A sleek aristocratic redhead zipped in skintight leather, she was the hottest thing on TV. The Avengers’ Emma Peel had pulses racing in the 1960s, but for her own thrills she turned to the Lotus Elan.
Cult British spy-fi show The Avengers was the most stylish television series of its age. “Sophisticated as champagne, as hard as diamonds, and as cool as a pistol barrel,” read one tagline. It followed the adventures of professional spook John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, and “talented amateur” Mrs Peel, played by Diana Rigg
Her John Bates-designed catsuits, miniskirts, and op-art mod clothing caught the imagination of those trapped in buttoned-up blouses and the legions of men who lusted after her. Rigg had joined the cast four seasons in, in 1965, just as (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction played on the airwaves and Britain’s sexual revolution was on the boil.
“After seeing The Avengers women were leaving their homes, their kitchens and their crèches in droves and going out and starting to throw men over their shoulders, which they’ve been doing ever since,” laughs co-star Macnee. “It was sheer luck that the women’s movement was starting to get going then.”
The writers wanted a character with ‘man appeal’. Or ‘M.Appeal’ for short. Emma Peel was kittenish yet capable, and she needed the wheels to match.
“Mrs Peel was the modern side of the Avengers,” notes producer and writer Brian Clemens. The reserved Steed dressed as a quintessential Edwardian gent with his Pierre Cardin pinstripes, bowler hat and umbrella always within reach, and favoured the stately ride of an open-top Bentley Blower. In contrast, his partner was the classy and spirited embodiment of young swinging London, with a PHD and a black belt to boot.
Always elegant, yet never afraid of innuendo, or for a bit of rough and tumble; she responded to being knocked out by an assailant like she’d been awoken by a lover bearing breakfast in bed.
Her car had to be modern, fast, and as pretty as its driver. “Patrick was driving old classics and we wanted something very modern and interesting,” confirms Clemens, who cast both the actress and the car. “We wanted a car that would have a unique quality, but wasn’t an Aston Martin or a Rolls or something because that would have been wrong for her character. It is exactly the kind of car Emma Peel would have chosen to drive. It’s very pretty, it handles well, and it suits a racy woman.”
The Elan summed up the Sixties: a playful two-seat ticket to freedom, it was technically innovative with a fiberglass body, four-wheel independent suspension and steel backbone sub frame, 680kg with a peachy power-to-weight ratio, bang up-to-date styling beloved by Kings Road cruisers, and a liberating, rock n’ roll attitude.
Mrs Peel’s car would often be found parked beside a crime scene, perhaps crawling up to the base of an evil mastermind, or, as seen in the montage overleaf from the episode The See-Through Man, escaping the clutches of a Jaguar-driving Soviet major – who happens to be invisible (them’s the worst).
Series Four’s episode The Cybernauts first introduced the white Elan S2, with Emma en route to rescue Steed from death at the hands of a robot. The following season was the first to be shot in colour, and the lady customer upgraded to a new S3 in powder blue. “There was no choice, that’s what we were given. That’s what Lotus sent us,” says Clemens. “But they were brilliant to us, and extremely keen for us to use their cars because it was a wonderful shop window that they didn’t have to pay for. They said it was worth something like the equivalent of $10 million in advertising in America. Until it came on The Avengers the Lotus was virtually unknown over there.”
One episode, A Touch Of Brimstone, proved too much for the American censors. Mrs Peel, dressed in a dominatrix outfit of corset, laced boots and spiked collar, and with a snake wrapped around her shoulders, went undercover as the “Queen of Sin”. It was never screened in America because it was considered overtly erotic by the ABC network. “However,” says a chuckling Clemens, “I later heard that their executives used to privately screen it when they got together for conventions”. Despite the staunchly feminist leanings of the character, some cried sexism, which was ironic because the knickers and basque outfit was designed by Rigg herself.
Despite this upset, Series Five was a huge transatlantic hit, as well as in the UK where the Elan was already gaining a following among trendsetters. Himself an Avengers fan, Jimi Hendrix’ bassist Noel Redding bought one in yellow and encouraged Jimi and The Experience to pose on the bonnet for a magazine cover.
Produced in four different variants between 1962 and 1972, the car was Lotus’s biggest commercial success to date, reviving a company stretched thin by the more exotic but more costly to manufacture Elite. It’s starring role on the telly-box drove sales on both sides of the Atlantic, with the show’s mix of excitement, sex appeal and British eccentricity perfectly aligned with the character of this cute-as-a-button roadster.
The Avengers, with its stylish cars, Carnaby Street fashions and opulent sets, encapsulated a new image-conscious era. Photographer Terry O’Neil and supermodel Twiggy joined the ranks of those associated with the show.
In colour, Mrs Peel’s wardrobe seemed all the more avant-garde. Alun Hughes designed the ‘Emmapeeler’, a crimplene catsuit in bright block colours, which could be purchased on the high street and was flying off the racks, with housewives doing the dishes dressed as super spies.
“It wasn’t just about peace and love,” reasons Clemens, “people were discovering champagne, and realizing you could have a brandy after dinner. We exploited all those things.”
Less accessible was the Lotus, which was out of reach to most but was, for the producer, his favourite of all the cars at Elstree Studios. “I always drove every car for at least a few days. The Elan was a super little car. The only fault I could find with it was that the pop-up headlights sometimes gradually went down while you were driving along at night, which was a little bit unnerving.”
Initially, the headlamps were the least of Clemens’ worries because his actress couldn’t drive. “She didn’t have a licence. So in the earlier episodes we had a double drive while Di had a crash course in driving and passed her test. Then instead of being given a safe little car in which to learn the ropes she jumped straight into this high performance sports car.”
Diana Rigg left the show in 1968 to explore other projects, not least the role of James Bond’s wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Emma Peel, last in a string of “talented amateurs” Steed worked with regularly, was replaced by a neophyte professional agent named Tara King, played by Canadian actress Linda Thorson. Her car: A red Lotus Europa.
Clemens explains: “We didn’t want to have Linda directly compared to Emma Peel, we wanted her to be her own woman. Lotus were still being very kind, and were anxious for us to use the Europa. It was another stunning car, but very different looking”. Tara King was a more innocent, younger character, the Seventies were approaching, and the Europa was a good fit even if it wasn’t the easiest car to drive. “The rearward vision was non-existent,” complains the producer. “When you were pulling onto a freeway you couldn’t see what was coming up behind you. The other thing is that you lay down in it. This took a bit of getting used to really, but it was a very pleasant car.”
The audience was always left to guess whether Mr Steed and Mrs Peel enjoyed more than just a professional relationship. In Rigg’s final appearance, she returns to her waiting husband (a flying ace who had ditched in the Amazonian jungle and only recently been found alive, and who shared with Steed a penchant for bowlers and Bentleys). As Emma leaves Steed’s flat she passes her successor on the stairs, informing Miss King that John likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise.
“I wrote it so Steed both lost the girl and got the girl,” says Clemens of this scene ‘handover’. “And, as a coincidence, he lost one Lotus’s passenger seat, but gained another.”