eccentricity in espionage
Interior of Steed's Apartment
Chisel tipped felt pen and pastels, on sketch paper
Agent extraordinary John Steed (Patrick Macnee) was the only constant in The Avengers, appearing in every episode of its run (1961-69). Steed came to embody the series, and increasingly the world of The Avengers was shaped around his distinctive appearance and persona. At first a fairly generic undercover man often dressed in a trench coat, Steed quickly metamorphosed into a suave, sardonic but also playful figure, whose outward dandyism belied his inner ruthlessness. "Avengerland" metamorphosed around him into a deftly satirical take on the preoccupations and prejudices of the British upper classes.
On the surface Steed was the embodiment of British tradition, his defining costume element the most familiar attribute of the English gent: the derby hat or "bowler." [fig. 9] Indeed, by the time Harry Pottle joined The Avengers in 1964, Steed was universally known as the spy in the bowler, just as his female associates, Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, were legendary for their leather fighting suits. When the series was eventually marketed in France in 1965 its title was Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuire (Derby Hat and Leather Boots), highlighting the convergence of modernity and traditionalism in Steed's partnership with "emancipated," powerful women.
Beyond his signature derby hat and furled umbrella, Steed became a kind of "retro" fashion icon in the mid sixties, known for his idiosyncratic and exquisite tailoring: velvet collared suits with matching suede Chelsea boots, flamboyant overcoats and satin dinner jackets. Although Macnee thought of Steed's outfits as Regency influenced, they were generally described in the press as "Edwardian." As designed by Harry Pottle, Steed's Westminster apartment was also expressive of Edwardian sophistication – and slight eccentricity. Pottle's avowed aim was to create a space that would suggest "the elegant, suave, ex-military gentleman," and reflect "club-style comfort and good taste." But with its "Gothick" windows and quirky details such as the ornamental brass tuba, the listing torchiere lashed to the stair rail and the curious velvet-clad pole inexplicably rising through the centre of the room, Steed's apartment is not just genteel: it also hints at the puckishness, even the paradoxes, of the character.
The isometric for Steed's apartment exhibited here is the only extant drawing connected with Pottle's debut episode as The Avengers' art director, "The Murder Market" [fig. 10] (apart from a lightning "first thought" sketch of the same set, made on a sheet of lined notepaper). The image is interesting partly because it does not represent the set as constructed: this is an abandoned early version of the design. Certain elements are already in place—the Knole settee, the escritoire, and the half landing that leads down from the front door—but the room as built was to reoriented and expanded—and a much more unconventional space than the neat box seen here.
The fact that Pottle rendered Steed's apartment as an isometric suggests that plans to build the set as seen here were quite advanced before he decided to change approach: other isometrics for The Avengers show sets almost exactly as constructed, and were clearly meant to be functional guides to draftsmen. (One member of Pottle's art department on The Avengers recalls that his isometrics were so precise that they could be translated into measured drawings without further notation.)
The reason for the change in design of Steed's apartment is unclear. Perhaps the set was deemed unworkably small for the number of scenes that would take place there; or perhaps Pottle decided that the neat Georgian box lacked the kind of visual interest which Steed's flamboyant persona demanded.