The Champions – The Beginning

The Champions rolled off the ITC production line in the late sixties (although it had been sitting on the shelf for a little while). It’s hard not to draw a comparison between it and Department S –  which also featured a team of two men (one an American) and a single woman – although the difference here is that none of our heroes have the flamboyance of a Jason King.

Craig Stirling, Sharron Macready and Richard Barrett are all agents in the employ of Nemesis, a United Nations law enforcement organisation based in Geneva. They seem an oddly mismatched trio in some ways, but that’s the world of ITC for you …

William Gaunt proved in Sergeant Cork that he had a flair for comedy, and as the series progresses sometime he gets little moments to demonstrate that skill once more (the same goes for Stuart Damon, who can deadpan very nicely). Alexandra Bastedo, as the token female, tends to get pushed into the background as the boys usually handle the more exciting rough stuff. We’ll keep an eye on that as the series progresses.

Despite the long working days, by all accounts it was a happy production with no clashes of egos between the leads. It’s always been a series that I’ve enjoyed revisiting, so let’s go back to the start once more with the aptly named The Beginning.

We open in China (although it’s more likely to have been Borehamwood). Our old friend – day for night filming – is in operation as our intrepid heroes (dressed in black and with camouflaged faces) wait outside a sinister looking research base. Why is Sharron the only one wearing a hat? These are the sort of questions which flit through my mind as Richard and Sharron, once they’ve snuck inside, very slowly extract a few bugs from a glass case.

All seems well, but then they’re rumbled. Cue plenty of Chinese extras running about with guns and the soundtrack going into bongo overload. One plus point about these scenes is that there’s no British actors yellowing up as Chinese (something which happened a lot during the sixties and seventies). The familiar face of Anthony Chinn is seen – albeit uncredited – as the guard commander.

There’s a wonderfully unconvincing bit of back projection as Richard, Sharron and Craig drive a jeep rather rapidly back to their waiting plane. The model plane also doesn’t quite convince, but you have to accept this sort of thing – ITC might have had decent budgets (they were still shooting on 35mm at this time) but buying a full-sized plane was clearly beyond them.

Craig – an ace pilot – gets them off the ground but they’ve sustained damage from the barrage of shots fired at them by the irate guards, so it doesn’t look like they’re going to be up in the air for long. Sharron goes to pieces immediately (wailing that they’re going to crash).

A pity (but maybe not surprising) that it’s the female who cracks first. Although there’s a spot of dialogue later on explaining that this is Sharron’s first mission, which makes her reaction a little more understandable.

The plane crash-lands in the Himalayas, meaning we end up in an icy, studio-bound wilderness complete with lashings of fake snow.  Felix Aylmer pops up in a dressing gown (clearly his character doesn’t feel the cold) to assist the wounded trio.

This part of the story isn’t explained in any depth but you can fill in the blanks – a super civilisation patches up Craig, Richard and Sharron, giving them super powers in the process (well it would be rude not to).

Sharron and Craig decide to head off home (strolling through the snow as if they were simply out for a Sunday walk). Let’s be generous and say that post-op they now have considerably more endurance than they used to. Richard decides to remain, in order to find the mysterious city, but comes to the aid of his friends after they get captured.

Burt Kwouk (hurrah!) plays the implacable officer tasked with tracking them down. He might be good, but he’s no match for the Champions – especially after they learn to use their super powers.

This opening episode may be fairly simplistic in plot terms, but it does the job. We need to get to know our regulars and we also have to learn about the changes they’ve undergone. Dennis Spooner delivers this to us, the only downside being that there’s little for the guest cast to do (apart from Felix Aylmer, who shares a fine scene with William Gaunt).

The action’s fairly comic book stuff, although having said that it’s jarring to see Craig machine gun half a dozen or so Chinese extras. Once you’ve seen the episode, if you have the Network set don’t forget to switch on the commentary track with Damon, Gaunt and Bastedo – it’s a really fun listen.

I’ll give this episode a solid three out of five.

5 thoughts on “The Champions – The Beginning

  1. Not an aviation expert, but I’m constantly intrigued at how quickly on TV one can get an aircraft moving….seems to be as easy as driving a car – I know, I know, for drama’s sake you can’t have them sitting there warming up the engines or going through any kind of pre-flight checklist, but still…

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  2. Thanks for reviewing this – for some reason I used to love this series when it was first shown, although it was a load of old hokum! I believe that it was filmed in 1967, but wasn’t shown until 1968. I re-watched a couple of episodes in 2014 by way of tribute when Alexandra Bastedo sadly died. Hopefully your reviews will encourage me to complete the series!

    By the way, it’s Burt Kwouk…

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  3. I also loved this series and watched it with my wife about ten years ago. She passed a comment once with a slightly raised eyebrow that Sharon seemed to have a lovely life always lounging around pools drinking cocktails 😐. There’s a nice extra where the three actors all meet up again. I didn’t notice the commentary so will investigate

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  4. I vaguely remember the Champions as a child growing up in the 1980s, when it must have been repeated at some stage. I think my dad had watched it originally in the 60s, so rewatched the reruns and I distinctively remember this debut episode thinking it was a cold war film with a sci-fi twist.

    The Champions is often regarded as ITCs most successful and memorable production, although my own personal favourite was Gideon’s Way.

    The rich film making style of the series adds to the enjoyment. The series took around 14/15 months to shoot, as they did 30 episodes. It’s amazing to the think that no-one in the television industry now, would ever contemplate recording so many episodes for a new series!!!!

    Back in the 60s, TV boss Lew Grade was more than confident the show would be successful when writing the cheques – the rest is history.

    When Network DVD first started to commission historic television productions in the early 2000s, one of their first releases was the Champions box set.

    For anyone who doesn’t own this set – Network produced a sixty minute documentary (recorded in 2004) where William Gaunt and Alexandra Bastedo fly out to the States to be reunited with Stuart Damon (who was still working on General Hospital).

    It is a delightful documentary as Stuart had not had much contact with his two co-stars since production on the Champions concluded in 1968.

    As everyone will be aware, Alex Bastedo sadly passed away in 2014, followed by Stuart Damon who died in June this year (2021). Rather poignantly in the documentary, Alex comments about getting older and states ‘there are fewer of us left these days’. How sad, that she and Stuart are now gone.

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