Return of the Saint – The Poppy Chain

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The episode opens with Simon Templar and Sandy Platt (Jenny Hanley) desperately racing across London to try and reach Sandy’s sister, Jane.  But they’re too late – when they get to her flat she’s dead (killed by an impure batch of heroin).

Sandy is naturally distraught, but her father, General Platt (Laurence Naismith), is even more so.  An old-school, but now retired, soldier, he vows to find and kill the pushers.  But he only serves to drive them underground.  So it falls to the Saint to risk his life by travelling to to Carmague region of France as he attempts to destroy the business at its source.

The Poppy Chain certainly has an arresting opening as Simon and Sandy discover Jane’s lifeless body.  It gives the episode a harder-edged feel than many of the others in the series.  Laurence Naismith’s pig-headed General Platt drives the action in the first half or so of the episode (with Simon trailing behind somewhat).  This plotline has the advantage of enabling the General to do all the spadework, but then allowing Simon to step in when things get really dangerous.

Along the way, the General tracks down the pusher who sold the drugs to his daughter.  A well-spoken, well-dressed man known as the Gent (Christopher Timothy).  He doesn’t get to kill him though, as the Gent’s wife intervenes (with a heavy object which knocks the General out).  It’s possibly just as well, since Simon tells the recuperating General that the pusher was just small fry – if you’re going to bring down the operation, then you need to aim for the head.

The Saint does this by posing as a member of the London connection, Rickman, and travels to France to meet the men responsible for supplying the raw drugs.  A change of location helps to keep the interest up and the different locale is quite interesting, as it’s probably not what might have been expected.  Scorbesi (Gregoire Anslan) and his son Dominic (Jonathan Burn) run the operation, but Scorbesi is an apparently friendly, gregarious chap and the patriarch of a village that appears to be happy and prosperous.  The fact that their idyllic lifestyle is founded on drug money is, no doubt intentionally, jarring.

Scorbesi’s realisation that he knew the General back in WW2, when Scorbesi was a Partisan, is a coincidence that’s possibly a little hard to take – especially since this revelation doesn’t really further the plot in any way.  Notwithstanding this, Anslan is good as the cheerful Scorbesi, although Burn is less impressive as his son.  I’m not quite sure why, it’s just a slightly off-key performance.

The best part of the second half of the episode is Simon’s infiltration of Scorbesi’s setup – although it’s rather bizarre that he takes no backup with him.  So it’s lucky that when the General learns about Simon’s efforts he makes the trip over and comes to the rescue.  It’s hard to believe that the Saint didn’t think that drafting in some younger assistance might have been a good idea, but this moment does allow the General a chance to prove that he’s not entirely over the hill.

I also like Ogilvy’s cockney accent when he’s pretending to be Rickman.  He makes a very effective criminal!

It’s a solid episode and rates three and a half halos out of five.

Return of the Saint – Yesterday’s Hero

yesterday's hero

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.

Return of the Saint – Assault Force

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Catching the bus at Heathrow, Simon notices that one of his fellow passengers is receiving unwelcome attention from several men.  And since the passenger is female and attractive, the Saint simply has to step in – he can never resist helping a damsel in distress.

Jeanette (Kate O’Mara) has information about Nodiam Mataya, the new strong-man of South-East Asia.  She plans to take it to the newspapers and expose Mataya’s appalling record of human rights (which include a group of nuns held captive and awaiting imminent execution).  Simon’s foreign office contact, Randolph Smith (Neil Stacey) is polite, but noncommittal.  He tells them that the British government is continuing to explore all diplomatic avenues, but that’s all they can do.

The Saint, however, is keen for more direct action.  A key member of Mataya’s government, Surinit, is due to land in the UK shortly.  Simon suggests to Jeanette that they kidnap him and offer to exchange him for the nuns.  Jeanette agrees and Simon assembles a crack force to carry out the plan.  But when Surinit disappears after the kidnap is successfully carried out, Simon bitterly realises that he’s been used …..

