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The Champions 1.1 – The Beginning

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the ITC studio experimented with a few “international-friendly” formats to sell their shows around the world. The Champions featured a familiar grouping of secret agents: an American, an Englishman, and the posh, nebulously European woman. Or, as The Preventers, one of the funniest half-hours of television ever made, would put it a quarter-century later, “vaguely foreign.”

The Champions was created by Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner and produced in 1968. The 30 episodes were written by many of the same veterans who worked on most of Britain’s adventure TV shows of the day, and it starred Stuart Damon, William Gaunt, and Alexandra Bastedo as agents of a UN-affiliated agency called Nemesis based in Geneva. There were lots of these kinds of shows in the late sixties, but The Champions had a twist that really set it apart, and which I didn’t tell my family about: these secret agents have super powers.

In Dennis Spooner’s “The Beginning,” our heroes’ getaway plane crashes somewhere in the Himalayas after heisting a bacterial weapon from a Chinese laboratory. Days later, they wake up, their wounds healed and their minds and bodies improved somehow. They have fleeting memories of a secret city, ancient mystics, and technology far beyond our own. There was a lot of this in the sixties, and the old man flatly looks like he walked right out of a Steve Ditko-drawn issue of Strange Tales. So, with telepathy, enhanced senses, heightened reflexes, and super strength, our heroes overpower the soldiers sent to capture them and wonder how they’ll keep their powers a secret while serving the greater good. Guest stars in this installment include Joseph Furst, just to keep all the stuff in Geneva appreciably international, and Burt Kwouk and Anthony Chinn, who ITC had on speed dial whenever they needed Chinese soldiers.

I really enjoyed watching our son realize where this was going. Except I fumbled a little. I hinted that this would be a show kind of like The Avengers and Adam Adamant Lives!, forgetting that when you say Avengers to this kid, he immediately thinks of those other, lesser Avengers and all their movies and Lego sets. So he was expecting super heroes, and wondered what was up with these normal humans and all the machine guns! But he liked it, and it did have a fine little fight at the end, and I hope he continues to enjoy it.

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The Avengers 6.15 – Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…

The brilliance of The Avengers is that it is said to be a program where absolutely anything can happen. So here, the veteran writer Dennis Spooner, who had contributed to Doctor Who and several of the ITC adventure series, decides to test that hypothesis and pushes the show farther into weirdness and farce than it had ever been before. It still doesn’t break. Now having said that, you can probably see the boundary from here. This is a deeply, deeply silly and hilarious episode, but it honestly doesn’t need to get any sillier than this.

If you’ve never had the great pleasure, “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…” concerns a gang of “resting” vaudevillians who are targeting the board of directors of the Caritol Land and Development Corporation, a big firm that has just landed an extremely important government contract. But among their holdings is a defunct chain of music halls and palladium theaters, and a crooked Punch and Judy man who knows more than he’s letting on seems to have convinced the gang that by wiping them out, they can open the curtains on their old shows again. Jimmy Jewel and Julian Chagrin play the lead killers, and familiar faces Robert James and Talfryn Thomas are among the other “resting” artistes.

Not one line of this is played straight. Getting to the hilarious final fight, we get to enjoy some of the all-time great television death scenes. Years ago, I watched this one with my older kids, and my boy just about stopped breathing with laughter when Jimmy Jewel introduces some puffed-up aristocrat to his magic carpet trick. John Cleese plays a civil servant tasked with painting the copyrighted faces of clowns onto eggs, and Bernard Cribbins plays a gag writer who comes up with far, far more duds than winners, and they both meet hysterically gruesome ends. Both actors just had me in stitches before they met their grisly deaths. Cleese, in particular, is a delight in the role of a put-upon government worker who desperately wants to avoid letting any member of the public into his office.

Of course our son loved it. He laughed like a hyena in places. This would be a terrible introduction to The Avengers, but I can’t imagine anybody in the world not liking this. For a hour about one sick-in-the-head murder after another, it’s just so darn joyous, which makes it even more amazing that this could very well have been the program’s final episode! I don’t believe that ABC had renewed the show when this was made in March 1968.

As I mentioned last month, in the US, The Avengers was running opposite Lost in Space, and NBC’s The Virginian, which was crushing both programs. CBS gave the ax to Space, and in the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances, there was really no reason to expect that ABC would ask for more Avengers. By the spring of 1968, the spy craze was ebbing, Diana Rigg had moved on, and the ratings were dropping. But ABC did order a full 26 episode season of the program anyway, because something was going to happen in the fall of 1968 that was totally unlike the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances… but more on that another day.

That’s all from The Avengers for now, but Steed and Tara King will be back in August for more adventures. Stay tuned!

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