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.

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 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 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 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 – To Trap A Rat

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London is gripped by a wave of drug deaths, which leads Sharron to pose as a junkie desperately in search of her next fix. Some dogged detective work then leads the Champions to the zoo and a peanut seller (the drugs are hidden inside the peanuts). But the danger has only just begun ….

This is apparently a recycled script for the never made fourth series of Danger Man (Ralph Smart’s name on the script is a bit of a giveaway). If so, it would explain why the episode feels a little out of place.

We’re deep in the heart of swinging London, although for some – like Jane Purcell (Kate O’Mara) – it’s nothing but a nightmare. Whilst the rest of the Beautiful People (and there’s some real types here) are swaying along to an anonymous library track in a hip and happening nightclub, she’s staggering about the place in a daze, desperately in search of a fix.

This pre-credits sequence serves its purpose though – it allows Smart to quickly inform the audience that whilst Jane was lucky (an ambulance gets to her in time) thousands of others may not be so fortunate if the source of these dodgy drugs aren’t discovered.

O’Mara gives her all as the frantic Jane (it’s quite a small role though). It’s interesting that the Champions are happy to treat her as a disposable pawn – they hope she’ll take them to the pusher, but don’t seem too bothered about the possibility that one more fix might lead to her death.

Why was it decided that Sharron would make the best addict? The inference seems to be that this drug only appeals to attractive young women. Which is odd.

Sharron transforms herself into an addict with the help of a pair of dark glasses and a spot of overacting. The pusher, Frank Edwards (Michael Standing), is suitably menacing although Sharron is still easily able to tag him with a tracking device. It’s quite a hefty object (haven’t Nemesis ever heard of miniaturisation?)

The trip to the zoo is as unsettling as Jane’s bad nightclub trip, since all the animals seems particularly noisy and threatening today. The sight of a jolly peanut seller (played by Toke Townley) immediately gets the Champions’ alarm bells ringing. But surely there must be an easier way of distributing the drugs than through peanuts? And what happens if the seller gives an unsuspecting punter a bag of peanuty drugs?

I love the way that after Sharron has done all the hard work, the boys tell her to stay in the car as they’re clearly the ones who need to tail the pusher! At least all three are involved in the end of episode punch up, so that’s some recompense.

Richard’s confrontation with Frank is good fun. Not only does he indulge in a spot of fisticuffs, he also gets to fix him with his powerful stare. William Gaunt’s piercing eyes are put to good use here

Craig and Richard, as we’ve seen before, are alpha males. So when they stumble across an attractive female suspect, Sandra (Edina Ronay), there’s a certain amount of squabbling about who’ll get first crack at her (as it were).

Craig is the lucky one, rushing to Sandra’s defence after naughty Richard steals her bag. Stuart Damon’s acting in this scene is quite the thing. Clearly that day he decided that he wouldn’t go for the subtle approach.

A late appearance by Guy Rolfe as the uppercut drugs kingpin adds a touch a class to the story. Plus, whenever you see Alan ‘Chuntzy’ Chuntz lurking about you just know that a spot of havoc isn’t far away. 

It’s a real sign of the times that Richard and Sharron were able to track down the baddy by working out when and where the coalman makes his deliveries. A different time ….

To Trap A Rat isn’t perfect, but the shots of late sixties London are very entertaining (plus at least this story wasn’t set on a submarine). I’ll give it an indulgent four out of five.

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The Champions – The Gilded Cage

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Richard is abducted, spirited over to London and awakes to find himself in a beautiful flat, albeit one with bars on the windows. He’s been given a lovely companion – Samantha (Jennie Linden) – but soon discovers there’s a deadly twist.

Unless he can crack a complex code in twelve hours, Samantha will die ….

The pre credits sequence reveals that Tremayne sleeps at Nemesis HQ (I guess it fits his workaholic profile). The poor chap gets a bash on the bonce for his trouble after disturbing midnight prowlers (who include a young-ish Tony Caunter).