Assault Force sees the Saint team up with a group of mercenaries and it’s a departure from the episodes we’ve seen so far (where Simon is either operating on his own, or with limited help).  Here, he’s the leader of a well-drilled gang who abduct Surinit with military precision.  It’s the planning and the actual raid which forms the heart of the episode, and the realisation that Surinit is actually a good guy (and the one man who can expose Mataya’s crimes) drives the story onwards to its conclusion.

Kate O’Mara is suitably histrionic as the damsel in distress, whilst Carolle Rousseau (as Colonel Dibha) is rather alluring as a woman who appears to be on the side of the angels but turns out to be working for Mataya.  Although to be honest, this probably isn’t a great shock since she does give off a rather “evil” vibe in all of her scenes!

Elsewhere, we see the Saint recruit some colourful characters, such as O’Hara (Bryan Marshall) and Morgan (Norman Bird).  Marshall sports a broad Irish accent which occasionally crosses over into parody, but he’s still convincing as a resourceful mercenary.  Bird provides some welcome comic relief as the bookish Morgan.

Although everything is resolved in the end quite neatly (too neatly, you may say) there’s still a slightly discordant note struck which implies that the new status quo may not last forever.  Simon rescues Surinit, who returns to his country as leader after Mataya’s downfall.  Colonel Dibha seems unconcerned though, as she tells Simon that Surinit is a weak man (who clearly won’t last long in the bitter and dangerous world of South-East Asian politics)

The plot is driven by coincidences which means that it’s probably best not to examine it too deeply (although that’s not going to stop me!)  Surinit arrives in the UK to testify at a Human Rights Commission in order to expose Mataya’s crimes.  It seems obvious that Mataya’s people would try and silence him (but they don’t seem to have had any plans to do so).  Instead, rather fortunately they were able to learn of Simon’s plan to kidnap him and took advantage of this.  But had Simon not run into Jeannete at the airport by chance then nothing would have happened.  If Mataya’s men simply needed to silence Surinit why didn’t they, say, put a bomb on the plane?

Minor plot quibbles apart, the “caper” feel of the episode makes it a break from the norm and earns it three and a half halos out of five.

Return of the Saint – The Village That Sold Its Soul

village

Simon is travelling through a remote area of Italy when he witnesses a murder – he sees a woman thrown off a cliff by two men.  When Simon reaches her, she’s mortally injured but manages to tell him to “warn Vincenzo” before she dies.

Father Vincenzo (Tony Calvin) is the priest of the local village, Santa Maria.  When Simon makes his way there, he discovers that Father Vincenzo is away and that nobody else is interested in offering assistance (including the police).  There’s a sinister menace that seems to hang over the town.  What is the secret that binds everybody together and how is it connected to the patrone of the village, Prince Lorenzo Castracano (Maurice Denham)?

As with Duel in Venice, part of the success of the The Village that Sold Its Soul is down to the location. Filming took place mostly in Sermoneta, a hill town in the province of Latina.  Thanks to its twisting streets, it was a location that offered director Leslie Norman plenty of scope for interesting and atmospheric shots.

It’s also an unusual episode since Simon has to mostly operate on his own.  Often, he’s paired up with an attractive female and can also count on official or semi-official help from his friends in high places.  But as Santa Maria is an isolated village there’s no help for him to call on.  There is an attractive female, Sophia Castracano (Katia Christine), but she’s a relatively minor character.

It’s a solid production, although there are a few mis-steps.  The body thrown off the cliff in the pre-credits sequence is clearly a dummy and later we see Simon desperately running away from an out-of-control cart.  But even if it had hit him, it’s difficult to imagine it causing him much of an injury!

The concept of a whole village that’s complicit in a series of murders is an intriguing one (although it maybe owes something to The Avengers episode Murdersville).  Maurice Denham adds a touch of class as the Prince and it eventually becomes clear that he holds the key to the mystery.

Because of the location and Maurice Denham, as well as a solid script from John Goldsmith, The Village That Sold Its Soul rates four halos out of five.

maurice denham
Maurice Denham

Return of the Saint – One Black September

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Abdul Hakim (Garrick Hagon) is a leading member of the Black September terrorist group.  It’s rumoured that he’s in London and is being pursed by his own people.  The Israelis are also desperate to pick him up and interrogate him (Hakim knows the names of all the top operatives in the organisation).

