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Lost Gems: Saracen (1989)

Posted on June 4, 2010 | comments | Bookmark and Share

The cast of Saracen

Barber firing a gun in Saracen

Starring: Christian Burgess, Patrick James Clarke, Ingrid Lacey, Michael Byrne, John Bennett
Price: £29.99
Amazon price: £17.93
Network DVD price: £16.99
Released: June 7th 2010

"The Professionals remade by the producers of Inspector Morse. Excited yet?"

A year ago, that's how I would have started this Lost Gem for Saracen, a 1989 show which never got repeated, released on DVD, uploaded to YouTube or made available to the public in any way since its first broadcast nearly 21 years ago*.

Saracen, launched on the back of a pilot movie the previous year called The Zero Option, centred around the operatives of Saracen Systems, a private security company that exclusively hires ex-special forces soldiers for its protection work around the world.

Starring British actor Christian Burgess and American actor Patrick James Clarke as the ex-SAS David Barber and the ex-Delta Tom Duffy (B&D - Bodie and Doyle anyone?), it was an action-packed but thoughtful show that looked at geopolitical issues, the morality of various industries (including the security and weapons businesses) and the armed forces.

And I remembered it as being a bit dull, honestly. It has great music by Barrington Pheloung (Inspector Morse) and I had it on VHS for a long time, but I ditched my copies in the mid 90s on the general grounds that it wasn't all that.

But Network DVD are nice enough to be releasing all 13 episodes and the pilot movie on DVD on Monday and in a nice reversal of the usual "memory cheats" syndrome (that is, you remember something from when you were younger as being good but it turns out when you re-watch it that it's rubbish), Saracen turns out to be actually a very good show indeed that my poor little 17-year-old brain couldn't take. It takes a little time to find its feet and work out how to balance smartness and action, but it does manage it.

It also help that Ingrid Lacey from Drop the Dead Donkey is in it.

Here's the introduction from the first four episodes that explains the set-up, together with a bit of action from the first episode. I've also added for nostalgia freaks a trailer with the series highlights that originally aired on ITV back in the day that I've been saving up for over a year - that's how far in advance I prepare some of these things. Impressed much? Thought not.

Plot
The format for Saracen is essentially quite simple. Barber and Duffy are the chalk-and-cheese, special forces heroes who now work in the private sector for Saracen, which is run by ex-SAS colonel Patrick Ansell (Michael Byrne - The Sum of All Fears). They go around the world - in the show, Africa, Spain, Central America, Germany and bits of the UK - either protecting people or training them in how to protect themselves: pretty much the duties of most real-life security companies.

However, sometimes (read: always) things go pear-shaped or turn out to be more complicated and political than first thought, so they have to try to fix the messes they find themselves in, both hindered and helped by the fact they don't work for any government organisation. Since they're not trained investigators, assisting them are ex-Special Branch police officer Eric Nugent (John Bennett) and ex-MI6 officer Alice Kavanagh (Ingrid Lacey).

Basically: Barber and Duffy run around beating things up and shooting things, while Kavanagh and occasionally Nugent use their brains to find out what's really going on.

Not The Professionals
So, clearly, not The Professionals – bad Rob. More than that, the show was made by the production team behind Inspector Morse, so rather than the show being all guns-blazing and filled with entirely 2D stereotypes, it does it's best to be thoughtful and to give all the characters development and screen time, usually with an impressive guest cast.

Rare is the episode where a (genuine) American doesn't turn up for Duffy to chat to and talk about his life and how he ended up working for Saracen. Barber's widower status and the difficulties of having a relationship given his job – either with a guest actress or with Alice – is often a centrepiece of the storyline. Even Eric, the ex-special branch officer, has issues with that naughty daughter of his.

Where the show works best is in UK storylines – exotic's nice and naturally weapon laws are different overseas so Barber and Duffy have more latitude, but the show seems to struggle to find a natural rhythm when abroad. It also does a whole better when it tries to stick within the realms of international terrorism – when assassination plots involving international hit men turn up, you can be sure something that makes it hard to suspend your disbelief is going to be turning up with them.

Action stations
Eventually, the guns do come out blazing. By modern day, US standards, the action sequences are a little underpowered and inauthentic. Compared with the kinetic joys of The Sweeney or indeed The Professionals, the action feels a little leisurely, too, albeit a bit more 'battlefield'.

But compared with post-70s Brit TV, even today's, the action's actually bloody good and gets better as the producers find their feet. The series starts with two guys standing around qualifying as bodyguarding duty, even when they're supposed to guard a convoy from armies. By the end of the show, Barber and Duffy (now with associated other Saracen employees) know how to escort a man, rush him out of trouble, guard him against machine-gun attacks and beat the living crap out of anything that moves. Burgess and Clarke's aptitude with the action scenes increase as well, with Clarke proving to be an incredible athlete, and Burgess a steely eyed action star.

