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Remembering Actor Patrick Macnee: Cold War 'Avenger'

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Monday, 29 Jun 2015 10:20 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Actor Patrick Macnee, who died last week at age 93, was mourned around the world for his signature role: John Steed, the urbane secret agent on TV’s long-running series, “The Avengers.”

But little memorialized about Macnee’s Steed is how the suave man from British intelligence was a true-blue anti-communist who outwitted Soviet saboteurs in the coldest days of the Cold War.

More than half a century after the series premiered, Steed (no one ever called him John) remains an icon to generations for his trademark bowler hat (lined with a steel plate) and umbrella, his custom-tailored suits from Savile Row, and, of course, his three successive (and beautiful) female partners who helped him in his weekly triumphs over evil-doers.

Although Steed and all of his female companions had to overcome a host of diabolical masterminds, international crime syndicates, and corporate raiders (one tried to kill off competitors by inducing heart attacks through the pocket “beepers” that preceded cellphones), they also had to deal frequently with the spies Russia sent to undermine the United Kingdom.

Given the era in which “The Avengers” captivated TV audiences (1961–1969), one could easily conclude that Steed was a national treasure for his country’s intelligence services — and one they desperately needed at the time.

In January 1963, diplomat Kim Philby, a product of Britain’s elite Eton private school and Cambridge University, admitted he had been spying for the Soviet Union for two previous decades and fled to Moscow.

The revelation left the British people speechless, especially since it came eight years after a parliamentary inquiry cleared Philby of being “the third man” in a high-level spy ring that also included fellow diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess (also Cambridge graduates; both were exposed as double agents in 1951 and promptly defected to the Soviet Union).

“I have no reason to conclude that Mr. Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country, or to identify him with the so-called ‘third man,’ if indeed, there was one,” concluded then-Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan.

These words proved, as Macmillan biographer D.R. Thorpe put it, “a hostage to fortune.”

Philby’s admission of treason and defection to Russia left major black eyes for Macmillan, by then British prime minister, and the British foreign intelligence service, MI5.

Like Philby, Maclean, and Burgess, the fictional John Wickham Gascoyne Beresford Steed, was a product of a privileged background and, like the real-life Macnee, was expelled from Eton. He served with valor as an army major in World War II and then worked for British intelligence, driving classic Bentleys and Rolls Royces and seemingly unconcerned about money.

Boasting of his generous expense account to the jealous Soviet KGB agent Keller in the episode “The Charmers,” “England expects and all that. You have to maintain certain standards, you know.”

Steed outwitted Keller, who was so incensed at his superiors in Moscow for cutting his expense budget he formed a “third force” to kill Russian as well as British agents. Double agents in the mold of Philby were no match for Steed.

He uncovered them in the episode “Traitor in Zebra.” He also thwarted the treacherous scientists trying to dismantle Britain’s early-warning radar stations in “The Gravediggers,” as well as others working to assist the Russian communications satellite Vostik 2 in “The Thirteenth Hole.”

The character of Steed “was unquestionably a patriotic Englishman,” recalled James Coomarasamy, presenter for the BBC’s “Newshour,” who watched “The Avengers” as a child.

Steed operated quite independently out of his swank bachelor flat at 5 Westminster Mews, but occasionally reported to a mysterious superiors known only as “One-Ten” and “Charles” (heads of MI5 always used codenames).

The ties to British intelligence were less clear in the cases of Steed’s first female partner Mrs. Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackmun, later famed as “Pussy Galore” in the James Bond epic “Goldfinger), an anthropologist whose husband was slain in Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising, or her successor, Mrs. Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) wealthy widow of an explorer.

But both demonstrated they could handle themselves against the most frightening foes: the leather-clad Mrs. Gale was a master of judo, while Mrs. Peel, in her sometimes skin-tight outfits known as “emmapeelers,” was a karate expert.

Miss Tara King (Linda Thorson) was the last of Steed’s partner’s before “The Avengers” finally ended in 1969 and the only one who had actually trained as an espionage agent. In her debut in “The Forget-Me-Knot,” Miss King recalls how her classmates in spy school spoke of operating in “the Steed way.”

“As Steed, Patrick Macnee was reassuringly British, calming and civilized at a time the Cold War was so scary,” David Campbell-Bannerman, Conservative Member of the European Parliament for East London, told Newsmax, “His cheery confidence and witty repartee suggested there was no question British civilization would triumph over evil, despite all the perils. Dark forces would be repelled with a minimum of fuss and farce — and a maximum of classy actors and stylish U.K.-built sports cars.”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.


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As Steed, Patrick Macnee was reassuringly British, calming and civilized at a time the Cold War was so scary.
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2015-20-29
Monday, 29 Jun 2015 10:20 AM
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