Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Secret Perfumista Life of John Steed, and a tribute to the coolest couple in the history of television: The Avengers...

Must-view Avengers for any self-respecting perfumista:

How to succeed ... at Murder

Volume 8, episode 3, 1966

Having renounced television quite some time ago as the largely worthless and mind-numbing diversion that it is, I nonetheless have always been an amateur of fine films—of every length. While still a member of the Columbia House DVD club—before it became clear that physical media would soon go the way of oaxmoss-rich perfumes—I procured a complete, nearly fifty-hour set of the British television cult classic The Avengers, which originally aired from 1965 through 1967, starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg. Since acquiring this collection—The Complete Emma Peel Megaset—I have not seen it for sale anywhere else, so I feel fortunate to own it, and also to have seized the opportunity to give a set to each of my two sisters. In my considered opinion, The Avengers is one of the very best television series ever to have been produced.

Why is The Avengers such a superlative series? Where to begin? First, every sizzling episode oozes with both style and substance. The aesthetics are top notch, with each scene carefully thought out and all props well chosen and arrayed. As a result, virtually any screen shot is picture perfect and worthy of extended reflection. The dialogue is always witty and often poetic, and the plots are extremely well-crafted, exploring a range of issues and posing and solving a conflict within the short span of only 50 minutes. The writers of this series essentially mastered the filmic equivalent of the fine art of the short story.

Part of the wonderfulness of The Avengers derives from the simple fact that the two protagonists, Emma Peel and John Steed, have impeccably good taste. It certainly does not hurt that women's fashion of the 1960s exhibited a distinctness and sleekness never before seen in history and unrivaled since. The Avengers are handsomely dressed, but Emma's wardrobe in particular is peerless among female television series protagonists. (Unfortunately, Ginger, of Gilligan's Island, appears to have brought only one dress—and a sequined mermaid model at that—along on her three-hour cruise turned epic island adventure...)

The Avengers' acute aesthetic awareness is really just one reflection of their boundless intelligence, proving yet again that a sharp and sensitive mind applies across the board to every realm. But rather than giving themselves over completely to the life of the aesthete, spending all of their time in the enjoyment of the finer things in life, and concerning themselves only with the heightened pleasures of the moment available to them, Peel and Steed are the dynamic and daring duo who relentlessly combat both evil and stupidity, applying their keen intellects to solve intractable crime after crime and thus leaving the world better than it was when they found it. Fully defying the image of the hard-boiled gumshoe detective who lives out of his car and eats fast food, Emma and John approach every problem from the aesthetic space which they already occupy and in which they are firmly ensconced, their lives replete with style and artful design.

This couple is not a couple, at least not on film, but their relationship within the episodes makes it impossible not to wonder what may happen in between. At the end of this particular episode, How to succeed ... at Murder, Emma and John are sitting side-by-side studying their new books on ventriloquism—an interest piqued by the events of the dangerous plot which they have only just managed to foil—in the back of an obviously chauffeured travel trailer, moving off into the distance.

The affinity and mutual esteem between Peel and Steed is undeniable, but they are much too cool to stoop to boorish public displays of affection, so if they were romantically involved, they would certainly never broadcast that fact to their gawking admirers. For this reason, I reject the orthodox line, according to which the couple are only professional partners against crime.

It is true that Emma goes by her married name, Mrs. Peel, but her husband was a pilot whose plane had disappeared somewhere over the Amazonian forest (and he was presumed dead) before her collaboration with Steed. It simply stretches credulity that Mrs. Peel would adhere to antiquated conventions governing widows, and marriage more generally. Emma and John break every other rule in the book, so why would they feel bound by something as parochial as petit-bourgeois tradition?

In reality, which is to say, within the fiction which is the reality of The Avengers, it matters perhaps little whether or not Emma and John ever share the same bed, and they certainly would not care what we happen to think. What is indubitable is that they are kindred spirits and make a superlative professional team, defeating evil enemies left and right, and proving that intelligent people can also be both comely and civilized—and even nice!

That's right: nice. Whenever Peel and Steed encounter an agent of evil, they treat him or her with the utmost respect, and if it becomes necessary to take them out, there is no rancor or anger involved in the execution of what is done invariably and only in self-defense. Emma and John do not sentence to death and execute persons suspected—or even known to be guilty—of crimes. Instead, they protect themselves from them.

Whenever possible, the Avengers, in their boundless clemency, spare their adversaries' lives. Alas, this is not always possible, as in this rich episode in which a group of misguided radical feminists have been brought together—unbeknownst to themselves—by a psychotic man to commit murder after murder of successful businessmen in a misguided effort to realize what they have been brainwashed to believe is their mission and dream:

Ruination to all men!

Having been produced in 1966, How to Succeed ... at Murder offers a creative and incisive critique of radical feminism gone awry. Feminists back then, as now, are undoubtedly right that women have been kept down, with secretaries dominated by tyrannical bosses often less intelligent than the women whom they depend upon. In the United States, by 2009, nearly half a century after the ratification of The Equal Pay Act of 1963, women were still earning only 77 cents on the dollar paid to equally qualified men for performing the very same work. (In 1963, they received 59 cents on the dollar paid to men.)

