The Town of No Return (1965)

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[After Honor Blackman left,] it was vital, however to find the right Emma, and after months of searching it began to look as if she didn't exist. It was then that they found a beautiful actress called Elizabeth Shepherd, a daughter of a Welsh Non-conformist minister, who had been dubbed one of the most beautiful of the current British actresses, and she was signed for the role. However, Miss Shepherd failed to impress the producers, or ruffle the characteristic well-bred charm of Patrick Macnee. After viewing the rushes of the first episode, Town of No Return, they decided that, although a accomplished actress, she didn't give the character the light comedy touch they were looking for. Having spent over £120,000, they stopped the production half way through The Murder Market, and Eliabeth Shepherd was dropped. (A studio memo, written by the series press officer Marie Donaldson, gave an insight into the character the actress may have produced. Her £600 wardrobe consisted of clothes created by New York designer Bonnie Cashin. The most startling outfit was a red-leather fighting suit that had a large cowled neck, which could be pulled up into a hood. Worn with poppy red thigh-length boots and a single black leather glove with which she could administer her karate blows, Emma Peel, Shepherd-style, was to be a top-flight swordswoman, an expert with firearms and a dab hand with a longbow.) With an impressive range of Shakespearian roles behind her, it is difficult to understand why Miss Shepherd failed to demonstrate her pedigree to the producers. However, a further 20 or so actresses were tested before Dodo Watts, the programme's casting director, asked the producers to look at an actress she'd just used in an Armchair Theatre production, the Hothouse.

After viewing a tape of the play, Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell sensed that this could be the girl they'd been searching for and they invited her to take a screen test with Patrick Mcnee. Diana Rigg, who believed she wasn't really suitable for the role and remarked later, "I only did it for a giggle", was required to p'ace a plaster on Patrick Mcnee's wrists, and fire a gun at a retreating villain. The results were first class. Macnee and the young actress seemed to find an immediate rapport. She was signed to a long-term contract, and 18 months after the last series had ended, The Avengers were on their way back. The rest, of course, is history. Patrick Mcnee told me, "The lady before Diana Rigg, Elizabeth Shepherd, was a very beautiful woman and a wonderful actress - but totally miscast. She was far too serene and lovely for anything like The Avengers, in which you had to be a bit quick and cocky, the way Diana Rigg was. The woman needs to be a hermaphrodite, a woman, but one who runs like a man. When Diana came into the show she was only 28, but she had this total, complete technical comedic style and sparkle, surety and assurance. In fact she was so good that it sharpened, in a sense, my own comedy style which was there, but dormant. My style changed considerably. We were also doing it on film for the first time, which necessitated a different form of approach. The scenes that we played together , with the full approval of Brian Clemens, were largely rewritten by Diana and myself. She had a very sharp and lively imagination and understanding of what a woman, a woman like her, would say in any given situation - however outrageous or mad. We, and I say we advisedly, took perfectly straight situations and made them slightly ludicrous. You had to be slightly mad, but you also had to be basically cool. We tilted everything, made it humorous - and it worked."

From The Complete Avengers, by Dave Rogers (Boxtree)

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