The Champions – The Silent Enemy

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The submarine Keppel, feared lost at sea, pulls into Galway Bay. A grisly discovery is made – the crew of 150 have all died from heart faliure. The Champions join a fresh crew and set out to retrace the Keppel’s last, fateful voyage. They discover a remote island stocked with weapons of mass destruction and a very mad scientist …

This is another of those Champions episodes which could easily have fitted into Department S. The way that the crew perish in such mysterious circumstances – they’re still at their posts (the captain peering through the periscope, for example) – is just so Department S. How can this have happened? Will there be an explanation or will the episode just hope we’ll forget about it? Hmm.

The post credits sequence sees Richard, Craig and Sharron at a funfair. The boys ogle a pretty young lady (Sharron doesn’t look pleased at this) before Craig proves to the pretty young lady that he’s a whizz at hoopla. That’s not something you see in every ITC series.

Uh oh, we’re back at the Holy Loch submarine base. Let’s hope this is a better story than The Search.

Sharon turns some heads at Holy Loch. “Who’s the doll?” wonder the pressmen at the gate, before she warms the cockles of the submarine crew (this is all to do with her short skirt and the way she slowly descends down the ladder into the submarine). The crew on duty (including the very familiar extra Harry Fielder) find it difficult to take their eyes off her.

This isn’t an episode packed with subtle performances. Edmond Knight is rather hammy as the Minister, as is Mame Maitland as the amoral scientist Minoes. James Maxwell, as the mysterious stowaway Stanton, is better though.

Mind you, the reason for his presence on the submarine is a little nebulous. He’s clearly in cahoots with the people on the island, but why hitch a lift back there? It’s not as if he attempts any sabotage en route – at least not intentionally.

Although all three Nemesis operatives are on the sub, they’re sadly lacking their usual playful byplay today. Indeed, the tone of the episode is rather grim, although the script isn’t really strong enough to merit this approach. The cutaways to a toy submarine chugging through the water helps to torpedo this serious approach.

The boys set off to explore the mysterious island, leaving Sharron behind in the submarine. Boo! This gives the story a feeling of a series B Blakes 7 episode ….

Edmond Knight’s Minister dies as he lived (in a very over the top manner). We never learn which country he’s a Minister of, only that it’s one shunned by the rest of the world. So they plan to use gas weapons to make the world sit up and take notice. We’ve been here before.

The tag scene raises a smile though. The boys strongly resist Tremayne’s suggestion they undergo a medical following their island gassing. Of course, once they see that the doctor is a pretty young woman they rapidly change their minds. Tremayne seems tickled by this (he winks at Sharron) although she clearly oversteps the mark by perching on his desk in a friendly manner!

So far the evidence seems to be that stories set on submarines end up as disappointments. I’ll give The Silent Enemy a fairly middling two and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Fanatics

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The world has been rocked by a wave of political assinations. A mysterious organisation known as The Fanatics are responsible and Richard – masquerading as a killer called Richard Carson (David Burke) – infiltrates the group.

Matters are complicated when the real Carson escapes from prison. And then it’s discovered that the Fanatics will be targeting Tremayne next …

Today it’s Richard who steps up to the front. The episode gives William Gaunt a good opportunity to do some acting – to begin with there’s a fine two-hander between him and Donald Pickering (as Colonel Banks). Banks is the army officer responsible for detaining Carson in a military prison – he has little time for Carson and it seems even less for Richard.

Now posing as Carson, Richard is rescued by the Fanatics. It’s done in a very blood-thirsty way (the handful of military police officers travelling with him are either killed or badly injured). This is a slightly jarring moment, but it does reinforce the notion that the Fanatics do mean business.

Colonel Banks later gets to confront Craig and Sharron. He wonders if they have the deaths of the military policeman on their conscience. Craig angrily replies that “in our job justification and conscience are luxuries that we can’t afford”.  This feels a little more of a real-world monent than we often see in the series.

Gerald Harper (Croft) and Julian Glover (Anderson) are amongst the top actors enriching today’s episode. Croft is the boss of the Fanatics whilst Anderson (sporting a natty moustache) is his number two.  Harper is icily effective as the implacable Croft. Glover doesn’t get a great deal to do, alas.

Richard suffers a bloodless long-distance spot of torture, designed to establish if he really is Carson. Odd that Croft wasn’t in the room with him, surely the scene would have a little more punch if Gaunt and Harper had been able to make eye contact. But no matter, things are redeemed by a later scene where Richard and Croft face off. It’s wonderfully tense, with both actors impressing.

Given that It’s a Terry Nation script you might have expected a bit more of a science fiction feel (or indeed a character called Tarrant). Instead we get a fairly straightforward script which doesn’t really utilise the Champions’ powers.

