The Baron was one of ITC’s less successful action adventure series, running for a single season (of 30 episodes) in 1966 and 1967. The series was based, fairly loosely, on the character created by John Creasey and starred American Steve Forrest (brother of Hollywood star Dana Andrews) in the title role.
The character in Creasey’s books belonged to the gentleman-thief tradition, a tradition that began in the 1890s with Raffles and Simon Carne and was still going strong in the 1920s. John Mannering, known as The Baron, was something of a latecomer making his literary debut in Meet the Baron in 1937. Mannering is a jewel thief who is gradually transformed into an amateur detective.
The TV series turns Mannering into a thief-turned-crimefighter in the style of The Saint and downplays the character’s criminal past to the point where that aspect is practically non-existent. The problem with this is that what makes such characters so fascinating is the hint of moral ambiguity, and in the case of Simon Templar it’s the fact that although he often helps the police (and they accept his help) they still believe he’s a thief and they still want to see him behind bars. The John Mannering of the TV series comes across as an eminently respectable antique dealer, which unfortunately makes him rather dull.
ITC were firm believers in the theory that the best way to crack the US market was by casting American actors. Sometimes this worked. Casting Richard Bradford in Man in a Suitcase was an inspired choice - being an American effectively exiled from the US makes him an even more convincing haunted loner, a man who really does live out of a suitcase. In the case of The Baron it was a mistake. The character would have worked better had he been portrayed as an Englishman, as he was in the novels.
Making Mannering a former Texas cattleman was an even more dubious idea.
Casting an American to play the role might not have been a fatal error but they certainly chose the wrong actor. This is the kind of series that desperately needs a witty and charismatic star. Someone like Roger Moore. Steve Forrest, alas, is entirely lacking in charisma and is not suited to the sort of witty repartee that such a series needs. It’s not that he’s a terrible actor or that his performance is terrible. He’s just the wrong actor and he gives the wrong performance. Forrest could have been a perfectly convincing hard-boiled private eye but that’s not what this series needed.
Danger Man and was trying to model his performance on McGoohan’s. Sadly Forrest just doesn’t have McGoohan’s combination of subtlety and charisma.
Initially John Mannering was to have an assistant named David Marlowe, played by Paul Ferris. After filming eight episodes it was decided that a beautiful female assistant would be a better idea and the Marlowe character was replaced by Cordelia, played by Sue Lloyd. Given that Steve Forrest is not the world’s most exciting actor giving him a glamorous co-star who was a decent actress was on balance a smart move. Cordelia is quite an interesting character. She often manages to get herself captured by the bad guys but when this happens she invariably starts thinking of some ingenious and outlandish method of escape. Her plans don’t always succeed but they’re usually well thought-out and sometimes they do work.
The Baron was reasonably popular with audiences in Britain but attracted little interest in the US and any ITC series that failed to attract American interest had no chance of being renewed for a second season. The fact that the critical response to the series was almost uniformly negative did not help. If critics disliked the series they disliked Steve Forrest even more.
A bigger problem is that the TV series is just too obviously a clone of ITC’s mega-hit series The Saint. You have a debonair man-of-the-world hero, with just a hint of the rogue, who moves in a world of money, high culture, high fashion and style. A member of the jet-set. He solves crimes involving the rich, the fashionable and the powerful. He has adventures in exotic locales. The series are so similar that at least one episode of The Baron was simply a rehash of an earlier script for The Saint. The series was always going to be compared to The Saint, and the comparison was not going to be in The Baron’s favour.
Having said all that, The Baron is not a bad series. Some episodes are rather good. Most are at least watchable. You always end up feeling that even the good stories would have been even better as episodes of The Saint but if you try to put such thoughts aside there’s a certain amount of enjoyment to be had here. The better episodes are the ones that make the most use of the fact that Mannering is a deal in art and antiques, and to be fair the writers do try to make as much use of this as possible. These episodes do give the series at least some of the distinctive flavour it needed but unfortunately they’re outnumbered by rather generic episodes that could have been written for any adventure series.
The Edge of Fear is another art-centred story and a potentially interesting one involving the theft of a very very valuable painting indeed. Unfortunately it’s let down a bit by an over-reliance on the diabolically clever master criminals suddenly making incredibly stupid mistakes so that the hero can save the day. It’s as bit disappointing to see lazy writing like this from Dennis Spooner.
In The Terry Nation-penned The Seven Eyes of Night it’s jewels rather than paintings being stolen and it’s a very fine story with some very good twists and is also highlighted by a neurotically manic performance by Jeremy Brett. In Time To Kill an exquisite cameo is the driving force of the action. There is a curse, which we are not surprised by, but we may be surprised by the connection with radioactivity. A fine episode (written by Dennis Spooner) in which Cordelia takes centre stage.
With A Memory of Evil we’re back to paintings although this is a much more outrageous tale. In fact the story, involving a neo-nazi plot to finance a plot to resurrect the Third Reich by selling looted art treasures hidden in a cave in the Alps, is ludicrously far-fetched but it’s great fun. Robert Hardy does some serious scenery-chewing as the neo-nazi leader. The alpine setting adds extra interest.
Masquerade and The Killing are actually one two-part episode and it’s an odd one. Doubles were a popular feature in science fiction and spy series in this era but they’re more unusual in this kind of series. It’s the sort of story you’d expect from The Avengers but is a bit out of place here.
The Long, Long Day is more or less a western, with Mannering and a girl under siege in the sheriff’s office holding off attacks by outlaws, only it’s an Italian police station and it’s being attacked by mafiosi rather than outlaws. It’s a decent episode with plenty of action.
So Dark the Night is fairly routine, with the bad guys trying to find something that they want very badly but that something is very well hidden. The rather gothic house is a plus and Sue Lloyd gets plenty to do in this one including some clever heroic stuff. Routine perhaps but still reasonably enjoyable.
Night of the Hunter is the sort of episode that gave this series a bad name. It’s an uninspired tale of revolution in an unnamed country. The Saint could get away with this kind of thing because Roger Moore had the charisma to carry off even a less than stellar script. As an episode of The Baron it’s just too obviously a second-rate copy of The Saint.
The Maze was written by Brian Clemens who provides a brief introduction to the episode on the DVD. As you might expect from Clemens this story has just a bit of the flavour of The Avengers. It’s a very good episode with nice use of the maze and a reasonably good dream sequence.
Had the producers tried harder to stick with stories that made better use of Mannering’s expertise in art and his position as a leading dealer and had they stuck a little more closely to John Creasey’s original creation The Baron could have been an excellent series. They had Sue Lloyd’s lively and entertaining performance to compensate for Steve Forrest’s adequate but unexciting portrayal of the hero. As it stands it’s still not a bad series and it has its moments. Recommended, but probably better to rent it rather than buy it.