The post credits superpower demonstration scene sees Richard completing an old chap’s crossword puzzle in double quick time. Is it just me or does this seem remarkably rude?

Not only do we get to see Treymayne relaxing at home (sort of) we also later observe Richard at his pad. I like his stereogram, not to mention his comfy cardy. But alas he’s not given a great deal of time to spin his classical records (something which marks him out as a man of culture) as he’s soon smuggled away from Geneva in a carpet.

It’s funny how the Champions’ superpowers come and go. Richard is very easily knocked out with a single blow – I’d have expected a little more fight from him. Also, since Tremayne knew that Richard was in danger (his file was the one pinched from Nemesis HQ) it seems a little remiss that Craig only ambled over the following morning to keep an eye on him. As by then he was already on his way to London.

Sharron – relaxing in a bikini on what appears to be a freezing cold London day (Alexandra Bastedo was a trooper) – takes the news of Richard’s disappearance rather calmly. Make the most of her in this scene as that’s her lot today (Craig’s the one who sets off in hot pursuit of his chum).

As soon as Richard wakes up, he begins to flirt outrageously with Samantha. But there’s the sense that he’s well aware of the game being played out (does he really form a bond with the girl or is he just manipulating her?). Gaunt and Linden interact with each other very nicely, although I can’t help wondering who undressed Richard and popped him into those crisp new pyjamas.

Tremayne and Craig scratching their heads in Geneva, doggedly attempting to track Richard down, isn’t the most exciting part of the episode. Neither is the McGuffin (the code that needs to be cracked).  Richard ‘s luxurious imprisonment is nicely handled though – there are definite Prisoner vibes at work here (the flat doesn’t duplicate his apartment, but does include copies of some of his possessions, such as his favourite records).

It’s a while before we meet Symons (John Carson), the man responsible for the kidnap. But when he does eventually appear the episode clicks into another gear.

Carson was one of those actors who never disappointed. He was rarely a lead performer, but his playing was always perfectly pitched (no matter how good or bad the script was). The combative relationship between Symons and Richard is instantly established with Gaunt and Carson both seeming to relish the character confict they’ve been gifted.

As noted before, both William Gaunt and Stuart Damon clearly loved a bit of comedy business. Today it’s Damon who gets the chance to indulge himself when Craig poses as a central heating salesman paying a visit on Samantha. Maybe the scene was played as scripted, but I get the sense that there might just have been a little bit of ad-libbing.

The Gilded Cage clicks whenever Linden and Carson are on screen, either separately or together. Just what is the relationship between Symons and Samantha? Is she an innocent dupe, an active collaborator or something else? Is his threat to kill her serious?

Their interactions and typically good turns from Gaunt and Damon means that this episode rates a score of four out of five.

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The Champions – Get Me Out Of Here!

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Professor Anna Maria Martes (Frances Cuka), on a visit back to her homeland (the tiny island of San Dios), is placed under house arrest by the corrupt ruling junta. They want to take the credit for her discoveries and intend to keep her a prisoner on the island. The Champions have other ideas though …

We’re back on a train for the post credits superpower demonstration (clearly this one was recorded at the same time as Richard’s rather rude crossword completing). Today it’s Sharron who gets a chance to shine – foiling a respectable looking sneak thief by using her powers to see in the dark. Oh, and she looks gorgeous in this scene.

There’s something a little off-putting about the way that our three heroes refer to Tremayne by his surname. Why don’t they call him sir?

This episode has the sort of cast list which gets my pulse racing (Philip Madoc, Ronald Radd, Eric Pohlmann). My joy at seeing Madoc was slightly tempered by his silly wig and moustache but the fact he’s been dubbed is a much more serious problem. In many ways his voice was his fortune – robbed of that, he’s incredibly diminished. Madoc plays Angel Martes, the former husband of Anna Maria. It’s a decent comic role which is totally destroyed by the dubbing.

