Saturday 10 December 2016

Obituary: Patrick Macnee

Actor who brought Etonian nonchalance to the part of the lethal dandy Steed in 'The Avengers'

Published 28/06/2015 | 02:30

Dapper gent: ‘The Avengers’ stars Patrick MacNee, who played John Steed and Honor Blackman who played Catherine Gale, in 1963. Photo: PA
Dapper gent: ‘The Avengers’ stars Patrick MacNee, who played John Steed and Honor Blackman who played Catherine Gale, in 1963. Photo: PA

Patrick Macnee, who died on Thursday, aged 93, was cast to perfection as the imperturbable secret agent John Steed in the 1960s television series The Avengers.

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The programme began as unremarkable detective fare, with the raincoated Macnee playing second fiddle to Ian Hendry's forensic surgeon. When Hendry left after the first season, Steed was pushed to the fore and Macnee threatened with the sack unless he breathed life into the character. Steed re-emerged as a lethal dandy, sporting boutonniere, sword-cane and curly-brimmed bowler. He was indubitably a gentleman and Macnee imbued the part with his own Etonian nonchalance and jaunty eccentricity.

Produced with visual flair, it was one of the first British programmes to do well in America. Much of its success and appeal lay in its ironic subversion of the conventions of the spy genre. The programme was also novel in the status given to Steed's female partners - notably Honor Blackman as the steely Cathy Gale and Diana Rigg as the kittenish Emma Peel.

The Avengers ran between 1960 and 1969; a lame sequel made in the mid-1970s, The New Avengers, also featured Macnee.

Daniel Patrick Macnee was born in London on February 6, 1922. His mother, a niece of the 13th Earl of Huntingdon and a rather giddy socialite, went into labour at a party and Macnee never discovered from her whether she reached hospital or if he was born in a carriage halfway down the Bayswater Road.

The rest of his childhood was no less confused. His father was a racehorse trainer, a diminutive man known as "Shrimp" Macnee whose dapper wardrobe his son later recreated for Steed. He had a taste for gin and enlivened his dinner parties by levelling a shotgun at those guests he suspected of pacifist tendencies. Macnee's mother took refuge in a circle of friends that included Tallulah Bankhead and the madam Mrs Meyrick, before absconding with a wealthy lesbian, Evelyn. Young Patrick was brought up by the pair and was instructed to call Evelyn "Uncle".

He managed to resist their efforts to dress him as a girl, wearing a kilt as a compromise. His father fled to India, from where he was later expelled for urinating off a balcony on to the heads of the Raj's elite, gathered below for a race-meeting.

Evelyn financed Macnee's education, at Summerfields -where he first acted, playing opposite Christopher Lee - and then Eton. His corruption began when he was introduced to whisky by the Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, who had escaped into the garden with a bottle when brought in to consecrate Evelyn's private chapel.

Macnee was then expelled from Eton for running a pornography and bookmaking empire. He trained as an actor at the Webber-Douglas school and began to get some repertory work. Cast more for his looks than talent, he was due to play his first West End lead opposite Vivien Leigh when he received his call-up papers in 1942. He served in Motor Torpedo Boats, rising to lieutenant. He caught bronchitis before D-Day; while in hospital his boat and crew were lost in action.

Macnee made his film debut in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943, and after the war landed other small parts, appearing as a courtier in Olivier's Hamlet and The Elusive Pimpernel. Yet by now he had a family to support, and when promised better roles by the Canadian Broadcasting Service moved to Toronto, while his wife and children remained behind. It was a decision he later bitterly regretted.

For the next eight years Macnee drifted across North America. His breezily crisp accent brought him regular stage and television work, though he also played a sheriff in the Western series Rawhide. He continued to attract the bizarre. Once he rescued chimpanzees from a fire at an animal trainer's ranch; while driving them to safety, one monkey clamped its hands over his eyes, almost causing his car to plunge into a ravine.

In 1960 he returned to England, his marriage over.

He was producing a television documentary series based on Churchill's history of the war, The Valiant Years, when he was cast in The Avengers, having bumped into the producer in Piccadilly. Although he was a more competent actor than he gave himself credit for, he was content in later years to stroll through a series of unmemorable roles.

Among his film appearances were as a record producer in the seminal rock spoof This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and as Bond's chauffeur in A View To A Kill (1985). He retired to California, and took well-paid cameo roles in American television series, among them the sublimely dreadful Thunder In Paradise, a vehicle for the wrestler Hulk Hogan.

Macnee made considerable efforts to escape the constraints of his establishment image. He felt that he had been confused by his upbringing and schooling and found America a less repressed environment; he became an active member of a nudist colony in the mid-1970s.

Although he remained outwardly chirpy, he was prone to depression. He also fought lengthy, and successful, battles against alcohol and weight.He published a candid autobiography, Blind In One Ear, in 1988.

Macnee married first, in 1942 (dissolved), Barbara Douglas; they had a son and a daughter. He married secondly, in 1965 (dissolved), Katherine Woodville. He married thirdly, in 1988, Baba Majos de Nagyzsenye. She predeceased him and he is survived by his children.

Telegraph.co.uk

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