Sinclair McKay says the Tory leader could do worse than emulate his fellow Old Etonian — the elegant, ruthless, cucumber-cool TV hero John Steed
Who is David Cameron’s role model? No one quite knows. Of course Dave would like to be a British Obama, but that’s a little far-fetched (for obvious reasons), so here’s another candidate, just as cool as the President but more up Cameron’s street. Like Cameron he’s an Old Etonian but a social progressive; like Cameron he’s a fashionable man-about-town. Basically, Dave couldn’t have a better hero than John Steed of The Avengers. Steed’s an example of how an unabashed posh chap can win over the entire British nation — plus the US as well. Indeed, a close viewing of Steed’s exploits could provide Mr Cameron with many useful top tips for power.
You remember The Avengers. As its star Patrick Macnee once remarked, it was a series about ‘a man who wears a bowler hat and a woman who throws men over her shoulder’. Those women, incidentally — Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) and Tara King (Linda Thorson) — helped to make Margaret Thatcher’s premiership possible. No one could doubt the ability of a woman to lead once they had seen Mrs Peel take charge of a crisis. Even if Mrs Thatcher never demonstrated any aptitude for balletic kung-fu.
But back to Mr Cameron and Mr Steed. Running from 1961 to 1969 (and resurrected in the form of The New Avengers in 1976, but let’s not go there), The Avengers was an outlandish, often expressionistic comedy thriller, ostensibly about spies, but really about England. And about class.
The villains were diabolical scientists or enemy agents or, more strikingly, people maddened by old traditions dying out. One elderly baddie, a department store owner who loathes the modern age, secretes a nuclear bomb in his basement electricals section (‘The first person to buy a washing machine,’ he roars, ‘will blow up London!’); elsewhere, a sinister scientist has invented a rainstorm-making machine with the capacity to drown poachers in the middle of fields; meanwhile, the rural inhabitants of a remote village conspire to allow killers to commit their crimes there in return for silence and big money; and deranged music-hall comedians fight the buy-up and closure of their theatre by slaughtering financiers with deadly suffocating custard pies.
England was swinging, but was not perhaps at ease with itself; Steed brought a smiling, rather inclusive optimism and seemingly effortless confidence. Confidence that could, in adjusted circumstances, dramatically lift moods today. Eh, Mr Cameron?
In the 1960s — the decade in which deference dissolved, and Harold Wilson’s raincoat became the synecdoche of a political era — Steed was the acceptable face of toffdom. (Incidentally, imagine such a hero on ITV now!) Whereas Fleming’s 007 was a bully and a snob, Steed was never less than charm itself with the lower orders.
Whether dispensing advice on how to handle an umbrella to an inept agent (‘Not so aggressive with the umbrella,’ Steed says. ‘Spritely. Not eager. Eagerness is the next worst thing to enthusiasm’) or remaining resolutely glib in the face of jeopardy (when up before an impromptu firing squad, Steed is asked for his last request. ‘Would you cancel my milk?’ he says), Steed embodied a very attractive approach to practical problem-solving. That was: keeping it light and, as Macnee once told me, ‘leaving it to the very last minute to manoeuvre out of trouble’. Go on, Mr Cameron — isn’t that healthier than Mr Brown’s incessant nail-gnawing?
Steed endeavoured to keep himself out of the class debate. In one episode, charm-school baddies have trussed Mrs Peel up with some public school neckties. As Steed struggles to free her, he observes: ‘Nothing so unbreakable as the bonds of the old school tie.’ But as Steed demonstrated, one’s own schooling never had to be brought into it. It was simply there, as a given, neither to be shouted about nor concealed.
And it was very much a case of iron fist, velvet glove. Even though Steed never used a gun (that umbrella had multiple offensive uses instead, including a concealed sword), he was smilingly ruthless. ‘That was very, very dirty,’ Mrs Peel remarks after some absurd fight sequence. ‘I never promised to fight fair,’ purrs Steed. Perhaps these days it is a slightly Mandelsonian quality, but is it any the worse for that?
Steed’s Bullingdon Club moment comes in ‘A Touch of Brimstone’, where he infiltrates a reincarnation of the 18th-century Hellfire Club. No trashing of restaurants here; instead, these elaborately costumed aristocrats plan to blow up a peace conference and heap humiliation on the government. Steed is rather bemused, not least when Mrs Peel appears before them all in a bondage corset, a snake draped around her neck, styling herself as ‘The Queen of Sin’. A rather more arresting proposition than pouting Darius Guppy.
And how the Americans adored Steed! When the series went into colour in 1967, it was the first British series to be networked coast to coast (it is still repeated over there, on endless loops). Indeed, in recognition of this, the show’s chief writer and producer Brian Clemens sought to intensify the Englishness of the thing, resulting in all those beautiful shots of utterly deserted London streets, and endless green meadows (the production team never used extras — as well as making an empty landscape or cityscape an arresting visual leitmotif, the watch-phrase was: ‘If they’re in shot, they’re in the plot’). Steed was a figure that many Americans would have recalled from war films, cucumber-cool to an insane degree. Imagine if that style of insouciant Englishness were to have the same charming effect in Washington now. Indeed, we may need it.
Despite his impeccable feminist credentials, Steed would not have had much truck with Harriet Harman-style approaches to equality. ‘Ruination to all men!’ cries the female villain of one episode. Steed raises his bowler to her. ‘We do have our uses, madam,’ he says.
These days, Steed is used as an icon of Britishness in beer ads. But through David Cameron, the notion of a perpetually unflappable, amusing and popular Old Etonian could find a new incarnation. Mrs Peel’s immortal advice to Steed might be adjusted slightly: ‘Always keep your bicycle helmet on in times of stress — and keep a watchful eye out for diabolical masterminds.’
Sinclair McKay’s book, The Man with the Golden Touch: How the Bond Films Conquered the World is published by Aurum Press. The Avengers will soon be available on Optimum DVD.