A sniper atop the CN Tower. Guns blazing out a Toronto Star delivery van. Iron chinned wonder George Chuvalo getting KO’d by bionic Russian spies. This televisual mayhem, and more, brought to you by The New Avengers…in Canada!
Dapper British styling from the Sixties doesn’t get any more swinging than original The Avengers. Cold war stuff and nonsense shot through with surreal imagery, camp sensibility, and kinky female empowerment (also somewhat sullied by an atrocious 1998 Hollywood adaptation, and now easily confused with that ‘art-house’ Joss Whedon picture from earlier this year).
Created by ex-Pat Torontonian Sydney Newman while on loan from the CBC (Newman followed this up by creating Doctor Who a mere two years later for the BBC), The Avengers ran the duration of the decade (’61 to ’69), launched the careers of Bond girls Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg (the only gal to get 007 to put a ring on it), and set the standard for what now is codified as “Cult Television.”
Re-tooled in 1976 as The New Avengers to reflect a grittier TV landscape populated by the likes of Starsky and Hutch, Vega$ and The Streets of San Francisco, the show proceeded to lose most of its offbeat charm, goodwill rating and finally, finances.
Enter Toronto-based Neilson Fern Productions, who bridged the money gap and allowed a second series to be completed, with a caveat that the final 4 episodes would run under an umbrella title of The New Avengers in Canada and be filmed entirely on location in Toronto. The show continued with aged ’60s lead Patrick Macnee as the bowler-hat-wearing, umbrella-wielding superspy John Steed, adding action man Gareth Hunt and future sweetie darling Joanna Lumley as sidekicks Gambit and Purdy, bringing a little bit of street cred. Here the trio tour the city core on a leisurely stake-out.
This truly bananas sequence unfolds in front of infamous eatery Pickin’ Chicken BBQ on Lakeshore near Mimico, while a machine guns blasts a sandwich board wearing doomsayer from inside a Toronto Star van, followed by an unfortunate hallmark of ’70s cop shows, the slow car chase.
The only man to go the distance two times with Ali, and probably greatest chin in the history of boxing George Chuvalo turns up here in a cameo, kicking off for no good reason with some bionic Russian supermen. Chuvalo would pick another inadvisable fight with a stranger, ten years later in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and end up hurt even worse thanks to Jeff Goldblum’s toxic spittle.
Canadian Producers Hugh Harlow and Jim Hanley (who by all accounts took full control of the series after the original UK team slinked off when the money ran out) were not averse to playing out obvious locales in all their glory, and no attempt is made to disguise Toronto: The Eaton Centre, Pearson Airport, Center Island and the C.N.E all get a cameo (some nice creative geography in the chase below – from the C.N.E to the University of Toronto via Bay Street!), and characters are continually pointing out how nice everyone is – ‘Toronto the Good’ for an international audience.
The series aired on CTV to lukewarm ratings, and plans for a follow-up never materialized. Compared to the first series of Euro-centric New Avengers, never mind the revered, original Avengers, the Canadian episodes are mostly dreary, humorless, cheap-looking and lack internal logic, but that doesn’t stop them from being fascinating time capsules – Toronto 1977 frozen in amber – and most importantly a fun footnote to one of the most peculiar Cult TV franchises in the history of the medium. Plus chances are you probably will never see a TorStar van firing indiscriminately on someone ever again…
Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.