Several years ago, Simon Templar, Roy Gates (Ian Hendry) and Diskett (Tony Vogel) were part of an unofficial mission in Aden. Mid-way through the mission something went wrong and Gates was captured by the Yemenis. Simon and Diskett weren’t aware of this though – they thought he was dead.
But Gates was alive and, having lost an arm during the fighting, languished in an Arab prison until he was bought by the Bader-Meinhoff gang of terrorists (who wanted his expertise to train their people). Gates was initially reluctant, but he finally realised that any life was better than the life he currently had.
Eventually he was caught by the Germans and ended up in prison there. He’s shortly due to be released and Simon pays him a visit to caution him not to directly approach his young son Michael (Matthew Ryan) before his ex-wife Sandy (Annette Andre) has had a chance to talk to him (as Michael has grown up believing that his father is dead).
But Gates is a bitter and vengeful man and once released he’ll be set on a course of revenge. Which will inevitably bring him into direct conflict with the Saint …..
This is a bleak and atypical Return of the Saint story. The usual humour and byplay is pretty much absent and it’s also notable that there’s few “good” characters featured. Gates does have his compassionate side (especially when we see him spend time with his son) but it’s obvious that his various imprisonments have warped his judgement.
Normally, you’d expect the character of the ex-wife to be written in a sympathetic way, but that’s not the case here. Simon tells her that “in your own way, you’re as crippled and bitter as Roy is. And that’s a pity.”
It eventually becomes clear that Gates is targeting Cleaver (Gerald Flood) who ran the Aden operation and betrayed Gates. Cleaver (now an arms dealer) is yet another unsympathetic character (which robs his death of some of its impact). Prior to this, we see him demonstrating some weapons to the military – although the stock footage is so grainy it’s not terribly convincing,
At the centre of the episode is Ian Hendry. In another unusual move, he dominates the action whilst the Saint has to react to events and remains, until the end, a few steps behind. There’s an undeniable sense of melancholy hanging over the whole episode – partly because of the script, but it’s also down to Hendry’s performance (and the reading that anybody familiar with his personal life will bring to the viewing).
Yesterday’s Hero is an uncomfortable summation of Ian Hendry’s life and career. In the early sixties, as the star of The Avengers, he seemed to have a glittering career ahead of him, but various factors (most notably a dependance on alcohol) ensured that whilst he remained a familiar presence in films and television, he never attained the heights he should have done (and he also died rather prematurely, aged just 53 in 1984).
The following comments from Annette Andre (as quoted in the book Send in the Clowns: The Yo-Yo Life of Ian Hendry by Gabriel Hershman) about her work with Hendry on this episode tend to bear these observations out.
I didn’t have many scenes with him. In the morning he was fine. Then we broke for lunch and Ian went off on his own to the pub for lunch. When we went to get him later to take him to the location for filming he was falling down drunk. We managed to get him into the car and into the make-up room and then he walked out and did it.
There was an unhappiness to him. I never really experienced Ian being unpleasant – I was fine with him and he really liked me – but I could see that when I was trying to get him out of the pub that he could get difficult. He didn’t want to eat. I sensed a deep hurt, a sense of dissatisfaction that affected his whole career. He looked older than his age, he’d lost his hair and was on a downhill spin.
This real-life unhappiness is very much mirrored in his portrayal of Roy Gates, which means that the lines between fantasy and reality become somewhat blurred. There’s a point later in the episode where Gates breaks into Simon’s flat and is clearly drunk – it’s an uncomfortable thought that there may not have been any acting involved.
But although this knowledge does make Yesterday’s Hero a rather hard watch at times, Hendry is always solid and professional – so whatever turmoil he felt off-screen, he still commands the frame when the camera is rolling. Thanks to his performance, this rates four halos out of five.