Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mit Schirm, Charme Und Melone: The Patrick Macnee Obituary

Patrick Macnee, the star of The Avengers, has died in California at the age of ninety three. The actor, best known for playing the charming, quintessentially English super-spy John Steed in the 1960s Telefantasy series, died at his home with members of his family at his bedside, his son Rupert said. A statement on the actor's website read: 'Wherever he went, he left behind a trove of memories.'
The elder of two sons, Daniel Patrick Macnee was born in London in February 1922 into what he would later acknowledge was 'a jolly eccentric family'. His father, Daniel, trained race horses in Lambourn. Patrick's maternal grandmother was Frances Alice Hastings, who was descended from the Earls of Huntingdon. Patrick's parents divorced when he was five after his mother, Dorothea, declared her lesbianism. Subsequently, Patrick lived with her and her lover (referred to in Patrick's memoirs, Blind In One Ear: The Avenger Returns, as 'Uncle Evelyn'!) who helped to pay for Patrick's schooling. He was educated at Summerfields Preparatory School and then Eton. At the age of eleven, he acted in Henry V opposite a young Christopher Lee - the two would remains friends for the next eighty years before Chris's death last week, appearing together as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in a pair of reasonable American TV movies Incident At Victoria Falls and Sherlock Holmes & The Leading Lady.
At Eton, where he was a contemporary of Michael Bentine, Patrick was a member of the Officer Training Corps and was one of the honour guard at King George V's funeral at St George's Chapel in 1936. Patrick was later expelled from Eton, allegedly for selling pornography and being a bookmaker for his fellow students. Deciding to become an actor, Patrick first appeared on the West End stage as a teenager and made his film debut as an extra in Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard's Pygmalion (1938). He enlisted in the Royal Navy as an Ordinary Seaman shortly after the outbreak of war and was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant in 1943 becoming a navigator on Motor Torpedo Boats in the English Channel and the North Sea. After military service, Patrick attended the Webber Douglas School of Dramatic Art on a scholarship and was soon getting roles in BBC productions like Arms & The Man and A Month In The Country (both 1946). However, disappointed after several years of limited roles, Patrick left England for Canada and the United States. Patrick appeared in supporting roles in a number of films, notably as an extra in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948), in the Gene Kelly vehicle Les Girls and with Anthony Quayle in the war movie The Battle Of The River Plate. He had small roles in Scrooge (as the young Jacob Marley), The Small Back Room, The Elusive Pimpernel and Three Cases Of Murder. He was also one of those unlucky enough to have been involved in Bob Hartford-Davies's notoriously z-list vampire movie Incense For The Damned (a troubled production which ended up being released three years after filming started).
Between these occasional movie roles, Patrick spent the better part of the 1950s working at dozens of British, American and Canadian television productions and in the theatre. Not long before his career-making role in The Avengers, Patrick had taken a break from acting and served as one of the London-based producers for the acclaimed documentary series The Valiant Years, based on the war memoirs of Winston Churchill. It was whilst working on The Valiant Years that Patrick was offered what was initially another seemingly small part, in the first episode of Sydney Newman's new ABC espionage drama.

