Friday, 26 June 2020

The Saint in Europe, and on TV

The Saint - The Covetous Headsman
This is another instalment in my project of comparing episodes of classic 1950s-1970s TV series with their literary sources. In this case I’m going to look at the stories from the 1953 Leslie Charteris collection The Saint in Europe.

Charteris’s Saint stories fall into several distinct phases with Simon Templar evolving by stages from the incredibly brash cocky hero of the 1930s to the more thoughtful, slightly wiser and just so ever so slightly sadder but more sophisticated Templar of the 1950s. So these stories all feature that final version of the Saint.

While the Saint might be older and wiser he still has a very flexible attitude towards the law. Stealing is of course wrong and the Saint would never do such a thing. But stealing from other thieves - that’s not really stealing is it? And he continues to derive a great deal of harmless amusement from causing annoyance to policemen.

Unfortunately the Saint’s larcenous tendencies had to be erased for the TV series, which makes the character slightly less interesting. That’s especially so in a couple of the stories  I’ll be discussing here - it takes away just a tiny bit of the zest from them.

The Covetous Headsman takes place in Paris. Quite by accident Simon hears of a gruesome but fascinating murder. The victim was decapitated but the head was found beside the body so it wasn’t an attempt to disguise the victim’s identity. So why cut off his head? Maybe it was the act of a madman, but Simon has to consider the possibility that there was a very good reason for it. Of course it’s none of his business but the victim’s sister is a young pretty American girl named Valerie North and pretty girls are always Simon’s business.

Discovering the identity of the murderer is not too difficult but that’s not the main problem. It’s the motive that matters. Valerie’s life may depend on the answer to that question. And the answer may lie in the past.

The Saint - The Latin Touch
The Covetous Headsman was adapted as the fourth episode of the first season of ITC’s The Saint TV series, going to air in late 1962. The source was a short story it was necessary to expand it a little to fit a one-hour time slot but apart from that the plot follows Charteris’s story remarkable faithfully. Since Charteris’s plot is pretty good, it works. Having the wonderful Barbara Shelley as Valerie also helps (in the TV version she is English rather than American).

The title caused a bit of a problem. It doesn’t mean the same thing in the TV version that it meant in the short story but I guess they thought it was too good a title to change.

The Latin Touch takes Simon Templar to Rome where gets to do something he always enjoys - saving a damsel in distress. If the damsel is young and pretty so much the better. The damsel is the daughter of a high-ranking US State Department official. She’s been kidnapped and the ransom terms cannot possibly be met. Simon doesn’t have a clue where the girl is being held but he uses his ignorance to his advantage in a very clever manner.

It’s a situation in which Simon must depend entirely on his wits - he has no objection to fisticuffs or gunplay but they’re just not going to be of any use this time. Fortunately he did pay attention to his Latin lessons at school.

It’s a neat little story.

The TV adaptation was the second episode of the first season of The Saint. There are some minor changes. The girl’s father is now the Governor of an American state rather than being with the State Department. Several minor characters are added including a comic relief Italian taxi driver (played with hammy relish by Warren Mitchell). But despite the TV version manages to retain Charteris’s core plot in its entirety. Even more so than in The Covetous Headsman every single one of Charteris’s clever plot twists is preserved. Even the Latin touch which gave the story its title is there.

The Saint - The Loaded Tourist
Which must have pleased Leslie Charteris quite a bit - he liked faithful adaptations of his stories.

These two adaptations are not just faithful, they’re delightfully entertaining.

The Loaded Tourist takes place in Switzerland. In Lucerne, to be precise. Simon witnesses a robbery. The object of the robbery was a briefcase. The briefcase is now nowhere to be found, or at least that’s the assumption of the police. The Saint however knows where it might be found, and finds it. The contents of the briefcase are none of his business but that’s never stopped him before and it doesn’t stop him mow. The contents are most intriguing and rather puzzling.

