Tag Archives: freewheelers

Freewheelers 6.7 – Doomsday

Our son has turned around a lot on this show. He was really excited tonight and thought this was completely thrilling. It included a helicopter chase and ended with a huge explosion as Nero’s plans are foiled.

I must say, however, that Col. Buchan is not entirely in the same league as John Steed or John Drake when it comes to saving the UK from evil threats. He does have the sense to send “the kids” out of the way when he goes to stop Nero, but his plan wouldn’t work at all if the villains all hadn’t started double-crossing each other. He’s even completely in the dark about Nero’s big change of plans. He’s not going to blackmail the world at all, just kill everyone with Medusa while he and his hand-picked survivors wait out things underground for two years. Lucky for us everybody started stabbing each other in the back, then.

I kid, it’s all in good fun, but there is a real disappointment this week, and that’s Jerome Willis going completely loopy. My wife and I recently finished watching the excellent spy series The Sandbaggers (1978-80), in which Willis appeared as an office-bound twit, albeit who should never be underestimated, and I was so used to his controlled and measured performance there that seeing him chew the scenery talking about destroying the world caused me to wince. We’ll see him again in Doctor Who a few months from now as a somewhat more successful villain.

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Freewheelers 6.6 – The Threat

It’s fair to say that our son is not completely entranced by this show, but he is concerned for our heroes. This time out, Mike and Steve rescue Sue from the anchor that she was tied to in part five and he was visibly relieved. The characters are not shown to be indestructible; Mike took a nasty blow to the head in part five and Colin got shot, so there’s room for concern.

We learn Nero’s plan at last, and it seems that the scientists are not quite as kidnapped as Colonel Buchan and the kids believe. Professor Nero, cutting a dangerous profile in his dashing seventies comfy sweater vest, plans to blackmail the world’s governments to destroy all weapons of war, or he’ll unleash his oxygen-eating Medusa plankton into the ocean, killing all life in a matter of months. Buchan, cutting an equally dangerous profile in whatever the heck you call that shirt he’s wearing, is moving in to attack the lighthouse at dawn. I can’t swear that this is television’s most exciting cliffhanger, but I am curious what will happen next.

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Freewheelers 6.5 – Pirates

As we watched the black and white Doctor Who serials, I concluded that four nights in a row was about the limit for our son’s pleasure, so I chose to break these thirteen episodes into four chunks. This proved to be a very good idea. Three mornings ago, he awoke to let us know that he had a bad dream about the two villains in Freewheelers, who put a bomb in his room which he had to “throw into another country.” If that’s not a sign that a kid needs a little break, I don’t know what is.

So rested and recharged with some sea monsters, yellow brick roads, and bionic action, we resumed this story in time for more action built around whatever in the Cornwall area they could find to film. Nero’s men take over a sailing ship and bring it to his new lighthouse base, where he’s got sixty kidnapped scientists working for him in the tin mines below. Sue, who’s been scouting around the region with one of Buchan’s other young agents, gets captured and tied to an anchor on the beach before the tide comes in. Our son was a little unclear about this part; he didn’t understand it was an anchor and Sue couldn’t just walk away.

The level of location filming is really impressive, and while the scenes of the other agent running from Nero’s armed guards isn’t the most dynamic scene ever shot, it’s a great location and it’s staged well. The program is undeniably a low-budget one, but the designer created a great hidden entrance to the lighthouse’s secret elevator, and it is much more impressive than what you often get in these videotape dramas.

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Freewheelers 6.4 – Mayday

I’d read that there was a lot of Avengers and Department S in this series’ DNA, but it seems to have a lot of The Famous Five in it as well, what with these kids having their adventures and following criminals rather than calling for police or anything. I was thinking that even before tonight’s installment, in which Mike phones the RAF (!) to rescue Steve from Ryan and Burke, who are shooting at him from another airplane. And sure enough, the air force scrambles four fighter jets to bring down their prop plane.

But the real Famous Five bit comes when Burke starts mumbling about a lighthouse so that Sue can hear it. It’s uncannily close to “blah blah blah secret plans, blah blah blah Third World War…”

Jerome Willis isn’t in this episode, which our son enjoyed a good bit more than the previous one. We did have to pause and explain what Buchan was doing at one point. In his third disguise and silly voice so far, he pretends to be thrown into Burke and Ryan’s cell in order to gain their confidence. But overall he really seemed to enjoy it, and even shouted “Yes!” when the stock footage of the RAF’s jets showed up.

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Freewheelers 6.3 – Medusa

Our son was quite candid and honest when I asked whether he’s enjoying this series. “Not really,” he said. He explained that there’s not a lot of action in it. That’s despite two people being knocked unconscious by blows to the back of the head, an exploding airplane, and a weird burst of radioactivity that turns the room blue and bathes the villain, Nero, in psychedelic colors.

We learn this time out that up until recently, Nero was Professor Barnet at Cambridge, a respected researcher into oceanographic studies. Like a lot of misguided scientists in the 1970s, he was trying to solve the world’s foot shortages, and his solution was the Medusa project, which stimulated plankton into unnatural growth via radiation. What this has to do with melting gold into frying pans and shipping them to France is still a mystery.