The Avengers was originally conceived as a starring vehicle for Ian Hendry, who played the role of Doctor David Keel, whilst Jon Steed was the somewhat shadowy figure who recruited Keel to work with him for a non-specific part of the British Intelligence Service. Patrick later became the lead after Hendry's departure at the end of the drama's first season. He then played opposite a succession of female partners who included Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson as the series mutated from its original gritty cold war crime drama roots into something else entirely. The Avengers ran from 1961 to 1969 and developed a cult following around the world. Not least for having - by a considerable distance - the coolest title sequence in TV history. Witty, urbane, gregarious and unflappble even in the face of dastardly criminal masterminds with names that usually reflected their varied and deranged obsessions, Jon Steed was known for his immaculate dress sense, always donning a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella, which doubled as a lethal weapon. Steed accomplished his tasks whilst never carrying a gun. As Patrick told the website The Quietus: 'I said that I wouldn't carry one. When they asked me why, I said that I'd just come out of a war in which I'd seen most of my friends blown to bits. They said, "What are you going to carry?" I thought frantically and said, "An umbrella."' Patrick later became an outspoken opponent of the proliferation of privately owned guns in the US. A huge hit in Brtain and Europe, The Avengers was also one of the first British productions to receive network distribution in America where it is also highly regarded. 'We were in our own mad, crazy world,' Patrick told the Wichita Eagle in 2003. 'We were the TV Beatles. We even filmed in the same studio.'
'I missed so much of the Swinging Sixties by working,' he recalled. 'From 1961 to 1969 I got up at 4.30am, a car came for me at 5.30am and I was taken to our studio at Teddington or Elstree and we filmed until I got home at 9.30pm, five days a week. I spent most of the Sixties in a giant shed filming even though I lived around the corner from the King's Road in Chelsea!' Although Patrick evolved in the role as the series progressed, the key elements of Steed's persona and appearance were there from very early on: the initial mysterious demeanour giving ay to an increasingly light, suave and flirting tone with his female partners, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel and Tara King. Alongside the designer Pierre Cardin, Patrick adapted the Steed look into a style all his own and he went on to design several outfits himself based on the same basic theme. During the 1960s, Patrick also co-wrote two original novels based upon The Avengers, Dead Duck and Deadline. Patrick returned when that series was reprised as The New Avengers in the 1970s, appearing alongside Joanna Lumley and the late Gareth Hunt. The French and Candian co-production wasn't a big hit at the time but is now regarded as every bit a worthy sequel to its 1960s predecessor. In a 2014 interview with The Lady magazine, Patrick said that he believed The Avengers was such a worldwide success because it 'did something different and did it better. It was beautifully written, the ideas were very good, way ahead of their time and they incorporated fantasies for people who dreamed of doing exciting things.' The fact that Emma Peel in particular is frequently cited as one of TV's first feminist icond is partly a tribute to Patrick Macnee's ability to embody a version of the traditional English gentleman; one who was, seemingly, comfortable having a powerful woman at his side. In pretty much every interview Macnee gave on the subject, he always credited Diana Rigg for the show's success and praised her acting. In one interview, Patrick noted that when Linda Thorson replaced Rigg, the show 'went downhill' because they no longer had the same dynamic of Steed and Mrs Peel being equals. As this blogger wrote several years ago: 'The Avengers reflected the 1960s by taking its concerns, its neuroses and its aspirations and painted them - in broad, impressionistic cartoonesque strokes - across the canvas of popular consciousness. It was not always pretty, but it was very London. If the 1960s had a face, that face had to reflect the optimism of the age as much as the anger, the confusion and the schizophrenia. Steed didn't, couldn't, represent this. His was more the face of the 1950s: Harold MacMillan's Great Britain rather than Harold Wilson's: Solid, reliable, multi-talented of course but, ultimately, belonging very much to a pigeon-hole of an established order. But Cathy, Emma and even, to an extent, Tara do represent aspects of the 1960s face. And in making that face female The Avengers - as an entity regardless of whether it was "just a TV show" or not - changed the world: Perhaps only to a tiny degree, but changed it nonetheless. Which is as much as any television series has ever done and a damn sight more than many would even dare to try.'
Patrick's other significant roles included playing Sir Godfrey Tibbett opposite his friend Roger Moore in the worst James Bond film, A View To A Kill (1985) and as Major Crossley in The Sea Wolves (again with Moore and another old friend, David Niven). He also appeared in several cult movie like Joe Dante's The Howling and, in a memorable cameo as the record company executive Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap. In 1981, he played Doctor Stark in The Creature Wasn't Nice and he took over Leo G Carroll's role as the head of U.N.C.L.E. in The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
He had guest roles in Encounter, Alias Smith & Jones, Hart To Hart, Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, Armchair TheatreGavilan, Empire, Battlestar Galactica, Frasier, Spy Game, PS I Luv U and The Love Boat. He also made early appearances in The Twilight Zone and Rawhide and, later, presented the American paranormal series Mysteries, Magic & Miracles. Patrick made his Broadway debut taking over from Anthony Quayle in Anthony Shaffer's mystery Sleuth in 1972 and subsequently headlined the national tour of that play. He was, reportedly, not best pleased when he lost out on the role of Andrew Wyke to Laurence Olivier in the subsequent movie adaptation. Patrick served as the narrator for several behind-the-scenes featurettes on the James Bond DVDs. He loaned his voice in a cameo as Invisible Jones in the 1998 critically slaughtered film version of The Avengers and also featured, memorably, in two pop music videos: as Steed in original Avengers footage in The Pretenders' 1986 video for 'Don't Get Me Wrong' and in the Oasis's 1996 promo for 'Don't Look Back in Anger' (shot at Patrick's palatial gaff in California, in which he played the band's chauffeur). 'I've always been a bit eccentric,' he once noted. 'I love to do things nobody else does.'
Patrick is survived by his two children, Rupert and Jenny, and one grandson. He was married three times, including to the actress Katherine Woodville, with whom he acted in the very first episode of The Avengers. He had been a US citizen since 1959 and spent his later years at a very beautiful home in Palm Beach. 'Who'd give up sunny California for the grey old Earls Court Road?' to told the Daily Scum Express in 2010. 'I'm looking out at blue skies and the mountains and trees, and it's so beautiful.'
      Musing on life during an interview five years ago, Patrick said: 'I’m not afraid of death. What's to fear? Once you're dead, that's it. I don't believe in heaven or hell. That's baloney. What matters is the here and now. Yes, I'm eighty eight and there are things I can't do: I can't run a race or climb Everest. But isn't life magnificent?'
And so to yer actual Keith Telly Topping's 45 of the Day. Which is this. What else did you expect?

1 comment:

Mark said...

Beautifully written Keith. John Steed remains one of my all time heroes, I can't imagine a life without Patrick Macnee's glorious depiction. RIP