Freewheelers 6.1 – Nero

Time for a new experience here at the blog: a program I’ve never seen at all before. We’re looking at the few surviving and available episodes of Freewheelers, a kid-friendly adventure that ran for eight series on the UK’s Southern Television between 1968-1973. Inspired by the success of The Avengers, it’s a show in which a top professional teams up with some talented amateurs to fight ruthless masterminds and save the world from evil. The stories were told in linked serialized adventures, typically two or three stories in each batch of thirteen, and almost half of the show’s 104 episodes are missing, as is often the way with British television from the period.

The top professional, for most of the run, is Colonel Buchan of the British Secret Service. He’s played by Ronald Leigh-Hunt, and we saw him in the role of Commander Radnor in the Doctor Who story “The Seeds of Death” last month. “Seeds” was made and shown after series two of Freewheelers. Col. Buchan specializes in recruiting small groups of teenagers to assist in his war against the forces of villainy. As would later be common in, say, The Tomorrow People, the cast changes a little with each new batch of thirteen, with “the kids” coming and going. None of the original young stars lasted beyond series three.

For those first three series, the lead villain was an ex-Nazi officer called Karl von Gelb, played by Geoffrey Toone. He was dropped for series four, in which Buchan and “the kids” battled a new villain played by Pamela Ann Davy across a pair of stories. Buchan himself was absent for series five, which was the first to be made in color, as Ronald Leigh-Hunt was working on the film Le Mans in late 1970 and unavailable. In that series, Wendy Padbury, who had played Zoe in Doctor Who‘s sixth season, joined the trio of “talented amateurs” as a new character, Sue Craig.

Most of these episodes are missing. Series one exists in full, but only a single episode from the next four series is known to exist. Simply Media released series six on DVD in 2009 and it was hoped they might release the other three existing batches, but sales were apparently too low to overcome the other complications: series one, since it’s in black and white, is less likely to be a big seller in today’s market, and some of the surviving episodes from series seven and eight are said to be in pretty bad shape and really should be restored before release. The investment would eat up any potential profit.

So, for series six, we’ve got Ronald Leigh-Hunt back as Col. Buchan, Adrian Wright returning for his third go-around as Mike, Wendy Padbury back as Sue, and Leonard Gregory as the latest recruit, Steve. We’ve got two master villains in a pair of stories, and at least the first of these diabolical baddies is using the services of two henchmen who’ve tangled with the Freewheelers before: Ryan and Burke, played by Richard Shaw and Michael Ripper.

Series six ran in the fall of 1971. It seems to comprise a seven-parter written by Paul Erickson, and a six-parter by Richard Montez. We started with episode one, “Nero,” this evening. I thought it was quite entertaining, and our son gave it a “pretty cool” thumbs up, although he didn’t like it when Ryan and Burke engaged in some petty crime on an amusement pier on England’s south coast. Interestingly, there was a 2p toll to go onto the pier.

The story opens with Ryan and Burke on the run, having broken out of prison that morning. Mike and Sue are on a vacation together and they meet Steve, who’s chasing the criminals. The baddies seem to get arrested, but they’re actually kidnapped by agents of Professor Nero, played by Jerome Willis, who enlists them in a scheme to steal £6 million in gold from a ship using a non-lethal gas. Because of the law of conservation, this turns out to be the very ship where our young heroes have got summer jobs as stewards. But Col. Buchan is on board as well, strangely in disguise… we’ll see what happens next tomorrow evening!

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