Archives in the Movies: The Avengers (1998)
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
Okay, before we get into this you'll need a little bit of television history. Before the Avengers was part of a Disney/Marvel movie conglomerate there was a 1960's television show called, you guessed it, The Avengers. The one-hour action-espionage show aired from 1961 to 1969 in the United Kingdom and was the first British show to get a prime-time airing on American television when ABC picked it up in 1965.
The Avengers starred Patrick Macnee as John Steed, an agent of The Ministry who was assisted over the course of the series by Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, and Linda Thorson as Tara King. Why most "Remember When..." pieces tend to focus on Rigg's two-year stint as Emma Peel is likely due to the timing of her joining the show and ABC airing The Avengers in America. And probably the catsuit.
Either way, the collective nostalgia for The Avengers has focused primarily on Steed and Peel, so when Hollywood went on its streak of adapting 60s television shows into movies, they were the characters most likely to feature in the movie. Which is exactly what happened...more or less. In 1998, The Avengers hit the big screen starring Ralph Finnes as John Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel. The supporting cast included Sean Connery, Jim Broadbent, Fiona Shaw, and Eddie Izzard. The plot of the movie is...confusing and not really worth diving into, but there's some stuff about a weather machine, sexy doppelgangers, and Sean Connery in a large bear costume. It's best not to think about it for more than five seconds or blood will start shooting from your ears.
What we're concerned with in this article is this scene:
So, to recap: the Ministry has in their employ an invisible man and they chose to exile him to the archives where his biggest complaint is missing the tea trolley. It's worth noting that the voice of the invisible agent is Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed.
As an archivist, there are a lot of things about this scene that make my blood pressure spike. The first is the tracking shot through the industrial basement of the Ministry to the archives. Once again, the vital records of an organization are shunted to the least effective storage situation possible. Second, folders are just stacked one on top of the other for no discernible reason amid several file cabinets that look like they're there just to show how cramped and out of the way the archives are in this building. Thirdly, the person in charge of the records isn't an archivist or a records manager as far as I know, which says something about how much the Ministry actually values the organization of their records. Experiment gone wrong? Stick it in the archives! Need to hide your shame? Sweep it under the concrete in the archives. Life got you down? Disappear into the archives! I mean, it's not like you need a degree or anything to look after a bunch of boring, old records, right? And fourthly, the "archivist" is literally invisible!
When I started making my master list of properties I wanted to talk about on this website, The Avengers was at the top of the list because I remembered this scene long after the movie had left anyone else's memory. It's a perfect minute and a half summation of what it means to be an archivist through a pop culture lens - disregarded, optional qualifications, and invisible.
The one thing I'll give the movie is that John Steed actually went to the archives to get information from someone working in the department. Most of the time, movies and television shows would just have the hero find the information themselves with no sign of an archivist present at any moment before, during, or after discovery of the thing they were looking for. The Avengers, at the very least, happens to have someone present to help the hero, only this time they're actually transparent.
And I don't want to harp too much on the spy organization operating in a nebulous time period with 60s fashion and casual sexism still in place, but wouldn't an invisible agent be...I don't know...an asset? I don't know Col. Jones' record, but if I were running an undercover intelligence gathering shadow society maybe I wouldn't send my newly created invisible man to the basement while I thought about what to do with him. But sure, yeah, send the best possible answer to your spy problems to the basement archives where I'm sure he'll be just as effective as your visible, well-known agents running around London. Well done, you!