Luckily Radd was permitted to keep his own voice and so oozes silky villainy as the Commandante. A wonderful actor who died far too young (amazingly he was only in his late thirties when this episode was filmed) I could watch him do his thing all day.

Pohlmann was another one of those incredibly dependable actors. He’s the very model of solid respectability as the Minister – a man with a thin veneer of affability masking something very nasty indeed. The Minister’s meeting with Anna Maria is short, but not at all sweet.

We’re back in one of those fictitious South American counties so beloved of ITC film series. For the location work this means that a few exotic plants have been dotted outside various London buildings. It’s as convincing as ever (i.e. not very).

Craig meets with Anna Maria in her apartment. He’s clever enough to realise that the room is bugged, but doesn’t stop to consider that there may be a hidden camera as well. Tsk! That’s a little careless.

This moment serves not only to diminish Craig’s aura as a top agent but it’s also a slightly clumsy way of placing Anna Maria under heavy guard which makes it much harder for the Champions to spring her. She’s now in a building known locally as “the butcher’s shop”. This conjures up many disturbing images although you won’t be surprised to learn that anything nasty happens firmly off-screen.

It may be irksome when one of the regulars takes a week off, but it’s quite understandable as finding interesting things for three people to do can be problematic. And so it proves here – they all get a decent share of the action, but none of them do anything that really stands out.

There are a few plot dead-ends as well. Sharron phones Angel Martes and it seems that their interaction will be key, but nothing really comes of this.

Get Me Out Of Here! is watchable but not top drawer. The guest roles aren’t too substantial, although Ronald Radd gets the most to do (Philip Madoc’s dubbing is a major minus point though). Frances Cuka feels a little colourless as Anna Maria, but this may just be the way her role was underwritten. The final shoot out looks very unconvincing – The Champions was never a gritty sort of ITC series, but the direction here is especially off-kilter.

Three out of five is a generous score for a somewhat flawed episode.

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The Champions – The Ghost Plane

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An American aircraft is destroyed by a new weapon, nicknamed ‘the Ghost Plane’. The Champions follow a winding trail that eventually leads them to a Cambridge scientist called Dr John Newman (Andrew Keir). After the British declined to fund his high speed plane he sold it to the highest bidders – the Chinese.

Paul Grist, who would play an American several times during his career (he’d later pop up as the super cool secret agent Bill Filer in the Doctor Who story The Claws of Axos) appears in the pre-credits sequence as the pilot downed by the Ghost Plane.

Hardened Doctor Who watchers will also instantly recognise John Brandon (who was the Sergeant in The Tenth Planet). Brandon was actually an American, although whenever you see an American character on British television during the sixties or seventies you do tend to believe that it must be a British actor putting on a voice ….

The post credits superpower demonstration sees Craig running at top speed to stop a runaway van careering into a group of children. Watching this, it’s easy to understand why Dennis Spooner believed that The Six Million Dollar Man had ripped off his format.

The story then moves to the Alps, where Richard and Sharron are happily waiting to follow a link in the trail. There are several very unconvincing back projection shots which do their best to convince us that our two heroes are actually on location and not stuck in the studio.

Lurking about the Alps and elsewhere is Hilary Tindall (as Vanessa). Tindall’s an actress who’s always worth watching – if you haven’t got it, then my tip for the day is The Brothers boxset. She’s wonderful as the man-eating Ann Hammond.

Meanwhile Craig is back at base, searching for clues. Hmm, the first newspaper he stumbles across has a banner headline about Dr Newman’s abandoned plane design. I get the feeling that today’s episode isn’t going to be the tightest plotted one we’ve ever seen.

We later learn that Vanessa is Dr Newman’s girlfriend. Both seen shocked to learn that the plane is now being produced by an unfriendly power, but we already know that Vanessa is a wrong ‘un (and it’s not long before Newman also shows his true colours).

Andrew Keir does his best, but Newman is a very lightly sketched character. He’s a familiar enough type (a disgruntled genius selling his invention to the highest bidders) but we never really learn why or see any hesitation from him concerning the possible consequences of his actions.

If I’ve sometimes raised an eyebrow about the way that Sharron tends to get sidelined when it comes to the rough stuff, then it’s nice to see her tailing Vanessa solo. Although this is slightly tempered by the way Newman captures her with ridiculous ease. Possibly she needs to go back to secret agent school.

She’s now in a tight spot – locked in a freezer with only a limited time left. Luckily she has a link with Richard who has a link with Craig. But since Craig was nearest, why didn’t she contact him directly?

I love the moment when Sharron (after being rescued by Craig) gives Richard a big hug when he arrives. She tells him this is purely her way of trying to get warm again, as Craig only gave her his coat! I find it difficult to believe that Craig wouldn’t have given her a hug if she’d asked him nicely.

It’s interesting the way that The Champions always favoured the Chinese over the Russians as top bogeymen. Possibly there was something of a détente in the late sixties or maybe the series was just attempting to future proof by selecting a different adversary.

The Ghost Plane is assembled with the usual efficiency, but the story doesn’t have a great deal of depth. It feels rather Bondian in places (the scenes set in the Alps look nice, even though they could have easily taken place in London). It’s a disappointment that Andrew Keir was somewhat wasted, so I’ll give this one a score of three and a half out of five.

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The Champions – The Night People

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Strange things be happening down in Cornwall, the most notable being a poacher frightened to death by a mysterious white robed figure. Sharron, arriving in the area on holiday, discovers some further odd occurrences. At the Manor House, both Douglas Trennick and his wife (Terence Alexander and Adrienne Cori) seem to know more than they’re letting on.

Mrs Trennick, owner of the local witchcraft museum, later tells Craig that supernatural forces are at work. Is that so? Maybe there’s a more rational explanation ….

The Night People offers a nice change of pace for the series, opening with a series of cliché spooky shots (a deserted graveyard at twilight, ominously rustling trees, etc).  Poor old Michael Bilton, as Dan Dan the poacher man, is marked out as someone who won’t make it past the pre-credits sequence.

We’re firmly in Avengers territory here – a seemingly idyllic country village which nevertheless holds a dark secret (and one which most of the villagers seem to be in on). This is made clear by the quick glance the apparently affable publican Porth (David Lodge) gives to one of his customers after Dan leaves on his poaching business.

The usual format is shaken up a little as we don’t have the regular Geneva briefing scene with Tremayne. This helps to keep the audience on their toes – Sharron arrives to a shifty welcome from Porth and the others, but to begin with we don’t know why she’s there. Surely the death of a humble poacher wouldn’t have got Nemesis’ alarm bells ringing?

That seems to be so (it’s just a remarkable coincidence she’s turned up at a place where the oddest things are happening).  As the story wears on it’s noticeable that although Dan’s death was a good early hook for the audience, it’s a part of the plot which our heroes only briefly interact with.

We’re then treated to a spot of carnival footage. At first I wondered if the ITC telecine operator had selected the wrong reel, but no, this is by way of illustrating that Richard and Craig are currently abroad on an unspecified mission. I love the banter between them – Richard’s expenses claim is remarkably modest whilst Craig’s is a little staggering (including a new suit). Tremayne won’t like that.

Sharon meets the affable Trennick. Easy to spot that he’s a wrong-un though as everyone else in the house, such as his wife and his devoted butler Hoad (Jerold Wells), exchange ominous looks. There’s an awful lot of ominous looks exchanged in this episode.

It’s nice to see Sharron initiating events rather than trailing several paces behind the boys (although it’s obvious that they’ll arrive eventually to take care of the stong arm stuff). Still, I’ll give top marks out for the fact that Sharron doesn’t scream when surrounded by the white robed figures.

