Monday, 19 October 2020

Return of the Saint (1978-79), part two

Return of the Saint was a bold and surprisingly successful attempt by ITC to revive the Saint TV franchise. It was hated by critics and extremely popular with viewers but alas by this time Lew Grade was obsessed with the idea of making movies and he saw this series as an obstacle to that ambition. It was certainly a costly series to make, with quite a bit of location shooting. It was in fact a good example of the strength of the approach that Grade had adopted right from the beginning - if you want to have a chance of cracking the US market you have to make series that are every bit as polished and visually exciting as the best American series and Return of the Saint was very polished indeed.

But Lew Grade wasn’t interested and the series, despite its success (it was sold to 73 countries), was cancelled after a single season. It became the last in a long line of ITC series with great potential (such as Department S and The Champions) to suffer undeserved premature cancellation. It was a victim of Grade’s ill-advised obsession with the idea of becoming a movie mogul. Return of the Saint was an expensive series and Grade by that time resented spending money on a TV series.

It was always obvious that Return of the Saint was going to have to offer more action and more violence than the original Saint series. British television had changed dramatically in the mid-70s, that change being spearheaded by The Sweeney. It was the same challenge that faced Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens when they revived The Avengers - how to up the ante in action and violence without losing the essential flavour of the original series. Surprisingly both The New Avengers and Return of the Saint managed to do this reasonably successfully. 

It is however always obvious that a precarious balancing act was going on and this was complicated by pressure from the US to keep the violence to a minimum. Compared to other contemporary British series Return of the Saint is just a little tame. On the other hand that may have contributed to its popularity - it may have appealed to viewers nostalgic for a slightly more innocent era of British television. When viewed today it comes across as an intriguing mix of 1960s and 1970s sensibilities.

At the time it seemed like a good idea to mix in a few harder-edged topical stories dealing with subjects like terrorism. Personally I think the more old-fashioned episodes in the style of the original series have aged better, but in commercial terms it undoubtedly was a good idea to try to give the series something of an up-to-date flavour.

With Return of the Saint ITC faced one incredibly daunting problem - finding someone capable of playing the rĂ´le. Simon Templar is no ordinary hero, and he cannot under any circumstances be played that way. He has to have charm and wit, he has to have massive quantities of self-confidence, he has to have boyish enthusiasm. He has to be a man of action, but with a subtle and devious mind. He has to have a sense of fun and a sense of humour. He must be irresistible to the female of the species, but with a genuine affection for, and respect for, women. He has to be reckless. He has to be whimsical. Simon Templar is a man of the world, with the soul of an overgrown schoolboy.

Roger Moore qualified on all counts but where on earth were they going to find a younger actor with all those qualities, and with the necessary charisma? Amazingly enough, in Ian Ogilvy, they found that actor. Not quite as overflowing with charisma, but the first time you see him you have the same reaction that Roger Moore provoked - you think yes, that’s Simon Templar.

If you’re going to bring the Saint to the screen (whether it’s the big screen or the small screen) it has to be done with style. Everything Simon Templar does he does with style and a TV adaptation has to reflect this. This series does pretty well on that count. One slight problem is that this version of the Saint goes perilously close to being a 70s fashion victim. Ian Ogilvy felt, quite correctly, that a more conservative classic look would have worked better. Up-to-date fashions tend to date a series very quickly.

Curiously enough the series was originally planned as The Son of the Saint, with Ogilvy playing Simon Templar Jr.

This series differs from its predecessor in one very obvious way - it features a good deal of location shooting in some of the more glamorous parts of Europe.

Overall Return of the Saint is not quite as perfect as its predecessor. Its biggest fault is that it makes Simon Templar much too law-abiding and much too friendly with the police. This was a flaw with the original series but it’s even more evident in Return of the Saint. The essence of the character is that for all the good deeds he performs he is still a rogue and a thief and quite ruthless and he does not like policemen. If you try to make him too virtuous he becomes just another generic hero. The series also makes him just a bit too much of an Establishment figure. Not enough of an outsider. And Simon Templar should be an outsider. He’s not supposed to be a gentleman, even if he can easily pass as one.

