The Avengers was most certainly not a household name in South Africa prior to the launch of the radio series. With no national television service until 1976, the mechanism simply was not present in the country to show television programmes to mass audiences. While many other countries revelled in the filmed adventures of John Steed and co., South Africa was not equipped to join in the fun. The series took Britain by storm and also made a major impression in the American markets, being that greatest of rarities, a British series given a network transmission slot. However, as a filmed series (rather than a videotaped one), The Avengers was able to gain a modicum of exposure in South Africa through film rentals.

Most South African suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s had rental libraries, which offered 16mm film prints of films and television series for public hire. Many homes were equipped with 16mm cine projectors, and film hire was effectively the only way in which South Africans could see British and American TV programmes. This was not always an ideal system, however, as film prints could often be seriously damaged by projector breakdowns or misuse. Prints reputedly had an average life of no more than two years, and none of these prints are thought to exist today.

Awareness of The Avengers would have been little more than an undercurrent in South Africa, but certainly Donald Monat and June Dixon remember seeing the series on 16mm film in their home. It is believed that others involved in the Sonovision productions would have been exposed to the series in this way, long before the prospect of the radio series arose. Of course, in recent years, the original television series has been shown on South African television.

Once the radio series premiered in its prime-time slot, The Avengers very quickly became a hit show. Its stars, Diane Appleby and Donald Monat, soon found themselves very much the centre of attention, proving to be very popular in their roles. The pair made many promotional appearances to raise public awareness of the series, signing postcards of themselves as Steed and Emma. These items were enthusiastically snapped up by the crowds, eager for mementoes of their heroes.

Monat had carved out a career in acting, writing and directing on three continents prior to his time on The Avengers, working in South Africa, Canada and his native Britain. By the early Seventies, he had become a familiar voice on South African radio, having enjoyed considerable success in the 1960s with a succession of hit comedy programmes, which he had co-written and performed with his wife, June Dixon. He remembers the golden era of South African radio, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, as being an extraordinarily hectic, but exciting, period: "The South African radio networks were producing an astonishing volume of programming, broadcasting 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, however, was that this massive volume of programming was actually made 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," recalls Donald Monat. "Some actors were on the staff of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), but most were freelance. Many might also be working in the evening in a stage production. Budgets were tiny - and so were the fees, which meant that you had to do a great volume of work to make a living." 

While playing John Steed in The Avengers, Donald Monat found himself having to supplement his income by writing, directing and playing in several other programmes.

by Alan Hayes

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