Saturday 14 May 2016

The Protectors (1964)

The Protectors is a British crime series produced by ABC in 1964 and is not to be confused with the later and much better-known ITC series. It ran for only one season - like so many British series of the 60s and 70s it was shipwrecked by industrial disputes.

The series deals with a firm of security specialists set up for former insurance investigator Ian Souter (Ian Faulds) and ex-policeman Robert Shoesmith (Michael Atkinson). Heather Keys (Ann Morrish) is the third member of the team. She’s the secretary but her knowledge of the art world makes her invaluable. The firm of Souter and Shoesmith refer to themselves as the SIS (Specialists in Security).

Ian Faulds is brisk and businesslike and makes a fine lead for this type of series. Michael Atkinson’s performance is slightly odd but it’s odd in a good way, or perhaps quirky would be more accurate. Ann Morrish is fine as well and the three leads combine quite well. Ian Souter is a more bustling energetic character while Robert Shoesmith is more cerebral and slightly ironic.

The SIS are not quite private detectives but they’re more than just security consultants. It’s quite a good setup for a series, offering possibilities for varied stories and a mix of detection and action.

Typically for an ABC production the tone is slightly more serious compared to contemporary ITC action adventure series. It’s played very straight. On the other hand it’s certainly not grim. The emphasis is on entertainment.

The Protectors is a far cry from the “gritty realism” school of British television drama that started to emerge in the late 60s but it has a pleasingly everyday quality to it. One of the strengths of this series is that it has a certain plausibility. It deals with the sorts of cases such a firm might actually take on - industrial espionage, insurance fraud and various assorted scams. These are not private eyes who find themselves getting mixed up in big time crime. Their cases don’t end in murder or shootouts or car chases. It’s actually a bit along the lines of the slightly later ABC series Public Eye, although with a bit more action. There’s probably more action than a real-life security company would encounter but even the action is plausible - if you go poking about in warehouses where illegal things are going on you could reasonably expect to get clobbered by disgruntled criminal types.

Like Public Eye this is a low-key deliberately unglamorous series. Souter and Shoesmith don’t drive about in fancy sports cars or wear trendy designer clothes or mix with the rich and famous. This is an ABC series, not an ITC series.

While it doesn’t exactly deliver high-octane excitement the stories are well thought out and the series has a feel that is refreshingly different from a routine private eye series.

The debut episode, Landscape with Bandits, is an extraordinarily convoluted tale of double-dealing in the art world. A Monet is being offered for auction but some doubts have been cast on the legal ownership of the painting. Add to the mix a ruthless gallery owner, an ambitious employee of the gallery who wants his own gallery, a newspaper mogul, a mysterious wealthy Russian emigre and an assortment of miscellaneous crooks and you have some fine entertainment.

In The Bottle Shop Souter and his team are employed by a pharmaceutical company where industrial espionage is suspected. Ian goes undercover as an efficiency expert and needless to say no-one likes having an efficiency expert about. Peter Bowles is delightful (as always) as a highly strung, rather unstable but brilliant research chemist.

Happy is the Loser sees the SIS team working for The Society of British Gaming Clubs. Under British law gambling debts were not enforceable in law and as a result gambling clubs had chronic problems with gamblers who lost heavily and refused to pay up. Many of the clubs solved this problem by using strong-arm merchants to collect their bad debts. The Society of British Gaming Clubs is trying to end this unfortunate practice by offering the clubs insurance. Ian and his team have the job of trying to persuade club owners to join the society. This brings them into conflict with a couple of the most unpleasant of the aforementioned strong-arm merchants, a rather nasty crook named Happy Dyer and his even nastier thuggish sidekick Cyprian.

Ian and Robert have to resort to some unconventional and perhaps dubiously ethical methods to break the stranglehold that Happy Dyer has over the club owners. They get some invaluable assistance from Heather who poses as a wealthy glamour girl who doesn’t like to pay her gambling debts, from suave aristocrat and inveterate gambler the Hon. Arthur Keir (Gerald Harper) and a delightfully bubbly and ditzy high-class call-girl named Delores (Christine Finn). The SIS team’s plans threaten to go wrong right from the start and they find they may have bitten off more than they can chew. It’s a good story but the highlights are provided by the wonderful performances by the supporting players, especially by Gerald Harper and Christine Finn.

No Forwarding Address deals with an insurance swindle at a wholesale warehouse but the trouble with swindlers is they can get double-crossed themselves. The Pirate is another episode with a similar theme - thieves and confidence tricksters all trying to do each other down with stolen diamonds providing the catalyst.

The Loop Men is another insurance fraud, with a gang of railway thieves stealing heavily insured electronic goods. This story is enlivened by a delightfully excessive performance from Jeremy Kemp  as a totally insane ex-army corporal who runs his racket like a military operation, the only problem being that he really thinks it is a military operation. This gives the episode a slightly outrageous quality unusual for this series. Also look out for Derren Nesbitt (of Special Branch fame) as a smooth but twitchy heavy.

An insurance company calls in Souter and Shoesmith when they start getting worried about a valuable stamp collection for which they’ve written a policy in the episode The Stamp Collection. Some kind of fraud seems to be in the offing but just what is the nature of the fraud? This is a decent episode with a dangerous ex-army officer mixed up in things and he’s a man who may be even more dangerous than he seems. 

It Could Happen Here is a change of pace. Souter and Shoesmith are called in by a trade union to investigate phony lotteries which the union feels are exploiting its members. In fact there’s a lot more than that going on, and there may be a connection with the murder of a union branch secretary. Shenanigans in a trade union might suggest something political but is that what is really behind these shady goings-on? This is quite a hard-edged episode (and a good one).

Freedom! represents yet another change of pace. It’s more of a spy story with Ian and Heather getting mixed up in a potential international incident when two Albanian musicians on a concert tour of the UK decide to defect to the West. Souter and Shoesmith are supposed to be providing security for the hotel at which the visiting Albanian orchestra is staying - their job is to prevent just this sort of unfortunate incident from occurring at a time when Her Majesty’s Government is negotiating a trade deal with Albania. Writer Bill Strutton seems to be under the impression that Albanians are pretty much the same as Russians so all the Albanians have Russian names. Despite this minor defect this is a very fine episode with Ian facing more than one moral dilemma, and with the partnership of Souter and Shoesmith threatened with dissolution. It has an intriguing plot twist at the end making it a rather subtle and nuanced spy story.

The Protectors is a rather ambitious series characterised by some very good writing and some complex moral problems. The tone is generally quite serious. At around about this time ABC were also responsible for both Public Eye and Callan which tends to suggest that they were aiming at a darker and more serious tone than their competitors in the British television market (and it’s worth pointing out that when their most famous series, The Avengers, was launched in 1961 it was also intended to be a dark and edgy series). Like Public Eye and Callan The Protectors benefits from the studio-bound feel of early 60s British TV which gives it an enclosed and slightly paranoid edge.

Remarkably enough all fourteen episodes survive and are available in a DVD set from Network. For an early 60s shot-on-videotape series the transfers are very acceptable.

It’s a great pity that The Protectors lasted only a single season. It was cancelled not because it was unsuccessful but because of industrial disputes. It deserved a better fate. It’s an intelligent action adventure series that manages to be extremely entertaining as well. Highly recommended.

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