The Champions – Shadow of the Panther

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We’ve already had witchcraft (possibly) in Cornwall so the next logical step no doubt is voodoo (possibly) in Haiti.

A group of international dignitaries are staying at the Kimberley Hotel. Sharron arrives and discovers that some of them are obsessed with a voodoo cabaret act called the Shadow of the Panther. All silly superstitious nonsense no doubt, but when Craig and Richard finally turn up, they discover Sharron in what appears to be a zombie-like state ….

Tony Williamson’s script bears some similarities to Donald James’ The Night People. Not only the superstitious aura that hangs over the episode but also the fact that it opens with Sharron going it alone before the boys turn up. This might just be a coincidence or possibly it was felt that since the formula worked well once it would bear repeating.

The pre-credits sequence tells us straight away that things are going to be odd today. It’s all wonky camera angles and incessant drums as a poor unfortunate runs for his life down a hotel corridor before being frightened to death by something. It’s short – just over a minute – but still effective in creating an ominous atmosphere.

We appear to be cost-cutting with the post-credits superpowers demonstration as Richard, Craig and Sharron are all seen in recycled footage.  Boo!

Sharron knew the dead man – scientist Ralph Charters – and is shocked to discover that his hair turned white just before he died. Fear? Mind you, it does look more like someone caked his hair with dye, which might be a case of sloppy make up (either on the part of the programme or his murderers). That’s a (maybe unintentional) clever little touch.

I do enjoy a bit of solo Sharron. She may lack the wise-cracking style of Craig and Richard but she’s always cool and calm in a crisis. For example, when contacting Tremayne she’s all business and is also easily able to deal with the oily hotel manager Prengo (a nice performance from Zia Mohyeddin).

The most recognisable guest star is Donald Sutherland, no stranger to ITC series of this era. He plays David Crayley, a journalist who discusses the strange goings on with Sharron. His character might exist partly to deliver a large chunk of exposition in a short space of time, but Sutherland’s initial whimsical byplay is still entertaining.

The fact they establish a connection in a very short space of time helps to give the subsequent scene where he appears not to recognise her a little more punch. Has he been zombified? Or is there another explanation?

If you like drums, then this is the episode for you. Some are on the soundtrack but others are highighted as being digetic, which is an interesting little touch.

Since virtually all of the episode takes place inside the hotel, Shadow of the Panther is clearly a bit of a cheapie. But this actually works to the advantage of the story – there’s something rather claustrophobic about being trapped with all those bongos and an ever increasing collection of zombies (a group of big-wigs, Crayley, Sharron).

There’s a few nice late twists (the reveal of the man behind the operation, for example). I also like the scene where Craig tangles with Sharron on the bed (crickey). It’s all good clean fun though – both he and Richard are slightly abashed to discover that Sharron was only pretending to be a brainwashed zombie. Craig’s innocent suggestion that she should come and look at his pillow is a comedy moment dispatched very well by Alexandra Bastedo.

It’s possibly best not to examine the plot specifics too closely. Why are all these influential types coming to this small hotel in Haiti? That’s key to the plan though, as they’re all then brainwashed and sent off to assassinate high ranking members in their own organisations. Hmm, not quite sure I see the logic in that either, even though the script does its best.

Never mind, if you relax and enjoy the ride then there’s plenty to enjoy here. Thanks to being a Sharron heavy episode, I’ll give this it four out of five.

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Gideon’s Way – The Millionaire’s Daughter

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Alan Blake (Don Borisenko) is a handsome, smooth-talking conman who’s well known to Gideon.  So when the Commander learns that Blake has begun a relationship with Nina Henderson (Lans Traverse), the daughter of millionaire businessman Elliot Henderson (David Bauer), he’s very interested.  And following Nina’s kidnapping, Gideon’s interest only grows …..

The Millionaire’s Daughter opens with Blake and the Hendersons disembarking from the cruise liner which has carried them from New York to London.  During that time Nina has become totally besotted with Blake and it appears that her parents are equally impressed.  Elliot, supposedly a hard-headed businessman, later tells his wife Felissa (Lois Maxwell) that he prides himself on being a good judge of character and that Blake is a fine young man.  Uh, oh, he got that a bit wrong!