In fact, lots of this is kind of hard to figure out how each plot element fits into each other. It’s almost like they went on location, filmed a lot of material based on what was available and handy – like the big air show in this story – and then crafted a final script around that before they went back into the studio to tie it all together.

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Freewheelers 6.2 – Operation Seagull

It’s a little surprising just how far ahead of our heroes Professor Nero and his gang are. Episode two of this story starts with Col. Buchan revealing himself to “the kids.” He only knows Mike, but he’s been in the area nebulously investigating in disguise, just in time for Ryan and Burke to gas everybody aboard the ferry and steal the gold. All that’s left for our heroes to do is do some spectral analysis to determine what kind of gas it is.

Back at the country house, Nero has all of the gold melted down and recast – a whole lot quicker than I thought this could be done – as frying pans, and then sent back to the port to get shipped to his agents in France. Nero stumps everybody again, even as they’re closing the net, by using a decoy truck. It’s always refreshing to see villains who can think on their feet and stay ahead of our heroes. But then again, three of the four are just “talented amateurs.”

I didn’t mention it last time as that post was a little long, but there’s a really amusing moment in part one when Ryan and Burke are in the back seat of Nero’s gang’s car, and they’re wondering whether these “geezers” who picked them up are really policemen. It’s incredibly similar to a scene in the Doctor Who serial “Terror of the Autons,” which had been shown earlier in 1971. I was half-expecting Ryan to lean forward and ask to see these men’s warrant cards.

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Freewheelers 6.1 – Nero

Time for a new experience here at the blog: a program I’ve never seen at all before. We’re looking at the few surviving and available episodes of Freewheelers, a kid-friendly adventure that ran for eight series on the UK’s Southern Television between 1968-1973. Inspired by the success of The Avengers, it’s a show in which a top professional teams up with some talented amateurs to fight ruthless masterminds and save the world from evil. The stories were told in linked serialized adventures, typically two or three stories in each batch of thirteen, and almost half of the show’s 104 episodes are missing, as is often the way with British television from the period.

The top professional, for most of the run, is Colonel Buchan of the British Secret Service. He’s played by Ronald Leigh-Hunt, and we saw him in the role of Commander Radnor in the Doctor Who story “The Seeds of Death” last month. “Seeds” was made and shown after series two of Freewheelers. Col. Buchan specializes in recruiting small groups of teenagers to assist in his war against the forces of villainy. As would later be common in, say, The Tomorrow People, the cast changes a little with each new batch of thirteen, with “the kids” coming and going. None of the original young stars lasted beyond series three.

For those first three series, the lead villain was an ex-Nazi officer called Karl von Gelb, played by Geoffrey Toone. He was dropped for series four, in which Buchan and “the kids” battled a new villain played by Pamela Ann Davy across a pair of stories. Buchan himself was absent for series five, which was the first to be made in color, as Ronald Leigh-Hunt was working on the film Le Mans in late 1970 and unavailable. In that series, Wendy Padbury, who had played Zoe in Doctor Who‘s sixth season, joined the trio of “talented amateurs” as a new character, Sue Craig.

Most of these episodes are missing. Series one exists in full, but only a single episode from the next four series is known to exist. Simply Media released series six on DVD in 2009 and it was hoped they might release the other three existing batches, but sales were apparently too low to overcome the other complications: series one, since it’s in black and white, is less likely to be a big seller in today’s market, and some of the surviving episodes from series seven and eight are said to be in pretty bad shape and really should be restored before release. The investment would eat up any potential profit.

So, for series six, we’ve got Ronald Leigh-Hunt back as Col. Buchan, Adrian Wright returning for his third go-around as Mike, Wendy Padbury back as Sue, and Leonard Gregory as the latest recruit, Steve. We’ve got two master villains in a pair of stories, and at least the first of these diabolical baddies is using the services of two henchmen who’ve tangled with the Freewheelers before: Ryan and Burke, played by Richard Shaw and Michael Ripper.

Series six ran in the fall of 1971. It seems to comprise a seven-parter written by Paul Erickson, and a six-parter by Richard Montez. We started with episode one, “Nero,” this evening. I thought it was quite entertaining, and our son gave it a “pretty cool” thumbs up, although he didn’t like it when Ryan and Burke engaged in some petty crime on an amusement pier on England’s south coast. Interestingly, there was a 2p toll to go onto the pier.

The story opens with Ryan and Burke on the run, having broken out of prison that morning. Mike and Sue are on a vacation together and they meet Steve, who’s chasing the criminals. The baddies seem to get arrested, but they’re actually kidnapped by agents of Professor Nero, played by Jerome Willis, who enlists them in a scheme to steal £6 million in gold from a ship using a non-lethal gas. Because of the law of conservation, this turns out to be the very ship where our young heroes have got summer jobs as stewards. But Col. Buchan is on board as well, strangely in disguise… we’ll see what happens next tomorrow evening!

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