Patrick Macnee: The Man with the Bowler
by Mark Zimmer
John Steed was one of the most iconic characters to come out of the 1960s, with his unmistakeable bowler hat and bumbershoot. Patrick Macnee, who portrayed the unflappable Steed, has been indelibly associated with the television series The Avengers for four decades, fighting crime with style and wit alongside an array of some of Britain's top actors—and especially actresses.
dOc caught up with the still-busy Macnee at his Hollywood home on July 14, 2003 to talk about the new A&E DVD release of the first (1976) of two seasons of The New Avengers.
Patrick Macnee: May I ask you a question, before you've even asked me one? Have you seen that wonderful new boxed set? Aren't they beautifully done?
dOc: Yes, they look very nice indeed.
PM: And they sound good. I think it's wonderful when people spend as much effort and care and taste on putting something together like that. I only saw it myself for the first time earlier this last week. I was absolutely delighted that those shows have been preserved. I mean that [episode] Target!, for instance, that shooting one, is a sort of poetry-in-motion type thing all of its own. It was done by this extraordinary man, Ray Austin, who is a master of action. He was in Hollywood for a long time after us, and because of us, a top TV director.
dOc: Yes, the programs really have a great visual flair. The ones directed by Robert Fuest, in particular. I know he started off as a production designer for The Avengers, and became a director, and his programs in particular seemed to have a real visual style to them.
PM: Well, way before he did The Avengers, they did a thing called Saturday Night Theatre on television, which was one of the first really good television shows, done way back. He was the chief designer...I don't know what would be the equivalent. He was a mixture of an architect and a designer and an artist. And then finally, one of our best directors in England, in my opinion.
dOc: I know he did the Dr. Phibes movies with Vincent Price, and I thought they were wonderful.
PM: Oh, I'm so glad you thought they were wonderful, because we always used to be rather grand about Bob Fuest. Oh God, doing those Dr. Phibes things, as if The Avengers was the only thing that mattered, since at that time it was so high. At one time we were the number one show for five years running.
dOc: It seems as if in the US, anyway, that there was a perception that this was the only thing being made in England at the time.
PM: Well, of course, there was Secret Agent, Patrick McGoohan's show, in a popular sense. But the first reviews we got were that the commercials were great, and the show they put in between them that's called The Avengers, is all right. They started us on a very sort of "Eeeeuw" sort of way, and of course we became immensely successful, because we had enormously talented people doing it. And it was just better than anything else. It was also the first [British] show to be taken up in the United States and put on the air.
dOc: How did that happen?
PM: I'll tell you exactly how that happened. I met the man who used to be the head of ABC, who's a member of the club that I belong to here, and he bought it in the year 1966. He came over to England to see all the shows of Lord Lew Grade, a strange man who was the head of all television in all England. He looked at all the [programs] until suddenly he saw this show that he'd never heard of called The Avengers, and realized of course that it was far better than any of the others. So thank God he bought them, put them on ABC for three months. People watched them, they didn't like them, they took them off, and they brought them back again after about another three months interval, and they've run in [the US] almost constantly ever since.
It enthralls me now that at 7 o'clock tonight, I shall turn on the Discovery Channel, and I shall see The Avengers, and I'll see it tomorrow and the day after and the day after that and the day after that. This is forty years after they were made. We must have been doing something right. Isn't that extraordinary?
dOc: I would say so. I think a lot of it has to do with the well-delineated characters that are featured in the programs.
PM: Don't you think also it was the use of action, the use of a good deal of strange photographic effects and all sorts of illusions all together? I mean, myself and Di Rigg were just two human beings in it. It was what they did with us that was so exciting.
dOc: The part that has always appealed to me most was that it never seemed to be taking itself terribly seriously.
PM: Well, you know, I was through the whole of the Second World War and saw all my friends killed. I'm not going to bore you with that, but people say, "Well, what did you do when you were seventeen?" and I say to them, Oh, I went and fought the Germans. "Well, we don't want to hear about that sort of thing." I say, Well, you asked me what I did when I was seventeen. I mean, I killed as many people as I could in the morning—"Well, we don't want to know about that." I say, You asked me what I did. If more people would ask themselves what they're doing now, we'd have less people turning up in the morning and killing a lot of other people. And I spent five years from the age of seventeen or eighteen, in the forces, it used to be the euphemism. People say, "Oh, you were in the War, you were in the Navy, oh yes, and what did you do?" I say, I killed a lot of people. They say, "We don't want to hear about that sort of thing!" I say, That's what we did, and that's what people are doing now.