If there’s one thing guaranteed to arouse Simon Templar’s interest it’s someone telling him obvious lies and that’s what happens here. He simply has to get to the bottom of such a mystery.

This is a pretty lightweight story, not quite as clever as The Covetous Headsman or The Latin Touch, but it’s enjoyable enough.

The adaptation of The Loaded Tourist was the fifth first season episode of The Saint.

A few changes were made and a couple of additional characters added. The robbery victim now has a teenage son as well as a wife and his junior business partner now plays a key rôle. The basic plot is however mostly intact. If there’s a slight weakness in the TV version it’s that a little bit too much information is given away too early. On the other hand there is an extra plot twist at the end. On the whole it works pretty successfully.

What impresses me about these three adaptations is that whole the short stories had to be padded out the passing was done skilfully and without damaging the integrity of the essential plot, and without losing the flavour of the originals.

The Saint - The Spanish Cow
A seaside resort in the south of France provides the setting for The Spanish Cow. A very large middle-aged American widow has become the butt of everyone’s jokes due to her habit of rising to the bait every single time. What interests Simon Templar about her however is that she possesses some astonishingly valuable jewels. The Saint has no doubt that he could put such wealth to far better use. How does one go about separating a middle-aged woman from her jewels? The answer of course is Romance. The Saint’s larcenous intentions are scarcely honourable but when all is said and done he is after all a thief.

This is a very slight story with a twist that you’re probably going to see coming. It may be that the purpose of this story is to remind the reader that while the Saint is very often on the side of justice he really is a criminal. A criminal with a conscience perhaps, a criminal with a sense of honour perhaps, but a criminal nonetheless.

The Spanish Cow was adapted as the eighth episode of the fourth season. It want to air in 1965. Adapting this one posed a real challenge. Since they’d decided that the TV Saint could not ever be seen to be guilty of stealing the story was just not going to make any sense at all. Screenwriter Michael Cramoy solved the problem by throwing away Charteris’s story in its entirety and writing a completely original screenplay with the same title. In this version the American widow becomes the widow of a South American dictator. The Saint has no designs whatsoever on her jewels, but there are two groups of people who most certainly want to steal them. One group is the government which overthrew the dictator, the other is the late dictator’s brother who wants to use the jewels to finance a counter-revolution.

The dictator’s widow is given a gorgeous young female companion because every episode must feature at least one beautiful woman. Some bumbling French policemen are also added. The result bears not the slightest similarity to Charteris’s story. That’s not to say that the TV episode isn’t fun in its own way. It is. In fact it’s rather clever. But it’s a totally new story.

It’s interesting that the three season one episodes I’ve talked about here are all fairly faithful adaptations while the season four episode abandons any pretence of being faithful to the original. Does this indicate a change of policy on the part of the producers? I’ll have to do a few more short story-TV episode comparisons before committing myself on that question.

The Saint - The Rhine Maiden
TheAnd, as it happens, that crooked company promoter just happens to be on the same train. It seems highly likely that he has on his person a large part of the money he has swindled. It seems like a situation in which any adventurer worth his salt ought to do something. Rhine Maidens should not have their dreams taken away from them.

This is another story in which we see the various side of Simon’s character. He is himself on the train with him certain property which was not exactly honestly come by. He is after all a thief. But he is also a romantic. A very ruthless romantic. It’s a neat little story, and I do love mystery thriller stories set on trains.

The Rhine Maiden was episode sixteen of the third season of The Saint TV series. And it’s another story which was going to pose some problems. And the same solution was adopted as in The Spanish Cow - the TV script (by Brian Degas) has only the most tenuous connection to the original story. There is a crooked company promoter but he’s from London, not Ohio. The only Rhine Maiden here is a train called the Rhine Maiden Express. It provides the setting for a thrilling action climax but it’s not quite the same as a real live Rhine Maiden. The girl in the TV version is an English girl and she’s the daughter of the company promoter’s father.

A whole new (and admittedly quite ingenious) plot has been fashioned, based on a mysterious death and a creepy doctor with a very shady past.

