A&E Home Video has released The Spy Collection, a megaset grouping of four ITC cult classic live-action action/adventure series including The Prisoner, The Persuaders!, The Champions, and The Protectors. The umbrella "Spy Collection" moniker is debatable (The Persuaders! and The Protectors function as private detectives-for-hire rather than strictly as government agents), while the purpose of this megaset is equally problematic. Certainly the price is right for anyone who doesn't already have these sets (a much cheaper retail price which will no doubt annoy loyal fans who paid top dollar for the earlier individual sets). However, in this time of increasingly available and affordable complete series collections, I can't understand the reasoning behind this sampler collection which at first glance seems expansive, but which proves ultimately to be incomplete (and unsatisfying, as well). No additional extras are included from the series' previous releases (the transfers appear to be the same, as well), with The Spy Collection megaset offering no "closure" for those buyers whom A&E may want to entice to double dip. The set still only features the first 15 episodes of The Champions' single season; the first 13 episodes of The Persuaders!' only season; the first 26 episodes of The Protectors, while the inclusion of just four The Prisoner episodes functions merely as a teaser bonus - certainly not as a meaningful representation of that series (which I'll subsequently treat as a bonus feature, even though, misleadingly, it gets top-billing on the DVD box). About the only way The Spy Collection makes sense is if there's a follow-up volume, completing all the series - along with the rest of The Prisoner episodes - which you'll have to take on faith will happen. Still, if you've been holding off on purchasing these releases because of their high price tags, well.... Let's look very briefly at each entry, since more detailed analysis remains elusive with The Spy Collection's incomplete selections.
A disagreement over the perfect mixing of a Creole Scream cocktail (one or two olives is the dispute) in a French Riviera hotel bar finally opens the floodgates of irritation between vacationing international playboys Danny Wilde (Tony Curtis) and Lord Brett Sinclair (Roger Moore). Having already verbally sparred over their cars (a red Dino 246 GT Ferrari for Danny; a yellow Aston Martin V8 DBS for Lord Sinclair) and various women, the boys have a punch-up, wrecking the bar and finding themselves arrested by the gendarmes. Released, they meet "The Judge," Judge Fulton (Laurence Naismith), a retired jurist who not only runs down Danny and Brett for their wasted lives, but also threatens them with 90 days in jail if they don't solve a case for him...with the complicit understanding of the police. Finding that they're a matched pair when it comes to quips, fisticuffs, detective work, and romancing, the boys now become a team of sorts, working on new cases all over Europe (that often don't involve The Judge) whenever the mood strikes them.
Like the later The Protectors, The Persuaders! is the epitome of the television "deal package." Initiated on a handshake between the producers, Sir Lew Grade (the flamboyant producer and owner of ITC), and Roger Moore, The Persuaders! fulfills all the requirements of a pre-sold worldwide TV package: international star leads, international locations, expensive budget, proven talent behind the cameras (with alumni from previous ITC hits like The Saint, Danger Man and Department S) and relatively mindless, flashy action (which will translate into any culture or language). And within that context, and allowing for those lowered expectations, The Persuaders! works well enough. Thinking back to when I would catch reruns of The Persuaders! as a kid (it would air infrequently on a nearby independent station that was noted for carrying these ITC and other imported, syndicated programming), there wasn't much I remembered other than that striking theme over the cool, split-screen opening credits. Watching The Persuaders! today, I can see why those elements stayed with me, while the rest of the series went hazy: they're certainly the most dynamic aspects of the show. John Barry (of James Bond fame) wrote a suspense theme somewhat reminiscent of The Third Man, which when coupled with the snazzy opening credits, certainly promises a lot of fun for the viewer.
But then...the inevitable let-down comes. All of the elements are in place for a top-notch comedy-suspenser. Good writers and directors like Brian Clemens, Val Guest, Terry Nation, Roy Ward Baker, Basil Dearden, and Leslie Norman certainly understand the genre and its requirements, while big stars Moore and Curtis more than know their way around a throwaway gag and an action set piece. Add to that the bonus of some very pretty visuals in and around Europe, a couple of expensive cars, and a bevy of attractive women and expert supporting cast members familiar from a host of similar TV series, and you should have a sure-fire hit - not only ratings-wise, but aesthetically, as well.
But The Persuaders! consistently just misses the mark because at its foundation, it has no idea what it's truly about. If we go by the premise set up in the opening episode, Overture, we're stretching credibility right from the beginning. The actions of The Judge make little sense right out of the gate because...who is this "Judge?" What is his jurisdiction in France (he speaks with an obvious English accent). And why would millionaire playboys Brett and Danny even think twice about his blackmail? They wouldn't immediately call their lawyers and laugh off this ridiculous extortion - or better yet, just "buy off" the appropriate opposite numbers on the police force? And once the "Judge" largely disappears from the series (he comes back occasionally, illogically threatening and/or endangering Danny and Brett, even though he's already garnered their previous cooperation), we're left to puzzle out why, exactly, Brett and Danny continue their quasi partnership - or indeed, what that partnership entails. Who are Danny and Brett, other than well-dressed props within standard 70s action-oriented TV plots? What motivates them to do what they do...even when we can't figure out exactly what it is, that they do do (I love that).
