Man in a Suitcase 1.1 – Man From the Dead

We’ve been making a short trip through the ITC catalog to align – slash – pad out the TV that we’re watching with the movies that I plan to write about, and this morning, we looked at the first of five sampler episodes of Man in a Suitcase. It’s not the lightest or most fun of ITC’s series, but it was often very entertaining and intelligent. Sort of a proto-Burn Notice, it starred Richard Bradford as McGill, a disgraced former American intelligence operative who claimed that his superior ordered him to stand down and let a valuable asset defect in the early 1960s. The superior’s body washed up in the Mediterranean, nobody can corroborate his story, and the tarnished McGill has spent years bumming around Europe, bounty hunting and doing discreet, unlicensed investigations. Have luggage, will travel.

Man in a Suitcase was created by Dennis Spooner and Richard Harris, and made in 1966-67. It was shown in the UK starting in the fall of 1967 in most of the ITV regions, and some of the 30 episodes, perhaps 17, were networked by ABC in the summer of 1968, on Friday evenings opposite repeats of Star Trek on NBC. It has one of television’s greatest theme tunes, and, like Danger Man, it was regularly seen in syndication on UHF stations for the next twenty-odd years. As I mentioned a couple of months ago, it was among the ITC series that we got in Atlanta on WVEU-69 in 1986-87, exactly when my interest in British television was sparkling, although the rule of “too much to watch” meant that I only tuned in a couple of times. I believe I was probably less interested in it because the lead actor is an American.

Several of ITC’s adventure series didn’t have what we think of as “pilot” episodes that set up the premise. Man in a Suitcase does, but it’s not really essential to following the premise. During its first UK screening, “Man From the Dead” was actually shown sixth. It goes into the backstory of McGill’s disgrace when the superior who gave him that fatal order is spotted alive in London. Like many adventure series from the period, like a favorite Avengers installment, the audience is given a pretty strong clue that the man is truly alive, because it’s a photo of that well-known thespian John Barrie. Also appearing in this one: Stuart Damon is one of McGill’s former associates. Co-creator Dennis Spooner didn’t actually do very much work on Man in a Suitcase; not long after they filmed this one, he would move over to Elstree to work on The Champions, where Damon would find regular work as one of that show’s leads.

Our son enjoyed it, but admitted it was a little confusing in places. I liked how they were very subtle and discreet about the intelligence agencies, and at one point McGill follows one man to an office for a Baltic Nations import-export-development-whatnot, an obvious visual clue, from its day, that this is the London front for at least one gang of Soviet operatives, but of course this was lost on our son. He enjoyed the fisticuffs and the locations and the straightforward nature of the plot, if not necessarily the characterization. The climax includes a remarkable beatdown, shot from a long distance at a since-demolished greyhound racing track, as McGill gets on the receiving end of at least twelve Russian agents.

I told him we’re likely to see more of this in the next week. Even when he lost a fight, Simon Templar usually just had a sore head and his hair slightly mussed. When McGill scraps, it shows. Maybe they only made thirty episodes because the character retired in 1968 to do something less likely to get himself concussed, like fighting bulls or skydiving without a chute.

Jason King 1.26 – That Isn’t Me It’s Somebody Else

I told our son that this episode of Jason King would feature a plot that they’d used a couple of times before, although not smuggling Jason somewhere in a box. “Committing crimes based on the plots of his books?” he asked. He hasn’t got the finest memory in the world, but sometimes he pays attention.

No, this is another example of somebody posing as Jason, but this time out, it’s our hero Patrick Troughton! He and Simon Oates play some organized crime types who are trying to get to a deposed Mafioso bigwig who’s hiding out in a fortress, and who, conveniently, is a huge Jason King fan. Even more conveniently, Jason happens to arrive in this allegedly quiet area of Italy to get away from reporters for a while. So yes, this is remarkably silly, but it’s done with such panache. At one point, a police inspector notes the kingpin’s fandom as though Jason’s novels are the real problem. Jason replies that he isn’t responsible for “the dichotomy of my readership.”