If you don’t mind that it’s actually an entirely different story then it’s quite an enjoyable one.

So a pattern does seem to be emerging, with the later adaptations retaining very little of Charteris’s stories apart from the titles.

The Golden Journey is a whimsical little tale. Belinda Deane is an American girl. She is very pretty, very rich and very spoilt. It is obvious to Simon Templar that she is going to make her fiancé’s life miserable, and her own as well. Unless something is done. The Saint knows what Belinda needs. She needs to join him in a week-long walking tour across the Alps where she can learn to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and the pleasures of roughing it and having to actually do some chores. Of course Belinda would rather die than going off tramping through the woods but Simon knows how how he can persuade her. The first step is to steal her handbag.

The Saint - The Golden Journey
Thus begins Belinda’s worst nightmare. Simon even forces her to do the washing up. Simon insists that they cannot afford to stay in guest houses and they must actually sleep in the open which of course is the last straw for Belinda.  And when she misbehaves she gets a spanking. By the end of the week she will have learnt something or perhaps she will have murdered Simon.

There’s a bit too much of the back to nature stuff in this story for my liking. I’m afraid my feelings about the great outdoors are pretty much in line with Belinda’s. But the point of the story is the Simon intends to destroy the old spoilt Belinda and create a new one. Needless to say this is the sort of story that a writer could not possibly get away with today. It’s one of those Battle of the Sexes stories that were rather popular in the ’50s. But although it’s very lightweight in the plot department it does have its amusing moments and it’s difficult not to enjoy seeing a spoilt rich brat brought face to face with some real life.

This one was adapted as the tenth episode of the first season of the TV series.

The scene of the action is shifted to Spain but the story remains completely unchanged. Simon still steals all of Belinda’s money but it was obviously felt that they could get away with this - he is after all doing it for her own good. Pretty much every incident of the short story is preserved. Belinda even gets her spanking. Erica Rogers is very good as Belinda. She’s amazingly obnoxious and petulant at first, and enraged by the fact that there’s no way out for her - she either does what Simon tells her to do or she won’t eat.

The TV version is if anything slightly more amusing than the original story.

The final story in The Saint in Europe is The Angel’s Eye. Unfortunately the TV adaptation was one of the colour episodes which are much more difficult to get hold of than the black-and-white episodes and I don’t have access to a copy. The story itself begins with a man asking Simon’s help in regard to a very valuable diamond. The man works for a jeweller and has taken the stone to Amsterdam to be recut but the diamond cutter not only refuses to return it, he denies having ever seen it. Which of course intrigues the Saint. The twist in this story is really not all that dazzling but the story is enjoyable enough.

So I’ve looked at six adaptations - four very faithful adaptations from the first season and two from later seasons that bear no resemblance at all to the source stories. Interesting.

4 comments:

  1. As ever,very interesting comparisons. As I recall, The Angel's Eye was a faithful adaptation, which pleased Leslie Charteris. Not so The Spanish Cow. At that time he was disillusioned with the way the stories were being treated, especially this one, with 'ham handed bad taste'

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    1. At that time he was disillusioned with the way the stories were being treated, especially this one, with 'ham handed bad taste'

      To some extent I'd have to agree with Charteris - I find the episodes which are faithful adaptations to be the most successful ones.

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  2. All very interesting.
    Adapting the Charteris stories must have been difficult as his prose was always long and verbose. Pages would go by without any dialogue at all. Portraying only the action - which a visual medium must do - makes those stories shorter.

    As a man with a healthy ego, Charteris disliked any liberal adaptations intensely. His letters of complaint were just as lengthy as his prose, which only demonstrated his lack of restraint.

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    1. I think Charteris had good cause to complain on occasion. Some of the adaptations and particularly the dialogue tended towards the banal. His comments were usually amusing, particularly those on script editor Harry W. Junkin, whom he considered to suffer from 'a natural addiction to corn and cliches'.

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