'Avengers' girl Emma Peel was meant to be a man

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She Was the sexiest woman on television: the female member of The Avengers, leather-clad, kinky-booted, and ever ready to land a knock- out blow. Now the secret behind bowler-hatted Steed's sidekicks Cathy Gale and Emma Peel can be revealed: the part was meant for a man.

According to Dave Rogers, co-author of Steed actor Patrick Macnee's autobiography, the writers of the series first meant The Avengers to be an all-male team. The Avengers: and Me, to be published next month, says that when actor Ian Hendry left the series in 1961 after an actors' strike, Honor Blackmancame in to play Steed's partner and the series dropped its original name - Police Surgeon.

Rogers says: "The simple facts are that when Honor Blackman joined the show as really the first Avengers lady, she was playing a man's part because she took over from Hendry, and the first five or six scripts she did were written for a man.

"That's why she played them in this rather butch, heavy-handed, toughie fashion and of course it stuck and thereafter not one of the Avengers girls, Honor, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson or Joanna Lumley, was given any direction as to how to play the character. The Avengers girls were basically guys if you like, in girls' costumes. They were on a level with Steed."

The Sixties cult spy-series is remembered for its fantastic plots and outlandish characters: John Steed, the charming, upper-class secret agent who always carried an umbrella, had begun life as secondary to Ian Hendry's character, but played by Macnee he emerged as star. The Avengers went on to become a spoof, with fantasy violence, macabre plots and zany villains. It is still broadcast regularly around the world, although the last episode was made more than 20 years ago.

"We led the world because Mrs Catherine Gale, played by Honor Blackman, was certainly the first, the very first strong-willed woman," argues Mr Rogers. "She was the role model for everything that came after."

With 162 Avengers episodes behind him, Patrick Macnee is now set to play an unnamed "surprise" role in a pounds 40m film version with Ralph Fiennes as Steed, Sean Connery as the villainous Sir August De Wynter, and Uma Thurman as Steed's sidekick Emma Peel - a pun on M (for male) appeal.