SUAVE secret agent John Steed and the eccentric villains he engaged were British through and through, which is why it might come as a bit of a surprise to mention The Avengers and South Africa in the same sentence.
But there is a definite connection for, at the start of the 1970s, The Avengers was remade for commercial station Springbok Radio, owned by the South African Broadcast Corporation, with Donald Monat donning Steed’s bowler hat and Diana Appleby ably assisting him as Emma Peel.
With no national television network service until 1976, the radio broadcasts – based on scripts from the original UK series – were the closest most people could hope to get to enjoying the unique world of The Avengers.
Unsurprisingly, the show proved to be a big hit with listeners, who would make sure to be tuned in to Springbok Radio, Monday – Friday, 7.15 – 7.30pm, to catch the latest installment. Because of the restrictions of the timeslot, The Avengers transformed from an episodic to serial format for its South African incarnation.
Far from being to its detriment, the serial format helped give the SA Avengers a feel of its own and the series was a mainstay of Springbok Radio’s weeknight schedule from December 6th, 1971 until December 28th, 1973, possibly running to over 80 adventures.
The reason one can’t be more more precise is because Sonovision, the producers of the show, wiped the master tapes in the 1970s. Series sponsor Lever Brothers supplied the blanks tapes for recording and due to their expense, and the SABC’s policy of airing programmes only once, Sonovision had a policy of recording new programmes over previous productions.
THE AVENGERS RIDE AGAIN
It seemed the SA Avengers was fated to become a silent footnote in the series’ history, until Alan Hayes, webmaster of the highly informative Avengers On The Radio site, became involved at the turn of the millennium.
Alan remembers: “I first learned of the Avengers radio series care of a short piece in Dave Rogers’ book, The Avengers (Michael Joseph Ltd, 1983). It suggested some television scripts that were thought to have been adapted but did not contain a great deal of detail.
“There’s scant information available about the radio show (what there is is presented at my site), pretty much because there was no culture of preservation in South African radio. Programmes were generally not kept (and were recorded over with new programmes as a matter of course) and very little documentation has survived. The SABC has set up an archive in recent years and this has been populated from off-air recordings made by enthusiasts, and master tapes where they’ve survived against the odds. The BBC Sound Archive is, by comparison, an Aladdin’s Cave of recording history…
“It gave me an idea that it was something that warranted further research, but ultimately, I didn’t get round to this until 1999 when I launched my website devoted to it. By this time, I had tracked down a handful of rather poor quality audio cassettes and had rather fallen in love with this somewhat quirky adaptation of the television series.
“Almost as soon as I launched the site, I was extremely fortunate to be put in touch with the actor, Donald Monat – the radio John Steed – and through him and his network of friends and colleagues from the old days of South African radio drama, I was gradually able to piece together the story of how The Avengers came to be adapted for radio in South Africa.”
In April 2002, Alan enjoyed a break-through when he were contacted via email by John Wright, an old-time radio enthusiast living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. John, an avid listener of Springbok Radio since the 1960s, had, among other things, ¼” reel-to-reel recordings of 19 complete Avengers serials!
|A Deadly Gift|
|Dial A Deadly Number|
|The Quick-Quick-Slow Death|
|The Fantasy Game|
|From Venus With Love|
|Train Of Events|
|The Super Secret Cypher Snatch|
|Not To Be Sneezed At|
|Who Shot Poor George / XR40?|
|All Done By Mirrors|
|Stop Me If You’ve Heard This|
|Too Many Olés|
|A Case Of Interrogation|
|The Morning After|
|Straight From The Shoulder|
|A Grave Charge|
It transpired that the thirteen serials that had previously been available on the OTR circuit had been sourced from John’s recordings and those, along with a further six serials unheard since first broadcast, were promptly dispatched to Alan in England for preservation and restoration.
“The tapes have survived pretty well, really,” continues Alan. “They have problems consistent with 1/4″ tapes of the era: the recordings themselves are nearly forty years old and in many instances, John was recording on tapes he had received from a contact in the USA in the 1960s, so some are heading towards 50 years old! The restoration work has involved removing tape noise, broadcast and recording clicks and pops and fixing drop-outs where possible. To date, all but two of the serials have been restored and are downloadable for free from the website.
“There have been two further recoveries since John Wright’s kind donation of the 19 serials in 2002, and these were three episodes of an adaptation of ‘Escape in Time’. I had no involvement in the discovery of the first two episodes, which were uncovered on a studio master tape by a collector of South African OTR, but the third episode was recovered from an audio cassette off-air recording made by Barbara Peterson, who kindly loaned it to me to clean-up.”
SIMILAR, YET WITH A STYLE OF THEIR OWN
The majority of these serials are available for download from Alan’s website, but why should Avengers fans check them out? Over to Alan…
“The radio series is certainly similar to the television series. There were no original stories written for the radio series – all productions were adaptations of television scripts, usually serialised in between 5 and 8 fifteen-minute episodes. Obviously, due to the audio-only medium, some visual elements were replaced with more communicable sequences and a narrator was employed to carry the story along and this gave the radio series part of its unique flavour compared to the television version.
“It’s also interesting to note that several radio adaptations appear to be based on early versions of scripts, so one serial – ‘Too Many Olés’ – is based in Spain when its television equivalent (‘They Keep Killing Steed’) ultimately ran out of budget and was filmed just down the road from Pinewood!
The Avengers: From Venus With Love – Audio Excerpt
It’s worth listening to the radio series mainly because it’s wonderfully entertaining. Donald Monat succeeds where Hollywood failed, and creates a distinctive, likeable and interesting John Steed. The general assumption is that only one man – Patrick Macnee – can credibly portray John Steed, but Monat’s is a superb alternative take.
“Additionally, there are the differences to the television episodes to listen out for which can actually shed light on the production of its illustrious forebear. But essentially, it’s made with a spring in its step, isn’t afraid to be its own Avengers and is a lot of fun.
“If asked to choose favourites, they would probably be the ones that vary the most from the television episodes, namely ‘Straight from the Shoulder’ (filmed as ‘Have Guns – Will Haggle’) and the aforementioned ‘Too Many Olés’. In some cases, such as ‘Train of Events’ (filmed as ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station’), the radio version is distinctly more entertaining than its television forebear!”
- To download any of the radio serials, visit the Free Stuff section of the Avengers On The Radio website. If you know of the existence of any further serials or individual episodes, or know of any additional information that might help enhance the website, please get in touch with Alan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.