Overall, I think I enjoyed the Jason King series more than I enjoyed Department S, even though some of the S episodes, particularly “The Pied Piper of Hambeldown” and “One of Our Aircraft is Missing”, are better than anything in the solo run, and there was never an S episode as lousy as “Zenia”. The kid agrees, but only because he didn’t immediately remember the name Department S, and thought it was a superhero show for a minute. What was I saying about his memory?

Honestly, neither show is as good as I would hope, thanks in large part to so many downright ordinary hours penned by Philip Broadley across both series. But the more Wyngarde the better, I’d say. At their best, both shows gave us excellent examples of these fun romps, and for the most part, when they weren’t thrilling, they were usually at least competently-made and intelligent, with very good guest actors, and I enjoyed them overall. Good stuff.

I had such fun introducing our son to the entertaining world of ITC that we’re going to have some sampling mini-seasons of five other shows from the company for the blog a little later this year. We’ll start with a few episodes of Danger Man in August. Stay tuned!

Jason King 1.25 – An Author in Search of Two Characters

When this one ends, you can’t help but boo. “It was all a dream” endings stink, we expect much, much better of writer Dennis Spooner than that, and the stakes were low enough that it seems incredibly unnecessary. “It was all a dream” should be reserved for Cloudbase getting blown out of the sky by the Mysterons or something awful like that, right? But this actually works, if you’re willing to do a little work. The villains’ big scheme is to intercept a bunch of under-the-table tax-free money that Jason is accepting for rewrites on an action-adventure series being filmed at Elstree Studios. You know why Jason dreamed this whole adventure? Guilt. Guilt for being a big dirty tax cheat. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

And why am I willing to give Spooner the benefit of the doubt when I’d give it to… um, pretty much nobody else? Because the episode is a loopy joy, absolutely full of familiar and much-loved performers from the period. There’s Ivor Dean, Liz Fraser, Dudley Foster, Roy Kinnear, Sue Lloyd, and Neil McCarthy, all of whom appeared at least once during the filmed years of The Avengers. There’s also Aldenham Grange, which was in “The Hidden Tiger” and the Aldenham Park Bridge, from the Tara King “suits of armor” title sequence and about five other episodes, so the whole shebang’s like they made this episode specifically for Avengers fans to watch with big dumb grins on their faces. Plus Elstree Studios actually appears as Elstree Studios, and not the back of every warehouse in Europe.

The kid mostly enjoyed it, particularly a subplot in which – wait for it – Jason gets to impersonate an Irish actor who is trying to impersonate Jason and steal the money. And this isn’t even the last time we’ll have somebody dressed up as Jason. Tune in Saturday for the thrilling conclusion!

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?

The New Avengers 2.13 – Forward Base

In late 1987, as I recounted previously, I did a swap for three, and only three, episodes of The New Avengers with a guy who had most of the series, or maybe all of them. I sent him my list and there were only three hours that he wanted, so I needed to send him two tapes. I don’t remember what he wanted, but I know I filled the rest of tape two with other things, samples of other programs he may not have known about. And I got back “The Last of the Cybernauts…??” and “Gnaws” on one tape, because I wanted to see the famous villain’s third appearance and the infamous one everybody talked about, and I got “Forward Base” by itself on the second.

I think I picked “Forward Base” because it was listed as the final episode in one of Dave Rogers’ many books about The Avengers, and it was shown last in maybe his ITV region and in Australia. I like watching them in the order presented by Dave Rogers and by A&E’s old DVDs. There’s no real continuity to speak of in this series, except that in both “Complex” and this one, our heroes arrive in Canada, and in the other two, they’re having a “working holiday.” Maybe they went back to Avengerland after “Emily” for a while and came back for this last adventure.

In 1987-89, I rewatched television much, much more than I do these days. “Forward Base” is about a hidden Soviet base somewhere in North America that turns out to be closer than anyone predicted, but any wit is hidden underneath bland cinematography, disinterested direction, and very, very poor performances from the guest stars. But even though it was really dry and dull, I watched it nine or ten times. Its visuals were burned enough in my brain that on one trip to visit my good friends in Canada, we went to the Centreville Amusement Park on Centre Island and I recognized the famous swan boats and the view of the city from the island’s north shore from this episode.

