Department S 1.28 – The Soup of the Day

Given the nature of television production at the time, I don’t know that Department S “bowed out” so much as it just wrapped. They had their 28 installments, and now it was up to Lew Grade and the sales team to try and land it on an American network. The last episode they filmed concerns a deeply bizarre theft. Somebody went to all the trouble of sending four well-dressed young dandies – among them Ronald Lacey and Patrick Mower – to break in to a Liverpool customs warehouse through the back wall to steal 144 cans of fish soup from a company in Lisbon, and then dump it all in the back of the parking lot.

Other than the remarkably trendy fashions on display by these criminals and a pair of girlfriends – there’s even a Peter Max-ish print of Paul McCartney on the wall of a boutique – this one didn’t thrill any of us. David Healy shows up as the ostensibly Portuguese owner of the soup company and Pamela Ann Davy has a small part as Melissa, who is Jason King’s European publisher and needs him to get back to work on his latest book. Davy was perhaps unavailable when King got his own series a couple of years later, but the producers liked the idea of having a woman around to tell him how important his next book was and how he needs to be working on that instead of solving weird crimes, getting into fights, and romancing pretty girls. Anne Sharp has a recurring role in Jason King as Nicola Harvester, who serves that function.

And proving that there’s no corner that ITC wouldn’t cut, that interesting location sequence from “A Cellar Full of Silence” of Joel Fabiani getting out of a taxi on Portobello Road is reused in full in this episode, only this time Stewart’s hunting for soup thieves and not going to beat up Paul Whitsun-Jones.

Grade failed to sell Department S to an American network, though it did appear in a few markets, syndicated to individual stations here and there. Incredibly, it was sold as both the standard package of 28 hours as well as a package of 28 half-hours. I don’t mean fourteen of the stories cut into two-parters; I mean they just pruned half of each adventure out and trimmed the title sequence down. There’s an example on Network’s DVD set, the half-hour version of “The Mysterious Man in the Flying Machine”, and it’s practically incoherent.

I think Department S was made a little too late to sell to America. By September 1969, the American networks had already cancelled I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Avengers, so there was definitely a feeling this sort of program had run its course. It sold well enough in other countries, but Lew Grade decided that when it came time to write the budget for Jason King, there was no way in the world America would buy it and so they would make it on 16mm instead of 35mm and save a little money that way. So it seems pretty bizarre to me that Jason King was released here on Region 1 DVD when I don’t think the series was ever sold here, but you need a multi-region player to order Department S, which was.

A couple of years before we started this blog, and before we bought a multi-region player, Marie and I watched the Region 1 King and I enjoyed the heck out of it. The standard line is that Department S is said to be the superior show, and that Wyngarde works best as part of a team, and now that I’ve seen them both, I don’t agree at all. I would not say that Department S is bad, although there were five or six underwhelming installments, and there were certainly ten or eleven that I really enjoyed a lot.

A big part of the problem is that I never got a handle on who Stewart and Annabelle were. With Jason, it doesn’t matter because he’s meant to be larger than life and ridiculous, but the other two are ciphers, barely even caricatures, although the actors who played them were certainly likable. The show never told us who Stewart Sullivan was, or how he became such a super-cop that Interpol wanted him to head Department S. He’s just “the action man” and Annabelle is just “the computer operator.” I wish they’d have spent more time with their characters and let them tell us about their pasts and who they are, off-duty. But Jason got all the character development time, and there wasn’t enough left for them. We’ll watch Jason King for the blog in 2021; Stewart and Annabelle won’t be missed.

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