The recent blockbuster successes of the Kingsman movie and of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows have firmly re-established umbrellas as the signature weapons of gentlemen-adventurers. This article pays tribute to the trope-setter, debonair superspy John Steed of The Avengers TV series (1961-9, 1976-7); read this article for more information on the use of weaponised umbrellas in real history.
Initially, Steed (Patrick Macnee) was featured as a mystery-man foil for Dr. David Keel, played by Ian Hendry. Macnee wanted to develop and distinguish the Steed character, so he began to add signature costume items and props from his own wardrobe, including a bowler hat and an umbrella, quickly transforming John Steed from a trenchcoat-wearing tough guy into a dapper, impeccably mannered superspy.
When a writer’s strike delayed production of The Avengers, Hendry left the series and Macnee was promoted to the starring role.
The idea of using his umbrella as a weapon seems to have been based initially on Patrick Macnee’s personal dislike of guns. Macnee felt that John Steed should outwit enemies whenever possible; however, he also insisted that the character’s suave exterior masked a steely ruthlessness when he was forced into combat. As Steed habitually carried his umbrella, and therefore almost always had it to hand during action scenes, it became his main weapon by default.
Macnee may have been inspired by Lt. Colonel William Ewart Fairbairn’s instructions for using umbrellas as improvised weapons, which were widely published during the Second World War:
Although John Steed’s tightly-furled brolly was shown to conceal a slim sword in the Avengers opening credits, the spy seldom made use of the blade, relying instead on the (presumably reinforced) umbrella itself as a weapon of both offence and defence. During The Avengers’ long run he was regularly shown using his umbrella as a rapier, a bayonet and a club; he also occasionally employed the hooked handle to trip or otherwise impede his enemies.
Once in a while, John Steed was even known to defend himself and KO his nefarious foes with his steel-reinforced bowler, a trick clearly inspired by the steel-rimmed hat wielded by the bodyguard/assassin Oddjob (Harold Sakata) in Goldfinger.
During the filming of The New Avengers sequel series, which was a mid-1970s British/French/Canadian co-production, Parisian savate master Roger Lafond put in an on-set appearance as a self-defence coach. The following video clip, from a 1993 episode of the French variety show Coucou c’est nous!, includes a rather awkward reunion between the elderly Lafond and Macnee, the latter – who clearly did not speak, nor understand much of the French language – seeming not to recognise Mr. Lafond. Still, the clip also features an ad-hoc demonstration of Lafond’s “Panache” style of umbrella self defence, gamely observed by the bemused Patrick Macnee:
Although co-stars had come and gone, Patrick Macnee as John Steed remained a constant presence throughout the massive and long-lived international success of The Avengers and then The New Avengers, establishing the pop-culture trope of the urbane, umbrella-wielding British secret agent. Steed remains a frequent point of reference when people first encounter E.W. Barton-Wright’s “gentlemanly art of self defence”, Bartitsu.