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'Late Movie' favorite 'The New Avengers' comes to DVD

July 24, 2003
By Franklin Harris

Back in the Dark Ages, as the younger generation reckons it, there was this thing called "The CBS Late Movie." As David Letterman was prone to quip, "The CBS Late Movie" wasn't a movie — not at the end, anyway. It began in 1972 as a dumping ground mostly for made-for-TV films, but by 1976 it was something different. It was a showcase for TV reruns, mostly crime dramas, padded with extra commercials.

After the late local news, you could tune in to such mainstays as "Kojak," "Harry-O," "McCloud" and "Columbo." To some extent, late night on CBS in the '70s and early '80s was rather like daytime on A&E today. But mixed in with the reruns were a few first-run programs, too — at least, first run as far as Americans were concerned.

"The Avengers," which aired on both British and American television in the 1960s, paired dapper, unflappable spy John Steed (Patrick Macnee) first with Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman), most famously with "talented amateur" Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) and finally with rookie agent Tara King (Linda Thorson). But that all came to an end in 1969. And seven years later, producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, with the help of financiers in France and Canada, resurrected the series as "The New Avengers."

The new series lasted 26 episodes and teamed Steed with yet another female partner, Purdey, played by the absolutely fabulous Joanna Lumley. And as Macnee was then 53, the producers decided a third Avenger was in order — someone to handle the bulk of the heavy lifting and fisticuffs. So, enter Mike Gambit, as portrayed by Gareth Hunt.

With its trio in place, "The New Avengers" picks up where the old left off, more or less. Our heroes face all the familiar threats to the Realm: Nazi cultists trying to thaw a cryogenically preserved Hitler, Eastern European spies and Steed and Mrs. Peel's old adversaries, the Cybernauts. But "The New Avengers" is undeniably a television program of its time. It lacks the original's often bizarre '60s campiness, which isn't to say it is without its own sense of humor, albeit more subdued.

From its production values to its pacing, "The New Avengers" is much like the American crime shows of its day. And it uses that fact to its advantage. In one episode, Gambit and Purdey find themselves in the middle of a car chase. After all, what '70s crime show worth its salt doesn't have a car chase? "The New Avengers," keeping the faith with its predecessor, subverts the chase convention. While driving at high speed, Gambit and Purdey argue over something totally irrelevant: Who was it who directed "The African Queen"? (It was John Houston, by the way.) Then they crash through a fruit stand, and the next shot shows Purdey matter of factly peeling an orange.

The new team's adventures also take on a more global dimension, mostly because the French and Canadian backers wanted their countries to get in on the action.

When "The New Avengers" crossed the Atlantic in 1978, it premiered as part of "The CBS Late Movie." It aired, on and off and on different weeknights until 1985 (the last airdate mentioned in "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows").

While "The Avengers" has had a healthy afterlife on cable TV and home video, "The New Avengers" has not been so lucky — until now. A&E Home Video has released the first 13 episodes of "The New Avengers" on DVD (retail $79.95).

Although some call it heresy, I prefer "The New Avengers" to the original, as is my prerogative as a child of the '70s.

Besides, I dare even the most snobbish partisans of the original to argue that "The New Avengers" is inferior to the Linda Thorson season of 1969.

Seeing "The New Avengers" again takes me back to the flickering late-night television of my youth. We had only four channels then, you know. And one of them was the snowy PBS affiliate. It was a time before cable TV became commonplace, and CBS's late-night line-up was, along with Johnny Carson, the only game in town.

By 1991, both "The CBS Late Movie" and its successor, "CBS Late Night," were gone. In their place, smiling with his trademark gap-tooth grin all the way to the bank, was Letterman, who had jumped ship from NBC.

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