Excellent.

Barber and Duffy

Barber and Duffy
The series does a very good job of creating a plausible team at Saracen, but if the show had a glaring fault that stopped it appealing to its audience sufficiently, it's that they tried to make the show too much of a drama.

Christian Burgess's Barber is a widower (post The Zero Option) from a posh, public school background. He's cold, self-contained and a bit of a patronising tit, to be honest. Patrick James Clarke's (maybe better known in the US for Margaret Colin's 80s private detective drama Leg Work) Duffy, on the other hand, is a relaxed, friendly womaniser. No thickie, despite his lack of college education, he's happy to rip the piss out of anyone British because of their attitude or the general history of the British empire.

Barber and Duffy aren't really friends. They're kind of friends, with Barber willing to teach Duffy German phrases to help pick up air hostesses, for example. But Barber will forget Duffy's birthday and be condescending towards him at any opportunity and Duffy takes the piss out of him the whole time ("Barbie Doll", "you sanctimonious dick") and is generally sneering towards his more English qualities. They almost come to blows several times. They don't even hang out together - when they go out for a drink in one episode, it's clear they don't even like the same kinds of bars.

In short, the buddy-buddy quality you'd hope for in an action show isn't there. It's especially weird, given the two characters' jobs and backgrounds, since these guys are in the firing line together, and Barber must have had one hell of a hard time in the SAS with that kind of stick up his arse.

Nevertheless, the show does go out of its way to give both Barber and Duffy fully rounded personalities, interests, hobbies, backgrounds, friends and more. It might not be a warm partnership, but they are at least decent characters.

Alice Kavanagh (Ingrid Lacey) in Saracen

Alice and Eric
Now here is where my memory definitely cheated me. I remember Alice not having much to do and generally being a bit of a nothing character, whose one interesting characteristic (apart from being played by Ingrid Lacey) was having gone to the same school as my sister.

Looking at the episodes now, it's obvious that while she doesn't get quite the character background that Barber and Duffy get, Alice is a very interesting character. Ex-MI6, she's a talented linguist and investigator, able to put in the leg work to investigate cases. She's got a very wry sense of humour, and it turns out that she's a bit of a boyfriend-stealer as well. And while not in Barber and Duffy's class, she's not afraid to pull a gun and shoot someone if necessary.

Equally, her talents are based around intelligence and brainwork. Balancing out those skills are the ex-Special Branch Eric, who while a bit of a cipher, has the contacts in the right places, knowledge of the criminal underworld and pure gut instinct of a police officer. At least one episode subtly highlights this contrast, with Alice immediately suspecting foreign terrorists as being behind a plot, Eric reverting to type and suspecting British crims.

The show does slightly betray its 80s roots here, though. Alice isn't given quite the respect she would be these days, even being asked to help Eric apply his ear drops at one point (although, to be fair, Ansell joins in, too - Saracen does have its funny moments). She also has a (self-sacrificing) crush on Barber, which was way too subtly played for my 17-year-old self to really notice other than in a couple of episodes, but which is far more obvious now. Barber, however, treats her very badly as a result - way to go writers. She also gets looked down upon for being single in at least one episode, and it's something that clearly upsets her as well.

Colonel Ansell (Michael Byrne) in Saracen

Colonel Ansell
A somewhat idiosyncratic performance
from Michael Byrne to say the least, Ansell is a combination of fierce army colonel and playful uncle - but with all the odd mannerisms of Vincent D'Onofrio in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Ansell is very much a character with a flexible morality, wanting to play things straight but aware of the politics and networking necessities of the job. On many an occasion, Ansell will withdraw Saracen for one reason for another, even when the right thing would be to stay involved.

Barber in Star Cross

The episodes
Let's go through the episodes one at a time. I'll keep the spoilers to a minimum, I promise.

1. Decoy
Notable guest cast: Stratford Johns (Z-Cars), Lynsey Baxter (Chancer)
As the saying goes, put your best foot forward, and one of the reasons Saracen might not have done as well as it should have is the show started with a bit of a stumble. Designed to show the (new) Saracen team in action in an exotic foreign location (Spain), Decoy
is badly paced and a bit silly at times. Barber is cold, wooden and a complete arse (not the actor's fault).

The biggest trouble is it starts with a cock-up for Saracen: an American ex-general under their protection gets machine gunned down in broad daylight. The team then have to find out what happens, with Alice showing off her linguistic and investigation skills in Spain, Eric showing his own sleuthing abilities in the UK, all while Barber and Duffy grumble at one another or treat women badly.

