The time – the late 1980s. The place – a village in Hampshire so boring that the headline in the local newspaper read “Local Supermarket to Be Opened by Dusty Bin”. The venue – a living room, where this writer was roaming the late-night television schedules. It was here that I, and so many others, discovered the magic that was The Champions – the programme with almost every ingredient for a fine ITC show:
1) A swinging Tony Hatch theme tune.
2) A title sequence featuring our three heroes posing before a fountain and looking generally keen and handsome.
3) An array of fine motor-cars, from an Alfa Romeo Guilia SS to a Jaguar Mk.2 and an MGB Roadster.
4) David Bauer’s opening announcement, informing us how the trio are ‘endowed with physical and mental qualities to the peak of human performance’.
5) Any number of ITC’s favourite supporting actors. The pilot episode is set in “Tibet” (albeit one that bears a strong resemblance to Elstree), and so naturally, the cast included Burt Kwouk, Eric Young and Anthony Chinn. Over the next 29 stories, we also meet George Pastell, Steven Berkoff, George Murcell, Vladek Sheybal, Harry Towb and Mike Pratt. Not to mention Joseph Furst, John Carson, Imogen Hassall and Donald Sutherland.
6) The Invisible Man story guest stars Peter Wyngarde and a Vauxhall Viscount. Forget The Avengers: A Touch of Brimstone – this is possibly the ultimate in 1960s British television decadence.
7) Splendid back projection to allow the agents of the United Nations organisation Nemesis, the appearance of roaming the globe for a very limited cost.
8) Stories with a submarine setting to further reduce costs.
9) Dialogue along the lines of ‘Craig…we’re different’.
10) The ITC White Jaguar of Doom.
Above all, there was Stuart Damon, an immensely likeable American actor who graced many a British TV series from Man in a Suitcase to The Saint. ‘He came to Britain especially to play Houdini on the West End stage and loved us so much he decided to stay when offered The Champions’, noted Fabulous 208 magazine in 1969.
The press handouts stated: ‘The three agents whose stories are told in The Champions possess remarkable powers granted to them when, on one mission, their ’plane crashes in Tibet. Their rescuers not only mend their bodies, but heighten the efficiency of their bodies, minds and senses to a fantastic level’.
This was indeed the case, although embarking on a critical mission in a plane apparently made by Airfix was rarely a good idea. However, regardless of the villain of the week’s capacity for fiendish schemes and over-acting, Craig Stirling was more than a match for the forces of evil. Some episodes possessed a considerable sense of ambition – The Interrogation, guest-starring Colin Blakely, was an excellent showcase for Damon’s dramatic range.
The Champions first aired on ITV in September 1968, and it was the pioneer ITC adventure series to establish their “Three Main Protagonist Formula”; male lead, female lead and second male lead. If the 30 stories lived up to the promise of ‘a new dimension to television excitement’, this was due to the chemistry between Alexandra Bastedo, William Gaunt – and of course, Stuart Damon.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA