ITC – Home of Low-Budget International Men of Mystery
Three days after ITV commenced broadcasts on the 22nd September 1955, ATV – the franchise holder for London at the weekends and weekday Midlands broadcasts – aired The Adventures of Robin Hood. Masterminding the exploits of an immaculately Brylcreemed Robin and his band of RADA-accented Merry Men was the company’s supremo Lew Grade, the one time champion Charleston dancer, theatrical impresario and the closest that British film and TV has ever come to a traditional Hollywood mogul. ‘All of my programmes are great’, Grade once mused. ‘Some of them are bad – but they’re all great!’
The Adventures of Robin Hood was shot on 35mm film in order than the series be sold in the USA, and by 1959 ITC – the export division of ATV – finally established the formula that would make their name across the globe. With Danger Man, Lew Grade would forever be known as a purveyor of glamour, excitement and villainy who had a tendency to wear a fez in a discreet corner of Elstree Studios’ car park. Over two years before Sean Connery battled Dr No, Patrick McGoohan’s special agent John Drake used a succession of gadgets to stem the rise of evil around the globe. Of course, having a fraction of 007’s budget meant that certain economies had to be made – regardless of the setting, the same bit-part players, wearing the same suits, would appear from week to week. As for ‘overseas location’ footage, this was replicated either via driving on the wrong side of the road in Hertfordshire (foreign) or some palm trees in a discreet corner of the aforementioned car park (Commonwealth).
But one of the main charms of Danger Man was that rarely did it display its limited budget. It may have been a series of short black & white films but, as with the better entries in the Hammer and Carry On genres, Danger Man always boasted the gloss of a far more expensive production thanks to being directed by experienced feature filmmakers. Television stations around the globe, including the all-important US market, craved the adventures of a British programme with fast cars, a driving theme tune and a hero who avoided both gun-play and women. These character traits were entirely due to McGoohan, as befitting a man who subsequently turned down the role of Bond on the grounds that 007 was ‘an immoral cad’.
Clever use of a restricted number of locations would play a major role in all of ITC’s major successes, not least the next great success for the company. The Saint – a role rejected by McGoohan on the grounds that Simon Templar was yet another ‘an immoral cad’ – invariably had Roger Moore smashing down balsa wood doors in a discreet corner of the studio complex and a cavalier approach to continuity; cars were known to change colour and even model when engaged in chasing the Saint’s white Volvo P1800.
However, this was of little matter as Roger, in the one screen role that was tailor-made for him, was totally at home as Templar from the moment when he would amicably address the camera prior to an animated halo appearing above his pompadour. To the average English suburbanite eating his fish-fingers in his mortgaged Wimpey semi, continuity issues paled when the epitome of glamour that was the young Moore was fighting off scenery-chewing gangsters or, best all, ridding all of Wales from a plague of giant mutant killer ants.
In 1966 ITC dispensed with black and white filming in response to the all-colour policy of the three major American TV networks, and by now their formula was now known around the world. One of the main keys to the success of any ITC show was the glorious predictability of the enterprise – the hero would be a square-jawed type who would undertake virtually any job, in any location, as long as it involved an encounter with a well-known British character actor of no fixed accent hamming as though his Equity card depended on it. Another fixed point in the ITC legend was its staging of car chases and thanks to the company shooting an elaborate stunt for The Baron in 1965, all pursuits after that would conclude with the villain’s car mysteriously turning into a white Jaguar 2.4 and careering off of a cliff. This scenario would re-appear in almost every ITC drama for the next decade, occasionally interspersed with footage of an equally hapless red Renault Dauphine.
Occasionally, the formula would be expanded to encompass a team of crime fighters such as The Champions or The Protectors where in virtually every episode the second lead would look confused &/or comatose; the female lead would look winsome while the lead would merely look smug. As the star of the enterprise, this determined chap would also wear black polo necks with a certain verve whilst driving his sports car through a ‘border crossing’ that looked as though it was constructed of cardboard in a discreet corner of Black Park.
