Donald Monat is a gifted veteran actor, writer, producer and director whose career has been a successful one all over the world. He has been a top-line star of South African radio, produced and performed comedy revues on the London stage, made his own feature and short films, worked as a voice-artiste in the USA and has, most recently, published a Sherlock Holmes novel, The Merchant of Death, co-written with his wife, June Dixon.

Between 1971 and 1973, Donald played John Steed in the South African radio adaptation of The Avengers made at Sonovision Studios in Johannesburg.

Donald was interviewed in 2000 by Alan Hayes and in April 2001 by Avengers fans at The Avengers Forum. What follows is a compilation of those two conversations. To begin with, Donald recalled how he became involved in South African Radio.

"I was born in London, but grew up in South Africa, went to school and university there, and started acting for radio when I was 16. I went back to England in 1949, where I first met my wife, June Dixon, when we were working together in a stage play in London. When the SABC commercial service, Springbok Radio, began in 1950, we went back to Johannesburg and started one of the first radio production companies, personally producing about 15 shows a week. After 2 years of hectic work, we went back to London and worked extensively in theatre doing plays and revues. We also worked in radio and television and made a couple of short movies. One of them, Five Guineas A Week, was nominated for the Royal Command Film Performance and opened at the Odeon Leicester Square with The Spanish Gardener. We also created one of the first original musical comedies for British TV. It was called The Straker Special and starred June Whitfield and Dennis Quilley. All this was way back in the fabulous Fifties. In 1960, we went to Canada, where we worked mainly in radio for CBC, and occasionally in theatre and documentary films. After two years, we went back to South Africa in 1962 for family reasons after the sad death of my brother there. Originally it was only going to be a visit for a few months, but we were asked to do a stage revue, then a radio comedy show ... and then one thing led to another and fairly soon we were working morning, noon and night on our own weekly programmes – The ABC Show, Dr Livingstone – I Presume?, The Loudspeaker Show, Stop The Tape – I Want To Get Off!, Son Of Livingstone and Cool –doing our best to support ourselves and our five young children.  Most of them were done in front of live audiences – with live orchestras or groups – very much in the style of the classic BBC comedy shows. Of course, we both also worked as actors (and directors) for dozens of other shows. During this period (1962-82), I'm guessing that I must have played in well over 2,000 radio programmes – needless to say, I never counted them!"

So, how did you come to be cast as John Steed in the radio adaptation of The Avengers?

"This could be a very complex story. I do remember that the idea for the series didn't originate with Sonovision. In fact, several months before the first Sonovision recording I did an Avengers pilot with another production company called AFS (after its owner, A.F. Stanley). Someone else played Steed, and there was a different director. I believe it may have been Colin Fish, who later played "Mother" in the Dennis Folbigge adaptations at Sonovision. I think I played the chief villain... in fact I have a vague memory that we did it twice with two different Steeds. Anyway – for one reason or another the client was presumably not happy, and the next thing I heard was that the project had shifted to Sonovision and that they wanted me to play Steed."

With no television service in South Africa at the time, had you managed to see any episodes of The Avengers prior to playing the part of John Steed?

"Yes, we did have the pleasure of seeing many of the TV episodes, long before the idea of doing the radio series came up, and we thoroughly enjoyed them. They weren't shown in cinemas in South Africa, but you could rent 16mm prints of the films – in fact, we saw many British and American TV series that way. We, like many of our friends, owned a 16mm projector and, at the time, there were film rental libraries in every suburb – much like the video stores of today. I'm sure that Dave Gooden and The Avengers directors, Dennis Folbigge and Tony Jay must have seen them too."

Did you look to the television series for inspiration on how to play the role of John Steed?

"I'm sure Patrick Macnee's great performance had become embedded in my memories, but I didn't actually study the TV episodes at the time. I guess I was aiming to interpret the script in the spirit of the TV series, but in my own way – as my voice is quite different to Patrick's."

With tongue-in-cheek humour very much an element of The Avengers radio series, did you find your extensive experience in radio comedy a particular help when approaching the role of John Steed?

"Yes, I'm sure that spending many years in comedy was a big help in keeping a light touch in The Avengers. After all these years, it's hard to remember the details of other shows I was doing at the same time but, looking up an old magazine article from 1973, it seems I was directing a drama series about two truck drivers called Wheels, playing regularly in Medical File, Personal Column, Max Headley – Special Agent and The White Oaks of Jalna, hosting a musical panel game called Going For A Song and June and I were writing and starring in a weekly satirical comedy show called Stop The Tape – I Want To Get Off!."