And after the action-packed pre credits sequence, the episode does becalm into a rather talky run-around. But it’s by no means all bad, mainly thanks to Gaunt and Harper, and things do pick up towards the end.

It’s amusing and eye-opening to see how both Richard and Craig squabble to take the attractive female assassin into custody at the conclusion of the episode. Craig is the lucky one, with Richard muttering that his friend will be well capable of handling her (a line simply dripping with innuendo).

Slightly patchy, but I’ll still give The Fanatics four out of five.

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The Champions – The Experiment

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Each episode of The Champions opens with the Nemesis map – the camera zooming into the area where the story is set. Which exotic location will we be in today? Ah, Wiltshire ….

At least it means that Wiltshire will look something like Wiltshire, even if the pre-credits sequence has a particularly poor example of day for night filming (the filter can do little to disguise the bright blue sky).

There’s a deliberate nod back to the opening of The Beginning. A research establishment is targeted by a mysterious figure dressed in black – but it’s not one of our heroes. And in an interesting twist he seems to possess the same sort of super-powers they do. That’s a more than intriguing hook, which teeters into Department S territory when the man is later discovered inside the base, but now with the mind of a two year old.

This is a story packed with good actors, some of whom only appear fleetingly. Such as Philip Bond, who pops up in the first few minutes as one of the officers guarding the base. Nicholas Courtney has the small role of Doctor Farley whilst Robert James doesn’t even make the end credits.

Like The Interrogation, this story features a rather shifty Treymayne – he sends Sharron to England on an assignment, but tells Richard and Craig that she’s gone away on holiday.

She’s met by Major Cranmore (Allan Cuthbertson) who claims to work for DI6. Cuthbertson is – of course – excellent value as the smooth-talking Cranmore who clearly knows a great deal more than he’s telling. Sharron winds up at a country house stuffed with supermen and superwomen, run by Doctor Glynd (David Bauer).

Trapped with the rather creepy Dr Glynd and forced into taking tests against his crop of super-humans (including Caroline Blakiston as Marion Grant) Sharron gets to handle most of the action today. The first demonstration we see of Glynd’s super-people is their ability to play a mean game of ping pong. Not a very useful trait.

Bastedo and Blakiston then change into gleaming white sport kits as the tests begin. Sigh ….

These’s something a little disturbing about the way that Dr Glynd treats Sharron like a laboratory rat. Indeed, the whole tone of the episode is unsettling – as we don’t know why Glynd is doing what he’s doing until we get towards the end.

The reveal is quite a neat twist, but it does beg one question – how has Glynd been able to discover that Sharron, Richard and Craig are more than human whilst Tremayne remains clueless? Also, the way we discover Tremayne has been a hapless dupe rather than a manipulative puppet master is another mark against his ability as Nemesis’ boss.

Craig and Richard get a late fight scene. It’s good fun to watch them both briefly slug it out with Marion. Not the most convincing spot of fisticuffs ever.

For putting Alexandra Bastedo right in the thick of things, the excellent guest cast, the strong script by Tony Williamson and the downbeat final scene, I can’t give this one any less than four and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Iron Man

El Caudillo (George Murcell) is the autocratic former leader of La Revada (got to love those fictious ITC South American states). A vain womaniser, he’s been exiled to the Costa Brava, but his life is still in danger. Posing as hired helps, the Champions do their best to keep him alive …

We open in La Revada (really Borehamwood of course, shot day-for-night and with a few exotic ferns dotted about). A cabal of movers and shakers are plotting the death of El Caudillo.

Post opening credits, the Champions are fleecing a casino at roulette – although eventually Sharron comes unstuck. Which is just as well, since cheating with their special powers just isn’t cricket.

El Caudillo might be a fairly hopeless type, but compared to the current regime ruling La Revada (a ruthless military junta) he doesn’t seem all that bad. As so often with politics, it’s a choice between bad and worse.

Our three heroes are all given their undercover assignments. Sharron will be El Caudillo’s secretary, Richard is crestfallen to discover he’s the cook (nice spot of playing from Gaunt here) whilst Craig has the plumb job of bodyguard (Damon deadpans delightfully as Craig wonders if he’s supposed to guard against Richard’s cooking!)

Togged out in a gleaming white chef’s outfit, William Gaunt is in his comic elemenr today. I love Richard’s ever growing enthusiasm as he begins to really relish his role. 

The military junta have developed some whacky plans to kill off El Caudillo. Deadly cigars for example, which contain an incurable poison. This seems a bit far-fetched, but then you remember real-life gadgets such as the poisoned umbrella ….

George Murcell is excellent value. El Caudillo is largely played for laughs (he’s shown to have the mentality of a small child who hates to lose at anyrhing) but there’s also the lingering sense that his capricious nature has a darker side. Patrick Magee is solid as Pedraza, El Caudillo’s right hand man, although it’s a role lacking in flamboyance.  

