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 sometimes 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.

The Champions – The Invisible Man

An amoral medico called John Hallam (Peter Wyngarde) has devised an ingenious plan to make himself a very rich man – he’s created a small device (the “invisible man” of the title) which when placed in someone’s ear can be used to relay instructions (and cause extreme pain).  Hallam uses it to force Sir Frederick Howard (Basil Dingham) to steal ten million pounds worth of gold bullion from the Bank of England.

Nemesis are on the trail, but bringing Hallam to justice won’t be easy – especially once Craig finds himself under the control of his own “invisible man” ….

The Invisible Man has a tip top guest star – Peter Wyngarde – which is a definite plus point in its favour. He’s not the dandy of the later Jason King years though – to begin with he’s smartly togged out in a three piece suit (he gets more causal later on). Wyngarde’s icily calm line delivery and stillness is very effective.

Screenwriter Donald James penned eight episodes of The Champions as well as various other ITC series including The Saint, Department S, The Protectors and The Adventurer. His list of writing credits (he was active between 1963 and 1981) tended to lean quite heavily towards the adventure series market, but he also wrote for Emergency Ward 10 and General Hospital.

You have to say that Hallam likes to make things complicated – melting down such a large stash of gold is a big job (couldn’t he have got Hallam to steal some diamonds instead?). Ah well, best not to worry about plot logic too much.

Sir Frederick has the pre-credits sequence to himself, but it’s not long before we clap eyes on Craig and Richard. Both are working out in the gym, when a muscle man (played by the instantly recognisable Dave Prowse) pops in and begins to preen himself. In response, Craig can’t help but show off a little. This rather makes a mockery of the fact they’re supposed to be keeping their super powers secret.

This is a Craig-centric episode, although Sharron and Richard do appear from time to time. It does mean that I’m feeling a little Alexandra Bastedo deprived today – especially since it would be easy to imagine Sharron going undercover as a nurse at Hallam’s private clinic. A missed opportunity ….

Craig gets a chance to use his super powers when – after escaping from Hallam’s clutches – he dives into a lake and holds his breath underwater for several minutes (thereby managing to convince Hallam that he’s dead). A pity he didn’t think about doing that when Hallam gassed him earlier in the episode. These super powers, they tend to come and go.

Hallam remains a rather nebulous character. We never really learn too much about him – why he wants to steal a fortune in gold, for example. Presumably we’re just supposed to accept that he does so because he’s a baddy and that’s what baddies do.

He’s given a sidekick – Charles (James Culliford) – who mainly exists as a line feed. But there’s an interesting moment when an irate Hallam slaps Charles quite hard. Knowledge of some of Wyngarde’s other roles gives the scene a faint homoerotic subtext. Hallam later tells Charles to use the vibrator on Craig, but luckily this is all quite family friendly.

Wyngarde’s performance helps to make both the character of Hallam and the episode in general a little more compelling than it otherwise would have been. Adding on an extra 0.5 for Peter Wyngarde, I’ll give The Invisible Man an above average score of three and a half out of five.

 

The Champions – Operation Deep-Freeze

Reports of a mysterious explosion in Antarctica have reached Nemesis. Several scientists from the nearby Scott Base sent to investigate have failed to report back. When Craig and Richard arrive they discover that the scientists have been murdered and also run across General Gomez (Patrick Wymark), the despotic ruler of a small Central American state.

He’s established a secret Antarctic base stocked with atomic weapons and plans to establish his country as a great power on the world stage, unless Craig and Richard can somehow stop him ….

Operation Deep-Freeze is another episode enlivened by a first rate guest star.  I assume most visitors to this blog will be familiar with both The Plane Makers and The Power Game (if not then you should check them out straight away).  Wymark bestrides both series as the amoral businessman John Wilder, giving a performance which has provided me with many hours of entertainment.

He also seems to be enjoying himself today – Gomez is hardly a three dimensional character, but Wymark was always a very watchable actor and his full-throttle turn is certainly a memorable one. Subtle no, memorable yes.

It’s very much a boy’s own adventure today as Richard and Craig get to handle all the action. I like the playful banter during their briefing with Treymayne (Richard promises to bring him back a penguin). It’s little moments like these which ensures their characters are slightly less cardboard than they otherwise might be.