And that was that for The New Avengers. The money had run out, it wouldn’t get sold to an American network for more than a year – and then at CBS’s much lower offer for repeats – and the executive producers, Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell, were already working on their next series, The Professionals, at the same time that the last four New Avengers were being produced in Canada by Hugh Harlow and Jim Hanley.

Rewatching these really reinforced my opinion that these four were such a massive missed opportunity. There’s nothing about any of them that stands out in any visual way, and nothing in the scripts that provide any feeling of cultural identity or sense of place. Put another way, if Universal or somebody had offered up some money to make and set the last four episodes of the show in Los Angeles instead, then a New Avengers in Hollywood could easily have felt as much like southern California as say, The Rockford Files or Columbo did at the time. The New Avengers in Toronto might as well have been in Buffalo or Cleveland or Indianapolis.

Or possibly not. CBS didn’t like The New Avengers enough to air it in their prime-time lineup, but they liked it enough to commission Brian Clemens to write a pilot for an American version of the show for Quinn Martin’s company to produce. The show would have been called Escapade, starring Granville van Dusen as the American Steed-equivalent and Morgan Fairchild as his partner, and they burned off the unsold pilot in May 1978, four months before The New Avengers debuted in late night. If you’ve never had the misfortune of watching this garish and badly dated turkey, just struggle through the title sequence on YouTube sometime. We might have dodged a bullet, and wished the show had been made in someplace like Toronto instead!

The New Avengers 2.12 – Emily

Well… trust Dennis Spooner to write an Avengers script absolutely unlike every other Avengers script.

The first half of “Emily” is actually very good, and not just for the trainspotters in the audience who enjoy looking at old Ontario. There’s a little bit of Toronto in the story, but more of the action takes place in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Vaughn, and the script suggests that these two cities are separated by the Ozarks, basically.

And it’s a good little chase story for a while, as our heroes hunt down a double agent called the Fox, who picks up his snatched information via water ski in Humber Bay Park. I’d seen this before, years ago, and remembered disliking it, but the first half is perfectly entertaining. The second half is also perfectly entertaining, if you’re eight.

Making a getaway, the Fox leaves a palm print on the roof of a 1950s Plymouth sedan. Not being able to trust anybody, our heroes, accompanied by some hoedown music, drive into a rural car comedy of the seventies, avoiding the police and the enemy agents on the dirt roads and hollers between yonder and Toronto. There are chicken farmers with shotguns, moonshiners with a hankerin’ for some fightin’, and fellers in cowboy hats neckin’ with their girlfriends in junkyards. It’s not often you see the stars of one television series drive right into another one, but they did it here. Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was all that funny, apart from one bit where the police dispatcher gets a new bit of information that has him fighting to even finish his sentence because it’s so delightfully absurd. The kid just howled all the way through it. This was written for kids and succeeds mightily with that age.

Oh, did I say police? That’s actually the weirdest thing about the Canadian episodes. There are trigger-happy cops and tire-squealing police cars in all the episodes. There aren’t any policemen at all in the Avengerland of the United Kingdom. The show exists without them. The rules are different in Canada.

The New Avengers 2.10 – Complex

The New Avengers was constantly short on money, in part because there wasn’t a TV network financing its production. The people in charge did that themselves, hoping for international sales later. So when the money started running out in 1977 and a Canadian company said that they were willing to pay for four episodes, but only if they were made in Canada, Brian Clemens wasn’t really in a position to say no.

So in July and August of 1977, production decamped to Ontario. These four episodes are nobody’s favorites. “Complex” was written by Dennis Spooner, and about the best thing you can say about it is that it’s better than “Medium Rare.” It’s an evil supercomputer story – The Avengers had done that a couple of times before – and it guest stars Cec Linder. He had played Felix Leiter in Goldfinger and scientist Matthew Roney in the original TV serial version of Quatermass and the Pit, and he was mainly working in Canada in the late 1970s.