How would a daily radio series like The Avengers have been made?

"To appreciate how they were produced, you probably need to understand a little about the crazy, hectic world of South African radio. In its golden period, from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies, South African radio networks were producing an astonishing volume of programming. They broadcast full services in English, Afrikaans and several African languages including Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana and Sotho. In English alone, they were turning out some forty-five hours a week of original drama and comedy programmes – which was probably considerably more than the total output of BBC Radio Drama at the time. The extraordinary thing was that this was done with a very small pool of actors. Ninety percent of the work was done by a group of less than forty of us who went from studio to studio all day long, recording everything from Shakespeare to soap opera and, on a good day, a few commercials, which were much better paid. Many of the actors might also be working in the evening in a stage production. As a matter of interest, at the time I did The Avengers, I was also writing, directing and playing in several other programmes.

Budgets were tiny – and so were the fees, which meant that you had to do a great volume of work to make a living. The principal and most successful radio actors became very skilled – and so did the technicians, which was essential as rehearsal time was minimal. A major, 90-minute play-of-the-week had to be rehearsed and recorded in one day – and 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. All live effects (such as footsteps, doors opening, drinks being poured etc) were done by the actors and all recorded effects and music were normally incorporated as we recorded so that there was very little editing or post-production to be done."

I assume that some post production would have been a regular part of the process, if a programme was not coming in at the correct duration, for instance?

"In general, radio post-production was primarily, cutting to time – but also tightening up and removing any goofs. Most of the actors' mistakes (which we used to call "fluffs") were removed during recording by simply going back and "picking up" (what we now call "punching in") at a suitable point just before the fluff. However, there were always some minor goofs which would be taken out afterwards. Cuts, in those days, were nearly always made by physically cutting and splicing the tape. When there were too many splices in a tape for broadcast safety (more than say four or five), it would dubbed in its entirety on to a fresh tape."

One of the many notable elements of The Avengers radio series is its clever and lively use of music in the productions. Would these tracks have been played in from disc?

"Yes, incidental music would almost certainly have come from library material. Each producer had his or her own favourite libraries of theme and background music and it would normally be played in from disc. Any regularly used themes would usually be transferred to tape to avoid disc wear."

How were the production chores distributed amongst the studio staff?

"Generally, the director was responsible for the artistic side of the production – in particular the actors, the effects and the music. The producer was normally responsible for the overall administration and organisation of the production – but this varied from person to person. Avengers producer and Sonovision Studios owner, Dave Gooden (having a technical background) tended to supervise the sound engineering side of the production in addition to his organisational role. The controller (who was really what we call a sound mixer or engineer today) sat at the console and controlled levels of the various channels in the mix. As far as I can remember, Paul Wright was fairly regularly the controller on The Avengers, but not always. In some production houses, the Producer and the Director were often the same person. I, myself, frequently did both jobs."

As a series that was sponsored by a commercial concern – Lever Brothers – would The Avengers have been subject to any rules or demands from that sponsor?

"When Springbok Radio started in 1950, many programmes were fully sponsored. The sponsors bought the time and directly commissioned and paid for the programmes. This gave them the right to approve all scripts and recordings and insert their own commercials, subject to the rules and practices of the network. This was in the style of American commercial radio. However, by the time The Avengers took to the air in the Seventies, things had changed. Most programmes were selected, approved and paid for by the network and advertisers simply bought commercial spots within them. But there was also a form of limited sponsorship which gave the advertiser the right to a "presented by" type of credit such as the "Now, from the makers of Cold Water Omo..."

To the best of my recollection, Lever Brothers had held the daily 7.15pm strip since the days of full sponsorship and then simply carried on with the more limited form permitted. But, as far as I can remember, although they could and did make suggestions (particularly when new series were being developed), this did not give them the right to approve or reject actual scripts or individual programmes in the Seventies. That was the sole prerogative of the network. All any unhappy advertisers could do was to withdraw their advertising – rather like the situation in network television today in the US and, presumably, the UK."

The Avengers was quite a success on Springbok Radio. Did you have any publicity duties?