Simon Templar, due to his knowledge of London, is regarded by the Israelis as the ideal man to partner their leading counter-terrorist officer in a race against time to track Hakim down before his former friends find him.  Simon is initially reluctant, but when he learns that the officer is an attractive young woman (Prunella Gee playing Captain Leila Sabin) he becomes much more interested …..

One Black September is a slightly uneasy mix of real world politics and the usual escapist fare of an ITC adventure series.  For a modern audience, their name might not be instantly recognisable, but in 1978 they would have been very familiar.   Just six years earlier, Black September killed eleven Israeli athletes and a German police officer during the Munich Olympics.  During the early to mid seventies they also carried out numerous other attacks (and copycat activities were also attributed to them) which ensured that their name often featured in the headlines.

It’s the decision to use a real terrorist organisation that ensures One Black September has a slightly off-key feel, which is reflected in the attitudes of Simon and Leila.  Simon is his usual relaxed, flippant self whereas Leila is humourless and completely focused on the mission.

Matters come to a head later on, when Simon tells her she’s forgotten that she’s a woman (mainly because she seems to have no interest in sleeping with him!)  Leila counters this by telling Simon that her entire family were murdered by terrorists, so until Hakim is captured she cannot afford to let her concentration slip for even a moment.  Immediately prior to this, both Simon and the camera spend a little time ogling her shapely bottom as she bends over a map of London.  Both this, and Simon’s unsubtle efforts to romance her, mean that this is very much of product of its time.

Dodgy politics (both political and sexual) aside, this is a decent run-around.  Hakim’s former colleagues are led by Masrouf (Stephen Grief) and Rahaman (Nadim Sawalha).  Like everybody else, they’re lightly sketched characters, so the actors have to put the meat onto the bones (Grief is particularly effective with this).

Eventually Simon is able to pick Hakim up – but Leila is captured by Masrouf and the others.  Masrouf suggests a trade, which the Israelis strongly resist, but Simon gets his way.  In real life, of course, it’s impossible to imagine they would have acceded so readily to Simon’s request (he threatens to expose their illegal capture of Hakim, but it’s doubtful whether that would have really worried them).

Naturally, the Saint is able to extract Leila and keep Hakim – and in exchange for a plane ticket out of the UK Hakim gives the Israelis the names they need.  Leila bemoans that fact that a man like Hakim, responsible for countless murders, is simply going to get away.  But Simon has seen Rahaman in the airport terminal and makes no attempt to raise the alarm.

It’s another example of the Saint’s ruthless nature, which comes to the fore occasionally.  He knows that Black September will execute Hakim and is content to stand by and let it happen.  It’s a powerful moment and would have worked very well as the final scene (alas, a more conventional tag scene is added – with Simon and Leila heading off on holiday).

Although it’s not perfect, One Black September still rates three halos out of five.

Return of the Saint – Duel in Venice

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When the daughter of one of his oldest friends is kidnapped in Venice, the Saint faces a desperate race against time.  Linda (Cathryn Harrison) has been abducted by Jed Blackett (Maurice Colbourne).  Blackett and Simon have crossed paths before – five years ago in Mozambique.

Ever since, Blackett has been waiting for the opportunity to exact his revenge and Linda finds herself the unfortunate bait in his trap.  Simon has just six hours to find the girl, but luckily for him he has assistance from an attractive gondolier called Claudia (Carole Andre) …

Ian Ogilvy’s favourite episode, it’s clear that the star of Duel in Venice is the city itself.  Had it been set in London it would have been a decent runaround but nothing special.  The gorgeous sights and sounds of Venice make all the difference.

It’s a pity that the storyline bears some similarities with the previously transmitted episode The Nightmare Man (an adversary from the Saint’s past is out for revenge) but that’s down to the vagaries of scheduling I guess.  And the problem of dubbing raises its head again – everybody (especially Maurice Colbourne) sounds like they’re dubbed for large parts of the episode.