But it’s interesting the way that Pedraza skulks about, looking guilty. Is he in league with the junta? It seems not, as nothing’s mentioned about this at the end of the episode, but I wonder if this was a spot of subtle scripting, sowing a seed of doubt about El Caudillo’s long term future.

We’ve already seen that El Caudillo loves to chase women (his maid tends to end up hiding in cupboards) so the anticipation has been stoked for the first meeting between him and Sharron. It doesn’t disappoint – she flashes a bit of leg and looks on adorably as he demonstrates just how many press ups he can do.

The Iron Man has some lovely character interactions between the Champions and El Caudillo. His whispered suggestion to Sharron meets with a stern rebuke from her, which makes it easy to guess exactly what it was he was asking.

And the way he throws away Richard’s immaculately prepared food is like a dagger to the heart of our new chef. Richard takes out his frustrations on some clay pigeons (a pity that the first was suspended by a very noticeable wire).

Even allowing for the themes of assassination and corruption, The Iron Man has a light, comic feel. Gaunt, Damon and Bastedo are all interacting very well and this is one reason why I’ve always enjoyed this one. The Iron Man rates a score of three and a half out of five.

The Champions – The Dark Island

Tony Williamson’s script has something of a Bondian feel. It’s set on a small Pacific island containing a warhead which the ever so slightly mad Max Kellor (Vladek Sheybal) plans to fire at America. His hope is that they will believe the Russians were responsible.

Several familiar faces make brief uncredited appearances. Not only Anthony Ainley and Nick Tate but also stuntmen Alf Joint and Alan Chuntz (both playing native guards).

Today’s post credits sequence sees a very smug Richard and Craig demonstrating that their incredible super powers ensure they’re dab hands around the golf course. But at least they’re only taking money off each other, which is better than fleecing unsuspecting members of the public.

Once we’ve got past that spot of fun and games, our three heroes head out to the island. All previous attempts to find out what’s happening there have met with zero success (and very often death). But the Champions have a plan – Craig and Sharron masquerade as a pair of shipwrecked mariners whilst Richard parachutes down incognito …

Both Craig and Sharron look very cute post faux shipwreck. There’s something very appealing about their ever so slightly wet and disheveled look. Poor Richard gets the rough end of the stick with a canary yellow parachute outfit that doesn’t do him any favours. Thank goodness he soon ditches it.

Richard then gets to demonstrate a new super skill – hypnotism. He also handles quite a bit of the rough stuff, tangling with Kellor’s guards and receiving something of a duffing for his pains. In many ways this is Richard’s episode, he certainly gets the lions share of interesting things to do.

I have to say that the jungle set couldn’t really look any more fake. I’m not quite sure why, but maybe slightly lower lighting may have helped.

Vladek Sheybal is a major plus point in the episode’s favour. If you wanted to cast a villain, then you couldn’t really do much better than him. He delivers every line (even the most innocuous ones) with a delightful dollop of menace. Plus his presence helps to reinforce the Bond feel.

Character interactions aren’t very subtle. In addition to Kellor, Kai Min (Andy Ho) is also present on the island. The clear power behind the throne, the reveal that the Chinese are attempting to start World War III generates a decent advert break cliffhanger. Even if the immediate question is why ….

The Dark Island offers us a rather crude take on international politics, but then The Champions was never really the sort of programme able to tackle weighty issues in any depth. But it does what it does (plenty of action for William Gaunt, a cracking guest turn from Sheybal) very well.

A full blooded romp, this episode is never less than very entertaining and so rates a mark of four out of five.

The Champions – The Search

A group of Nazis infiltrate the Holy Loch naval base in Scotland and hijack a nuclear submarine. They demand a ransom of five million dollars – if not, London will be destroyed. Noted nuclear physicist Dr Rudolf Mueller (Joseph Furst) goes missing at the same time – deciding there must be a connection, the Champions track him down en route to the sub. But is he a helpless victim or a willing collaborator?

It’s stock footage ahoy as we open the episode. Switching between location material shot in London, studio scenes and Scottish stock footage requires a certain amount of belief to be suspended. Oh, and the way those dastardly Germans manage to capture the submarine with embarrassing ease is another of those hmm moments.

John Woodvine and Reginald Marsh are amongst those playing Nazis today. Woodvine’s granite features are ideally suited to this type of humourless role, although it’s slightly harder to believe that Marsh is a rough, tough submarine captain. Mind you, watching him pull stern faces is quite good fun.

