Patrick Macnee Dead at 93: So Long John Steed

John Steed from The Avengers
As a kid I adored The Avengers. John Steed, the man who carried an umbrella instead of a gun and managed to have the world’s most beautiful women as partners in the world of off the wall espionage was a childhood hero. While my crush may have been Diana Riggs as Miss Emma Peel, the chap I aspired to be was Macnee’s Steed and it hurts to say so long to John Steed and Patrick Macnee who died Thursday at 93.

161 episodes of a series that featured Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson as the other half of a team that was years ahead of the rest of the world in showing that feminism could work. Although poor Thorson was never in the same league as the first two female stars of the show by the time she showed up, as the actress put it herself, the producers did not really know what to do with her character.

The Avengers was a parody of spy movies like the James Bond franchise, and later the Harry Palmer “bargain basement” version of Bond, where Steed was not quite so glamorous, or as rough, as Sean Connery’s Bond. Steed was: Totally cool, a gentlemen, utterly unflappable, and braver than brave; going up against all sorts of baddies and rarely armed except for that umbrella.

Steed never carried a gun and his character was actually the “second banana” to Ian Hendry’s character (Dr. David Keel)in season one. By the time the series reached season two Keel was gone and Steed was not. Macnee was the quintessential Englishman from 1961 to 1969 and the show made stars of Patrick, Blackman and Riggs on both sides of the big pond. Macnee would go on to do The New Avengers but it never gelled with me the way the first series did, despite Joanna Lumley’s Purdey.

Macnee worked practically nonstop, even appearing in one of the Bond films, A View to a Kill with Sir Roger Moore, whom he had worked with on The Sea Wolves, as well as David Niven, and according to Sir Roger, he was under the impression that Patrick and he were related. Moore gave his old “relative” and colleague a sending off after news of his death was made public.

The actor was a prolific performer and played many different roles, most of whom were English although he did portray other nationalities. He was also very good at playing villains, in the 1988 horror/comedy Waxwork, and its sequel, Macnee was a treacherous old family friend and stinker who tries to kill the hero. He played the baddie many times in his long career and always quite convincingly.

But it is as John Steed that he will stay in my memory. He once revealed that the reason The Avengers worked so well was that he and Diana Rigg, a very serious actress with a background in Shakespeare who was also voted, somewhat ironically, the world’s sexist ever TV star by the American publication TV Guide, wrote their own dialogue as the show’s scripts were, he said, abysmal.

Arthritis slowed him down later and forced him to give up acting except for voice over work. Patrick Macnee died at his California home of natural causes and his son Rupert informed the patrickmacnee.com website that he was with family when he died.

So long Patrick Macnee, aka John Steed, the umbrella carrying English gentleman and “action man.”

Life in the Real Desert: Riding Through a Dust Devil

Photo of dust devil in Arizona Living in the real desert has definitely been an eye opening experience thus far. (Not to mention a chance to clean my cluttered mind of the trappings of too much civilization, which has been an unexpected plus.) Recently the weather has matched my life to a certain extent. A lot of air turbulence, aka wind, has kept the dust and sand in constant upheaval. Quite a number of “dust devils” aka mini cyclones have been created and move across the hardpan floor recklessly ignoring traffic to traverse roads and avenues.

A few days ago, a volcano in Chile erupted. This lava-spewing spectacle occurred twice in a short time period, if I can remember the Facebook notices correctly, and like the Icelandic eruption a few years back, it has affected the weather noticeably. Cooler temperatures, clouds, a lot of gusting wind and heavy showers are making their presence felt in the normally hot area.

Clouds of debris have entered the atmosphere once again and will loom up there for some time. With my sporadic Internet, and no television, I do not know if the event has messed with air travel. The Iceland volcano certainly did; shutting down flights for several days in England and other countries.

Years ago, when I lived in New Mexico with my first wife and our son Donovan (who was a fearless 8 or 9 month old that walked boldly off the end of the settee…repeatedly) sand storms were a regular occurrence and dust devils could be spotted easily.

During one sand storm, according to my white-faced then wife, I was almost decapitated by a whirling sheet of galvanized steel. However, the most spectacular sand storm took place during the filming of a Sean Connery film, “Wrong Is Right.” The film set was in White Sands and a small group of locals were there to watch the professionals go through their paces.