And if they'd bloody well stop doing it, there might be some peace in the world. I feel very strongly about it. And of course, having been put in at the age of eighteen, into the killing fields... you remember that sort of thing. Nothing worse than seeing a dead body at your feet, with all the guts splattering out. I just ended up doing that every morning.
dOc: What engagements were you in during the War?
PM: Engagements? Well, let's get it quite clear. We were based on Dover, which is 22 miles from Calais. We'd have dinner about eight o'clock, and then we'd get in our boats and go off—it only took twenty minutes to get to just off France—and we would slaughter, demolish, kill as many E-boats and their cruisers as we could find. And then we'd go back home again. And the Germans were shelling. That sounds kind of insignificant, but if you have a gun on the ground firing at you constantly over and over again, it's pretty terrifying. That's what we did, basically, for five years, until the war ended. It's so ludicrous, isn't it? I don't know how to say anything more than that, because people don't quite understand what you mean when you say you were at war. Now I think they do, because television is showing it, thank God, so graphically in Iraq that people now seem to know what happens when you go to war. You get killed.
dOc: It does give it more immediacy than just reading about it in the newspapers.
PM: Yes. And in the Second World War, you didn't just read about it in the newspapers because you weren't allowed to read it in the newspapers. It was all censored, you know? So nobody knew what we were doing. There we were, absolutely plastering about all over the place, killing and being killed, and nobody knew what the hell we were doing. In fact, my wife, when I came on leave, said, "Well, what were you doing last week?" I said, Well, we went to sea. She said, "Oh, was it nice?"
I mean, there was no television, the radio weren't allowed to say what was happening. The radio even weren't allowed to say there was a Holocaust and people were being killed right, left and center in these terrible camps. We weren't allowed to put that in the English papers, for fear that it might prejudice whatever it was. I mean, the time was so ghastly. I'm now eighty, and from the age of about seventeen to twenty-five, I came out myself and about two other people were left alive from our flotilla. And we came out and then started our lives again.
dOc: That must have been quite a transition back to civilian life.
PM: Isn't it interesting that you say that. You see now on your television, you see these constant programs with people having psychological help, don't you? Not just in the offices, now you see it plastered all over television, "Now lay down, darling, and let's think nice thoughts, and we'll see that the fact that you disembowelled somebody yesterday won't affect you the day after tomorrow." We didn't have all that. We just disembowelled people. So, at the end of the War they said, "Right, you're on your own now." You won't believe this, but I promise you, because it's very different now, you were on your own. You were on your own from the day before yesterday bayoneting someone and disembowelling them, to, "Oh, hel-lo, may I come work in your law firm?" or whatever. It was quite strange. And nobody was very grateful to us, quite frankly. They started fighting and killing each other all over again, didn't they? I'm not bitter about it; I'm just ironic.
dOc: How did you get into the acting field from that point?
PM: Well, at the age of seventeen I got into it professionally, and I was in the West End of London in a play. I did a good deal. I went to acting school, but only for nine months. If you're an actor, you know, don't really need to learn how to do it. I didn't learn how to speak—you know what I mean by speak? Speak on a stage, so that you can be heard—until I was fifty-five. I was doing a play on Broadway called Sleuth, which is one of the biggest hits on Broadway, and I had a run for three years.
dOc: Anthony Shaffer.
PM: Anthony Shaffer, yes. And I played the lead in it for nearly three years, and towards the end of it I'd lost my voice. My [doctor] said, "You mean to say you've lasted this long without knowing how to speak?" But I suppose so. And he taught me how to speak. You get breath in just above your pubic area, you fill all your stomach up, and then when you get to the chest bone, you take another breath, and then you're full of breath. Alec Guinness can do... I think it's eleven sentences—he can't now, poor man, because he's dead—eleven sentences of Shakespeare on one breath. You try and do that.
dOc: I can't even imagine it.