Once we get through the lengthy pre-credits sequence (showing the submarine being captured) there’s another of those moments which serves to bring any new audience members up to speed about the incredible super powers our three heroes now possess. This one takes place in a library, with Sharron speed-reading War and Peace

Poor Richard is playing catch up today. He bounds into the office, beaming, to be greeted by the glum faces of Tremayne, Craig and Sharron. Even when he’s told that a submarine with four nuclear warheads has been stolen, his only response is that “these shoplifters, they get everywhere”!

With the submarine now toddling about somewhere in the North Sea (Craig and Sharron are on its trail), the middle part of the episode does rather slow to a crawl. A touch of suspense is generated when the news breaks that Dr Mueller appears to have been kidnapped, but the later reveal that he’s a willing participant (at least to begin with) does pose more questions than it answers.

Since he was a vital part of the plan (without him to arm the warheads, the threat to destroy London would be meaningless) surely it would have sensible for him to be present when the sub was snatched?

Craig seems certain that he knows where the submarine has gone. Is this an example of his special powers or just a hunch? The Champions always had to tread a delicate path in this respect – if the super powers were used too often then there would be no tension, but if they didn’t feature at all then the USP of the programme would feel devalued.

This episode isn’t very tightly plotted. Nemesis has acquired a photofit of Lt. Kruger Haller (Woodvine) and by a remarkable coincidence he just happens to pop into the seaman’s drinking haunt which Sharron and Craig are staking out. Of course, had anyone else from the sub popped ashore then our heroes would have been none the wiser.

It’s nice to see Craig and Sharron teamed up for once. And by the way she lays a friendly arm around his shoulders, they seem to be getting on very well.

Going back to plot oddities … when Craig gets shot, why does Richard (miles away in London) feel a twinge instead of Sharron, who’s much closer? Ah well, at least this scene gives as an opportunity to see Tremayne in his dressing gown.

A pity that Joseph Furst doesn’t get a little more to do (Dr Mueller is a very lightly drawn character). But on the plus side, our three regulars all get a good crack of the whip (by this point, they’re bouncing off each other rather delightfully). Watchable, but not edge of the seat stuff,  The Search rates two and a half out of five.

The Champions – The Interrogation

Returning from a mission in Hong Kong, Craig is captured and subjected to a brutal cross examination. Pushed to the limit by a nameless interrogator (played by Colin Blakely) and pumped full of drugs, his grip on reality begins to falter ….

Television of this era loved a clip show (not least for the fact it helped to balance the books). Although it was one of the last episodes to be broadcast, it’s fifth in Network’s DVD release, suggesting it was one of the first to be filmed.

In story terms this makes sense of the late reveal – the whole interrogation is a charade arranged by Tremayne, who is worried that Craig’s recent missions have been just too perfect (triggering fears that he might be a double agent). A theme of these early stories is Tremayne’s puzzlement about how our three heroes manage to pull off such tremendous successes time after time – although these moments have, until now, been handled lightly.

The recycling of clips from the first few stories might have tried the audience’s patience had this episode been transmitted early on, so that might explain why it was held back.

But holding it back creates another problem (it makes you wonder why Tremayne has waited so long before investigating this issue). Also, his method of obtaining information does seem out of character – up until now he’s been portrayed as a fairly faceless, quite affable sort of chap.

Mind you, the jolting realisation that Tremayne is prepared to go to extreme lengths does work well (any time that a formulaic series manages a swift gear change will always meet with my approval) but the downside is that the anger felt by Craig, Richard and Sharron towards their boss will vanish very quickly.

This type of series – designed to be broadcast and rebroadcast in virtually any order – simply didn’t have the capacity for story arcs or character development. So in the next episode you know that the Champions and Tremayne will once again be the best of friends. The same goes for Craig and Richard, who share a very tense and spiky scene at the end of the episode.

But for today we can savour the sight of a shifty Tremayne, abruptly shutting down Richard and Sharron’s fears that Craig is in danger. At this point we don’t know that he’s simply down the corridor at Nemesis HQ. Hmm, that seems a little odd – surely it would have been better to have stashed him out of the way somewhere?

With Colin Blakely the only guest star and most of the action taking place in a single set, there’s an obvious feeling of claustrophobia. Craig’s prison cell is a wonderfully designed creation with more than a hint of Ken Adams’ James Bond sets. It has a very ominous spider-like feel ….

Colin Blakely was obviously the go-to guy when you needed a brutal interrogator (he’d fufilled the same function in a classic Man in a Suitcase episode). He’s excellent throughout this one and so is Stuart Damon – both of them clearly relishing the opportunities in the script.

It’s interesting to wonder how the story would have played out had either Gaunt or Bastedo taken the lead (an even more intriguing notion would be all three receiving parallel interrogations). Indeed, that’s one obvious story flaw – why has only Craig been selected for this treatment whilst Richard and Sharron have been left alone?

Minor quibbles apart, this is a stand out story for me and rates an almost flawless four and a half out of five.