Return of the Saint – One Black September

black

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

duel

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

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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 foretold 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 main 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 other unlikely casting too – 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.

Return of the Saint – The Judas Game

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When I was a child, I was always disappointed that the animated stick-figure who appeared in the opening credits wasn’t the one who had the adventures (Ian Ogilvy was obviously a rather poor substitute!)  Time is a great healer though and I’m now reconciled to the fact that Ogilvy is the star of the show, rather than the stick-man.

ROTS was the last gasp for the ITC adventure series.  It follows their other 1970’s shows such as The Persuaders! and The Zoo Gang in having the luxury of foreign location shooting (something their 1960’s counterparts had to do without) and it’s easily the strongest series in this genre since The Persuaders!  Although it’s rather variable in quality (like many of the ITC series) at best it’s a cracking little show that’s still very enjoyable today.  I’m going to take a look at the early episodes and blog a brief, capsule review of each – as well as awarding them a mark out of five.

Simon Templar’s holiday in Italy is brought to an abrupt end, courtesy of MI6.  Led by Dame Edith (Mona Bruce), they want Simon to undertake a dangerous rescue mission.  They seem sure he’ll agree, since the kidnapped woman is an old flame of Simon’s – Sarah Morell (Judy Geeson).

Sarah has been kidnapped by a group of revolutionaries who wish to use her knowledge of counter-intelligence to train their terrorists to operate even more effectively.  Simon reluctantly agrees and with the aid of Vlora (Olga Karlatos) manage to infiltrate the heavily guarded fortress.  But a surprise awaits the Saint …..

The Judas Game has a slightly stodgy opening.  Rather obvious dubbing (a trait of many ITC series) is a little distracting in the early scenes (it’s very obvious with Mona Bruce, for example).  But once Simon snorkels his way to the island, things pick up – especially when he runs into the lovely Vlora.  Whist Judy Geeson might be the nominal female lead, Olga Karlatos has more screen time and she and Ian Ogilvy make a very effective team.  She’s remarkably easy on the eye too, especially when dressed in uniform!

Olga Karlatos
Olga Karlatos

If bad dubbing is always an intermittent problem with ITC series, then day-for-night filming is the other regular irritant.  It’s bizarre that even a series like ROTS, which enjoyed extensive overseas shooting, couldn’t afford to film at night.  Instead, a filter is placed over the camera to give the impression that it’s night-time, although the blazing sky is a dead-giveaway.  Alas, this rather saps the tension out of Simon and Vlora’s escape from the beach.

Happily, they infiltrate the fortress during the day-time and Simon is easily able to rescue Sarah.  Suspension of disbelief is required here – as he single-handedly has to make his way past numerous guards and then has to carry the unconscious Sarah back to Vlora and the van.  Why is Sarah unconscious?  When they meet, she tells him that she wasn’t kidnapped – she defected.

At this point, there’s an interesting edit.  We cut away from them and what appears to be a punch is heard.  When we cut back, Sarah is unconscious and the clear inference is that Simon’s knocked her out.  It’s a slightly clumsy edit, so it might be that after the scene was shot it was felt it wasn’t a good idea to show Simon hitting a woman (even though it’s obvious what’s happened).  I also love the way they make their escape, with Simon blowing up the fortress gate with a rocket launcher!  It’s pure James Bond.

Sarah and Vlora don’t get on, mainly because Vlora regards her as a traitor and wants to shoot her.  When the guards catch up with them, Simon seems to be of the same opinion.  “It’s quite simple Major, she’s insane. Now why don’t you just treat her as a mad dog and put a bullet through her head?”

There’s a further twist to the tale though (as well as the reveal that one of the MI6 agents is a traitor).  Overall, this is a strong episode and it’s easy to see why it was chosen as the first to air in the UK.  It’s got action, foreign filming and two attractive female co-stars for Ian Ogilvy to tangle with.  The bad-guys don’t make much of an impression, but all in all this rates four halos out of five.