Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale may be the greatest of the Avengers women. She was the first television heroine who was truly her male co-star’s equal. She had the beauty and poise of a Hitchcock blonde, was independent and intelligent, and had a warmth and morality that the roguish John Steed often lacked. Blackman herself became a model for women in the early ’60s; she learned judo for the role, and wrote a Book of Self-Defence, one of the first such books aimed at women.
Audiences used to the surrealism of the Mrs. Peel episodes might be disconcerted.
Op Art and Mod hadn’t yet hit British TV, so the stories, while excellent, are more straightforward and less playful. Some are realistic spy stories; some are workmanlike crime thrillers; and some tell you more about ceramics and ambergris than you want to know.
Steed and Mrs. Gale have a snarkier, more complex relationship than he does with Mrs. Peel. She respects him, but doesn’t quite trust him and is often repelled by his ruthlessness.
There’s more drama in the Mrs. Gale episodes; in many of the colour Avengers episodes, the characters are comic eccentrics or victims killed by the menace of the week. The characters in the Mrs. Gale episodes have lives and agendas of their own, and The Avengers get involved in their lives – at least once, Mrs. Gale falls in love with a villain.
The episodes are shot on black-and-white videotape, so look decidedly less glossy than later episodes. (This shouldn’t bother anyone who’s seen, say, William Hartnell Doctor Who.) The series still looks stylish, though – thanks to Peter Hammond, one of the most auteur directors on British television. His style is immediately recognisable: reflections in mirrors, shots through glass or keyholes, unusually shaped objects. (Hammond later directed several of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes.)
The best Mrs. Gale episodes to start with:
Brief for Murder (28 September 1963): A couple of unscrupulous lawyers exploit legal loopholes to get their clients acquitted of murder. To stop them, Steed organises Mrs. Gale’s murder.
Don’t Look Behind You (14 December 1963): Mrs. Gale is invited for the weekend to the house of a wealthy collector, but things aren’t what they seem. Patrick Macnee’s favourite episode. Remade as the Mrs. Peel episode “The Joker”.
Dressed to Kill (28 December 1963): Steed boards a train for a New Year’s Eve Christmas party – and the guests soon start dying. Remade as the Mrs. Peel episode “The Superlative Seven”.
Esprit de Corps (14 March 1964): Mrs. Gale becomes a pretender to the throne to stop an army coup.
Mr. Teddy Bear (29 September 1962): Mrs. Gale’s first case – she pays an assassin to have Steed killed.
The Mauritius Penny (10 November 1962): A murdered stamp-collector leads to a group of neo-Nazis.
Death of a Great Dane (17 December 1962): Later remade as the Mrs. Peel episode “The £50,000 Pound Breakfast”. A hit-and-run victim has a fortune in jewels in his stomach.
Intercrime (5 January 1963): The Avengers versus an international crime syndicate.
Warlock (27 January 1963): Murder by black magic.
The Nutshell (19 October 1963): Treason in a top-secret nuclear bunker.
The Little Wonders (11 January 1964): The Avengers versus another international crime syndicate.
Mandrake (25 January 1964): The Avengers investigate why so many businessmen are buried in a Cornish graveyard.
The Charmers (29 February 1964): Later remade as the Mrs. Peel episode “The Correct Way to Kill”. The Avengers work with Soviet agents to stop a group of gentlemanly killers.
The Wringer (18 December 1964): Steed is arrested for treason and interrogated. Psychedelic.