PM: So I find the fascination, the love, the incredible skill and everything to do with acting, writing plays, and doing them, just darling. Lovely. I love actors.
dOc: You've turned up in some things before The Avengers that I hadn't expected, like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
PM: I may say, I was an actual extra, you know. I was at drama school, and to pay the fees I used to do extra work. Absolutely. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. All of them are dead now. Anton Walbrook, Roger Livesey, all that lot. And there was a very famous man called Michael Powell, who probably is the greatest director all round, except possibly a couple of men. So I worked with some wonderful men when I was not yet into my twenties.
dOc: And then you were Young Marley in the Alistair Sim A Christmas Carol.
PM: I was in a repertory company at Windsor, and they asked me to come on over, and I did that in a morning. I can tell you how much I got, five pounds. At that time that would have been twenty dollars for one morning's work. Just the morning, and I went back and worked on the stage in the evening.
dOc: And you showed up in Boris Karloff's television series The Veil.
PM: Well, I emigrated to Canada in 1952 and came to Hollywood in 1954, and I had a cousin called David Niven who helped me a great deal, a darling man. I did quite a lot at that time. It's quite boring; I won't bore you with the details. But I did an awful lot of work in Hollywood, and in New York for that matter.
dOc: I know that you more in production work than acting before The Avengers came along. Were you getting discouraged about acting?
PM: Oh, no. I worked all the time. No, I was working in Canada. In fact, the man who asked me to be in The Avengers, I told him, what do I need to be in that, I'm a producer now. I was producing a series about Sir Winston Churchill, about which I was extremely proud, and earning a lot of money as a producer. And he suddenly came and said, "Do you want to do a show called The Avengers?" I said, What's that? This would be 1960. And then I went into this thing and did it with Ian Hendry, who was a great actor. He was a big drinker too, so he died [in 1983].
They had an actor's strike, and when the strike was over, they said, "Well, do you want to go on doing this thing? We're only going to pay you a hundred pounds a week." That would be about four hundred dollars. And I said, Well, what else have I got. "Nothing. You haven't got anything unless you've got that." So I'd done this thing with a man for some time and they said "Oh, I think we'll have a woman." So they got a woman, and she didn't work out, and then they got this extraordinary woman, Diana Rigg, who turned out to be one of the greatest actresses that's ever been: Dame Diana.
You can't get a much better actress than Dame Maggie Smith or Dame Diana Rigg. They're the tops, aren't they? She was so sweet to me, too. [That's] my favorite remark [about] her, because she was always so sure of herself. We were working on something or other and she said, "There's only one way to do it, Patrick!" But of course she was absolutely wrong. There are about eighteen different ways to do it. But she was like that: there's one way to do it. But what she meant was, "That's the way I'm going to do it, and that's it." She was a lovely woman. Well, still is.
dOc: Do you keep in touch with her?
PM: Oh, yes. She has got a nice house in France now. Actually, she's just done a big part in Rome in one of these big miniseries. [Charles II] She's playing a big part in that. She's very active. And her daughter [Rachael Stirling] is a movie star now.
dOc: When the program came along in 1960, did you have any idea what would come of it, or that you'd be playing this character for so long?
PM: I don't know, really. These things don't just come, arrive and settle like a bird picking up a few bits of crumbs. They develop. I think the best word for these things is develop. They develop because of the human beings who just happen to be there at the time. And that's what happened to that show. It started ordinary, it started really rather bad. As I said, there was a review that said, really, we think the commercials are better than the show. And then it gradually developed. We got some wonderful minds working on it. One is now dead, David Green, who won seven Emmy awards for Roots and other things. We had some of the best people in anything, and television was just starting. A lot of people don't realize those things. If you're in at the beginning of things, if you're the first man on the moon, you're the first man on the moon, and no one can take it away from you. And we were the first people in television to do a show as different as that.
dOc: One name that keeps coming up through the history of the program is Brian Clemens; I see the name but have heard very little about him.
PM: Brian Clemens. He was a very retiring man. You will his name on every inch of The Avengers, and but for Brian Clemens there would have been no Avengers. He was just wonderful. Wonderful. He still is. He's still writing in England now and making a lot of money, but he was always great.
dOc: Is he the one responsible for the whimsical air the show often had?
