Two years after the original television series drew to a close, John Steed and Emma Peel returned to find a new audience in an unexpected locale – South Africa – played by expatriate British actors Donald Monat and Diane Appleby. By arrangement with EMI in the United Kingdom, The Avengers was adapted from the original television scripts and recorded at Sonovision Studios in Johannesburg. In a departure from the self-contained format of its source material, The Avengers radio series called for each script to be re-written as a serial of five, six or seven fifteen-minute episodes. These would be broadcast on Monday to Friday evenings in prime-time between 7.15 and 7.30pm on Springbok Radio, an English-language service of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The timeslot that The Avengers occupied was sponsored by the detergent manufacturer, Lever Brothers, and it is thought that the concept to bring the series to the airwaves may well have originated from within their advertising agency. It was not uncommon for sponsors to dictate what programmes were to be produced, based upon what they believed would be beneficial for their products to be associated with. Quite why the washing powder, Cold Water Omo and The Avengers were seen as a match made in heaven is anyone's guess, but this didn't stop each episode being introduced with the announcement, "And now... from the makers of Cold Water Omo..."!

Although the series ended up being made at Sonovision Studios under the auspices of the prolific producer, Dave Gooden, it had actually had a false start or two elsewhere. Two pilot programmes had previously been recorded at AFS Studios, another busy production house near the South African Broadcasting Corporation's studios on Commissioner Street, but these productions appear to have been deemed unsatisfactory by the broadcaster. These pilots were not preserved and consequently very little is known about them. It is apparent, however, that Donald Monat was involved in one or both of them but did not play the part of John Steed – he later recalled having played the chief villain rather than our hero. Two names have been linked with the role Steed in the AFS pilots – Rex Garner and John Boulter – but sadly no evidence exists to prove or disprove this theory. The same is also true for Colin Fish, who is believed to have directed at least one of the two programmes. Fish would ultimately go on to portray the character of Mother on a regular basis in the Sonovision Avengers.

Once the production had been moved to Sonovision, Dave Gooden engaged experienced British actor, Tony Jay to adapt the television scripts for radio and also direct the productions. "My association with the wonderful Dave Gooden was very close," said Jay, when interviewed for Avengers on the Radio in 2001, "and I produced and acted in innumerable series and one-off plays at Sonovision over a period of about six years, during which time I had virtually carte-blanche as to how I wished to proceed and whom I wished to cast." The situation with The Avengers was no different. Tony Jay's first job was to cast the role of Steed – but his first choice, the legendary South African actor-entertainer, Rex Garner, proved unavailable. In his place, Jay quickly cast Donald Monat, another high-profile name in South African radio, and he later complimented Monat as having done "very well in the role, as did Diane Appleby as Emma Peel." Rex Garner would go on to appear in the series in guest roles from time to time.

Hard though it may be to believe today, when movies and television shows can be in development for months and years before being realised, a programme commissioned for South African radio could go from idea to broadcast in a matter of weeks. Tony Jay recalled that The Avengers was no exception: "I had about two weeks to prepare the first two serials – each comprising five fifteen-minute scripts – prior to recording and broadcast. That was nothing unusual, as most radio jobs were facilitated at lightning speed. Subsequent scripts were usually prepared only one or two weeks ahead, as I had to spend much time sorting through the pile of available TV scripts in order to decide which ones were less 'visual' than others," he remembered. Early on, Jay realised that one particular radio innovation – the narrator – was going to be a necessity: "But I wanted a narrator with a point of view and more than a touch of irony, a kind of interested, but sceptical observer, and those interpolations were created by myself, adding a very attractive twist to the programme."

If the turnaround was frenetic for the script writer, it was no less so for the performers, as Donald Monat recalled when interviewed for Avengers on the Radio in 2000: "Serials like The Avengers were recorded at sight, with no rehearsal or read-through, five or six episodes in one afternoon. Normally, you didn't even get the scripts in advance. The first time you saw them was when you walked into the studio for the recording."

On Monday 6th December 1971 at 7.16pm, Springbok Radio premiered The Avengers, transmitting the first episode of a five-part adaptation of the 1967 television episode, Escape in Time. Through a combination of slick production work, witty writing and a talented and experienced cast, the series quickly found a regular audience. Listeners were entranced by the bright, fast-moving combination of action and tongue-in-cheek humour that Tony Jay had devised. The impact of The Avengers was such that Steed and Mrs Peel were much in demand, as Donald Monat recalls: "Diane Appleby and I were asked to make personal appearances from time to time and we would pop up in character at department stores and big events, chat to fans of the show and autograph pictures for them. The show was certainly very successful and attracted a large prime-time audience."

At the outset, Tony Jay had known that his involvement with the series would not be a relatively short engagement. "When Dave Gooden approached me to instigate the series, I had already made plans to re-locate back to London, so I stayed on in South Africa for a further six months in order to get the show established on the air." Halfway through 1972, Jay stepped down and returned home as planned. His role on the series, as adaptor/director was taken by Dennis Folbigge and the transition was handled seamlessly.

The main innovations of Dennis Folbigge's tenure with the series were to incorporate the Mother character from that era (Tony Jay had not liked the character and did not utilise it in any of his scripts); and to extend the episode count per story beyond the five that Jay had favoured. Folbigge also rewrote some scripts from Tony Jay's time with the series and these were re-recorded and broadcast afresh. This was not something unique to The Avengers, however, and was a common 'get out' gambit employed when writers were up against the wall with impending deadlines or script shortages. The practice was not encouraged by broadcasters, but if kept to a minimum, it would be tolerated.