But really the most interesting thing about “Complex” is that it’s filmed in Toronto. And yet the director, maddeningly, picked utterly anonymous locations, giving the impression that Toronto is any mid-sized, bland, beige, largely clean city, free of landmarks or anything of interest. They call this Toronto, but it might as well be Cleveland.

I have only been to Toronto three times, decades after these were made, and don’t pretend to know the city well, but I guarantee you that given a TARDIS trip back to July 1977, I could have found a whole lot more interesting things to stick our heroes in front of than this director did. I’m going to hope the other three episodes show off the city a little better, because the only remotely identifiable places in “Complex” are the westbound lanes of Lawrence Avenue, and the Pickin’ Chicken Bar-B-Q, which had been closed for at least seven years and was on Lake Shore Boulevard, at a point which was then on the outer fringes of one of the streetcar lines. Fingers crossed for the next three. I know we’ll see the swan boats of Centre Island, but I wonder what else…

And yes, call me predictable, but there are as yet undiscovered tribes in the heart of the Peruvian jungle who knew I was going to screencap that barbecue restaurant.

The New Avengers 2.3 – Medium Rare

Another oddball coincidence: several months ago, I picked up the complete End of Part One from a sale at Network. The sketch comedy series, written by David Renwick and Andrew Marshall, came with a lot of recommendations, but like the almost-contemporary Rutland Weekend Television, it’s not nearly as funny as I’d hoped, and so it’s taking me forever to watch them – maybe one episode every five or six weeks, each with a couple of chuckles, but few big belly laughs.

So I watched an episode last night and wondered who the heck one of the ensemble cast was, and it’s Sue Holderness, who imdb told me that I’d be seeing in tonight’s episode of The New Avengers. She plays a fake psychic who suddenly starts picking up actual vibes about the impending death of a stranger, a man named John Steed. Holderness is fun in the role, and it’s very amusing watching Purdey feign politeness while dealing with somebody that registers as a screwball even on the Purdey scale.

Our son was briefly very annoyed by this episode. The villains’ plot is to frame Steed as being involved with what must be a half-dozen different circumstantial shady setups before staging his suicide, and our kid got really aggravated with the bad guys as they get closer and closer to success. I got really aggravated with one gigantic hole, and come on, writer Dennis Spooner should have done better than this. Steed already knows somebody is trying to frame him, and his new psychic pal has given him a hint about who he’s supposed to kill, and yet he goes charging in to investigate without any witnesses. I’m annoyed because Steed’s been around this block more than once in the Tara King years and the character should know better, and because the writer should have thrown a massive wrench in the villains’ plans by having four characters enter the dead man’s flat together, forcing the baddies to rethink and improvise. That would have been much more interesting.

Other than that, it’s not really a bad story, although if anybody watching this doesn’t figure out how the psychic is getting her weird vibes, then they must be about our son’s age. It’s definitely Dennis Spooner’s weakest Avengers installment so far, though.

The New Avengers 1.13 – Three Handed Game

I’m in the minority – the very, very small minority – of viewers whose favorite Avengers co-star is Purdey. Sure, Mrs. Peel is an icon, but the reason I honestly like Purdey even more is that she’s so delightfully, effortlessly, weird. Her eccentricities never feel forced, because she’s quietly dancing to the beat of her own drummer, and Joanna Lumley plays her with a smile and a wink so believably that she doesn’t feel like a TV character at all. She’s just a quirky, very intelligent oddball who can kick the living daylights out of her opponents.

And she cooks marshmallow pie for dinner, and when she’s left backstage on guard duty while her charge performs his mind-reading act, she gets restless and gives herself some clown makeup, like all sensible undercover spies do when they want to avoid attention.

I learned something new about The Avengers today. There’s a recurring character in the first season of this run. I thought I’d paid attention to this show in the past, and I know who the actor John Paul is – he was Spencer Quist in the BBC’s terrifically fun SF drama Doomwatch – and I knew that he was in an episode of this show, but all these years and it never registered that he’s in two episodes, this one and “Target!” He’s credited as Dr. Kendrick in that episode and just Doctor in this one, but it’s probably the same man. How weird that never registered with me.