On the plus side there are some very good scripts, including no less than eight by John Kruse. Kruse was a great TV writer, he’d written several episodes of the original Saint series (including the wonderful The Ex-King of Diamonds) and even the notoriously hard-to-please Leslie Charteris liked Kruse’s scripts.

Despite some problems Return of the Saint is still a very entertaining series.

Network’s complete series DVD set includes a number of audio commentaries featuring Ian Ogilvy and others associated with the series.

Episode Guide

The Armageddon Alternative is pretty outrageous. Terrorism was a big deal in the 70s so it was inevitable that this series would deal with the subject. A crazed scientist has built his own atom bomb and he’s going to use it to blow London off the map if his demands are not met. And what are his demands? He wants the government to publicly execute a young lady. Not just any young lady, but a beautiful young sculptress. And he doesn’t just want her executed - he wants her to be publicly guillotined! Like I said, it’s pretty outrageous. Simon Templar has been used by the terrorist to convey his demands to the government. Simon of course has no intention of allowing anyone to be executed, and certainly not someone as gorgeous as Lynn Jackson (played by Anouska Hempel). A good tense race-against-time plot although if you’re paying close attention the ending won’t surprise you. Still lots of fun.

The Imprudent Professor starts in interesting fashion. A maverick scientist is announcing a major scientific breakthrough when Simon Templar leaps up claiming to be one of the professor’s students from whom the professor stole his new theory. Simon is obviously up to something but what on earth is it? Simon has to deal with two formidable women, the professor’s daughter (played by Susan Penhaligon) and the glamorous but clearly dangerous Samantha (Catherine Schell), who runs Genius Inc. Lots of location shooting in France, plus a car chase, a boat chase and a helicopter chase and some decent fight scenes. An extremely good action-packed episode with some decent plot twists.

Signal Stop is a much more characteristically Saintly episode, written by John Kruse. Kruse was an excellent writer who also contributed episodes to the original Saint series so he knew what was required. Simon is on a train when a young woman named Janie pulls the emergency stop cord. From the train she has seen a man killed by being hurled through a window of a building. When the police arrive there is no trace of any crime and no broken window. And Janie has a psychiatric history. It’s clear to the police that it’s just a crazy woman seeing things. It’s not so clear to Simon Templar. He knows that crime has a habit of following him around, and besides that Janie doesn’t seem crazy. So he starts poking about and discovers some interesting things. Some very interesting things, which involve motorcycles, a god of lust and a wrecking yard. Of course the police make it clear that they don’t want Simon’s help but when has Simon ever taken any notice of policemen?

A very good episode that takes the established Saint formula and adds a few edgy touches to make it more suitable for the tastes of the late 70s.

The Roman Touch is another episode with an authentically Saintly flavour. In Rome Simon runs into an old friend, a pop singer who’s just had a string of hit records and is on top of the world. At least she should be, but she isn’t. She’s in debt up to her eyeballs and she’s taking way too many pills. She’s stuck in a contract that is bleeding her dry and there’s no escape. But of course the Saint does not accept this. Finding a way to get people (especially pretty girls) out of impossible predicaments is what he does. Some good location shooting in this one and a guest starring turn by Linda Thorson. Yes, Tara King, but this time she’s not Tara King but a ruthless tough as nails manager. One interesting thing about this episode is that we see the Saint doing actual criminal things, for a good cause naturally, but intending to profit personally as well. Which is the sort of thing that the Saint does in Leslie Charteris’s story but the 1960s series was always careful to obscure such disreputable details. A good episode.

Tower Bridge Is Falling Down is an excellent story of conning a con man, which is the sort of thing the Saint loves to do. And it is a deliciously neat if rather outrageous con. An excellent episode.

The Debt Collectors begins when Simon saves a damsel in distress - her horse has  bolted. This draws Simon into a strange family drama involving two sisters and it turns out to be a spy drama. With some very neat twists. This episode is also interesting in that Simon gets mixed up with MI5 and he doesn’t like them at all - it’s a welcome touch of authentic Saintly dislike of authority. A very good episode.

