And now back to 1971, and what our old pal Jason King got up to when he stopped hanging around Department S: he got his own TV show! Strangely, Jason King is one of the least well documented of all the ITC adventure series. You’re welcome to dig around and prove me wrong – I’d love that – but there isn’t anywhere near the level of detail about these 26 episodes as you can find about other programs from the period, like Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) or The Avengers. With many of the other British filmed series from this time, you’ll often find fans digging in and finding solid production and transmission details. For King, there’s just one set of dates available, from September 1971 to April 1972, and I’m not even sure which ITV region those dates are from. I’m sure it wasn’t networked.
It certainly wasn’t networked in America, which is part of the gag behind Dennis Spooner’s amazingly funny pilot episode. ITC’s boss, Lew Grade, had absolutely no confidence in this series selling to the States, so it was made with a lower budget than most of its stablemates, and shot on 16mm film instead of 35mm. Bizarrely, though, it is one of the very few shows of its kind to have been released on Region 1 DVD. We watched it several years back, before I got a multi-region player. Sadly, in the way of these things, it’s now out of print and going for $200 on Amazon US. Click the link above and order yourself a Region 2 copy instead. You can get that and a multi-region player for less than $200.
I asked our son before we started whether he remembered what Jason King did. He replied “He went on dates and wrote novels,” which is what makes this pilot so amusing. It’s told, with interruptions, as Jason’s pitch of a Mark Caine TV series to an American network executive, played by David Bauer, who can hardly stop popping pills or answering the phone to hear what Jason has to say.
The frame story is completely wonderful. The Mark Caine tale within it is a seen-it-before plot of con artists using a double who pretends to have amnesia to get information from a criminal, with a tiny guest spot from Nicholas Courtney (around the time of Doctor Who season eight), but it’s elevated by some wonderfully meta moments like having the executive add some fight scenes, change some costumes, fade to black for the commercial breaks, and introduce an assistant for Mark Caine. They can’t decide who can play this character and to which audience he should appeal, so the assistant is played by three different men.
The digs at American TV are just wonderful, even if the creators weren’t entirely certain how our television works. The executive has three TVs on, one for each channel, and they run westerns against each other until it’s time for them all to run medical shows. Never mind that the pitch meeting seems to be happening in the middle of the afternoon, before network programming would have started in 1971, because it’s such a good gag that it doesn’t matter.
I had warned our son ahead of time that this episode’s loose structure and frame story might be a little confusing, but he totally got on board and really enjoyed it. “That was breaking the fourth wall!” he said. I’m really glad that he got into it and understood what it was doing. Subsequent episodes are nowhere close to being as eccentric as this was. Maybe that’s a bad thing?