Avenger’s life is Homeric if weird

by Ray Deonandan

Published in The Varsity, Dec 5, 1988, page 8

Blind in One Ear
by Patrick MacNee
288 pages

Recognized globally as the debonair John Steed in British television’s classic series The Avengers, Daniel Patrick MacNee has, to say the least, led an interesting life. In his autobiography, Blind in One Ear, he tells ofhis turmoil-ridden crawl to fame. The triumphs and tribulations he describes are of Homeric proportions.

His early life sounds like a Dickens tale, yet reads like a lusty Roald Dahl novel. Born to a broken British upper class home, MacNee was raised by his gregarious mother and her domineering lesbian lover, who insisted young Patrick wear kilts to disguise his masculinity. Bundled off to private school eight year-old MacNee first discovered the joys of thespianism in a pre-pubescent production of Henry the Fifth, alongside an awkward dauphin named Christopher Lee. They both became determined to succeed in the seedy world of drama.

Known throughout Eton College as the local bookie and pornographer, MacNee found his “creativity” rewarded with expulsion, and was set adrift on a meandering life of few ups and frequent downs. Deciding finally to lose his virginity at the behest of a London prostitute, young MacNee introduced into his life that which would make
and destroy several marriages and, along with alcohol, propel him along a profoundly poetic life: sex.

Sex was so much a part of his way of thinking that he sought it out wherever he went, whether it be with teenagers or sexagenarians. Sexual faithfulness was not something that apparently came easily to him. To infuriate a live-in lover, one night, he flew from their house to seduce successfully Elizabeth Taylor’s Children’s nanny. And the infidelities in his first marriage, that he confesses so openly, provided guilt that would haunt him forever.

Stellar names proliferate in the book. We are told that MacNee, as a young actor looking for work, often encountered fellow unemployed thespians Peter Ustinov and Alec Guiness (the latter, MacNee gleefully claims, would later declare that if you can’t say 11 sentences of Shakespeare in one breath, you shouldn’t be doing it). As a lowly extra or understudy, MacNee worked with Vivien Leigh (after whom he lusted agonizingly), David Niven, Noel Coward, his hero Leslie Howard, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, who (MacNee claims) has always disliked him immensely because of a further corporeal indiscretion involving Olivier’s betrothed.

MacNee’ s desperate stint in Toronto during the embryonic stages of the CBC exposed him to fellow unknowns Lorne Greene and Christopher Plummer, and began his much-lauded affair with this country. He returned recently as the psychopathic Andrew Wyke in Anthony Shaffer’s award-winning Sleuth.

Blind in One Ear is seasoned liberally with unbelievable anecdotes. One story tells of MacNee bumming a ride to Los Angeles from the local ancestors of the Hell’s Angels. Another involves his rescue of a group of animals from one of Hollywood’s training ranches that happened to be burning down at the time; he was later stopped by a highway policeman curious as to why he was driving a car-load of chimpanzees to Los Angeles.

Included is a fascinating introspective into the nine years of The Avengers production. MacNee went through five sets of co-stars in the series’ lifetime: Ian Hendry, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, and Joanna Lumley & Gareth Hunt. Each change involved dread for MacNee that he would once again be on the dole queue, but always succeeded in pushing him one more step towards realization of his long-awaited dream of perpetual stardom. For the true fan of this 1960s television classic, MacNee’s autobiography is an informative wonder to behold.

MacNee’ s witty style of writing bravely maintains audience interest, but unfortunately detracts from the believability of his stories. Perhaps this tells us even more about him and his need to entertain — the book is certainly entertaining! No mention is ever made of those silly Swiss Chalet commercials, though.

If for nothing else, Blind in One Ear is worth a read for its stark Dickensian descriptions of the British pre-war school system, a place upon which Patrick MacNee spends half a book expounding. He claims “the British upper classes have two particularly nasty habits. The first is beating their children and the second is sending them away to be brought up and beaten by other people.” And if that line doesn’t endear Patrick MacNee’s autobiography to the hardest of hearts, then nothing else ever will.