One of the most striking elements of the obituaries in the mainstream press and social media for Patrick Macnee’s passing, I think, is the constant mention of his debonair style and “gentlemanly” qualities.
In fact, it would be almost impossible to talk about Patrick Macnee without acknowledging his stylish character John Steed. In fact, Macnee seemed to encourage the blurr of identities between himself and Steed, calling Steed a “slightly exaggerated form of myself”.
Steed first appeared in a trench coat, but through Macnee, Steed evolved into a stylised, technicolour, neo-Edwardian dandy – and it is that iconic look for which Macnee will always be remembered. Early critics of the programme complained of the show’s high artificial style and surface – but for fans of The Avengers, it was that very thing that appealed most about the show. Like a lot of people, I grew up watching The Avengers (but in the early 1980s) – and you could say Steed was my first Dandy. And as much as Emma Peel captivated me (how could Diana Rigg fail to captivate?) what truly drew me to The Avengers was Patrick Macnee.
Macnee’s Steed was unlike so many of the male characters I saw on television – he was a cool spy with beautiful, intelligent partners. He usually managed to avoid fights, but if not, he would always walk away looking impeccable. He rarely lost his temper or threatened someone, but when he did so, it was with a smile and a soft voice. My brothers watched James Bond; I loved John Steed.
Macnee has said often that he created the role of Steed because he hated James Bond – so he aimed for The Scarlet Pimpernell instead. Steed was Beau Brummell updated – the Classic Dandy – but with a modern twist. His attire may have announced “upper-crust society”, but the tongue-in-cheek delivery and impudent glint in his eye told you never take it too seriously – to be in on the joke with him.
He wore it well
But I didn’t just grow up with Patrick Macnee’s John Steed. Macnee wrote in his autobiography, The Avengers and Me, that Peter O’Toole told him: “But Patrick, you’re always doing The Avengers!” Indeed, most of my favourite smaller parts for Macnee showed him merely a slightly different version of John Steed – which was part of the fun. One of my favourite Diagnosis Murder episodes, “Discards”, simultaneously paid homage to the spy-fi stars of the 1960s, but also pokes just a bit of fun at the genre.
Macnee’s brief role on This is Spinal Tap is an often forgotten (but absolutely delightful) cameo. “Holmes is Where the Heart Is” on Magnum, P.I. is particularly heartbreaking as he plays a former British spy who is slowly losing the battle to dementia. Perhaps my personal favourite guest spot was on an episode of Coach called “Dresswreckers” as a wedding dress designer trying to repair a dress that’s been set alight. His comic timing was as impeccable as his attire.
Whenever I think about Patrick Macnee, I remember a conversation I once had with an older gentleman when I was waiting in a doctor’s lounge. He had seen my Avengers tattoos and we struck up a conversation about John Steed and Patrick Macnee. I explained that I was also writing a chapter on my doctoral thesis on John Steed. He said to me: “The thing about Steed is, even if we all dressed like him, we’d never look as good as Patrick Macnee.”
Truer words were never spoken. Steed – and, by association, Macnee – has become a staple of elegance, fashion and Swinging Sixties Dandyism. Perhaps inescapably, his new-Edwardian fashion, his co-ordinating umbrellas and bowler hats will be his ultimate legacy: Steed is immortal, even if his creator is not.