What is the proper response to this unhappy state of affairs? Whatever the solution to the problem of the oppression of women may be, it must be acknowledged that only some men are in willful complicity—John Steed being a felicitous counterexample to the premise underlying misguided and sweeping anti-man campaigns.

Recognizing the fallacy in the reasoning of this particular group of radical feminists, Emma and John make short order of their ill-conceived plot. Upon learning that this angry group plans to do away with men altogether, Steed tips his hat and politely observes to a woman who has volunteered to wipe him out with a machine gun, “We do have our uses, Madame.”

Needless to say, I highly recommend this series. Rather than providing any more plot spoilers, I would like to turn now to the specific role played by perfume in this episode, in particular.

The Perfume Angle

Perfume first appears in How to succeed ... at Murder when Peel and Steed are examining a crime scene. A man has been found dead in the back of a taxi, and the two sleuths are attempting to deduce what has transpired. After taking stock of various physical facts, Emma suddenly sniffs the air and asks John, “What's that perfume you're wearing?” Her partner against crime replies, “None. … Today.”

Yes, embedded within this little story—engaging in so many very different ways—is also proof positive that John Steed, perhaps the coolest male persona in the history of television (pace Stringer Bell), was a perfumista! He reveals to all attentive viewers in a single short phrase that he does indeed wear on a regular basis not only fragrance or cologne, but perfume.

The couple proceeds to comment on the quality of the perfume in the taxicab, noting first that it smells nice, and then that it has a slight sweetness and, therefore, cannot be an aftershave. They conclude that a woman has been in the cab with this now-dead man and, therefore, may well have been the killer.

From there, the couple moves swiftly to capitalize on this unusual clue. Steed grabs a tire pump, and sucks some of the perfumed air in through the valve before closing it, and handing the sample over to Peel for further investigation.

Emma enlists the aid of J.J. Hooter, Perfumier Extraordinaire, who, he informs her, has one of the finest noses in all of Europe. To protect his precious proboscis, he wears a thick covering to prevent the unwanted entrance of “effluvia”, as he puts it. 

The perfumer rinses his nose with highly distilled water before submitting the sample to direct testing, at which point he immediately recognizes the scent to be one of his very own creations: Leap Into My Fervid Arms.

But wait, there's more: following another, independent, trail of clues, Steed, while doing some late-night foraging through an accountant's records, suddenly starts as he sniffs the very same perfume which he and Emma had encountered in the cab.

Sure enough, the culprit has entered the office behind him, and a scuffle ensues. Knocked out by the heel of the woman's shoe, Steed is briefly dazed, but emerges undaunted and even more determined than ever to solve the crimes.

Later, during one of his interviews at a firm where the boss has gone missing—said by the secretary to be on “extended holiday”—Steed reaches naturally for a flower from the vase and brings it under his nose to sniff over and over again throughout the exchange.

So there you have it, my fragrant friends: proof positive that John Steed of The Avengers fame was indeed a perfumista. You, my gentlemanly readers, may now pride yourselves for being in extremely good company, having as a comrade-in-nose the great British sleuth himself. Spritz on!


  1. This is a charming story. I remember the TV series well and almost never missed a show. Emma Peel, for a time, was my idol, what with her gorgeous looks and hairdo.

    1. Hello, Ursula! Yes, I think that we would all do well to adopt Emma Peel as our role model!
      And naturally the gents should take lessons from Mr. Steed! ;-)

  2. What a wonderful article Shera!! I never had the opportunity of seeing any of the Avengers, but did grow up with the New Avengers in the early 80's ... which made Joanna Lumley and her character Purdy a household name down here :). If memory serves, Steed was played by the very same Patrick Macnee ...

    1. Thank you so much, Couture Guru. I am sure that you would love the original series, as it is bursting with style and intelligence. Someone really needs to offer this on Hulu or Netflix--ASAP!!!!

  3. Dear Shera

    Being born and bred in dear Blighty, I am of course all to familiar with this incarnation of The Avengers (Ms Blackman also has much to recommend her, though of course she was not the actress that Ms Rigg was and remains).

    Your points on style go without any rebuke from my quarter.

    I am equally unsurprised that Me Steed should wear 'perfume', possibly even on occasion some of Emma's, though you pin pointing of the moment of revelation is to be applauded.

    I would though point out that The Aengers ran alongside other very sartorially minded output on British television at that time. From the deliberate contrariness of Doctor Who's costume to the clear lines of The Prisoner, from The Saint's sharp cuts suits to Lady Penelope's insane glamour, our screens were awash with stylishly apported people and puppets.

    I wonder how many of them it might be possible to pin a perfume or perfume itself on?

    What a question you have posed dear Shera, if only our duo wre on hand to solve it for us.

    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    1. Dearest Perfumed Dandy,

      I agree with you that somehow style all fell into place in a perfect way during the 1960s, like never before and never since! So you are right that Emma and John perhaps do not deserve full credit for their handsome wardrobe. Although I hasten to add that not all of the characters in the episodes look so spiffy! Many even look dowdy, so at least there is a contrast class...

      I, too, would love to determine the perfumes worn by the most intriguing characters on film. There are occasionally clues, but in the end we are usually left guessing...

  4. When I make the free thinker and olfactory truth seeker list, then I'll look.
    Fair is fair.


    1. You have a blog? Pray tell: what is the URL?!!!


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