When Richard and Craig arrive, they don’t find Sharron – in fact it seems like she was never there at all. The boys set off to investigate, Craig running into a clerk played by Frank Thornton (a nice little cameo) whilst Richard tangles with Trennick.

Craig then visits the local witchcraft museum and interviews Mrs Trennick. As an obvious sceptic, he finds it hard to keep a straight face (which contrasts well with her lightly simmering hysteria). It’s left to the viewer to decide whether Mrs Trennick actually has supernatural powers – she certainly believes so ….

Given how Avengers-lite this episode feels, it’s surprising that Donald James only wrote one episode for that series (Have Guns, Will Haggle). The Night People drips with a hammy atmosphere, but the longer the mystery is spun out the more you sense that the resolution will turn out to be slightly disappointing.

The guest performances are strong, with even some of the uncredited turns (such as Josephine Tewson’s shifty switchboard operator) catching the eye. It’s always fun to see Craig and Richard teamed up, especially since by this point in the series the pair are in full quipping mode. Sharron’s separate plotline is quite strong, although it’s a pity that for plot reasons she has to disappear during the middle of the episode.

It’s not flawless, but I’ll still rate it a solid four out of five.

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The Champions – Twelve Hours

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Oh dear, we’re back at the Holy Loch submarine base. Let’s take a deep breath and dive, dive, dive.

Sharron and Richard have been given the job of minding an Eastern European President called Drobnic (Henry Gilbert). Together with his wife (played by Viola Keats) they visit the submarine HMS Weatherby, but tragedy strikes when a bomb explodes which sends the sub to the bottom of the loch.

Whilst Sharron attends to the injured Drobnic, Richard – assuming command following the death of the captain – faces delicate decisions of life and death …

Anybody who’s read my Champions reviews to date will know that I’ve struggled with the series’ previous submarine episodes. But I’m fully prepared to approach this one with an open mind (although I have to confess that my heart sunk just a little when the Nemesis map zoomed in on Holy Loch).

We begin in day for night mode, with a group of shifty types doing shifty things. The pre-credits teaser is rather low on excitement, indeed it’s chiefly memorable for some rather obvious dubbing.

Craig takes this week’s superpowers demonstration. It proves that he can walk up thirty flights of stairs very quickly whilst also carrying a large collection of parcels for a pretty young lady. That’s handy.

Into the story proper, it’s not long before a sweet little model submarine finds itself on the bed of the loch. Whilst Richard and Sharron take stock, I find myself wondering exactly why Drobnic’s enemies decided to sabotage the submarine. Surely there must have been easier ways to kill him?

After all, you’d assume that security at Holy Loch would be pretty tight. But obviously not, since the baddies were able (although we’re not given specifics about exactly how they did it) to pop a bomb on the HMS Weatherby without anybody noticing.

Viola Keats goes into full overacting mode as a hysterical Mrs Drobnic confronts Sharron. Luckily Sharron is more than a match for her and sedates the woman before she gets too annoying. Meanwhile, Richard is clashing with a surly chief engineer called Raven (Mike Pratt). Pratt adds a touch of class to the story – it’s Raven’s conflict with Richard and Sharron that provides the episode with a dollop of drama.

Richard’s priority is to keep Drobnic alive. The way he persuades a reluctant Sharron to operate is noteworthy, as are his clashes with Raven and the rest of the crew. Until the operation is complete he won’t allow them to move the sub – naturally enough, the others aren’t too keen to potentially sacrifice their lives just so Drobnic can live.

That Drobnic is dismissively referred to as a “butcher” hints at a complexity the script doesn’t really possesses. The President is only given a handful of lines before the bomb goes off and none of them address his morality or character.

If Drobnic remains undeveloped, then the same goes for his opponents. More could have been done with both sides, but they’re clearly just story elements designed to create the crisis situation.