PM: Well, I think we were responsible for that. He was responsible for rattling good stories, a lot of humor, good form, a knowledge of how television shows are put together, and everything like that. He was a very fine mind.
dOc: The first series doesn't seem to have turned up on video. Does it still exist anywhere?
PM: The one with Honor Blackman?
dOc: The one with Ian Hendry, as Dr. Keel.
PM: There are about three of them I saw. It was on Starz, the channel that puts all these things on. They have all these early episodes. I saw one of the ones with Honor Blackman the other day, and I wish to God they'd never resurrected them. But they put them on, yes. But that's live television. I don't know if you know what I mean by live television. You do it, and people watch it at the same time as you're doing it. That may sound very ordinary, but it's difficult enough to remember the lines anyway. But if you've got to remember them, knowing that the show is live for the next hour, and you can't stop, and people are watching...
dOc: It must be difficult doing scene changes live.
PM: Difficult? It's almost impossible. I knew one famous director, and in the middle, live, he had to stop. He said, "I don't know how to go on." And the script girl had to finish the show.
dOc: That wasn't one of your shows?
PM: No, as it happens, it wasn't.
dOc: Getting back to The New Avengers, in the episode To Catch a Rat, Ian Hendry comes back.
PM: Yes, much later. That was with Lumley. You can't get much bigger than Lumley, she's the biggest star in England now, of anybody. She's got another show that's on now, that's hugely successful, Absolutely Fabulous. She's a wonderful woman.
dOc: How did that revival come about? It's pretty unusual for a show to be off the air for six years and suddenly be reincarnated like that.
PM: You know, I have no idea. You'd have to ring Brian Clemens, and he'll tell you. He conceived the whole thing and did it.
dOc: I've read that you weren't entirely happy with where the character of Steed was going in the first season of The New Avengers. Is that true?
PM: Well, that was just jealousy on my part. They had two young people who were extremely good, and I was sort of pushed to the sidelines. I would have been much wiser to have refused it, but I was too greedy. I should have refused it and let them get on with it. They'd have done it much better on their own.
dOc: It's hard to imagine The Avengers without you, though.
PM: To people who'd seen it before, yes. I had sort of an indelible thing because I was always there. And I looked peculiar, and I was different, and I'd done so much work in Canada, and particularly in New York. I'd done some of the top shows in New York, like Playhouse 90, and I was a very experienced television actor way before my time. When you think, I did that show in November, I think it was, and thirteen years later, on and off, I was still doing it. I was the only person there on the first day who was still there doing it also on the last day.
dOc: The New Avengers series seems to crank up the sexuality a bit over the more innocent 1960s ones.
PM: Yes, well, you had two young people, you know. They're not bad stories, though. I saw one yesterday that I thought was quite good. They call it The New Avengers but it's really the old Avengers with new people except for me, looking rather fat and rather old.
dOc:I thought you looked pretty trim, really.
PM: [Laughs] Well, that's the way I see it. What's really extraordinary is the beauty in the way they've brought those cassettes and DVDs out. It looks really good.
dOc: Did you have any input into the characters that would be onscreen with you, or in the casting?
PM: None at all. Brian Clemens did all of that. Joanna Lumley is just one of the most intelligent, the brightest, certainly beautiful, of course, women that I know. She's a wonderful writer. She's a considerable woman. I adored working with her, and I'm very fond of her anyway.
dOc: Speaking of writing, there were a couple of Avengers novels that appeared under your name. Were those really written by you?
PM: Oh, yes. I write a little bit. Not very well, and the books weren't very good. And didn't sell very well.
dOc: And you've done a couple of autobiographies since then.
PM: Which are rather good. The second one, The Avengers & Me, is very good. It was written by me, with all those pictures. I'm very proud of that. The first one, not so much. I wrote one called Blind in One Ear, which is a sort of facetious title, and rather an ordinary book. But The Avengers and Me is a very good book.
dOc: You seem to be very comfortable with the identification you have with John Steed, where I think Diana Rigg doesn't seem to be as comfortable talking about the program.
PM: Well, she had a lot more in her to give. She's not Dame Diana for nothing. At that time she was treated in that awful male way that male producers treat women, you know. And she was absolutely right. She wanted to leave after a couple of years. I begged her not to, and she fortunately gave of herself when she didn't need to.