Lashings of stock footage and some fairly effective studio work helps to create the illusion that we’re in Antarctica. Craig, Richard and Hemmings (Robert Urqhart) set out across the frozen wastelands, unaware – to begin with – that Jost (Walter Gotell) is stalking them.

It’s strange that Craig suddenly becomes realises they’re being followed whilst Richard remains ignorant. An example that all three Champions have different strengths and weaknesses when it comes to their powers, or a simple plot contrivance?

Robert Urquhart gives a nice performance as Hemmings (you get the sense that he’s not going to make it to the final reel). Walter Gotell made a career out of playing menacing types (well, apart from Softly Softly Task Force) and he’s typically good value in a fairly nothing role. The strength in depth of the cast is highlighted by the fact that George Pastell, no stranger to playing memorable villians himself, only has the briefest of brief roles.

The story picks up momentum in the last ten minutes or so after Craig and Richard are captured by Gomez. Before this happens, the boys stumble across the General’s stash of atomic weapons and decide it would be a good idea to set a timer and detonate them all. Yes, okay. I’m no expert, but I don’t think this will do the local environment any good.

Forty minutes in and we finally see Sharron. Hurrah! Stuck in Nemesis HQ, she suddenly gets a mental image that Richard and Craig are in danger.Treymane isn’t buying it – he doesn’t quite pat her on the head and tell her not to be so silly, but it’s not too far removed from that.

Her sole scene isn’t really necessary as the plot could easily have moved on without her interjection. Possibly it was decided that Sharron had to be present somehow and this brief scene was the best they could come up with.

For the way that Richard and Craig have started to function as a wise-cracking double act, not to mention Patrick Wymark’s scenery chewing performance, I’ll give this episode four out of five.

The Champions – A Case of Lemmings

Three Interpol agents commit suicide in Paris. A strange coincidence or was there outside interference? No surprises that it’s the latter and soon the Champions are heading out to Rome in order to confront Mafia kingpin Del Marco (Edward Brayshaw) …

I do appreciate the spot of local colour we see during the second of the three deaths. This unfortunate Interpol chap is suddenly struck with an uncontrollable urge to jump from a fast-moving train – which he does whilst a baguette-chomping young lady looks on in horror. Nothing says France like a nice baguette.

Once again, The Champions comes up trumps with its guest stars. Edward Brayshaw may forever be associated with Rentaghost but there were plenty of other strings to his bow. For example, I’ve always loved his loopy turn in Moonbase 3, a series which I enjoy with a slightly unhealthy passion.

Brayshaw oozes oily villainy, easily suggesting that underneath Del Marco’s suave exterior something rather nasty lurks. And after spending the last few episodes doing very little, it’s nice to see Sharron back in the thick of the action. After receving a new hairdo she’s sent to seduce Del Marco (this does rather reinforce the notion that Sharron’s prime function is decorative though).

But at least it means that all three regulars are given an equal share of the action. Sharron vamping it up in the casino (where she meets Del Marco) is the highlight for me, although Craig’s entertaining overacting (for a few minutes he’s the dead spit of Jimmy Cagney) is also a wonder to behold.

Del Marco invites Sharron back to his apartment for a spot of champagne and …. well you know.  But their canoodling is interrupted by Craig lurking outside (this is all part of their masterplan). Our heroes reason that if one of them can upset Del Marco, he’ll unleash his suicide trick on them.

I can see one or two flaws here. What happens if Del Marco decides that a bullet would be quicker? You also have to question the wisdom of Del Marco using his suicide drug on so many people ….

Richard doesn’t get much of a comedy turn this time round, but he does get to indulge in a spot of investigative questioning. Indeed all three do this early in the episode, which gives the impression that the episode could have slotted quite easily into a number of other ITC series. 

John Bailey, as Umberto, adds a little touch of class even if his Italian accent (like Brayshaw’s) isn’t the most convincing you’ll ever hear.

Del Marco is an unforgiving boss. After Craig fails to succumb to the suicide drug, the Don has no compunction in killing Umberto (its creator). That seems a tad harsh given all the good work Umberto had done for him. Still, it means that Umberto’s dying act proves to Del Marco in a rather permanent way that the drugs still work. I love a bit of poetic justice.

Is it just me, or does the backlot used for Paris look very much like the Rome one? I know they were the same, but surely a spot of redressing could have made this less obvious.

A Case of Lemmings isn’t the most complex of episodes, but it slips by quite agreeably and is worth a score of three 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.

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 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.