Twelve Hours lacks the same sort of slowly increasing claustrophobic terror as, say, the UFO episode Subsmash. Even when the air is getting pretty low, Richard and Sharron greet the news with equanimity. No doubt this is due to their superpowers (while the crew are staggering about, barely able to breathe, our heroes hardly break into a sweat) but it does sap the episode of tension.

This also goes for the way that Sharron needs very little persuading before popping on a set of scrubs and going into major surgery mode on Drobnic. Especially since surgery isn’t really a skill of hers.

The best submarine episode of the series so far (admittedly that’s only a low bar to jump over) this one rates a decent score of three out of five.

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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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The Champions – Full Circle

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An alleged British agent, Paul Westerman (Patrick Allen), has been remanded in prison after breaking into the Colombian embassy in London and photographing a series of secret plans (although the film can’t be found). Craig goes into undercover mode, posing as a fellow inmate, and together the pair escape ….

Sharron is the star of today’s post credits superpowers demonstration. Driving alone down a country lane (although when she stops for a moment, a crewmember’s reflection can be seen) she picks up a couple of male hitchhikers. When they spy her long, shapely legs they clearly think they’ve hit the jackpot, but our Sharron has other ideas.

Nemesis are cast in the role of peacemakers, attempting to heal the rift between Britain and Colombia. That’s nice of them.

Craig, oozing an aura of super cool, quickly befriends Westerman. Stuart Damon seems to relish the chance to play a slightly different role for once, especially when he’s acting alongside Patrick Allen (the man with the unmistakable voice). Allen’s performance is a highlight of the episode. Like many of the characters seen in The Champions, Allen’s only been given a lightly sketched role – but he manages to give each line an air of gravitas.

Another nice turn comes from the always dependable John Nettleton as Booker, the man hired by the Colombians to break Westerman out of jail. I adore his dry delivery of the line “you should take more exercise, it’s good for me” to the very shapely Sarah (Gabrielle Drake).

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It probably won’t escape your notice that during Sarah’s first scene the camera seems fixated on her bottom and legs (she’s enjoying a rigerous workout on an exercise bike at the time). Drake’s presence is some consolation for the fact that Alexandra Bastedo sits most of the episode out.

Sharron’s contribution to the story is negligible. Tremayne sends her to London to liaise with Craig and Richard and after a quick chat with Richard he sends her back to Geneva!

William Gaunt’s Irish accent (he briefly masquerades as an Irish prison padre) is a wonder to behold.

Plotwise, the episode is a bit muddy. If Westerman is such a top agent, it’s slightly hard to believe that he instantly trusts Craig. Surely he would have considered the possibility of a plant being put into his cell?

A good chunk of the episode takes place inside the prison, but there’s the sense that the story can’t really begin until Craig and Westerman escape. But one upside of this is the fact that the story picks up considerable momentum towards the end. This is where Booker takes centre stage as he tortures Craig (who has been misidentified as Westerman) in order to discover the location of the film.

Booker doesn’t seem at all surprised to learn that an American is working for British intelligence. This is another plot weakness (how fortunate that Westerman’s id, which he slips into Craig’s pocket, didn’t have a photograph).  And since Booker earlier asked Sarah to research Westerman’s arrest in the newspapers, we have to assume there were no photos there either.

But the eventual reveal of why Westerman broke into the embassy does feel satisfying and provides a decent conclusion to the episode.

Good performances from Allen and Nettleton (plus Gabrielle Drake managing to make a considerable impression with very limited screentime) all helps to earn this episode a mark of four out of five.

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The Champions – Reply Box 666

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An GPU agent called Semekin (George Roubieck) is murdered in his Jamaican hotel room. His pocket contains a curious newspaper clipping which reads ‘Wanted: A parrot that speaks Greek. Reply box 666’. Even more curious is the fact that the sixes have been changed to eights. Deciding that this must be a code, Craig travels to Jamaica in order to replace Semekin. And that’s when the trouble really begins ….

