On Monday 6th December 1971 at 7.16pm, Springbok Radio premiered their new presentation of The Avengers, transmitting the first episode of a five-part adaptation of the 1967 television episode, Escape in Time.

Through a combination of slick production work, witty writing and a talented and experienced cast, the series quickly found a regular audience. Listeners were entranced by the bright, fast-moving combination of action and tongue-in-cheek humour that Tony Jay had devised.

The impact of The Avengers was such that Steed and Mrs Peel were much in demand, as Donald Monat recalls: "Diane Appleby and I were asked to make personal appearances from time to time and we would pop up in character at department stores and big events, chat to fans of the show and autograph pictures for them. The show was certainly very successful and attracted a large prime-time audience."

Changes of Direction

At the outset, Tony Jay had known that his involvement with the series would not be a relatively short engagement. "When Dave Gooden approached me to instigate the series, I had already made plans to re-locate back to London, so I stayed on in South Africa for a further six months in order to get the show established on the air." Halfway through 1972, Jay stepped down and returned home as planned. His role on the series, as adaptor/director was taken by Dennis Folbigge and the transition was handled seamlessly.

"This kind of thing was quite common in South Africa in those days," Donald Monat points out. "Those of us who wrote and directed often took over other colleagues' writing and production work when someone was away doing a movie, a theatrical tour or was just unavailable."

The main innovations of Dennis Folbigge's tenure with the series were to incorporate the Mother character from that era (Tony Jay had not liked the character and did not utilise it in any of his scripts); and to extend the episode count per story beyond the five that Jay had favoured. Folbigge also rewrote some scripts from Tony Jay's time with the series, including a second version of Escape in Time now including Mother, and these were re-recorded and broadcast afresh. This was not something unique to The Avengers, however, and was a common 'get out' gambit employed when writers were up against the wall with impending deadlines or script shortages. The practice was not encouraged by broadcasters, but if kept to a minimum, it would be tolerated.

As the serialisations were being adapted from television scripts rather than the transmitted television programmes, a number of interesting variants of interest to fans of The Avengers were produced. To begin with, many TV episodes that had featured Linda Thorson as Tara King were rewritten to feature the Emma Peel character instead. Have you ever wondered what Pandora would have been like as an Emma Peel episode? Well, if you were listening to Springbok Radio in the 1970s, you could have found out. Several serials that feature the Tara/Emma rewrites still exist to this day, although sadly, Pandora appears not to be one of them.

The other, coincidental result of Tony Jay and Dennis Folbigge working from scripts was that they would occasionally receive early drafts which had been heavily revised before their television broadcasts. This meant that stories like They Keep Killing Steed (1968), which was originally to be filmed in Spain before budgetary issues caused that idea to be abandoned, were adapted for radio from their original intended form. They Keep Killing Steed was indeed set in Spain in the radio series, broadcast under the title, Too Many Olés. Likewise, the radio serial Straight From The Shoulder is based not on the television equivalent, Have Guns... Will Haggle (1968), but on the script of the filmed but aborted Invitation To A Killing. This troubled production was intended as a feature-length series opener but a sudden change of production staff meant that Invitation To A Killing was hacked down to fifty minutes and rebranded as Have Guns... Will Haggle. The full-length cut of Invitation To A Killing is believed lost today, but the survival of the radio adaptation gives a fascinating insight into what might have been. It is a tantalising thought that The Great, Great Britain Crime - the other abandoned Tara King episode, parts of which were eventually incorporated in Homicide and Old Lace - may well have been produced for the radio...

By the end of 1973, there were very few scripts left from the bundle received from the UK that had not been adapted for radio. Anxious to continue making his popular series, Dave Gooden approached rights holder EMI and asked for permission to commission original stories which would not be based on television episodes. He also investigated the possibility of releasing tapes of The Avengers serials commercially. Unfortunately, EMI were against both suggestions and did not grant permission in either case. For this reason, the last episode of The Avengers was broadcast on Friday 28th December 1973. The series had run for a little over two years and it is believed that as many as eighty-three serials were made and transmitted in this time – the number of scripts that would have been available relating to the filmed series of The Avengers (Series Four, Five and Six in the UK). It had been a great success and from what survives today, is rightly regarded as an effective and vibrant take on The Avengers.

What Sonovision Did Next...

The Avengers was replaced from 1st January 1974 by another famous Lever Brothers serial, The Mind of Tracy Dark, which ran until 1979. This in turn was replaced by The World of Dick Francis, which continued until 1985, when it was dropped from the Springbok Radio schedule. By this time, Springbok Radio had just been reduced to a mere six hours programming a day. It was the beginning of the end for the station, which had been the most popular of those run by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. And the end came pretty swiftly...

The reason? Well, in the mid-Seventies, South Africa finally launched itself into the TV age with the introduction of the country's first television service on a single channel. Test transmissions started on May 5th 1975, and the official service was launched on January 5th 1976. This had serious repercussions for radio, which came under increasing pressure from the new service. Springbok Radio saw its audience steadily decline and, despite protests from many loyal listeners, the station was finally closed down at midnight on December 31st 1985. The SABC replaced it with Radio South Africa - later renamed SAFM. This new station effectively continued the work of the old 'English Service'.

Sonovision Studios still exists, though it has moved to new buildings at 40 Wessell Road in the Rivonia district of Sandton, a northern suburb of Johannesburg. The studio has in recent years been owned and run by John Culverwell and Louis Van Ass, a former colleague of the late David Gooden.

No production documentation relating to The Avengers is thought to have survived, either at the SABC, or at Sonovision.

Despite being a major success in South Africa, the fact that the great majority of these serials no longer exist leaves the Sonovision series as an oft-forgotten footnote to The Avengers. It could have been so much more.

by Alan Hayes with thanks to Donald Monat, Frans Erasmus and Tony Jay

Back to Top