The subject of VHS tape trading came up earlier today on a forum that I frequent, and I was reminded of just how awesome Stuart Damon’s fans from General Hospital were when they were looking for his appearances on ITC’s The Champions and copies of my old trade list found their way to somebody. I had some really great swaps with that crowd, memorable because it seemed like everybody else in that hobby was hell-bent on chaos. I guess Stuart Damon just attracted a better class of fan. He was on Hospital for an amazing thirty years, but around these parts, we’ll remember him for all the appearances and voiceovers he did for ITC in the sixties and seventies, a really fun actor I always enjoyed. Our condolences to his family and friends.
We recently watched “Gnaws,” where Dennis Spooner came on board with a script for Brian Clemens’ The New Avengers that everybody who saw it as a kid remembers more than any other episode. This was perhaps karmic retribution for “Autokill” eight years earlier, when Clemens came on board Spooner’s show with a script that pulled the rug out from every other installment. It’s the one where Richard and Craig have a brawl and the eyes of every child watching popped out of their heads.
We watched this episode earlier in the evening, since our son had a friend coming by after dinner. Marie was taking a nap and I didn’t want to wake her until we’d finished. So the kid gave her a breathless recap as she blinked the sleep away. “Richard got hypnotized into fighting Craig! It was AMAZING! They were knocking each other all over the place!” It’s quite a fight, that’s true. They get all kinds of battered and bruised like you just didn’t see on television in the late sixties. Our son described it this way: “Sharron held Richard down and then Craig gave him a sandwich. A KNUCKLE SANDWICH!” I vividly remember the shots of Richard’s mouth full of blood from when I first saw this one in 1987 because it’s so shocking.
So “Autokill” really is a memorable experience and overall a fine episode with which to end a show. Paul Eddington plays one of the villains, and he wouldn’t have been out of place in an Avengers. He’s fussy, fastidious, and obsessed with cleanliness. There’s almost a preview of the bloodshed to come when Craig smacks the villain and draws blood and the poor wretch almost passes out from fear that he’ll bleed on his uniform.
Sadly, that was it for The Champions. Like most ITC series, the program was made in the hopes of sales to international television markets, especially an American network sale. NBC picked up the series and gave ten of the installments a run in the summer of 1968. Remember last year when I talked about the roaring success of Laugh-In? Rather than risk overexposure for their surprise new hit, NBC rested it for the summer and ran The Champions in its place.
Unfortunately, The Champions sank without trace fifty-one summers ago, and NBC never bothered to run the other twenty episodes. I once read that this ended up hurting the show’s ability to find independent stations to pick it up. Local channels had purchased a few programs from ITC’s catalog, most notably The Saint, which was shown in enough markets to eventually make NBC interested in buying the two color seasons. But The Champions was tainted by its network failure and not often seen in American syndication. I’m really glad that I picked up Network’s DVD release. It’s got a great documentary about the show that reunites the three stars that I’m going to watch again soon.
One last stupid little anecdote about this episode. The first agent who gets brainwashed and drugged into becoming a killer leaves behind a wife who freaks out and cries while Sharron tries to ask her about the morning he vanished. I recognized her as someone I’d seen freaking out and crying in something else really recently, but couldn’t remember what. I didn’t recognize the name, Rachel Herbert. IMDB set me straight. The other morning, when I popped in the first episode of Lord Peter Wimsey to get a picture of the late Glyn Houston, I rewatched the scene where Herbert, playing Lady Mary, finds her brother standing over her dead fiance and freaks out, crying “Oh God, Gerald, you’ve killed him!” See, I knew I’d seen that freaked out, crying face recently.
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 Final Countdown” is a good story with a terrific trio of villains – Alan McNaughtan’s in charge, with Norman Jones and Derek Newark as his thugs – but the main event is the ITC White Jaguar going over a cliff for the second of at least four times that we’ll see at this blog.
“I am NOT going to buy a white Jaguar when I grow up,” our son sagely observed, “because it’ll just go over a cliff and crash!”
I was thinking that tonight’s episode of The Champions, written by Donald James, might have been too complicated for our son, but he breezed right along with it and quietly said “This is really exciting!” as Craig executes a prison break. At its core, the story is a mystery: who is paying a man who broke into an embassy in London to photograph plans, and what did he do with the film. The ambassador believes the British government is behind the theft and has imprisoned their own agent, so while Craig and Richard are planning to break him out, the ambassador engages an underworld fixer and his gun-toting moll, played by Gabrielle Drake, to bring the convict to him.
The most surprising moment of the story comes when Richard loses a fight. Even superhumans have an occasional off day, but in Richard’s defense, there were three of them, they were huge, they caught him by surprise, and he did kayo two of the thugs before losing consciousness.
Any hour of television that guest stars both Roger Delgado and Jeremy Brett can’t be all bad, but honestly, seeing these two fine actors is the best thing about “Desert Journey.” The story is set in a Nosuchlandia in North Africa and appears to reuse the set from “Happening,” with the “Joe’s Place” building redressed as an Australian oil company depot. Recognizing good actors and props is just about all the interest I could muster in this one.