I do love the fact that if the brief stock footage clippage of Jamaica at the start of the episode wasn’t quite enough, the incidentals then decide to go into steel band mode – after all, every little helps. A real steel band pops along later just to hammer the point home.

Poor Semekin only manages to lock lips with the very winsome Cleo (Imogen Hassell) for a few seconds before her boyfriend breaks into Semekin’s hotel room and chucks a knife straight at his back. It’s a remarkable piece of marksmanship, although maybe that’s just because the camera angles were slightly askew.

Craig handles today’s superpowers demonstration scene. He’s out in the countryside with a blonde, leggy lovely (who doesn’t look too dissimilar to Sharron – hmm) and proves that finding a wristwatch dropped in the middle of a field is no problem when you’re a Champion.

The newspaper clipping leads Craig to a shop in Jamaica run by Nikko (George Murcell). I don’t know what Murcell’s had slapped on his face (some kind of orange boot polish maybe) but it doesn’t really help to convince that this British actor is actually Greek. Ah well, that sort of thing was par for the course with this era of television (the acting pool being somewhat limited).

If the sight of an orange Nikko is a little off-putting, then Jules (Anton Rodgers) is slightly more palatable – although his moustache can’t help but catch the eye. His silly accent is a bit of a problem too, but then this is a story with several silly accents ….

When I get to the middle of an episode, my thoughts often turn to plotting.  I can accept that Craig’s been sent in to pose as Semekin’s replacement, but why has no thought been given to stopping Semekin’s actual replacement turning up? Because this isn’t done, Craig’s quickly rumbled (and chucked out of an aircraft by Jules for his pains).

What’s rather nice (and unusual) is the fact that Jules is working with Corinne (Nike Arrighi), who proves to be rather more resourceful and cool in a crisis than he is. She’s the one who shoots Craig, takes over control of the plane and orders Jules to dump Craig with immediate effect.  Females in the Champions-verse are rarely so proactive.

This may be an episode which features Craig heavily, but Richard and Sharron aren’t totally ignored. Sharron’s the one who’s able to establish that Craig is somewhere out in the ocean (Richard’s not picking anything up at all – so it was lucky Sharron came along for the ride).

Sharron also proves her worth by pumping Jules for information. Although first Richard tells her to go back to her hotel room and change into something extra slinky before unleashing her feminine wiles on him. Jules is obviously instantly smitten (well, who wouldn’t be?). Their scenes together are slightly torpedoed by Rodger’s French accent though – the more he speaks, the harder it is not to think of Inspector Clouseau.

It takes a long time before the mystery at the heart of the episode (what is Jules searching for?) is revealed. And to be honest it’s not really that interesting or exciting, so we’re left with a faint feeling of anti-climax when the beans are spilled.

But the episode’s not a total write-off.  Sharron’s seduction of Jules is something of a highlight – especially when he gets her back to his hotel room and decides that a kiss would be nice.  As he moves in (and Sharron decides to lay back and think of Nemesis) we cut to a shot of Nikko shovelling food into his mouth.  We then go back to find that Sharron has hypnotised Jules.  Rodgers plays dazed and almost unconscious very well (as we’d see later in his career, he was a fine comic performer).

The irony is that even after all that effort, Jules didn’t tell her anything. So what have we achieved? Absolutely nothing. Still, as padding goes it was rather entertaining.

Craig washes ashore on an island and is discovered by Clive (Linbert Spencer).  Clive then just happens to lead him to the plane which Jules has been searching for. This is a spot of dodgy plotting that’s hard to beat whilst the tiny studio island also requires the viewer to be in a forgiving mode. Clearly Reply Box 666 was something of a cheapie – no location filming and presumably most of the sets taken from stock.

This isn’t the series at its best then, but it’s still entertaining enough, so I’ll give it three and a half out of five.

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