It was never going to be easy. Cathy Gale had seduced Britain; Emma Peel had sold the series to the Americans. What was there for the third Avengers girl to do? For actress Linda Thorson, straight out of drama school and completely inexperienced in television, playing the “fluffy, bubbly” Tara King was always going to be an uphill struggle. To her credit, she made it work – but then, a Dave Golder discovered, Tara was always more than just “the one after Mrs Peel”...
Okay, so she didn’t exactly follow in the footsteps of Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg by becoming a Bond girl. Okay, so she only lasted one season. And, okay, so she was the last of the original Avengers girls – the one who was there when the show was cancelled. But while to most of Britain Linda Thorson may be just “the one who came after Emma Peel,” you’re putting your life in your hands if you ever suggest she’s the forgotten Avenger. ..
“I did 33 episodes, all in colour, which is more colour than Diana did!” Thorson insists. “And Patrick Macnee admits that mine are some of the best ever episodes. I think I made my mark as Tara King as well as anyone else could have done.”
I’m speaking to Linda Thorson fresh from the Cult TV weekend, where The Avengers won a Hall of Fame award – “No little prizes for me, though,” she sighs. “ The X-Files got everything” – and where it’s once again been impressed upon her that a lot of people do remember her character, after all. “I think it’s a miracle that one’s well-known for something one did 25 years ago,” she smiles.
But surely she must admit that, to the British public at least, she’s still very much in the shadow of Blackman and Rigg?
“One has to remember that after the series finished I went back to America,” explains the Canadian-born Thorson. “My mother was dying, and I had to go back to be with her, even though it was like starting all over again. Since then, I’ve done five Broadway shows, had my own series, and starred in a soap for two and half years. I’ve constantly worked, and when I do come back, and especially when I go to Paris – the Tara shows were the episodes for the French – I find people still love Tara King.”
Any ideas why?
“I think the series was at its peak at the time. Of all of the episodes, I think mine look the least dated today, and that’s including The New Avengers . You can see it in the sets, and the atmosphere, and the whole way of speaking – it’s very ’60s, but very focused.”
The reason Linda Thorson’s doing the publicity rounds is simple: Lumiere has just released a boxed set of six Tara King Avengers episodes, and judging by the way she manages to mention this fact at every opportunity, she’s flattered. And she’s every right to be. After all, as Thorson points out, they’re good TV – and good Avengers . Yes, the shows are a little more bizarre than their Cathy Gale/Emma Peel predecessors, a little softer, and a little more self-consciously hip. But they’re still The Avengers , and a natural step up from the Emma Peel episodes in the same way Emma Peel was a step up from Cathy Gale. In other words, they’re rattlingly good, highly imaginative slices of ’60s spy-camp which, with the benefit of hindsight, leave US series like Mission Impossible and The Man From UNCLE looking limp and half-baked.
This being the case, then, how come the Tara King season has always been regarded as the weakest of the series? The reasons are manifold, as Thorson is keen to point out, and owe no small amount to the fact that her season was the one that bombed in the US...
“But that had nothing to with the quality of the episodes,” she insists. “The show was put up against Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In – the network considered we were their best weapon to use against it, which was unfortunate. You see, Laugh In had become the biggest show in America overnight – so that was it – the end. I’m sure we’d have gone on to do another season if it hadn’t been for that...”
There were other problems. By the time Thorson had joined, mainstay creative forces Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell had been ousted by ABC, and former script editor John Bryce made producer. He’d intended giving the series a more realistic edge, and was partly responsible for casting Thorson, along with ABC casting director Robert Lennard and Dan Boyle, head of the company in America. When it became clear that Bryce wasn’t going to be able to bring the series in on time for the proposed US airdates, however, Fennell and Clemens were brought back on board – and on arrival they found many things not to their liking. Clemens, in particular, was unimpressed by the choice of lead actress. A nightmarish situation for Thorson, surely?
“It was,” she remembers, “but we were filming flat-out, so I was preoccupied with all that. I had to remember how I was supposed to look, what my lines were... I just wanted to get on with it. But it did take them a while to realise that I could play the role – and that I wasn’t going to be like Diana.”
In fact, Bryce had been so worried that Thorson was going to end up a Rigg lookalike, he made her have a complete makeover – her hair was dyed blonde, and she was sent to a health farm to lose pounds...
