50 Years ago, Iconic Sexy Super Spy Emma Peel Became TV’s First Female Action Hero
Most of you out there may know the amazing actress Diana Rigg for her portrayal of Olenna Tyrell on HBO's mega-hit Game Of Thrones, but 50 years ago she sent hearts aflutter as the super sexy spy Emma Peel on the cheeky, completely bonkers British import The Avengers. And, no, it's not the Marvel comics superhero story: this was a madcap, kitschy combination of a spy show with sci-fi elements, snarky humor, and sexually charged banter between Rigg's Emma Peel and the late, great Patrick Macnee's John Steed.
Emma Peel was essentially the first kick-ass female action hero on TV, blazing the trail for all those who followed. She preferred hand to hand combat, and was as smart as she was tough. And those outfits!
She was a quintessential ‘60s fashionista: her iconic catsuits were both functional and sexy. Notice in the above photo, her belly button is covered. Believe it or not, an exposed belly button was a HUGE deal back in the '60s, so her costume designers did all they could to make her sexy without showing the dreaded belly button, lest it be censored. How times have changed!
The show aired for seven seasons, for 161 episodes, with three partners to Steed: Catherine Gale (Honor Blackman, former Bond girl Pussy Galore), Emma Peel (Diana Rigg, also a former Bond girl), and Tara King (Linda Thorson). While the other ladies did a fine job, the Emma Peel years are widely considered the glory days of The Avengers. So much in fact, that a special Emma Peel DVD megaset was released, comprising only the 51 episodes Rigg appeared in.
All the episodes are fantastic, and as mini primer to the series, here are my top three Emma Peel episodes.
3. “You Have Just Been Murdered”
Millionaires are being extorted by creative means: their hypothetical murders are staged over and over again for them to witness, until paranoia gets the better of them, at which point they willingly fork over a million pounds in cash to bad guy Nathaniel Needle to prevent their real murder.
The interplay between Steed and Peel in this episode is brilliant. Emma also takes most of the action in this one, fighting and defeating one bad guy after another in hand to hand combat. Are the fight scenes laughably simplistic when measured against those staged in series today? Totally. But it’s still silly fun.
This episode is also famous as it is the only color episode where Emma dons her famous black leather catsuit, which was clearly an inspiration for dozens of female superheroes and villains to come.
2. “The Winged Avenger”
Several businessmen have been killed, seemingly clawed to death by what appears to be a giant bird. The initial suspect is an author who not only owns a bird of prey, but also holds a grudge against one of the victims. However, the focus abruptly shifts when a copy of a comic book called The Winged Avenger is found next to the body of the latest victim.
This episode is an inspired mashup of real time action and animated comic inserts, predating shows like Legion and Heroes. The BAM! and SPLAT! visual effects, which are lifted directly from the '60s Batman TV series, make it even more fun. And really, where else will you see an upside-down fight scene on the ceiling? The imagination and creativity makes this one of the best, which leads us to the best episode.
1. “Return Of The Cybernauts”
Paul Beresford — the brother of Clement Armstrong, the original creator of the evil robots known as Cybernauts — blames Steed and Peel for his brother's death at the hands of said Cybernauts. Aided by Armstrong's assistant Benson, he abducts several scientists, who are held captive and blackmailed into producing a new army of Cybernauts. He is the perfect gentleman to Mrs. Peel, which makes Steed more than a little jealous, but his endgame is to turn Mrs. Peel and Steed into human robots under his control.
Even though it's a sequel, the big reason this one is at the top of the list is the baddie, portrayed by the iconic Peter Cushing, who you may remember as Tarkin from Star Wars: A New Hope.
In a controversial move, years after his death his image was digitized and used over the body of a living actor in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Cushing’s estate approved the digital resurrection, but it frankly creeped me out.
It doesn't get any better than Steed and Mrs. Peel battling the devious Peter Cushing. The Cybernauts, with their steel bodies, black coats, hats, and sunglasses are a quintessentially '60s hoot.
The quality of the banter between Steed and Mrs. Peel is off the charts. They are, to my mind, the best unmarried TV couple. Ever.
A True Feminist Icon
While the character of Emma Peel is often overlooked in the pantheon of classic TV, she's an incredibly influential example of how a female character can be smart, tough, and resourceful, without surrendering her femininity. 50 years on, she still stands as a fantastic role model for all young women.