As the serialisations were being adapted from television scripts rather than the transmitted television programmes, a number of interesting variants of interest to fans of The Avengers were produced. To begin with, many TV episodes that had featured Linda Thorson as Tara King were rewritten to feature the Emma Peel character instead. Have you ever wondered what Pandora would have been like as an Emma Peel episode? Well, if you were listening to Springbok Radio in the 1970s, you could have found out. Several serials that feature the Tara/Emma rewrites still exist to this day, although sadly, Pandora appears not to be one of them. The other, coincidental result of Tony Jay and Dennis Folbigge working from scripts was that they would occasionally receive early drafts which had been heavily revised before their television broadcasts. This meant that stories like They Keep Killing Steed (1968), which was originally to be filmed in Spain before budgetary issues caused that idea to be abandoned, were adapted for radio from their original intended form. They Keep Killing Steed was indeed set in Spain in the radio series, broadcast under the title, Too Many Olés. Likewise, the radio serial Straight From The Shoulder is based not on the television equivalent, Have Guns... Will Haggle (1968), but on the script of the filmed but aborted Invitation To A Killing. This troubled production was intended as a feature-length series opener but a sudden change of production staff meant that Invitation To A Killing was hacked down to fifty minutes and rebranded as Have Guns... Will Haggle. The full-length cut of Invitation To A Killing is believed lost today, but the survival of the radio adaptation gives a fascinating insight into what might have been.

By the end of 1973, there were very few scripts left from the bundle received from the UK that had not been adapted for radio. Anxious to continue making his popular series, Dave Gooden approached rights holder EMI and asked for permission to commission original stories which would not be based on television episodes. He also investigated the possibility of releasing tapes of The Avengers serials commercially. Unfortunately, EMI were against both suggestions and did not grant permission in either case. For this reason, the last episode of The Avengers was broadcast on Friday 28th December 1973. The series had run for a little over two years and it is believed that as many as eighty-three serials were made and transmitted in this time – the number of scripts that would have been available relating to the filmed series of The Avengers (Series Four, Five and Six in the UK). It had been a great success and from what survives today, is rightly regarded as an effective and vibrant take on The Avengers.

There was one last, brief hurrah for Donald Monat and Diane Appleby as Steed and Peel in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek reprise for the characters in 1975. Monat and his wife, June Dixon, were commissioned to write a celebratory programme to mark Springbok Radio's Silver Jubilee. This programme eventually aired live in prime-time on Wednesday 30th April 1975, directed by Monat himself and entitled The Great Gong Robbery. Donald Monat later recalled that it was quite a tough assignment. "The Great Gong Robbery was performed live in front of a studio audience at the SABC Variety Theatre, Broadcast House, Johannesburg at the time of transmission. This was quite a challenge, as none of us had done a drama or comedy programme literally live on the air for decades!" The accent was on comedy and the plot was straightforward – someone had stolen the famous Springbok Gong (a distinctive xylophone-style instrument upon which station announcers would play call signs at regular times on Springbok Radio), and it was down to a succession of Springbok characters, past and present, to recover it. Two bumbling South African policemen (lifted from Sonovision's legendary Squad Cars and played by Michael Mayer and Hal Orlandini) were assigned to the case and formed the linking device, whereby they would call on characters from other Springbok successes, such as The Mind of Tracy Dark (which was by this time well established in the timeslot relinquished by The Avengers), Taxi, Jet Jungle (starring Diane Appleby) and many others. Since there was such a large cast, it was possible to include characters from two or three series that were no longer on the air. The Avengers was one of these instances, made possible as both Donald Monat and Diane Appleby would be appearing in the broadcast in any case. When we meet Steed and Mrs Peel in the show, the crime-fighting pair state that they are retired and, perish the thought, are living together. The full programme was issued on a double LP by Trutone and represents the only material from the South African Avengers to have been released commercially.

Compared to other Springbok Radio programmes, quite a sizeable chunk of The Avengers exists today, thanks to the foresight and generosity of two old time radio enthusiasts, John Wright (who recorded nineteen complete serials off-air on reel-to-reel tapes) and Barbara Peterson (who kept a recording of the third episode of Escape in Time on cassette for three decades). Coincidentally, the preceding two episodes of the Escape in Time story were preserved from the studio tapes. It remains incomplete, but Avengers fans should be grateful for small mercies. Some Springbok series are lost forever, or have a handful of episodes remaining from transmission runs far greater than The Avengers. So why does so little remain from the output of one of South Africa's most popular radio stations? The answer is a straightforward one, as Donald Monat remembers: "Most programme tapes were wiped after broadcast. The reason was simply economic. They could be re-used and the cost of the blank tape was a significant factor in the production company's budget."

John Wright generously donated his recordings to the Avengers on the Radio website (the sister site of The Avengers Declassified) in 2002 and my wife Alys and I restored his recordings over a ten year period, completing the project on 28th July 2012. It has been a privilege for us to have been able to work with these rare tapes and bring this marvellous and unique take on The Avengers to new audiences all over the world.

Alan Hayes

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