“They chose me from 200 actresses, 199 of whom looked completely different to me – 50 were blond, and 100 were thinner!” she laughs. “And then proceeded to change everything about me! I was intimidated by that – especially when the dye made my hair fall out, so I had to wear wigs and things for a few episodes!”
A bald Tara? Now that really would have been different...
“It would have solved the whole thing,” laughs Thorson. “I’d have been a forerunner of Sinead O’Connor. Actually, it could have been quite good, and I’d have got there earlier in the morning. No hairdresser problems!”
Bryce’s vision of Tara had always been to get as far away from the tough, cool Mrs Peel image as possible. Tara was going to be a “girlie, blonde, pink kind of thing” as Thorson puts it, but that all changed when Clemens came back on board.
“She returned to being more the kind of character who’s able to protect herself,” agrees Thorson. “Doing judo and karate, as opposed to the brick-in-the-handbag thing. We got back to her being an equal, having a sense of humour, and letting me be more myself, rather than imposing this kind of Marilyn Monroe character on me.”
How did the sexual chemistry between you and Steed work out, I wonder? You were a lot younger than him, and he seemed to want to protect you in the show, but at the same time you were actually the first unmarried partner he’d had...
“At first, I think Patrick thought he was too old for me, or I was too young for him,” she remembers, “but then he saw that it really worked, because it made him appear younger and more sexually involved. I decided that Tara was in love with Steed, and introduced the whole thing of her looking up to him, which made Patrick become very protective. It brought out a new side to Steed. I mean, I’d been chosen for the role – and that must have had something to do with me being me, so why not let me bring more of myself to the proceedings?”
Indeed. Though to be fair, for an actress fresh out of drama school you actually seem to have been given a surprising amount of control over your character...
“Certainly John Bryce was enthusiastic about my input, and Brian Clemens and I did work it out after a while... But, yeah, I was outspoken. I didn’t want to be shoved around and told what to do, because it was me out there on the screen, after all!”
Thorson also believes that, as well as bringing out new facets of Steed’s character, she had an effect on Patrick Macnee himself.
“I think he felt, ‘Oh gosh... I’d better get myself looking good if she’s going to be portrayed as being in love with me!’” she laughs. “He had to have all his suits taken in, because he’d lost tons of weight.”
You got on, I take it?
“Definitely. He’s such an amusing person. A great raconteur, and always supportive. Even though he may have thought at the beginning that I was too young, or didn’t have enough experience, he never made me feel that way.”
Indeed, the pair got on so well that ad-libbing the tag sequences – the final scenes in each episode – with Macnee soon became one of Thorson’s favourite parts of the show.
“It was so great to just be relaxed, and react to something Patrick did or said. Once the camera was rolling it was pretty much fixed what we were going to do and say, but while we rehearsed it we could throw in a line here and a line there.”
Although poor US ratings sealed The Avengers ’ fate, the idea was, of course, later resurrected in The New Avengers , starring Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley. Thorson almost got a chance to reprise Tara King in an aborted mid-’80s project called The Avenging Angel . She was never in the running for The New Avengers , however – “I was in America at the time” – and doesn’t seem too worried by the fact. “Joanna was a fabulous choice,” she says, “but I’m just as happy I didn’t do it. I’d only want to go back and do Tara again – a Tara who’s 25 years older, of course – if the script was very good. If it was rubbish I’d just pass – why mar the whole image with a tacky movie?”
So do you think they should do a big budget Avengers movie?
“If they do,” she laughs, “I hope they make it with British people, not Sharon Stone or Mel Gibson!”
Although The Avengers is now stuck firmly in the past, don’t think Linda Thorson’s completely given up on fantasy. Many SFX readers will probably remember her guest appearance in an episode of Star Trek: TNG – where she played a female Cardassian!
“It was an episode called ‘The Chase’,” she remembers. “I was in LA, doing a play in the evenings, and they asked me to come in. I was thrilled – I was going to be the first female Cardassian they’d had on the show! – but it was a really hard job. I had to be in make-up for five hours a day for ten days! It was terribly hard, sort of humiliating, and claustrophobic – you have to have lunch literally through a straw, and then it takes at least an hour to get the make up off again.”
It sounds unlikely she’d take the job again. Was she never tempted to go on stage in her Cardassian make-up, I wonder? It’d certainly have been different...
“Now that would have been interesting,” she smiles. “Almost as interesting as playing Tara King bald!”