The wind picked up steadily and suddenly, in mid-scene, a white wall of sand could be seen approaching. A park ranger announced over the PA system that if people wanted to leave, now was the time to do it. Along with a number of other locals, the wife, baby and I left, only to be caught up in the advances of the wall of sand.

Before we got into the car, a cameraman on the crew grabbed my arm. Sounding like the epitome of a “surfer” he excitedly asked, “Whoa dude! Is it like this all the time around here? This is so cool!” I agreed and suggested he take cover and protect his equipment as these natural events could strip paint off cars and deliver sand in unbelievable places.

Dust storm picture from Google images

In those days, sand storms were a new experience. I had only ever been through one similar incident a few years previously. A dust storm had roared over the Oklahoma state line and enveloped a small Arkansas town where I was doing drywall work. Purple clouds filled the sky and suddenly the whole world was swirling dust and darkness.

Creepy.

Back to present day and my ride through the dust devil. As I was already fighting against 11 to 17 mph winds, my concentration was more on getting home than on the birth of the mini cyclone up ahead.

For a split second I thought of the Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt film “Twister” and their experiences in dealing with tornadoes. The cyclone grew steadily, from a few bits of debris swirling around to a lot of sand, dust and more debris building up to a small twister about six feet in diameter.

Biking with my eyes squinted against the wall of wind pushing against me I noticed that the dust devil was almost stationary ahead of me. Up to the left of me, it seemed to be waiting for me to pass. As I drew nearer, it began to move into the road. I thought briefly about stopping and trying to get a video of the thing.

It was not going to happen.

The thing was upon me in an instant. Suddenly all the pressure that had been trying to force me back the way I came stopped. The bike and I were being pummeled back and forth. The wheels actually slid sideways for a second or two and the bike began to wobble in the wind.

Luckily I was wearing my prescription sunglasses so the dust and debris did not blind me. Eyes almost shut I could see from inside the small cyclone. I felt a little like the surfer-dude cameraman from the Connery film being filmed in 1981.

“Whoa dude!”

Just another experience of living in the real desert to be savored; riding a bike through a dust devil, aka mini cyclone, and living to tell the tale.

26 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Skyfall (2012) Back to Bond’s Roots

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Directed by Sam Mendes and starring Daniel Craig as 007; Skyfall is the 23rd Bond film and Craig’s third outing as the “super spy.” While I was not overly keen on Adele’s theme song for the film, the opening did not disappoint as it featured some pretty great white knuckle action from the first frame.

I was really looking forward to the Blu-ray release of the film and I managed to get the last copy in HMV. But I was a bit annoyed that there were no special features on the disc. But having said that, the film looked brilliant and the cinematography was spectacular to say the least.

I was really looking forward to seeing Javier Bardem as the “big baddie” Silva. I’ve been a fan of this man since he played the sinister Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. His performance in that film was chilling and he did not disappoint as Silva in Skyfall. He has jumped to the top of the league as the best Bond villain ever.

And he didn’t even have a cat.

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Silva may be having a bad hair day, but he’s still damned scary.

Dame  Judi Dench  did her usual brilliant job as the ‘hard as nails’ M and the “new” ‘Q’ – Ben Whishaw  was delightful and clever; a new generation of weapons maestro to supply Bond with his new toys. Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Rory Kinnear (the son of the late  actor Roy Kinnear) all exceeded themselves in their appointed roles.

I was amazed at Albert Finney as the gamekeeper Kincaid. I did not recognise him at first, but when he opened his mouth, despite the Scottish accent, I knew it was him. What a delight to see him still proving that at his age, he’s still got the ‘chops.’

The film looked brilliant and the soundtrack was great, especially after the second half of the film got under way. There were some spectacular stunts for this film and the scene with the London tube train was memorable and will be hard to beat.

The only problem I had with the film was the first half. Sam Mendes seems to have confused slowness with grandness. He worked tremendously hard to make the 23rd Bond outing look epic. Unfortunately epic does not equal slow or meandering. I was actually getting bored and we had not even met Silva yet.

However, once he came on board, the film picked up pace nicely and cracked along. The speedier and more action packed second half saved the film by just pulling it back from the precipice of diffidence. When things began moving and bringing Bond back to his roots by including some traditional Bond music and a bit of the old 007 ingenuity, it felt like we were back home again.