Tonight, we rejoined The Champions for a run of seven last episodes of this incredibly entertaining show. “Project Zero” was written by Tony Williamson and it features a good, meaty part for Peter Copley as one of several scientists who’s been conned into thinking the top-secret research establishment in Scotland where they’re working is a government project, when it’s actually, of course, run by this week’s diabolical masterminds. And I use that term deliberately: this is a very Avengers scenario, right down to the nearby village, which is not quite abandoned, but overseen by one “everything is normal” fellow who’s there to pull the “gasp! you haven’t escaped at all!” routine. That fellow’s played by Nicholas Smith, and Jill Curzon also has a small role.
This is an incredibly good Sharron episode which more than makes up for a couple of the recent disappointments where the character was sidelined badly. It’s so satisfying on that front that I really should have used a picture of Alexandra Bastedo this time, except that there’s this scene with Craig and Richard which is completely amazing. Richard’s cover is blown and the bad guy has clamped a bomb around his neck. The scene where they free him is one of the most tense things I think our son’s ever seen. His eyes were wide and he didn’t dare breathe until it was over. They held the tension for so long that he about turned blue. If our son comes back to this blog to relive old memories once he’s grown up, he’ll certainly remember this scene.
I swear it feels like Donald James wrote everything that we’ve watched for the last month! “The Night People” isn’t one of the best episodes of The Champions. In its favor, there’s some great location filming around the iconic Knebworth House, and Stuart Damon chose to play Craig as being an incredibly bad mood, short-tempered, worried about the missing Sharron, and snidely patronizing to everybody, including his friends and guest star Adrienne Corri, who plays a white witch in Cornwall. Thirty episodes of that would have been twenty-nine too many, but everybody’s due a bad day once in a while.
On the other hand, it feels too much like the far superior “Shadow of the Panther” from earlier in the season. It starts as a Sharron-centered adventure involving some fake magic hocus-pocus to cover up a more mundane crime, and the boys show up when Sharron goes missing. The problem is that Sharron was in command of the situation in “Panther,” and while she’s staying put and quietly learning about the situation while allowing herself to be imprisoned by guest star Terence Alexander, she is really sidelined and left out of all the physical stuff again. Watched after last night’s New Avengers, in which Purdey isn’t sidelined by anybody, it feels incredibly retrograde.
We’ll take a short break from The Champions to keep things fresh, but we’ll be back for the final seven episodes in about three weeks. Stay tuned!
A couple of months ago, I wrote about how I’d taped fourteen episodes of The Champions off-air from a UHF station in Atlanta. “Get Me Out of Here!” was the only one of the fourteen I didn’t like. I didn’t like it then and I still don’t like it.
It could have been a good adventure. It guest stars Frances Cuka as a scientist who’s not been allowed to leave after a mission of mercy to her home country, a Nosuchlandia in the Caribbean which is a bit like Cuba. But the unflattering cultural stereotyping is rampant, and Philip Madoc, who I normally like so much, is unrecognizable in his brownface, his eye for the ladies and his Speedy Gonzales voice. And for a story with the main guest role given to a woman, it’s unforgivable that both she and Sharron are completely sidelined, reaching its nadir in the final fight scene. I think we were meant to see it as Sharron getting the professor to safety, but it’s really staged like she’s running away from the fight now that Richard and Craig have arrived and they can throw all the punches. The kid liked it, but I sure didn’t.
This afternoon, it occurred to me that Terry Nation was apparently writing episodes of The Champions about a year before he took the job of story editing for the Tara King days of The Avengers. Anyway, this is a story that deals with one of the regular obsessions of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, cryogenics. It’s such a regular obsession that we’ll be seeing it again very, very soon, aggravatingly enough. Nation’s first Avengers script, as a freelancer before he joined the production team, was “Invasion of the Earthmen.” I’ve described that story before as a mishmash of all of Nation’s tropes and traits, and darned if it wasn’t the second script he wrote in 1967 around cryogenics.
Our son protested that the title, “The Body Snatchers,” wasn’t a very appropriate one, and he’s right. Only one body gets snatched. The villain, played by Bernard Lee, has stolen the body of a recently deceased American general who knows where all the missiles are and taken the corpse to a research establishment in northern Wales. In that fanciful way of teevee that glosses over how any of this could medically work, he plans to store the corpse on ice and to sell it to the highest bidder. But if you ignore Dr. Science’s objections, this is a fine action hour with great brawls and stunts, and Bernard Lee is a terrific, bloodthirsty villain. That’s Philip Locke in the photo above as one of the scientists pressganged into helping Lee and his thugs.
Talking of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, it was the law that anything set in Wales during those decades, even if it was filmed in Elstree, needed to find a part for Talfryn Thomas, no matter how small, and here he is, in just about the smallest part in the thing. As soon as somebody on TV mentions a place like Porthgerwyn or Llanfairfach, you just wait for him to show up.