Emma Peel was a fictional television spy played by Diana Rigg in the British 1960s adventure series The Avengers. She was born Emma Knight, the daughter of an industrialist, Sir John Knight.
The partner of John Steed, Mrs Peel was introduced as a replacement for the popular Cathy Gale, played by actress Honor Blackman, who left the series at the end of the programme's third season to co-star in the James Bond film Goldfinger.
Elizabeth Shepherd was cast as Emma Peel and production on the fourth season began. After filming all of one episode and part of a second, however, the producers decided that Shepherd was not right for the part, and she was dismissed. No footage of Shepherd as Peel is known to have survived.
The producers scrambled to find a replacement and found her in Diana Rigg; the Shepherd episodes were subsequently re-filmed.
The character was notable for a number of characteristics. She is a feminist heroine, eschewing traditional "damsel-in-distress" portrayals of women (she is rarely bested in any fight and rescues Steed as often as he rescues her.) She is a master of martial arts and a formidable fencer. A certified genius, she specializes in chemistry and other sciences. She is often seen in episodes engaging in artistic hobbies and had success in industry at the helm of the company of her late father, Sir John Knight. The name "Emma Peel" is a play on the phrase "Man Appeal" or "M. Appeal", which the production team stated was one of the required elements of the character.
Her style of dress typified the period, and the character is still a fashion icon. John Bates was brought in as the costume designer for Emma Peel in the second half of Season 4. He created a wardrobe of black and white op-art mod clothing and miniskirts. Before this, people had believed that lines, circles and other bold patterns would not work on the television cameras of the day. It was also filmed before the miniskirt had become mainstream. Bates even had to stop leaving hems on the miniskirts because the production team kept lowering them again. He also licensed his designs to several manufacturers under the Avengerswear label and these pieces were sold in various shops throughout the country. She is often best-remembered for the leather catsuit she wore early on in her first season, but in fact Rigg disliked wearing leather and John Bates designed softer stretch jersey and PVC catsuits for her instead. For the colour season, the designer was Alun Hughes who used bold colours and lurid, psychedelic patterns. Hughes also created the Emmapeeler catsuit which was made of stretch jersey in bright block colours. The Emmapeelers and several other pieces from this season's wardrobe were also licensed and sold in the shops. She drove a convertible Lotus Elan at high speeds, and convincingly portrayed any series of undercover roles, from nurse to nanny. Her favorite guise was that of a women's magazine reporter, trying to interview big business tycoons and rich playboys.
Peel's interactions with Steed range from witty banter to sexual tension. The tension was never broken except for a chaste peck on the cheek she gives Steed at the end of her final episode before departing with her husband, Peter Peel. He was a test pilot and was lost on a mission. When he returns, at the end of "The Forget-Me-Knot", Peel leaves Steed and her spy career behind. In the distant shot in which he appears, Peter Peel looks suspiciously like Steed.
In real life, Diana Rigg had chosen to leave the series for a number of reasons, one of which was in order to accept a role in the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. She also experienced ongoing conflict with the series producers (she later said she discovered she was being paid less than the cameraman).
Emma Peel was replaced by the much younger agent Tara King played by actress Linda Thorson, but appeared one last time in an episode of The New Avengers entitled "K is for Kill." Rigg had declined an offer to appear on the series, so stock footage of her from an Avengers episode was used instead.
- Alvarez, Maria (1998), "Feminist icon in a catsuit (female lead character Emma Peel in defunct 1960s UK TV series 'The Avengers')", New Statesman, Aug 14.
- Paul Cornell; Day, Martin; & Topping, Keith (1998). The Avengers Dossier. London: Virgin Books. ISBN 0-86369-754-2.
- Lars Baumgart (2002): DAS KONZEPT EMMA PEEL – Der unerwartete Charme der Emanzipation: THE AVENGERS und ihr Publikum. Kiel: Verlag Ludwig – ISBN 978-3933598400
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