Madame Sin (1972)

One Tuesday in January 1972, ABC showed The Night Stalker, which broke all the ratings records and launched a franchise. Four days later, ABC showed Madame Sin, which was a big flop and didn’t lead to anything. Oh, but if it did…

In the early seventies, instead of just making twenty-six episode series and hoping that American networks would bite, ITC started making some movies of the week – slash – pilots instead. There was Mister Jerico, with Patrick Macnee, and The Firechasers, with Chad Everett, and Baffled!, with Leonard Nimoy and Susan Hampshire. That last one gets a little stick for a silly name and a silly premise, but it’s actually a pretty fun film and might have made a good series had another network not already commissioned and canceled the very similar The Sixth Sense.

And then there’s Madame Sin, which is a pretty good movie. It’s not great but it’s not bad. But you know how pilots are; they’re often rough around the edges and the resulting TV series is a lot better. Had ABC ordered twenty-six episodes of Madame Sin for September 1972, we’d still be talking about them. This could have been the greatest and most fun TV show ever.

In 1996, there was a one-hour special produced by Lee Goldberg called The Greatest Shows You Never Saw, a showcase of failed pilots, both promising and ridiculous. The clips from Madame Sin demanded further investigation. This was back in my VHS tape trading days and I put out the call immediately and had a copy within a couple of months. It starred Bette Davis as Dr. Fu Manchu, basically. Madame Sin is an impossibly wealthy supervillain who employs an army of scientists to develop the newest technology. In the pilot, she’s based on an island in the north of Scotland, and is using ultrasonics to create holograms and brainwash people. She’s been commissioned to steal a Polaris submarine, and she’s got a new accomplice in a disgraced American intelligence agent played by Robert Wagner.

Interestingly, Wagner’s face was blurred out in the clips that were used in the 1996 special, so perhaps he declined permission. When he filmed this in 1971, the actor was probably best known for the hit series It Takes a Thief and is credited as one of the producers. I think that he wouldn’t have continued on had the movie been picked up (see below), and not because he’s too busy marveling at the price of a plane ticket from London to New York in 1971. No, he wouldn’t have continued because Madame Sin would have turned the convention of a hero fighting a new villain each week on its head. Each episode would have had the supervillain match wits with a new secret agent.

I’ve occasionally let my mind wander and think about who might have shown up in this series to battle the evil Madame Sin. Her cohorts include Denholm Elliott, Dudley Sutton, Catherine Schell, Pik-Sen Lim, Charles Lloyd-Pack, and Burt Kwouk, some of whom may or may not have appeared in the series, and guesting in the pilot, you’ve got Gordon Jackson and Roy Kinnear along with two of ITC’s stock Americans, Paul Maxwell and David Healy. Could you have asked for a better supporting cast for a British movie in 1971? But who could have played the various CIA and MI-6 operatives who would attempt to foil her plans each week? Or would all the guest heroes be agents of the same super-agency, an UNCLE or a Nemesis? Could you imagine Robert Vaughn one week, George Lazenby the next, and Stuart Damon the week after? This could have been more fun than Columbo!

Our kid didn’t like it very much. There’s one fight scene, but it’s very talky, with only one small explosion. He didn’t like Robert Wagner’s character having to betray his friend, and he was surprised and disappointed that the hero character actually gets killed in the end, while Madame Sin and Denholm Elliot wonder whether they can kick the royals out of Windsor Castle. I’m with you, Madame Sin. Incidentally, the movie is 86 minutes long, but it ran in a 90-minute slot on American television that Saturday night in January, suggesting it was cut down to about 75 minutes. Maybe Wagner’s death scene wasn’t shown in the US and he might have been back for a rematch in the series?

Incidentally, I’m stupidly proud of myself for a bit of prop spotting. Madame Sin’s sonic rifle, being tested by Charles Lloyd-Pack above, later turned up in a couple of Doctor Who serials, including 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” shown below. I’m not the first to have made this observation – Google tells me that Jon Preddle, who knows everything, spotted it years ago – but it tickled me all the same.

The gun later made it to a silly 1975 Tomorrow People serial which guest starred Peter Davison. I wonder where else it might have been used?

Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.9 – The Trouble With Women

Our favorite eight year-old critic doesn’t have a lot of experience with poker games on TV, other than seeing Doug McClure win a few big hands in Barbary Coast, so I think it’s just window dressing to him, and he doesn’t know to watch for the “tells” in the actors’ faces as they communicate what’s going on, especially when the game is fixed. So he missed a big clue in Tony Williamson’s “The Trouble With Women” that leaves Jeff in debt to the club to the tune of £240. But that’s all right. He brings Marty along to the crooked game the next night.

Watching Marty spoil the bad guys’ hands was just one fun moment in a very entertaining story. It’s a play on the old detective story about the client who’s lying about her identity, with one obvious-in-retrospect twist and another that I really would never have seen coming. This week’s installment of Marty looking for help takes him to The Society of Spiritualists, which is a funny enough concept, but the obstacle that Marty finds when he gets there is completely hilarious – and spoiled by even a cast list, so don’t go looking – and revealed to the audience with one of the most perfect visual punch lines in any kind of program like this. All three of us were roaring with laughter.

Joining the fun this week are two actors we’ve seen in The Champions literally in the last month – Edward Brayshaw and Paul Maxwell. Denise Buckley, who plays the client, wasn’t in The Champions, but she was in The Avengers, The Prisoner, and Department S, so she’s familiar to fans of these shows.

The Champions 1.20 – The Silent Enemy

Here’s the submarine set again, making its third appearance in The Champions. This time it’s another Donald James script that has an absolutely smashing opening: a submarine, not heard from for days, turns up with the entire crew dead. Paul Maxwell, an ITC regular who had also done a fair amount of voiceover work for Gerry Anderson, plays the captain of the replacement crew. I’d say the story doesn’t quite live up to the pre-credits sequence, but any hour that introduces a previously uncharted island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, discovered by agents of Nosuchlandia and used by their evil scientists for chemical experiments can’t be all bad.

Craig gets to ladle out the violence at the end of the story and throws two guards all over the place, and there’s a great bit where one of the enemy agents, fighting for the one available gas mask, throws the main evil scientist into a room filled with gas and locks him in it. That ruthless dude had the makings of a great recurring villain, if these old shows ever went in for that sort of thing so late in the run.