Remembering the Sixties

It’s all coming back to me now: the Beatles, the space program, Woodstock, Star Trek, Presidents Johnson and Nixon, I Dream of Jeannie, the Vietnam War, the Avengers (John Steed and Emma Peel), MAD magazine, hippies, protests, the Six Day War….

My youngest daughter and I watch television together. Mondays we see I Dream of Jeannie, binge-watching if you can call three episodes a week a binge. Wednesdays we see the original Star Trek, although we have only three episodes left until we have to jump to the feature movies. Weekends this new year we’ve been watching musicals. So about ten days ago we saw “The Way to Eden,” known among Trekkies and Trekkers as the “space hippy” episode. With that episode still in my head, when we chose a musical to watch last night, I suggested we see Hair. She had not seen it before, but she’s old enough to handle it, so that is what we did.

Now I am very much in a Sixties mood. I’m torn between two movies for tonight. To stay with musicals and with Sixties music and dancing and clothing, I’m leaning toward Jesus Christ, Superstar. On the other hand, to continue her education about the 1960s (which is as remote to her life as the Great Depression is to mine), I am thinking of watching Forrest Gump. Either one would be a lot of fun, and I have a few hours left before I have to make up my mind.

Of course there is also the four-hour movie version of the Woodstock music festival. That might have to wait for another weekend, though…. J.

Patrick Macnee

Patrick Macnee lived a long and full life. Last week he passed away at the age of 93. I realized that my youngest daughter was not familiar with his work, so I went through my video tapes and found the Avengers episode, “The Hour That Never Was,” and we watched it together.

I should not be sad about the death of an actor I never met, but it seems strange to have “lost” both Patrick Macnee and Leonard Nimoy in just a few weeks. Both portrayed characters on television that meant a lot to me when I was growing up. I look at John Steed, and I see the man I want to be. I look at Spock and see the man I truly am.

Whether he was acting in character or just being himself, Patrick Macnee seems to have been a genuinely nice person. He possessed a soft-spoken charm, which is a very appealing characteristic to have. He could approach life with a strong masculine personality, and yet he could also express a boyish excitement about what he encountered. Steed was one of the first crime drama characters to face danger with a merry quip. Other actors have made that nonchalance commonplace—think of Harrison Ford as Han Solo or as Indiana Jones—but Patrick Macnee expressed it first.

For centuries, audiences have gathered to view drama, and they have celebrated their favorite characters. From the heroes of Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and MacBeth, memorable characters have shaped our view of who we are and who we can be. John Steed takes his place among the entertaining heroes from past times. (He even appears briefly in the Beatles’ cartoon movie Yellow Submarine.) A man can find far worse role models to imitate.


The Avengers (no, not those Avengers)


One of my favorite television shows is called the Avengers. No, it has nothing to do with Thor and Black Widow and the Hulk. My favorite television show is a British show from the 1960s, a sort of crime drama that succeeds because of the wit of its writers and its principle actors.

John Steed is a government agent, working for a peculiar agency that deals both in international relations (especially combatting spies from other countries) and in locally-produced criminals. Most of the bad guys are creating mischief on a massive level, threatening to overturn all the forces of good and replace them with selfishness and evil. Steed is always accompanied by an attractive female companion, the best of whom was Emma Peel. In the fifty-two episodes that feature Steed and Mrs. Peel, the pair tackle Russian spies, terrorists armed with a nuclear bomb, mad scientists and their powerful robots, corrupt businessmen, and even a vicious plant from outer space. In the course of an hour, the Avengers identify the enemy, confront the enemy, and overcome the enemy, generally at great risk to their own lives and safety.

The premise is undeniably common, but the shows are far from common. Patrick Macnee plays a stunningly suave British gentleman, a bit of a playboy and a drinker, and yet an accomplished crime-fighter of the highest caliber. Diana Rigg is not merely beautiful, but also keenly intelligent, athletic, resourceful, and every bit as talented as Steed. Whether they are investigating crime in a boarding school, a cross-country motor race, an underground cabal seeking to overthrow the government, the elaborate mansion and grounds of a train-loving eccentric, or some mysterious house out in the country, Steed and Mrs. Peel always know how to approach the situation. She can disguise herself as a nurse one week, a store clerk another week, and a dance instructor yet another week. Steed can pose as a military officer, a model for men’s clothing, and a rich idle man seeking love with equal aplomb. The writers always manage to add a few odd and amusing characters to the drama. The show is filled with humor, but not without the tension of “how are they going to get themselves out of this dilemma?”

Television has had many spectacular crime-fighters, but few of them have had the charm of John Steed and Emma Peel. Their quirky show had many stringent rules, almost all of which were broken. At least one victim dies in nearly every episode, often in the opening scenes, but blood is never shown—well, almost never. A woman is never murdered—well, almost never. Steed never fires a gun—well, almost never. No uniformed police officer is ever seen—well, almost never.

Steed is always the perfect gentleman, a model British citizen, polite and unruffled even in danger, generally with a quip to suit the current crisis. Mrs. Peel is always the perfect lady, able to defend herself and often Steed as well, but always able to take part in any ruse that will nab the villains. The Avengers Christmas special is especially remarkable in its approach to the characters and their opposition, but if I were to start listing favorite episodes, I probably would end up including thirty-five or forty of the fifty-two. If you have not yet had the pleasure of watching this show, I heartily recommend it to you. Though it is fifty years old, the show has lost none of its charm.