On This Day: Last episode of hit TV series The Avengers is aired

MAY 21, 1969: Cult British TV series The Avengers aired its 161st and last episode, leaving millions of devoted viewers from around the world heartbroken, on this day in 1969.

The final broadcast of the ITV show, featuring eccentric secret agent John Steed and his glamorous female assistants solving strange mysteries, was suitably titled Bizarre.

It began with Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, arranging his own funeral to probe suspicious undertakers amid claims of the walking dead.

And it ended with Steed and Tara King (Linda Thorson) clinking champagne glasses as they accidentally launch themselves into space on board a rocket.

The series, which was also popular in the U.S. and shown in 88 other countries, ended after America’s ABC network cancelled broadcasts.

Thames Television, part of the ITV network, were unable to continue funding the increasingly costly production without U.S. backing.

The show’s popularity was also hurt by the loss of its best loved female star Diana Rigg, who played Emma Peel, a genius scientist and formidable fighter.

The boys’ favourite pin-up girl quit in October 1967 after failing to get a pay rise when she learned that she was earning less than one of the cameramen.

Rigg followed another previous Avenger, Honor Blackman, by then starring as a Bond Girl in the 007 movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

A British Pathé newsreel shows her filming The Avengers with Macnee at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in the New Forest, Hampshire.

[On This Day: British inventor John Logie Baird tests world’s first TV set]

They were shooting the endings for every episode in season five – the first to be shown in colour – with the pair driving off in different vehicles each time.

The cars were among the most beloved features of The Avengers, which aired more than 24 episodes a year compared to the usual handful most UK series broadcast.

The strange plotlines in the show, which also uniquely merged the spy drama and sci-fi genres, also kept viewers hooked.

It famously featured cyborg killers, a city built under a disused coal mine and a killer who concocts a concentrated cold virus that caused victims to sneeze to death.

It was also notable for being one of the first productions to adopt a metafictional tone, where characters would sometimes indirectly discuss the show as a work of fiction.

In one episode Steed and Peel are talking about how in stories sources are often killed off early – only for the same thing to happen in the show.

And in another, they utter the phrase 'tune in next week' at the end.


[On This Day: The Sky at Night first airs in 1957]

They broke the Fourth Wall – when the viewer is spoken to directly – at the end of the final episode when Mother, Steed’s boss, tells the audience: 'They'll be back!'

The character, whom 007’s Q would be based on, then adds in shock: 'They're unchaperoned up there!'

The Avengers, which was loved for its theme tune and spawned a popular comic book, also developed the idea of female stars being sexy as well as sassy.

American censors frequently complained about its risqué nature, especially when Rigg started the show in 1964.

Famously, five season five episodes – featuring scenes such as Rigg in a skimpy corset, wearing a spiked collar or being whipped - could not be shown in the U.S.

Tragically, almost all of episodes from the first two years with Blackman as original co-star Cathy Gale have been lost.

It was customary then to wipe film after use because it was considered valuable and British shows at the time were generally not re-aired or syndicated.

[On This Day: Muhammad Ali beats Henry Cooper in London]

In 1971, The Avengers was also made into a radio series in South Africa, which did not have TV until 1976 due to opposition from the apartheid government.

Back in Britain, ITV went on to produce a sequel The New Avengers in 1976, which saw Macnee return and Joanna Lumley making her name as Purdey.

The series, which began on TV in January 1961, also spun off as a 1998 movie in which Ralph Fiennes played Steed and Uma Thurman was Peel.