Indeed, the Saracen team largely investigate individually, so while you do get to understand each of the characters' abilities, you rarely get to see them together - which is a shame, because Lacey, Burgess and Clarke do well together when they unite.

It's not an inviting way to start, despite the sun, sea and Lynsey Baxter's very tight red dress, and much of the plot is either daft or given over to exploring Duffy's background (Duffy not having been in The Zero Option). Despite the number of genuine Americans in the cast, it also gets a little wearing to see Duffy wearing sunglasses and chewing gum the whole time, even indoors, and the general they're protecting being depicted as a mental Christian.

2. Infidels
Notable guest cast: None
Saracen cock up again and have to deal with another breach of security. Again, this one's poor on pacing, but not bad overall.

3. Proof of Death
Notable guest cast: Alfred Molina
Saracen have to try to rescue a kidnapped journalist, occasionally helped, occasionally hindered by his ex-paratroop brother, whom Alice shows an interest in - despite his being very dull.

This has Spain doubling for Latin America, with very few Latino or even Spanish actors, except for Alfred Molina in a bit part. Again, a slow-paced one, with Saracen spending most of the first half just asking questions rather than getting anywhere near the action.

Alice does get to show off a little in this episode, despite being abducted, since she gets to have an honest to goodness fight, and there are a couple of decent firefights. But if it were nowadays, I'd probably have given up on the show by now.

4. Robbers
Notable guest cast: Gary Olsen (2.4 Children), Karl Howman (Brushes Strokes)
The definite low-point of the series, this attempts to be a comedy, with Olsen and Howman managing to abduct a diamond dealer under Barber and Duffy's protection - and then Duffy. It makes the Saracen team look like total idiots, and that problem's not helped by a group of proper crims turning up and showing up the Saracen team.

But against this rubbish backdrop, there are a few things to watch out for. For nostalgia value, there's a club charging £5 entry fee and Barber thinking that's a lot of money. For Londoners, there are scenes of some lock-ups in Vauxhall that are now shops.

We also get some more characterisation for Barber and Duffy, with hints of what they're like off-duty. Duffy has implied threesomes, Barber's always off jogging (he limps through the entire episode after pulling a muscle early on, which makes me think Christian Burgess injured himself doing a stunt). Duffy gets to call Barber a "pompous dickhead". And the miserable Barber gets to complain about cockney tribalism which he claims is worse than Ireland.

5. Into Africa
Notable guest cast: Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings), James Cosmo (Braveheart)
The last of the "not great, but not bad either" episodes, this sees yet another Saracen disaster in the making as they go to South Africa to protect a convoy against rebels, only to discover it's not who they think it is behind the raids. While it's plenty action-packed, a lot of the action says "these guys absolutely were never in the army". Chris Kelly (yes, Food and Drink/Top Gear/Clapperboard Chris Kelly, the show's creator) apparently doesn't realise that Americans don't tend to use 'bloody' as a swear word, either.

6. Starcross
Notable guest cast: Suzanna Hamilton (1984), Linus Roache (Priest, Law and Order)
This is where it starts to get good. Ironically, it was also episode four originally, but got shifted to six for transmission, which is a shame, because if it had been up sooner, it would have really shown people what the show could do.

Here, we have Barber dating an Irish doctor (Hamilton) after he winds up in hospital after having been accidentally shot. Unfortunately - and it's to the show's credit that it makes the whole thing seem plausible - it turns out that Barber killed the brother of her sister-in-law when he was in Ulster with the SAS. And she tells her little brother (Roache), who calls up some of his IRA pals to pay Barber a visit.

The episode goes to great pains to handle the issues of the IRA, Irish living in England, and Irish culture as sensitively as possible. Eric's policing experience comes to the fore, as does Alice's interest in Barber. Barber's characterisation leaps forward, with Hamilton finding the change in him when he reverts to his SAS training more than a little upsetting. Burgess begins to warm up and the action scenes begin to get good - Patrick James Clarke being insanely athletic in this one. It's also very well directed.

Great script, great direction - if you want to see what Saracen could deliver, this would be where to start.

7. Tooth and Claw
Notable guest cast: None
Not an especially great episode, but this sees the first convincing bit of close-protection work by the Saracen team, there's no real Saracen cock-up for once and we get to see a car chase involving a Ford Capri and a Ford Sierra. The assassination plot is a bit daft but it's still a good bit of detective work by our team.

8. Crossfire
Notable guest cast: Derek Newark (Doctor Who), Steve McFadden(Phil off EastEnders), Lou Hirsch (My Hero)
Another one involving Arabs, here we have Barber and Duffy on separate missions, with Duffy off helping his special forces pal Hirsch, Barber protecting some Arab prince, the two plots uniting at the end.