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Bond with an old favourite.

But the film did open with a great pre-title sequence that offered more action than most film’s set-pieces. Once the opening credits finished the film, as I said above, slowed down to a crawl. I am sure that the director felt that this leisurely pace was necessary for the “slower” members of the audience to catch everything, but those of us with a higher IQ it was too slow.

Daniel Craig gave, as usual, his all for God, Queen, country, and M. He still manages to make Bond seem bigger than life and brings a roughness mixed with the smooth edge of diamond tough suaveness that brings Sean Connery to mind.

But where the “original” Bond was flippant, Craig is not. His humour is drier and much more subtle. We can only hope that he “stays’ as Bond for at least a few more films. He is the last of the male stars who can pull it off.

For excruciatingly slow pacing in the first half of the film, I’ll have to give the film a 4.5 stars out of 5. Close, but not the full cigar, Mendes.

Bond and M.
Bond, M, and that car.

Actors

When I was a boy I had a list of actors about as long as my arm that I wanted to meet. There was also a shorter list of actors I actually would have done anything to work with. I have had a long love affair with Theatre, Film and to a slightly lesser degree television. Ever since I came to the momentous conclusion that I wanted to be an actor, I have been in awe and enamoured of any actor whose performances move me.

Top of the list of “meet-a-bles” was The Duke. John Wayne was, to me anyway, the master of reacting. He also had a knack (one that was enhanced by his “script doctor”) of speaking in very natural tones, but with that Duke cadence that will be forever remembered.

Dean Martin ran a close second. Again, mainly because of the almost lackadaisical way he had of delivering his dialogue. I am talking about his better films here. His method of delivery was so natural, it was as though he had not memorised dialogue, but made it up as he went along.

Richard Burton, with that beautiful voice, enthralled me literally from the first second I heard him speak. I wanted more than anything to see him in Camelot. When I think of actors his name is always first on the list, closely followed by Lawrence Olivier, Richard Harris, Sean Connery and Michael Caine. All actors I so intensely admired and would have given anything to have worked with.

And who could forget the man with the sing-song, musical voice Peter O’Toole. This long lanky actor was also in the league of Oliver and Connery and Burton and Caine. Mr O’Toole announce today that he is retiring from acting. Another legend gone. The world has lost a great actor, not through death, but from age.

There was only one actress that fell into both categories and that was Elizabeth Taylor. My high school drama teacher had worked with her and she swore that they were the same age until suddenly Ms Taylor started getting younger each year. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Pat Collier still thought very highly of Ms Taylor and would sing her praises monthly.

I actually saw Sean Connery in a Holiday Inn restaurant/bar in Alamogordo New Mexico in 1981. He walked within a foot of my and a friends table. Even out of make-up and sans toupee he commanded the room. I was so shocked by his appearance in this out of the way place,  that I was practically speechless. I found out later that he was making a film with Katherine Ross and Robert Conradat the White Sands National Park.

Of course most of the actors I wanted to meet are all gone. They are treading the boards on some other plain of existence or they have “semi” retired. Of course I never really got into the business enough to insure I met anyone. I have met and auditioned for Jonathan Demme. The year was 1976 and the film was Fighting Mad with Peter Fonda.

I got the part, after a very patient Jonathan kept making me re-read it. He kept reminding me that I wasn’t on a stage so I had to tone down my performance. I left thinking I had blown it. It was a good part too. I was going to be saved by Peter Fonda’s character at the beginning of the film. I got the phone call two weeks later and went in to sign the contract with my dad.

Alas, I never got to work on that film. Due to money problems, the company (Palo Alto Productions) started cutting costs where they could and got a young stuntman to do my scene – presumably cheaper than if I had done it. I found this out from a friend of mine who was a Gopher on the film.

I have since worked on small things here and there. Life, love and the support of first one family and then another sort of side tracked me from my “artistic pursuit.” I am slowly and hesitantly backing into my first love. Writing. Before I had decided in my youth to tread the boards, being a writer was my big dream.

Sean Connery at the 2008 Edinburgh Internation...
Sean Connery at the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe one day, if I actually get my ageing butt in gear and start looking for it, I will get work acting again. But until that time, I’ll write my blogs and try to stretch my literary muscles in preparation to write the next great American or English novel.