Colbourne has a nice line in hysterical giggling and portrays Blackett as a completely deranged character.  It’s by no means a subtle performance, but since his screen time is quite limited (he mainly just pops up every now and again to taunt Simon) it’s not really a problem.  Cathryn Harrison has little to do except react to Blackett’s villainy with wide-eyed fear – such as when he fits her with an acoustic necklace (any loud sound would cause it to instantly tighten, killing her instantly).

So the bulk of the story is a two-hander with Simon and Claudia.  Carole Andre gives a lovely performance as the headstrong, argumentative Claudia and it’s her local knowledge which helps the Saint to eventually track Blackett down.

We never find out exactly how Simon and Blackett originally met.  Since Blackett is a mercenary and he claims that Simon left him for dead, the inference is that they were both fighting on the same side in some war.  It seems an uncharacteristic thing for the Saint to have done, but there’s another moment in the story which does hint at a darker side to Simon Templar.

Early on, Simon approaches Guido (Enzo Fiermonte) for assistance.  He’s a man of great knowledge and power (presumably a local gangster) but is initially reluctant to help, until Simon (with the aid of a gun) persuades him.  When the Saint threatens to put a hole in his head, it’s possible to believe that he’s bluffing – but he might not be.

It’s easy to believe that Leslie Charteris’ Saint would have been prepared to shoot, since the literary Saint was a much more amoral, violent character (when transferred to television, the Saint was greatly watered down).  This (and the reference to Mozambique) helps to imply that the relaxed, affable playboy that Simon Templar appears to be may not the whole picture.

Helped by the location, Duel in Venice scores four halos out of five.

Return of the Saint – The Nightmare Man

nightmare

Simon, together with the beautiful Gayle (Kathryn Lee Scott), is enjoying a weekend in Paris.  On the way back to their hotel room, he’s distracted by a series of screams from a nearby room.  The occupant is an Italian woman who tells Simon that she’s had a nightmare which foretells her husband’s death.

In her dream, they’re both riding in an open-top carriage in London (by her description, it’s clear that they’re travelling through Parliament Square).  She then hysterically tells Simon that during the journey her husband is shot dead.  Amongst the details she remembers is that the assassin has very blonde, almost white, hair.  When Simon learns that her husband is Dr Bernardo de Vallesi, Italy’s new ambassador to Britain (who is due to travel to the UK shortly) it appears that there may be some truth in her strange story.

The Nightmare Man is an odd one.  At first it seems that Mrs de Vallesi’s nightmare is simply a clumsy way of ensuring that the Saint takes an interest in the story.  But when Simon meets Dr de Vallesi, he’s introduced to his wife (who isn’t the woman from the hotel room) so the plot thickens.  But the problem with the story is that all the action takes part in the last ten minutes or so and it’s a long slog to get there.

The real reason for the presence of the assassin is frankly bonkers and makes no sense at all.  It’s been organised by Colonel Ramon Perez (John Bennett).  He’s a bitter and vengeful man who lives for one reason only – to make the man responsible for his downfall pay.  That man, of course, is Simon Templar (but why he chose this plan is anybody’s guess).

Another problem with the story is the choice of Joss Ackland as the assassin, Gunther.  Ackland is an actor of many qualities, but this part doesn’t play to his strengths.  Gunther’s a cruel and psychotic man, but there’s never any sense of menace from Ackland.  The tone is set from his opening appearance – it’s hard to fear a man with such an obvious wig and flapping flared trousers!

There’s some unlikely casting – the diminutive Welsh actor Roy Evans as a supplier of guns and Stanley Lebor as a mercenary.  Although in Lebor’s case, this may be because now he’s probably best known for the Richard Briers sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (back in the seventies he did play his fair share of heavies).

His encounter with the Saint is rather amusing.  He’s holding court in what’s supposed to be a rather rough pub (in which Simon is obviously meant to stand out).  In fact, it doesn’t really look too threatening at all – social realism was never a strong point of Return of the Saint.

Some nice location shooting in London apart, there’s not much to recommend in this one.  Two and a half halos out of five.