By Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA
The 15th of September 1971 saw the British premiere of Jason King, followed by the first episode of The Persuaders! on the 17th of September. This was not just ITC – this was ITC to the power of ten, from the various Aston Martins, Bentleys and Dinos, to the music and the remarkable hairstyles and clothes. Tony Curtis as Danny Wilde opted for the “Hugh Hefner De Luxe” look, and Roger Moore’s Lord Brett Sinclair apparently favoured the latest from Brentford Nylons.
Meanwhile, “baroque” is the only word for Jason King, but Peter Wyngarde possessed a genuine savoir-faire combined with his gift for light comedy. By contrast, his near-contemporary Gene Barry of The Adventurer is a prime example of how similar fashions could go hideously wrong with a less charismatic, and self-aware, actor. All that may be fairly said about the sartorial tastes of the international man of mystery “Gene Bradley”, is that the Rupert Bear check flared trousers/duffle coat combination was never a good idea.
Jason King and The Persuaders! were two of a quintet of major ITC productions aimed at the US market; the other three were The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine, Shirley’s World and The Protectors. On the 3rd of May 1971, Lew Grade informed the world that the total cost amounted to £8 million and ‘we expect to make £12 million out of these five series alone’. As a result of such budgets, Mr. King was, according to the press book, ‘free to roam the four corners of the earth’. Similarly, Danny and Brett would actually venture abroad instead of the studio car park doubling as the French Riviera.
ITC’s publicity further promised viewers ‘Beauty not ugliness’, ‘Golden Beaches’ and ‘Exotic settings’. Many of their established tropes were also present and correct, from the “White Jaguar of Doom”, to the familiar faces of Messers Delgado, Kwouk and Stassino. John Mortimer was fascinated by The Persuaders! fight scenes – ‘if you tap a man lightly on the point of the chin he will shoot into the air, fly backwards across a bar, breaking a good deal of furniture and at least 20 bottles’. Naturally, Wilde and Sinclair would attempt to battle the heavies of no fixed accent, while King often seemed more concerned with threats to his wardrobe than himself.
Both shows reflected Swinging London’s dying embers, so there was inevitably much grooving to behold. The spectacle of Curtis and Moore dancing with various mini-skirted ladies, is reminiscent of two mildly inebriated uncles at a wedding. Wyngarde summarised King’s vices as ‘Beautiful women, Sobranie cigarettes, Balenciaga aftershave, Stornaway scotch whiskey, strawberries and vintage champagne’.
Curtis informed The Los Angeles Times, ‘if ABC picks up The Persuaders! we’ll make 24 more’, but it did not succeed in the USA. However, the show enjoyed great popularity in other markets, and there were rumours of ITC making a second series but on a lower budget. The Persuaders! cost £2.5 million, a record for British television, but a return to the days of Hertfordshire doubling for Italy would have been a retrogressive one. In any case, an item in The Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary of the 27th of January 1972, signalled the end of any prospects for a second series. The headline read: ‘‘Roger Moore to play next James Bond?’.
Meanwhile, Jason King ran for 26 episodes, but it arguably suffered from being shot on 16mm rather than 35mm film, resulting in a comparative lack of ITC surface gloss. There was also the absence of Wnygarde’s Department S co-stars Joel Fabiani and Rosemary Nichols. When interviewed for Robert Sellers’s indispensable book Cult TV: The Golden Years of ITC, the actor pointed out ‘Jason King was an outrageous character. He was over the top in so many ways, so you don’t want to see a lot of him. And the great thing about Department S was that the others did all the groundwork, and then you were dying for Jason King to come on to get some light relief. But with Jason King the series, they got rid of those two, against my wishes’. Yet, the main protagonist was always more than a witty bon viveur, as demonstrated by Toki, guest-starring Felicity Kendal.
Perhaps the main legacy of both shows, is their sense of fun. Some of ITC’s imported leading men concentrated on looking handsome and Brylcreemed – Craig Stevens in Man of The World or Steve Forrest in The Baron. Others, such as Robert Vaughan in The Protectors, looked as though they would like to throttle their agents, but Curtis wholly-heartedly engaged with the spirit of the enterprise. He later reflected, ‘The show needed a comedic touch, so I would invent jokes’. The reviewer who moaned ‘Tony Curtis and Roger Moore clown about so much that you may wonder at times if you have switched on Morecambe and Wise by mistake’, quite brilliantly missed the point.
As for Jason King, Peter Richardson’s wonderful Comic Strip Presents homage “Jason Bentley” perfectly captured his essential charm; ‘I usually drive the Bentley to a large country house belonging to some mad, rich colonel. Whereupon I drink a bottle of claret, smoke fifty cigarettes, and have everyone arrested’. Wyngarde himself thought, ‘He’s all the things that most people would like to be, including myself, but daren’t or can’t because they have a mortgage to pay and a job to hold down! What makes him human, is he can laugh at himself – he doesn’t always win’.
Cue the closing credits.