It was male chauvinism, as you must realize, in the 1960s, particularly in the entertainment business, which was pretty repulsive. The fact she was brighter than any of them infuriated them, and consequently they tried to make life difficult for her. So she said to hell with you, and went off to much, much more successful fields. She's done so much since, and is one of the most successful actresses alive, whereas The Avengers is only a small part of her past. Whereas with me it's something that I'm no actor the way she is an actress. She's an actress who's played Medea; there aren't many actresses who have. And she's won, I think, three Tony awards. A very considerable woman.
dOc: I understand that you won an award for preventing terrorism. How did that come about?
PM: I did a commercial. Can you imagine? Two things I love about that award: One, it wasn't all that long ago, and two, I come on the television screen and say, "It's all right to bring your guns into the airport, but please don't take them onto the plane with you." Now, that it's me, in an official from-the-airlines ad, so presumably there wasn't an official thing saying you couldn't take guns into airports. Shortly afterwards there was. It would be late sixties. Isn't that shocking?
dOc: Before all the hijacking started back then.
PM: Only just before. You can find those commercials somewhere, but they were put out by the airlines.
dOc: In recent years, I understand you've been doing a lot of books-on-tape work.
PM: Yes, my proudest one [Bad Company]is out this moment, by Jack Higgins. It was published on the 26th of last month.
dOc: You've done quite a few Jack Higgins books, haven't you?
PM:I've done fifteen. I shall be doing more. Thursday, Friday, I'm doing a whole show on the Second World War, and the last one I did was about Princess Diana, and they come on television a lot. So I'm doing quite a lot, but within my own ability.
dOc: You also did a book on tape of the Bible?
PM: No, no, that's erroneous. No, I never did.
dOc: They claim that on your website.
PM: Well, it shouldn't. Somebody should take it off. The only danger about websites, you know, is people who remember something you did or said thirty or forty years ago, and bring it up against you, so you're going for a job and you don't get it. "I hear you violated a small dog in 1938..." Oh, did I? "Yes, and therefore you won't get this job with IBM." I'm paraphrasing, but only just.
dOc: I should warn you, this interview will be going out onto a website.
PM: That's fine. I find [the fact things never disappear from the Internet] absolutely disgraceful. I don't know if you've done something in some outlet that will come up to haunt you forty or fifty years later? "Oh, you killed four small babies in 1928. What a pity. Well, you won't get the job, then." And I'm only just exaggerating. There comes a point where, why should everything you've ever done be held against you in a public way, and especially if it prevents you getting a job with IBM? If you want one. Which I don't.
dOc: What did you think of the Avengers movie a few years back?
PM: It was unfortunately very bad. It was written brilliantly; it was a lovely, lovely script, and then an American producer who shall be nameless came in and proceeded to completely decimate it. To make, which I thought was completely ludicrous, the woman dominant, if you know what I mean. You see, the American attitude of women is you put them up there on a pedestal. Well, that's not The Avengers. The Avengers is the two characters, one's male and the other's female, set in the early '60s, something that hadn't been done before. The two people were "ha ha ha" equal. What is wrong with that? Does the woman always have to be underneath? Can't she be alongside? We were the first people in popular television to make the woman an equal partner with the man. You won't believe that, but I promise you it's true. Isn't it awful to think that that sort of thing is unusual.
I'll give you a very good example of that. Until the year 1967, it was a crime, for which you could be put in prison, to make homosexual love to someone in your own house. If they came in and caught you at it, you could be put into prison. This has changed—I'm talking about England, incidentally. In 1967 they said, Oh no, it's all right. From now on you won't have people come into your bathroom and put you into jail, but don't do it on the street because then we will put you into jail. You think I'm joking, don't you?
dOc: No, considering that's the way it was in the United States until last month.
PM: I don't believe it! I'm talking about England, and I'm talking about 1967. You're not making that up, are you?
dOc: I'm not making that up. That was just declared by the Supreme Court in June.
PM: I think that's appalling! That is a wonderful story. I mean it's a horrible story. I thought I was telling you something... my God, really? Not at all. [laughs] How dreadful!
It's always a pleasure to talk. I saw the DVDs last night. I managed to get my DVD player going and they've been done beautifully, God bless them. So there we are.