Now I already can hear the rebuttal that says, "Well, this is escapist entertainment; you're not supposed to think too hard about it. It's isn't supposed to make sense." And to a certain small extent, that's true. The Persuaders! isn't trying to be Smiley's People or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It is planned to be light and disposable. But without even a modicum of believable motivation at its core, the relentless breeziness and flippery of the series eventually dooms it to puffery; all of the joshing and ad-libbing by the adept stars, and the herky-jerky plotting machinations in search of an aesthetic whole, eventually telegraphs to the audience that the show is, in the end, nothing more than a major blow-off. Moore and Curtis, both apparently game for these shenanigans (Moore is certainly the more reserved of the two, as is befitting his British character's pedigree, while bouncing, wisecracking Curtis is often-times distractingly hyper), do at times have an agreeable chemistry together (apparently, they both ad-libbed constantly, getting up a good professional head of steam even though they didn't become fast-friends on the set). But with the hazy context of the series - with the boys living in each others' pockets in one episode, only to seem like casual acquaintances in the next; the judge is directing the boys' actions; next, he's nowhere to be seen - no doubt heightened by the out-of-production-order release of the episodes (Curtis' hair switches back and forth from black to gray with regularity), The Persuaders! winds up all over the place in terms of tone, with an uneasy hit-and-miss quality to the episodes that eventually becomes unnerving.
It's a pity that the series didn't take after an episode like Angie...Angie, a tense little memory episode where Danny deals with the knowledge that a beloved boyhood friend is now a hired assassin. Nicely directed by Val Guest (with some evocative black & white flashbacks) Angie...Angie not only properly grounds Danny's character in the action (as well as Brett, too, who's working to "save" Danny from his faulty memory), but it also provides some solid underpinnings for the infrequent (in this episode) clowning around. I can't say whether or not the second half of The Persuaders! episodes featured more examples of this kind of serio-comic drama, or if the writers emphasized the piffle aspects of the show, but certainly Angie...Angie's intensity is a rarity among these first half-season offerings.
A summary of The Protectors is necessarily short (and perhaps vague) owing to the very nature of the show's premise. Attorney and action man Harry Rule (Robert Vaughn) is a member of the shadowy international "Protector" network of freelance crime fighters. Working frequently with Contessa Caroline di Contini (Nyree Dawn Porter), who owns her own detective agency based out of Malta, and Paul Buchet (Tony Anholt), a Parisian electronics and weaponry expert, Harry takes on a variety of cases involving extortion, murder, political assassination and intrigue, many of which come to his attention at his swank London bachelor flat (which is maintained by his servant?/girlfriend?/employee? Suki, played by Yasuko Nagazumi). The Contessa's beautiful yacht in Malta is as well a frequent meeting place for the loosely-aligned team (the Contessa's Asian strongman chauffeur, Chino, played by Anthony Chinn, can be considered an ancillary member of the Protector team), providing a staging area for their adventures on the European mainland.
The Protectors was another ITC offering I vaguely remember from my Saturday TV afternoons all those years ago, but I remembered even less about it than Moore's and Curtis' The Persuaders! (you'd think I would have remembered that hilarious Avenues and Alleyways theme song by Tony Christie, who sounds remarkably like Tom Jones here). A compendium of stock action/spy/cartoon sequences, enacted without the slightest bit of concern for context, characterization or anything but the most basic storytelling technique, The Protectors, after some initial confusion over its fractured central story arc, is surprisingly easy to take, once you accept its relentless superficiality. Winnowed down to the barest essentials (as mandated by its involved plots shoehorned into a sparse 25 minutes per episode), The Protectors can be quite dumb at times (many times these "pros" commit the most basic errors of detection), and you can forget about getting any motivation for the characters' actions - there's not enough time for all that much talking. But considering the problematic nature of the series' production, it's surprising how well it all goes down...if you don't ask too much of the format.
Another Sir Lew Grade ITC "package" for the international television market, The Protectors, according to the commentary track included here by director John Hough, was a "rush job" from the get-go, with a hurried pre-production development that left no time to actually find a cohesive story line to run through the various episodes, or even the most basic characterizations for the principle leads. Action was required in each episode - and a lot of it - and that was about all that was thought out when Vaughn reluctantly signed on for the series, with Porter being a last-minute replacement for the series, too. Vaughn, who swore off the daily grind of television after his phenomenally successful spy series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ended, only took a couple of years to come back to episodic TV (no doubt hurried along by his failure to secure a post-TMFU big-screen movie career, with a supporting role in Steve McQueen's Bullitt his only substantial hit). Evidently, there was friction from day one between Vaughn and The Protectors's creator, Gerry Anderson, of Thunderbirds fame. Apparently, Vaughn wanted a character-driven series, and Anderson wanted action, and the producer won out, with Vaughn openly stating he hated the series - not the best way to film a show.