Still, we do get to see Alice and Barber undercover as husband and wife, Barber torturing a criminal by nearly drowning him in a trench, and the action sequences are really very good.

9. Ratline
Notable guest cast: None
Barber and Duffy have to sneak into fake Eastern European country Estvan to extract a dissident in time for an awards ceremony, before returning him, all without getting caught. Except all is not as it seems.

This is a great big winding tangle of politics, with wheels within wheels, and is the closest Saracen gets to being a spy show. Almost all the characters come into their own, with Barber doing some proper spy work and guard-kicking, Alice showing off her talents again, this time by breaking into a bank and hacking its security, and Ansell showing that his skills aren't too shabby either. And Saracen show that they actually are very competent at times, except when they're up against some serious foreign spies, the baddies here being exceedingly effective.

The ending is nicely amoral and there are some lovely directorial flourishes, particularly in the scenes between Lacey and Byrne.

10. Three Blind Mice
Notable guest cast: James Grout
Another spy one that sees Barber and Duffy having to protect someone from an old enemy of Tom's, mainly at the behest of Ansell's old pal and spy master James Grout. A bit of a character piece for Duffy, it's a little silly, with Grout's presence always being implied by the stubs of his cigarettes wherever he's been. But it does have some quite subtle plotting and decent action.

11. Next Year in Jerusalem
Notable guest cast: David Ryall, Geoffrey Chater, Philip Locke
Nazi war criminal-hunter Ryall comes to London wanting Saracen protection, but no one can understand why. A very good episode, with excellent direction by Antonia Bird (Priest), it's very clever, makes some interesting points and once again concludes with a great action sequence - you'll never have seen a motorbike chase like this one before. Oh, and action-Alice makes a return.

12. Girls' Talk
Notable guest cast: Clive Francis, Christopher Benjamin, Wolf Kahler, Michael Sheard
Scientist Clive Francis is nearly blown up in his laboratory and Saracen is called in to protect him. They discover he's been having an affair with an old university friend of Alice's, but who's behind the assassination attempt?

This is principally an Alice episode, where we get to see a little of her back story (which doesn't appear to match up with what we already knew about her), but we also get to see Barber and Duffy bond a little. Worth watching simply for Lacey's look when Benjamin says "Good job blondie was here to help," but full of decent action scenes and generally clever moments.

13. Reaper
Notable guest cast: None
Quite an odd one this, with Barber's notional 'evin twin' – an international hitman played by Joleyn Baker – trying to kill a bunch of 'Shalabi' security service trainees being instructed by Barber and Duffy. The now slightly unhinged Barber and Duffy go after Baker, whom Barber served with in Northern Ireland and was lined up to work for Saracen at one point, but Baker is always one step ahead, even kidnapping Barber's son at one point. Eventually, it's up to Tom to save the day.

By this point, the crew had really got action scenes down pat and this has a particularly good fight scene. It also sees the subject of Alice and Barber's lack of romance broached, Alice standing up to Ansell and possibly the best shot of a door being kicked in you'll ever see. And Tom's a real scary bad ass in this one.

Barber and Duffy in Saracen

DVD Extras
There are a few DVD extras, including a bunch of press materials of the day saved as PDFs on the DVD-ROM section of the DVD and a slideshow of press images. There's also the pilot movie The Zero Option.

A scene from Reaper

The Zero Option
This is a real oddity. Virtually every part from The Zero Option was recast, other than Barber's son who appears in three episodes of Saracen as well, with Alice originally being a dark-haired Scot, Barber a slightly genial but wimpy posh bloke and Duffy… well, there was no Duffy, only an over the top Australian ex-marine called Carne, who admittedly had better chemistry with this Barber and looked the part as well. Inspector Morse-composer Barrington Pheloung, whose themes and incidental music give the series-proper both gravitas and an unsettling air, had nothing to do with the music either, which is why the whole thing feels like a standard movie of the week.  

But it's not bad, you get to see the origin of the Barber-Alice flirtation, and it has a very good SAS hostage rescue operation at the beginning, even if the end firefight is all a bit silly.

Conclusion
If you like intelligent action shows, I would recommend this. The first DVD is probably skippable but the remaining episodes are all pretty good (and you'll probably go back to watch the first DVD afterwards).

Recommended.

* Why is it that whenever I give a date like 1989, my brain says "Well that was only about five years ago, wasn't it?" My how time flies.

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  • clem

    [this is good] you do not know how happy i am feeling hearing this is now on dvd. loved the show. I am a 80s child and before the release of the dvd, only had one episode on vhs! brilliant news

  • SK

    Why is it that whenever I give a date like 1989, my brain says "Well that was only about five years ago, wasn't it?"

    Because time stops when you go to university. After that you just live the same few years over and over again.

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