But this is not to infer that these programmes were never less than entertaining. 1967’s The Champions – three secret agents with ‘super powers’ that were usually limited to the hurling of papier-mâché rocks at unsuspecting and very short-sighted villains – has one of the finest ever pilot episodes in the history of the medium. Our heroes’ plane crashes in ’Tibet’ only for the trio to be nursed to health by a ‘mystic’ (the Shakespearean actor Sir Felix Aylmer in a comedy beard) who bestows upon them special powers. “We’re… different”, muses second lead William Gaunt to leading man Stuart Damon in the midst of a snowstorm, a moving scene that in no way resembles an off-screen props man pouring washing powder onto the heroes’ black roll neck pullovers.
Of course, a narrative set in ‘The East’ often meant a special bonus for the devoted ITC drama watcher; an appearance by Burt Kwouk. Regardless of the programme’s title the lines ‘Oh no – it’s the fiendish Major Wong of the Secret Police!’ would inevitably herald the arrival of Burt wearing his most severe scowl. Sometimes the line would be varied to ‘Oh no – it’s the evil Colonel Bastardos of the Secret Militia!’ to allow for the entrance of Paul Stassino or George Pastell, the Cypriot actors who were ITC’s favourite portrayers of Italian gangsters, Arabic gamblers and any swarthy type who habitually wore white dinner jackets. ITC also gave early roles to Peter Bowles, a young Donald Sutherland – usually as an American madman – and a very nervous and vibrantly over-acting Oliver Reed as a generic Mediterranean thug battling with Simon Templar. Late episodes of The Saint also featured a very fresh-faced Steve Berkoff in one of the several “Third Villain From the Left Roles” that he essayed for British TV in the 1960s.
By the early 1970s, higher budgets brought more expensive leading men such as Tony Curtis who was imported to co-star in The Persuaders and genuine overseas location footage. Ironically this latter development was probably a mistake; the earlier approximations of ‘international glamour’ may have verged on the surreal at times but they helped to create a wholly self-contained world whereas placing the main characters in France or Spain only tended to highlight the defences in the scripting and acting department. ITC’s last really enjoyable show was Jason King in which Peter Wyngarde’s gloriously camp and cynical hero would exude decadence and often mock the company’s ethos per se. At the end of the decade Lew Grade had moved to feature film production with often disastrous results – ‘It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic’, he moaned of Raise the Titanic – and ITC’s last major series Return of the Saint merely looked dated in a world of The Sweeney.
Of Grade’s television legacy, 1967’s The Prisoner is already is the material of legends from Patrick McGoohan taking control of the entire project to actors having nervous breakdowns on the set. Its evocation of an unthinking society acquiescing with the loss of free will in exchange for bright clothes and empty entertainments remains timeless. That same year brought the least glamorous and best acted of all ITC shows, Man in a Suitcase which starred an intense American method actor Richard Bradford as an embittered ex-CIA agent was embroiled in stories that often were remarkably violent and downbeat.
ITC’s shows were rarely a favourite with critics, who bemoaned the use of mid-Atlantic dialect and claimed that the acting was sometimes on a par with ‘relaxed sleepwalking’ but in comparison with ITV’s current output of docu-soaps that make the test-card seem like a masterpiece of suspense and talent shows that are apparently devised to induce mass despair.
Who would not prefer a world of mini-skirted “dolly birds” with cut glass accents and of heroes who would continue to chain-smoke even as they were being beaten senseless?
The glory days of ITC belong to, a time when Independent Television meant a network of franchisees and when Lew Grade could say to US TV stations ‘’I’ve got this wonderful series about two detectives who go around Europe, lots of action and pretty girls’. On receiving an order for a dozen shows, he would then order an acolyte ‘I need a show by Tuesday next week!’. And with polish, experience and verve, the studio car park really could be transformed into a location of ‘international glamour’.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA
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