After watching this first season of The Protectors, one can see both of their points of view. Vaughn certainly has nothing to do here as far as creating a character (there's a vague mention of a son and a wife - separated? - but nothing is made of it); he's merely asked to be an action-man stand-in - something Vaughn clearly thought he was above at this point in his career. Perhaps it didn't help that Vaughn must have been slightly chagrined to know he was basically standing in for one of Anderson's marionettes, and that, in an effort to save some bottom-line costs, he was headlining a show that was actually shot on 16mm - a humiliating situation for a Hollywood star accustomed to the big-time treatment. As for Anderson's gripes with Vaughn...a contract is a contract. There were reports that Vaughn made things difficult during the shoots; that he was uncooperative, and that he acted not like a team player, but a spoiled Hollywood "star" - the last thing a harried TV producer would need when he's limited by time (each episode only had a five-day shooting schedule), money and the series' own format.
Bearing all that in mind, The Protectors does get the job done, much like what you'd expect when you pick up an old action comic book. You're not looking for depth. You're not looking for characterization. You're looking for mindless action, and you get it with The Protectors. I must admit I was a bit confused at first with exactly who these people were (you don't even realize that Vaughn and his "team" are part of a larger "Protector" network until episode 17, and even that element isn't explained), as well as being non-plussed by some of the vaguer aspects of the production (Suki is...what to Harry? The same with Chino and the Contessa?). But once I quit fighting the series, I kind of just sat back and let it happen...and it was serviceable. None of it actually stuck with me (if I didn't have my notes right now, I wouldn't remember too many of the episodes), but The Protectors does deliver 25 minutes of straightforward action via fisticuffs, dune buggies, motorbikes, expensive cars (love that Jensen Interceptor) that doesn't tax your brain for a second - and that's exactly what the series set out to do back in 1972.
Neat little tricks and scenes pop up here and there: the threatened blow torch torture in See No Evil, the Contessa dropping a fleeing nurse/villain with a well-thrown vase to the back of the skull in Thinkback; Vaughn getting in a middle-finger salute, no doubt to Gerry Anderson, right before the end credits come up in The Quick Brown Fox (why did they leave that in the final cut???); the genuinely creepy For the Rest of Your Natural..., where director John Hough gets in some fine, disturbing camera work; and the unique torture of Harry in The Big Lift: locked in a big packing crate suspended from a crane, he's repeated smashed into the side of a building, scrambling his brains. Despite the fact that the producer and the lead star wanted The Protectors to be two different shows, the series was popular enough for two seasons (evidently a third was planned, but Brut, the series' sponsor, pulled out at the last minute), and one can see why after watching this first season: it may be total surface action, but at least it moves.
One of Sir Lew Grade's continuing efforts to crack the U.S. television market (hence the American lead, Stuart Damon, headlining the Champions trio), The Champions tells the remarkable story of agents Craig Stirling (Stuart Damon), Sharron Macready (Alexandra Bastedo), and Richard Barrett (William Gaunt). Working for the secret agency Nemesis, based in Geneva, Switzerland (it may or may not be directly connected with the U.N.), the operatives are dispatched to Communist China, where they must collect a bacterial agent that the Chinese are developing in a remote research facility. After completing their mission, the group almost makes a clean getaway before Chinese troops firing machine guns damage their jet. Losing altitude over Tibet, the jet crashes, with the team mortally wounded (particularly since they have no survival gear in the frozen wasteland, and they're thousands of miles from a friendly base). Miraculously, though, they are taken to a hidden city of a "lost" Tibetan tribe, where a yogi (Felix Aylmer) not only repairs their bodies, but imparts on the team magical powers of ESP, precognition, and super strength and intellect. The team returns to Geneva, to the suspicious wonderings of their boss, Tremayne (Anthony Nicholls), never revealing their new super powers to anyone, but utilizing them as "champions of law, order, and justice."