Gideon’s Way was a slightly atypical ITC film series as most of the others (The Saint, Danger Man, Man in a Suitcase, The Champions, The Baron, etc) appeared to have been crafted very much with foreign sales in mind.  Lew Grade, the boss of ITC, had clear views about what sort of shows would sell in the foreign (especially American) market.  Globe-trotting action (even if it was all filmed on the back-lot at Borehamwood with the help of a palm tree or two!) and an American star, or co-star, usually didn’t go amiss.

But Gideon’s Way, with its very British (and London feel) didn’t fit this pattern at all.  Having said that though, it’s possible that it did find a receptive overseas audience, as there were many who rejected Grade’s formula and believed that series which made a point of their Britishness tended to do well.

The Millionaire’s Daughter certainly seems to be designed to push some of those buttons as early on we see Blake and Nina enjoy a whistle-stop tour of many of London’s top tourist attractions (they feed the pigeons at Trafalgar Square, walk past Buckingham Palace and view the Houses of Parliament).  Alas, Nina’s happiness is short-lived after she’s chloroformed by Blake.

Erica Townsend (Georgina Ward) and Philip Guest (Donald Sutherland) are the other members of Blake’s gang.  Erica swaps clothes with the unconscious Nina, so that she and Blake can create the illusion that Nina returned to her hotel later in the day.  Erica seems to have a few qualms about this, leading Philip to drawl that “you’ve got to baby.  I look awful in high-heel shoes.”

Given Donald Sutherland’s later career, it’s hard not to be drawn to his performance – but even if he’d faded from view a few years later, I think his turn as Philip would still be regarded as one of the best things about the episode.  Sutherland gives Philip an edgy intensity that is totally mesmerising – he’s so obviously a loose cannon, teetering on the edge of sanity.  Philip spends most of the episode advocating that they kill Nina (Blake and Erica take the opposite view) and it’s possible to believe that he’s capable of carrying out his threats.  But when Nina later attacks him in an abortive escape attempt, it’s telling that Philip just crumbles and has to be led away by Erica.  So given how unstable Philip appears, it’s a little surprising that he’s the one left to guard Nina – but his non verbal actions (such as the way he gives her an extra dose of chloroform) certainly help to ramp the tension up.

Georgina Ward has a less showy role but still catches the eye.  Although at times she seems vulnerable, she’s also often shown to be in command (she – not Philip – makes the ransom demands, for example).  But in many ways she’s just as much a victim of Blake as Nina is.  Gideon explains that the only reason he sought her out was for her resemablance to Nina.  And the fact that Blake’s run out on them (taking Fellisa’s diamonds) proves his point.

Lans Traverse has a slightly thankless role, since Nina isn’t really allowed to be much more than a easily duped mark, but David Bauer and Lois Maxwell fair a little better.  Bauer was an American actor who moved to Britain and became a familiar television face.  Authentic sounding American actors were quite rare in Britain during the 1960’s so it’s no surprise that Bauer prospered.  Canadian born Lois Maxwell will forever be known as the original (and best) big-screen Miss Moneypenny, but like many other actors – including Bauer – she was no stranger to the numerous ITC series that were flourishing at this time.

The relationship between Elliott and Felissa is put under great strain following the kidnapping.  Elliott is happy to leave matters to Gideon but Felissa is haunted by the kidnapper’s threats that they’d kill her if the police were involved.  All ends well, but not before both characters have been put through the wringer a little.

Gideon’s his usual efficient self.  There’s not really too much memorable material for John Gregson in this one – so possibly his best scene comes early on, as he’s seen relaxing at home.  His older son, Matthew (Richard James), is reluctant to speak to his (girlfriend?) on the phone, because his parents are in the room.  “I can’t talk now, older generation you know?”  John Gregson’s expression is pricless, as is Daphne Henderson’s (she makes it plain that Kate knows just how much this statement will irriate her husband).  Lovely stuff!

David Keen gets to tangle with Erica later on and his method of restraint – putting an arm around her waist – is an unusal one.  And after everything’s sorted he seems to have an eye for young Nina too.

Had it not been for Donald Sutherland this episde may have fallen a little flat, but his twitchy, edgy performance certainly helps to keep the interest up.