee. "The problem was Durophet is basically Speed. It makes you hugely boring because you can't stop talking and what you're saying is nonsense. Worse still, you don't realise. You think you're absolutely marvellous." By then Macnee had been doing the series for nine years and was doing it "by rote". When it ended he needed a change, "so I went to Australia. Durophet was banned there, so I went cold turkey."

Macnee remains a British national - "can't breathe in the heat of Palm Springs" - and seems wistful about England. "It's not that I'm an exile, I've just never had much success here. I was in a play at the Savoy 10 years ago which flopped, I was in The New Avengers, which flopped and I was in another play that never even got to London. So it's not for want of trying." He regrets "not being known in the West End", but takes an optimistic view of the peripatetic career he's enjoyed since Steed's demise.

"I got too secure in that role, by the end I looked upon myself and the public with scorn. If you get too complacent, you're sunk."

From the agent who told he him he "had the looks but not the mouth" to the one cent royalty cheques he still receives for his cameo in Rob Reiner's Spinal Tap, Macnee seems to have few opportunities to feel smug. Cast in Mister Jerico, his first movie after The Avengers, producer Michael Eisner said to him, "You're too fat. You're too old. I don't like you in the part but, God, as you're in it we'd better go ahead." "Oh God, yes," recalls Macnee ruefully, "they wanted Robert Wagner. It was so humiliating. Eisner's head of Disney now. A first-class beast."

Arch, chatty (although medically impossible, Macnee wonders whether traces of Durophet have remained in his system) and suavely self-deprecating, Macnee is sanguine about the limits of his talent, "I never had what it takes to be a star," he twinkles. "You know Tom Cruise is a very short man but he'll go up in a plane, climb mountains. He's frightfully brave and I'm not, I'm a complete coward. I can't be bothered. You'd never get me on a trapeze".

`The Avengers and Me' is published by Titan Books