Certainly the big surprise for me in The Spy Collection boxed set, The Champions escaped my radar during the 1970s (it unsuccessfully aired as a summer replacement series on NBC during the 1968 season, and if it did syndicate reruns later in the U.S., it didn't show up in my market), but it proved to be an absolute delight, watching these first 15 episodes of the single season of this accomplished, entertaining fantasy/espionage series. I had read about the series over the years, and I understand that it has a small but loyal cult following - but I wasn't sure it was ever going to become widely available in the States (to this date, the second set of episodes still hasn't been released here). Producer Monty Berman (who had guided, among other series, The Saint, the little-seen The Baron, as well as one of my favorite "guilty pleasures," Jason King -- which Michael Meyers helpfully ripped off), and creator Dennis Spooner (who worked on everything that was good in 1960s British TV, including Coronation Street, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Dr. Who, Man in a Suitcase (is that cool show out on DVD yet here in the States?), The Avengers, Department S, and of course, Jason King) hoped that this Bondian/The Man From U.N.C.L.E.-influenced series would get Grade's ITC another foothold on American TV, but when it failed to attract U.S. audiences, it was folded up like many of the other ITC series which, although aimed at the U.S. market, proved only popular with British and international audiences.
You certainly can see some of The Champions' obvious similarities with other espionage series and franchises circling around the pop culture at this time - probably most notably the Richard Barrett character's wiry, unhandsome/handsome appeal, a la David McCallum's Illya Kuryakin on TMFU, in counterpoint to Damon's almost cartoonishly handsome looks (with the typically heavy, heavy 60s TV makeup, at times he almost looks like a Thunderbirds marionette). Yet the introduction of comic-book inspired magical superpowers to the espionage genre gives the series an added level of interest that is enhanced by the relative seriousness of its treatment. What could have been juvenile in conception is remarkably straightforward and delightfully dead-pan in execution (as evidenced by the opening episode, The Beginning, where a serene, peaceful, almost Lost Horizon/The Razor's Edge feel is achieved with the Buddhist overtones of the team members garnering their superpowers). The teams' superpowers aren't employed that often, but when they are, they're integrated into the visual design of the episode in no more an ostentatious manner than that of one of the villains pulling out a standard pistol or machine gun. The Champions is therefore, not overly "over the top" in its depiction of the teams' superpowers - they're a fact within the design of the show, and therefore, almost "believable" within the series' framework.
The Champions also has a delightful sense of dry humor about it, with Damon getting to ping-pong more expressively off the more reserved - but still witty - Gaunt. It's not unusual in The Champions for one of the team to dispatch a villain in short order, only to deliver a quip worthy of the master of such "deadly put-downs," James Bond. The sophisticated, clever writing isn't the only element of The Champions that's big-screen worthy; the visual design, as well, is quite removed from the standard, overblown, fake set-look of many of these ITC series from that time period. I noticed the lighting, in particular, was quite more realistic than you normal see for this kind of series, with natural effects keeping the interiors more subdued and detailed (as opposed to the often lurid, two-dimensional "flats" look of other series like The Persuaders!). Longtime TV director Cyril Frankel (another future Jason King alumni) directs quite a few of these early episodes, imparting a dynamic style to the proceedings that emphasizes extreme angles and close, short cutting. I didn't see one dud episode in the bunch here, but standout episodes in these first 15 include The Experiment, where a scientist creates a group of brainwashed super-human agents to fight Nemesis...only to have the agents' brains return to a child-like state (a very Avengers-ish episode); To Trap A Rat, where the Nemesis team take on drug dealers in mod, swinging London (not only are the shots in and around London terrific, but I love how they're going to draw and quarter Craig...with a Rolls Royce!); The Fanatics, where Richard must infiltrate a group of assassins (written by Terry Nation); and the excellent, tight Twelve Hours, a neatly assembled submarine episode, complete with Sharron conducting an emergency surgery underwater. Consistently well-written and admirably restrained in its exploitation of the teams' superpowers, The Champions is a delightfully dry, exciting addition to the TV espionage genre - one that I wish I could have caught years before now (so let's see those remaining episodes, A&E!).
Other bonuses included here are the same ones that were offered on the previous releases of these series sets. On The Persuaders!, Roger Moore, producer Robert S. Baker, and production executive Johnny Goodman discuss episodes Overture and The Time and The Place. Moore is certainly game here (especially when discussing the second episode that he directed), while Baker and Goodman don't give enough detail about the actual production of the series. A photo gallery and text bios for Moore and Curtis are included. For The Protectors, director John Hough gives an informative, detailed look at not only the 2000 Ft to Die episode, but also on the background of the series' production. Unfortunately for The Champions, there are no substantial bonuses (even though there were episode commentaries recorded with the three main leads for a recent U.K. DVD release of the series), with only text bios and the obligatory (and useless) "photo gallery" feature (which are nothing more than screen captures). As well, inside the nicely designed fold-out "book" that houses the 14 discs, there's a pocket folder cut into the inside front cover that contains...nothing, making me suspect that an episode guide or perhaps even an informational booklet on the series was planned, but eventually scrapped for the DVD release - a shame. Considering that A&E had a chance here to entice some double-dippers (while convincing newcomers to jump on board with these series), the lack of new extras is a big downer.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.