Anyway, “Three Handed Game” was co-written by Brian Clemens and Dennis Spooner and it’s a fun story about a brain-drain machine and three operatives with photographic memories who have each been entrusted with every third word of a very long and sensitive document. In our son’s favorite scene, Steed races his Jaguar against a March Formula One car to flag down the driver, and I’m not sure what mine was, because I like this whole episode a lot. Other than “Gnaws,” our son enjoyed this whole series. This was the first time I’d watched them as one batch (well, clearly, because two of them I’d never sat down to see before) and I think they work incredibly well. I also think that the next batch won’t, but we’ll see how that goes.

That’s all from The New Avengers for now, but we’ll watch the second season of thirteen starting in September. Stay tuned!

The Champions 1.29 – The Gun-Runners

This was a very satisfying little hour written by Dennis Spooner that sees our heroes globetrotting from Burma to Belgium to a Central African Nosuchlandia on the trail of several crates of rifles that are being sold to finance a civil war. Along for the ride, a mob of regular ITC guest stars that you see in all these shows: Anthony Chinn, William Franklyn, David Lodge, Paul Stassino. There are even giraffes in the jungle, thanks to the magic of rear-screen projection. It’s a really satisfying action hour where all our heroes get a spotlight superpower moment and a few little smiles of comedy.

The New Avengers 1.10 – Gnaws

The first thing I was planning to say tonight was that, in the same way that it pleased me to introduce our son to Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) with him having absolutely no idea that one of the characters was a ghost, it pleased me hugely to show my family the most infamous episode of the Avengers franchise, wherein our heroes hunt a giant rat in the sewers. They may have been the only people to have seen this episode to have no idea what writer Dennis Spooner was going to throw at them.

The second thing I was planning to say tonight was that, in much the same way that Spooner bent the Avengers format farther than it had ever gone before with his masterpiece “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…”, Spooner again took the format in a wild new direction with this story. Even with a familiar guest star like Jeremy Young at work here, this does not look or feel like The Avengers. There’s very little humor, and Steed doesn’t even don his bowler. This is a monster movie with three familiar characters in it.

And the third thing that I was planning to say tonight was that this is the episode where Purdey goes down in the sewers wearing the most hilariously unsuitable outfit for sewer-stalking that you’ve ever seen. Find yourself a woman who hunts giant rats in a Laura Ashley skirt, lads. She’ll never stop surprising you.

But then our son actually saw the story, or most of it anyway, and whatever I had to say stopped mattering so much. There’s a reason why everybody who saw this one as a kid remembers it. From the cold eyes of teenagerhood, this was “proof” that seventies Avengers was nowhere near as cool as sixties Avengers. From the colder eyes of adulthood, this was blah blah critical dissertation blah blah boring.

To a kid, this is the most terrifying hour of television ever made. Our son was scared out of his mind. Maybe when you’re an adult waiting for the rat, it’s just forty-five minutes of yeah, yeah, get on with it. When you don’t know what the heck the monster is – they tried to give the kids in the audience a billion clues, really, they did – then the director’s choices of reaction shots and screaming men about to get eaten are gobstompingly effective. At one point toward the end, Steed makes the decision between Purdey and a shotgun-wielding man he’s never seen before. Steed immediately sentences the man to death by throwing rat bait at him. By this point, our kid had already tried hiding in Mom’s lap, and behind the sofa, and leaving the room entirely. Knowing that guy’s fate was sealed was just about the living end for our son.

“That was NOT Godzilla-monster-scary, because that is a GOOD scary,” he told us. “That was a BAD-monster-scary. I will not watch ‘Gnaws’ again, not even for ten million dollars.” I assured him that none of the other sixteen episodes yet to come are anything even remotely as frightening as this. Marie sagely noted that even after he’s forgotten every other episode of this show, he will remember this one.

A few minutes later, safely tucked in for a good night’s sleep, a truck on the highway behind us let out a belching engine noise and our son rocketed out of bed and turned on every light in his room.