Collision Course is a two-parter (the first part is The Brave Goose and the second is The Sixth Man) written by John Kruse. Simon is participating in a power boat race. One of the other competitors, Oscar West, is killed. Simon knows it was no accident but he has his reasons for wanting to keep that information to himself. Oscar’s widow Annabelle disliked her husband but at least she will get his money. Except that he apparently had none, despite his lavish lifestyle. All she gets is a yacht that she didn’t even know he owned. And she’s now in a lot of trouble with some very unpleasant people who have reasons of their own for not believing that Oscar died penniless. The Saint is very interested in all of this and wants to help her, and perhaps help himself.

Some interesting guest stars in this one - Stratford Johns as a too-friendly French gentleman farmer and a disturbingly stout Derren Nesbitt as a French policeman, both doing outrageous French accents.

There’s murder on the ski slopes in Hot Run. Simon is always interested in the subject of murder and he’s especially interested when the victim has a very cute sister. When he discovers that there’s a heist involved and it’s being organised by another glamorous female his interest is even more intense. Tony Williamson was one of the best TV writers of that era and he provides a fairly clever plot. The heist includes some quite ingenious elements. Peter Sasdy directed and there’s some very good stunt work. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable episode.

Murder Cartel deals, as the title suggests, with an international organisation specialising in assassinations. The CIA needs Simon’s help since they have a massive security leak within the agency so Simon goes undercover as a cold-blooded hitman. Some interesting guest stars in this one - Helmut Berger (a very very big star in Europe at the time) and the rather underrated Britt Ekland. These types of episodes were hampered a little by the American insistence on minimising the violence levels so it doesn’t have quite the impact it should but it’s a pretty good story and the location shooting (in Rome) is a bonus.

In The Obono Affair Simon, very reluctantly, agrees to help an African dictator named Obono. Obono as been the target of many assassination attempts and now his son has been kidnapped. This is one of the episodes shot entirely in Britain. It’s also one of the episodes that might have benefited from being given a slightly harder edge, and would certainly have been improved had Simon been allowed to be less of a Boy Scout. Still, there are some decent plot twists.

Vicious Circle
begins with the murder of Simon’s old friend Roberto Lucci, an ex-racing car driver. Roberto’s widow Renata (Elsa Martinelli) is a rich fashion designer and a possible suspect. This is a classic murder mystery plot with some genuine surprises and some good misdirection plus nice location shooting in Italy and it has a nice atmosphere of glamour with a touch of decadence. A very good episode.

Simon’s bad luck with friends continues in Dragonseed, another instalment filmed in Italy. This time it’s Leo, the son and heir of billionaire industrialist Domenico Cavalcanti. Leo is in a helicopter which gets blown up. There’s some doubt as to whether Domenico or Leo was the intended target. Domenico is a pretty shady businessman so there are plenty of people who might want him dead. The plot of this one isn’t too difficult to figure out but it has plenty of action, it looks great and it’s executed with style.

In Appointment in Florence Simon loses yet another friend. I’m surprised anyone wants to be Simon’s friend - it’s pretty much a death sentence. This is another terrorism story and I have mixed feelings about these episodes. They’re a bit too serious to feel like authentic Saint adventures. This one does however boast a script by Philip Broadley who was a pretty decent writer. Simon is hunting a a Red Brigades splinter group and the trail takes him from a ski resort to Florence. A decent enough episode.

You’ll be amazed to hear that The Diplomat's Daughter begins with Simon meeting a beautiful woman. She’s Marie de la Garde and she’s the daughter of an ambassador. And of course someone is trying to kill her. It seems her irresponsible brother has landed himself in very deep trouble and that could put her in real danger. Michael Pertwee’s well-constructed script makes good use of Simon’s reputation (you’ll find out what I mean when you watch it). A very good episode to close out the series.

Final Thoughts

This was the end of the line for ITC’s action-adventure series (and in fact the end of the line for the classic British action-adventure series. British television had decided that the public no longer wanted such programs. They were probably wrong about this. Return of the Saint did pretty well and there was really no valid reason for cancelling it. At least it allowed that wonderful genre to go out on a fairly high note. This is a lightweight fun series with glamour and class. It doesn’t try to do anything else, but what it does try to do it does very well. Highly recommended.

I covered the earlier episodes in a review a few years ago - here's the link.

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