IT’S 10 to four in the afternoon, and everything stops for tea. A pot of Darjeeling brews beneath a knitted tea cosy and is decanted into a fine bone-china teacup. It’s the tradition of a lifetime maintained by Patrick Macnee, the quintessential Englishman: of aristocratic lineage, Eton-educated, an officer in the Royal Navy and with a plummy voice of pure cut-crystal made famous in classic TV series The Avengers.
Patrick Macnee recalls the fantastic women who starred alongside him
It has been almost 50 years since Macnee first pulled a sword from his furled umbrella and tipped his steel-rimmed bowler hat as secret agent John Steed in the iconic TV show and The Avengers is set to celebrate its half-century with DVD releases and a commemorative book depicting the series’ style and wit that characterised the Swinging Sixties.Urbane and suave, he can’t help looking like a retired brigadier general, sitting ramrod straight in his bright yellow kitchen, but after 37 years living in California, Macnee, 88, has become an American trapped in an Englishman’s body. He dresses like an American, decorates his home like an American and eats a heart-healthy diet like an American.
“No one had seen a woman in a catsuit throwing men”
He is also incredulous about the anniversary of The Avengers and has an instant recall of all his leading ladies: Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson and Joanna Lumley.
“I can’t believe it’s been 50 years because it seems like yesterday. We had so much fun and I worked with such beautiful women. But I’m not surprised The Avengers has such enduring popularity because it was a ground-breaking series that changed television. It was the first show that put its leading man and leading lady on an equal footing, and showed a woman fighting and kicking and throwing men around. That was a radical departure in its time.”
One might expect to encounter Macnee wearing Harris tweeds with leather elbow patches, jodhpurs and riding boots. Instead, he favours long-sleeved T-shirts, velour sweatpants and sandals: the uniform of the retirees in the upscale, gated community where his three-bedroom ranch-style house rests near Palm Springs.
Prosaically, Macnee positions himself in a large, beige reclining armchair – as unattractive as it is comfortable – beside the Zimmer frame he uses to walk. He loathes golf but used to stroll the links beside his house daily until knee problems slowed him down in 2008. He emigrated to America in 1973 and often vowed to die in England but now rules out a return to his homeland.
“I wouldn’t move for the world. Who’d give up sunny California for the grey old Earls Court Road? I’m looking out at blue skies and the mountains and trees, and it’s so beautiful.”
On the baby grand piano – Macnee can’t play, though friends entertain him – there are only framed family photos but a wall of fame is hidden in the alcove in his bedroom: pictures of him with old friends and co-stars including Diana Rigg, Lumley, David Niven and Roger Moore.
One woman who isn’t among those pictures but whom he recalls as his favourite Avenger is Blackman.
“Honor was adorable. She was the most beautiful of them all. A gorgeous blonde with the biggest breasts you’ve ever seen and beneath them the beautiful athletic body of a runner,”
“It was great to see Honor Blackman tie a man up or throw him over her shoulder using ju-jitsu.”
He is similarly approving of Rigg who played Emma Peel.
“She was probably one of the best actresses on the show. She made The Avengers the enormous success it was because she was in the first episodes made for American TV when they hadn’t seen a woman in a skintight leather catsuit throwing men around. It was all repressed sexuality, of course.”
“Linda Thorson followed and was a great actress with a great body but she arrived just as The Avengers was losing its appeal. Her character loved Steed but I always thought that was a bad idea. The show was so much better with Steed and his leading lady as sparring equals, without the woman being subservient, but with Linda it leaned that way.”
The series was revived in 1976 as The New Avengers, starring a young Lumley, and is remembered as a TV classic yet Macnee says:
“Joanna was a lovely woman, truly gorgeous, but The New Avengers was not a hit. You can’t repeat a success. We realised that too late. And I was too old to be her love interest.”
His home is testament to a lost love, furnished in traditional Louis XIV grand style, thanks to his late third wife Baba. His own style favours more primitive Spanish, carved-wood furniture but he has not bothered to redecorate since her death, nor find the time to replace the old 27-inch TV with a new flat screen.
In his lap rests another old love: his fiercely protective Yorkshire terrier Fiona, quick to bite visitors’ ankles and to Macnee’s chagrin frequently marking her territory on the beige carpet. An African grey parrot in the kitchen exchanges squawks with his cat.“It’s a very Californian lifestyle,” he admits. He even drinks green tea for breakfast with his All-Bran, rice milk, banana slices and blueberry probiotic yogurt.
It’s a long way from his childhood. His father was an alcoholic racehorse trainer who ran off to India and his mother, niece of the Earl of Huntingdon, left to live with her wealthy lesbian lover. Packed off to Eton, Macnee was expelled for running a gambling and pornography ring. “Let’s say I had a broad education,” he says.
He created Steed’s neo-Edwardian look that made him a surprise Sixties Beau Brummel and sex symbol but says: “I missed so much of the Swinging Sixties by working. From 1961 to 1969 I got up at 4.30am, a car came for me at 5.30am and I was taken to our studio at Teddington or Elstree and we filmed until I got home at 9.30pm, five days a week. I spent most of the Sixties in a giant shed filming even though I lived around the corner from the King’s Road in Chelsea.”Not that he lived as a monk. He married three times: to Barbara Douglas, the mother of his two children; actress Katherine Woodville, who played a murder victim on the first episode of The Avengers; and finally to author Baba Majos de Nagyzsenye, who died in 2007 after nearly 20 years of marriage.
With The Avengers’ 50th anniversary approaching, Macnee may sit down and do something he has not done for years: watch old episodes. “I haven’t seen them in eons. They’ve been digitally remastered and issued in special editions and they’re great. But they’re all in my mind, I remember every scene, every line.”
He still does voice-over work but insists he does not miss acting. “Not at all. Retirement’s the most wonderful thing. I get to enjoy all the things I never stopped to notice on the way up. After an extraordinary life it’s time to enjoy my retirement.”
Macnee’s memory comes and goes, as well it might at his age, and though he has a full-time attendant by day, his daughter Jenny and son Rupert take turns to sleep at the house to care for him at night.
“He’s never been one who takes care of himself very well,” says Rupert, 63. “He’s been used to hotels and first-class living since 1960. He hasn’t been on any form of public transport since then. He’s had a life removed from reality. We just try to make sure he’s looked after.”
But Macnee feels no self-pity at the indignities of old age. “I don’t look back nostalgically and think: ‘Those were the days.’ Now I just love sitting here and looking out over the mountains. But if someone offered me a role, I’d say yes. I never say no. Life’s too short.
“I’m not afraid of death. What’s to fear? Once you’re dead, that’s it. Nothing. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. That’s baloney. What matters is the here and now.
“Yes, I’m 88 and there are things I can’t do: I can’t run a race or climb Everest. But isn’t life magnificent?”