Jason King 1.1 – Wanna Buy a Television Series?

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?

Department S 1.16 – Dead Men Die Twice

And now back to 1969 and more cases from the files of Department S. Tonight’s head-scratcher is from the pen of Philip Broadley, who asks why two men have entered a morgue and pumped two slugs into the corpse of a fellow who died the night before from a heart attack. Curiously, the dead man is a dead ringer for a crime lord who himself died three years previously. Except unfortunately the producers cast a recognizable face in the role and showed us his photograph. It’s actor Kieron Moore, who usually didn’t appear in no-lines parts that an unbilled extra could have played.

It’s a problem we’ve run across a few times with British television from the period – the Avengers installment “The Living Dead” comes to mind – and so the question isn’t really going to be “Is the crime lord really dead,” it’s “how is Annabelle going to get out of this mess?” This is, pleasantly, a good showcase for the character, and I enjoyed the scene where she rattled one of the crime lord’s former rivals, played by David Bauer.

The kid didn’t enjoy it all that much, unfortunately. Maybe it was a more twisty mystery than he prefers, and maybe Annabelle stays in trouble for longer than he found comfortable. I have to agree it’s not a particularly strong adventure, but it has a few good moments.

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.22 – A Disturbing Case

I thought that this episode might prove to be memorable, because the DVD comes with two separate audio commentaries. I was right. I had an initial giggle when one of ITC’s resident American-born actors, David Bauer, got called upon to play a psychiatrist with a German accent. Gerald Flood, who also did three or four of these shows, also has a small role in this one.

Then I stopped giggling and we all started roaring. Jeff gets hypnotized, in the TV way of hypnotizing that isn’t terribly realistic, and the only way that Marty can communicate with him is by speaking in Bauer’s accent. Making matters sillier, Jeff can’t do anything whatsoever without express direction from Marty. He can, however, win fights pretty handily, because he’s been conditioned to do whatever the German-accented voice tells him to.

“A Disturbing Case” is hilarious. Mike Pratt co-wrote the goofball adventure with Ian Wilson, and I thought for a moment or two that he was giving himself a break, because Jeff spends several minutes of screen time laid up in a private nursing home while Marty does all the actual work. When things pick up, we were all incredibly amused. Marie felt compelled to tell our son that hypnotism really, really doesn’t work this way – and she also wondered just how many psychiatrists were running around hypnotizing patients in the London of this world – and I’m pretty sure that he knows that, but I’m also pretty sure that he might soon be seen jauntily hopping down a hallway with a silly “hypnotized” grin on his face like Jeff.

The Champions 1.4 – The Experiment

Tony Williamson’s “The Experiment” is one of the few episodes of The Champions to pit our three heroes against worthy adversaries. This was kind of the way of things in the sixties and seventies. Regular readers will recall that I would occasionally bemoan how most episodes of, say, The Six Million Dollar Man and the like would concern themselves more with counterfeiters in turtlenecks instead of having proper robot enemies and Bigfoot more often. So it is with The Champions, typically. These are good and entertaining spy stories, but the characters’ superhuman abilities just give them an occasional edge, and some very satisfying stunts, rather than a focus for the plot.

But in “The Experiment,” they run up against a quartet of characters whose reaction speed and fighting techniques have been artificially augmented. Remarkably, the villains in charge of the operation have been reading between the lines of the various secret agency secret reports and have figured out that Richard, Craig, and Sharron have superhuman skills and lure Sharron into their scheme under the guise of an experiment so they can study her speed and reaction first-hand. Their own boss never figures that out. So it builds to an exciting climax and a very good final fight scene that had our son hopping. It’s a really entertaining episode, probably my favorite of the fourteen that I originally had back in the tape trading days. More on that in a later post.

I’ve always thought that a great guest cast can elevate a good story, and this one’s just full of familiar faces. One of ITC’s regular Americans-at-Elstree, David Bauer, is the main villain, and he also has Robert James and Allan Cuthbertson in his employ. Jonathan Burn and none-more-posh Caroline Blakiston are two of the rival superhumans, and Nicholas Courtney has a small role as a doctor. There’s also a very familiar setting. Marie often says that she doesn’t recognize actors the way that I do, but she has an eye for places, and when Richard and Craig drive through the small village of Aldbury, she immediately spotted it as the location of a pair of Avengers episodes. Aldbury, Schmaldbury, everybody knows that town is Little Storping In-The-Swuff!

The Avengers 4.17 – The Girl From Auntie

If the previous episode of The Avengers was heavy and dated, then this delightful comedy was just what we needed. Our son was very taken with it, which is encouraging, because it’s almost like the official template for the color series: lots and lots of dead bodies of unusually-named men in unusual circumstances, silly organizations formalizing a hobby led by a silly eccentric, grandiose crime, and great guest stars. It’s breezy and very, very fun.

Tackling the cast first, the big name here is the much-loved Bernard Cribbins as a fellow obsessed with knitting. His oddball knitting circle has the office next door to the baddies. Comedy star Liz Fraser plays Steed’s impromptu partner Georgie Price-Jones. She’s been hired to impersonate Mrs. Peel, who’s been kidnapped, and Steed brings her along to get to the bottom of it. There’s also the delightful Sylvia Coleridge, who we saw in an Ace of Wands installment, as a daffy old lady, and David Bauer, one of ITC’s deep bench of American actors, here playing an enemy agent from the eastern bloc. They never actually say Russian, of course. All part of the fantasy. Going back to the previous post about The Avengers and its unreality, even when Bauer’s character ends up in a jail cell, we never actually see a policeman on screen!

I really love the villainous enterprise this time. It’s called Art Incorporated and is led by Gregorio Auntie, played by Alfred Burke. Their shtick is they obtain the unobtainable for extremely exclusive clients and leave behind reproductions. Burke, who is best remembered for playing PI Frank Marker in the long running Thames drama Public Eye, is a really entertaining villain and he has a great scene opposite Macnee.

This template gets tweaked a little in the color series before it becomes pretty standard and, eventually, we have to admit, a little rusty. One positive change they’d make is letting the audience briefly meet the various oddballs with silly names before Steed and his partner find their bodies. Still, even though we have only the briefest acquaintance with John, Paul, George, and Fred Jacques (“the Starr Brothers”) in this outing, they’ll always be remembered.