This hasn’t been our son’s favorite day of watching old TV with his old parents. Following this morning’s Stargate, which he found disastrously dull, he had a great day of food and Xbox and pinball and pizza, and then we watched this unbelievably slow and subtle Jason King. It’s so subtle that he may not have even realized until the finale that there was a criminal scheme anywhere at all. Ingrid Pitt and Patrick Mower are among the criminals who have targeted our hero for reasons not divulged until the very end. Jason’s aware that something is up and plays along, but I think the storytelling and the acting were so underplayed that it just looked like an hour of romance and sightseeing and driving around Greece and Italy. He’s much more interested in what I’ve told him we are watching tomorrow.
Given the nature of television production at the time, I don’t know that Department S “bowed out” so much as it just wrapped. They had their 28 installments, and now it was up to Lew Grade and the sales team to try and land it on an American network. The last episode they filmed concerns a deeply bizarre theft. Somebody went to all the trouble of sending four well-dressed young dandies – among them Ronald Lacey and Patrick Mower – to break in to a Liverpool customs warehouse through the back wall to steal 144 cans of fish soup from a company in Lisbon, and then dump it all in the back of the parking lot.
Other than the remarkably trendy fashions on display by these criminals and a pair of girlfriends – there’s even a Peter Max-ish print of Paul McCartney on the wall of a boutique – this one didn’t thrill any of us. David Healy shows up as the ostensibly Portuguese owner of the soup company and Pamela Ann Davy has a small part as Melissa, who is Jason King’s European publisher and needs him to get back to work on his latest book. Davy was perhaps unavailable when King got his own series a couple of years later, but the producers liked the idea of having a woman around to tell him how important his next book was and how he needs to be working on that instead of solving weird crimes, getting into fights, and romancing pretty girls. Anne Sharp has a recurring role in Jason King as Nicola Harvester, who serves that function.
And proving that there’s no corner that ITC wouldn’t cut, that interesting location sequence from “A Cellar Full of Silence” of Joel Fabiani getting out of a taxi on Portobello Road is reused in full in this episode, only this time Stewart’s hunting for soup thieves and not going to beat up Paul Whitsun-Jones.
Grade failed to sell Department S to an American network, though it did appear in a few markets, syndicated to individual stations here and there. Incredibly, it was sold as both the standard package of 28 hours as well as a package of 28 half-hours. I don’t mean fourteen of the stories cut into two-parters; I mean they just pruned half of each adventure out and trimmed the title sequence down. There’s an example on Network’s DVD set, the half-hour version of “The Mysterious Man in the Flying Machine”, and it’s practically incoherent.
I think Department S was made a little too late to sell to America. By September 1969, the American networks had already cancelled I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Avengers, so there was definitely a feeling this sort of program had run its course. It sold well enough in other countries, but Lew Grade decided that when it came time to write the budget for Jason King, there was no way in the world America would buy it and so they would make it on 16mm instead of 35mm and save a little money that way. So it seems pretty bizarre to me that Jason King was released here on Region 1 DVD when I don’t think the series was ever sold here, but you need a multi-region player to order Department S, which was.
A couple of years before we started this blog, and before we bought a multi-region player, Marie and I watched the Region 1 King and I enjoyed the heck out of it. The standard line is that Department S is said to be the superior show, and that Wyngarde works best as part of a team, and now that I’ve seen them both, I don’t agree at all. I would not say that Department S is bad, although there were five or six underwhelming installments, and there were certainly ten or eleven that I really enjoyed a lot.
A big part of the problem is that I never got a handle on who Stewart and Annabelle were. With Jason, it doesn’t matter because he’s meant to be larger than life and ridiculous, but the other two are ciphers, barely even caricatures, although the actors who played them were certainly likable. The show never told us who Stewart Sullivan was, or how he became such a super-cop that Interpol wanted him to head Department S. He’s just “the action man” and Annabelle is just “the computer operator.” I wish they’d have spent more time with their characters and let them tell us about their pasts and who they are, off-duty. But Jason got all the character development time, and there wasn’t enough left for them. We’ll watch Jason King for the blog in 2021; Stewart and Annabelle won’t be missed.
“Some of that was kind of hard to understand,” our son told us. I agreed; British colleges and universities are pretty strange for us, too! I still can’t get over the downright palatial residence of fourth-year students in places like this. Patrick Mower’s character, who’s a really nasty piece of work, lives in a space that would have fit six or eight of us from my time at dear old Reed Hall.
I took a break from reading 2000 AD when I went to college; at least one of the students at St. Bode’s has kept up his subscription to the venerable Lion. Mrs. Peel’s checking out the latest adventure for Robot Archie in the issue in the lecture room. Archie was the spiritual antecedent for the Vision and Jocasta in those other, lesser Avengers.
But even if our son had been more familiar with the ins and outs of colleges like this, I think the central thesis of this adventure might have been a little over his head. I like the way that Martin Woodhouse’s script is very subtle about the issue between one set of economists who envision a future of “Europia” and the anonymous author of a paper called Economics and a Sense of History. Steed immediately sees something in the paper that brings the word “jackboots” to mind, and many of the students at St. Bode’s, including Mower and future star Jacqueline Pearce, are thugs-in-training. They’re downright awful to one of their lecturers, played by John Barron, who contends that no one person can alter the inevitable course of history.
The show was much more his speed when the students’ Rag Week festivities got violent. At one point, Steed and Nigel Stock’s character have to take refuge under a caravan in the woods while masked ruffians fire arrows at them. One flaming arrow pierces Steed’s bowler hat; that was the high point of the episode for him!