"Diane Appleby, the actress who played Emma Peel, and I were asked to do promotional public appearances on quite a few occasions. The famous photo of Diane and myself was one of a bunch of publicity shots that were taken at the time. That particular one was printed up as a postcard and distributed widely when we made any promotional public appearances... we used to sign hundreds of them. I think Springbok may have also distributed the pictures to fans. The show was certainly very successful and attracted a large prime-time audience."

Looking back, how do you view your time making the radio series of The Avengers?

"I thoroughly enjoyed playing in The Avengers because the stories were great fun, Steed was a wonderful role and, for me, a special bonus was that I didn't also have to worry about all the responsibilities of production which I had to handle in a great deal of my radio work."

How were people in the arts in South Africa, like yourself, affected by the political unrest in the country?

"Many of us were deeply affected by it. When we went back in 1962, we ran into major problems with our stage revue in Cape Town, Party Lines, which had a multi-racial cast and we were always having hassles with the censors over our radio comedy shows which frequently ridiculed the appalling policies of the nationalist government. However, in all fairness, to the SABC, they did let us have a surprising amount freedom to do this and, in fact, I think it's fair to say that many artists and writers made major contributions in pressing for the reforms that ultimately brought about the collapse of apartheid and the emergence of the new South Africa. It's a complex and serious story, but I hope that gives you a little perspective."

How would a programme like The Avengers have been affected by censorship?

"At that time in South Africa the various media – print, films and radio – came under censorship from different boards or bodies. For radio, there were even different procedures for the different networks but, in the case of Springbok Radio programmes (as distinct from the commercials), each programme episode tape had to be submitted to the station a week in advance for servicing, together with two copies of its script and the appropriate music clearance returns. If some words or lines were not acceptable they were usually edited out by the Service Department. If major surgery was required they would contact the production company who might then have to re-edit or even re-record. However, most producers were well aware of the acceptance code and tended to steer clear of anything that might be rejected. Things that were unacceptable were rather like the BBC in the old days – bad language, explicit sex, anything that might be construed as sacriligous, or an attack on the government. I don't think The Avengers ran into many major problems as the original TV scripts already reflected the acceptance policies of British and American commercial television in the 1960s – which were not all that different.

Springbok Radio programmes were censored (or what the station considered "approved for broadcast") only as finished recordings. The people who did this were not really a government department – they were employees of the SABC, which (at the time) was rather like the BBC – i.e. an independent body, but ultimately responsible to a minister of the government.

Our own comedy shows were in a different situation. They ran into problems on Springbok Radio all the time, although we did manage to slip some pretty nifty stuff through, mainly because some of the overworked servicing people were not always paying full attention and sometimes missed the more subtle jokes. However, on the non-commercial English Service (where many of our best series were broadcast) there was no specific censorship. Each producer was held responsible for the programmes he or she put out. Nearly all of them were on the staff, of course, and so were not inclined to risk their jobs – but I was in the fortunate position of being one of the very few freelance producer/directors who also worked directly for the English Service.

Our shows were designed to be topical, and they were usually written and recorded only a few days before transmission. I did all the editing personally, often delivering a programme tape to the continuity suite only an hour or two before broadcast. Generally, the first time anyone in senior authority ever heard them was when they were broadcast. As a result of this, we got ourselves into deep trouble on several occasions!"

When the 'golden age' of radio drama and comedy drew to a close in South Africa, how were June and yourself affected professionally?

"In the Seventies and early Eighties, we moved into films and television in South Africa. Our first feature, Fraud! was a low-budget thriller which June and I wrote. I directed the movie and June played one of the leads. We also did a prime-time comedy TV series called The Saturday Show and wrote and produced an original TV musical based on O. Henry's famous short story, The Gift Of The Magi. Finally, in 1984, we moved to Los Angeles – where we have lived ever since, working mainly as writers and producers of corporate multi-media presentations... although I still do quite a lot of voice work for narration, commercials and books-on-tape. Throughout the last thirty years we have made frequent, short trips back to the UK where we still have friends and family, so we keep reasonably up to date on the entertainment scene in Britain."

Many thanks to Donald Monat for kindly taking the time to answer my questions in such an open, interesting and detailed fashion.

by Donald Monat and Alan Hayes
with additional questions from Jane Clarke, Alys Hayes,
Martin Holder and Andrew Shepherd

The original Avengers.TV Forum interview is preserved here

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