I’ve been “radio silent” for the last few days. Judging from the fact I used the phrase “radio silent”, you might have thought I’ve been enjoying myself watching some gung-ho escapism like The Unit. You’d have been wrong. I’ve been watching the four DVD set of The Adventurer, prior to its release on Monday.
I’m not exactly sure what I did to deserve that particular fate. Like Earl in My Name is Earl, clearly I’m balancing out some particularly evil act in a former life – I’m hoping it was in a former life, because otherwise there’s an act of genocide from my 20s I’ve repressed and you’d don’t want to be bottling that kind of thing up.
Anyway, 26 half-hour episodes of quite some of the worst early 70s television later and I’m ready to rejoin the living again. You can read my review after the break, if you want. I’m going to be out and about most of next week, so I probably won’t be blogging much, but you never know.
Where did it all start to go wrong for ITC? The long-standing producer of ITV action series during the 60s, ITC’s honour roll of classic programmes is long and varied, taking in shows such The Champions, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Saint and Danger Man. But by the early 70s, ITC started to run out of steam and if there’s one show that demonstrates the creative shortfall they company was facing, it is The Adventurer.
The Adventurer starred Gene Barry, best known as the lead in the 1953 movie The War of the Worlds and as Amos Burke in Burke’s Law, as the similarly-named Gene Bradley. A world-famous movie actor and millionaire industrialist, Bradley is also a spy, working for both US and UK governments, represented by Mr Parminter, a bowler-hatted minion of the “Ministry of External Affairs” played by Barry Morse (Space 1999, The Fugitive). Each half-hour episode would feature Bradley breaking up a criminal or espionage ring, usually with the help of one of Parminter’s other agents, sometimes by himself, all while trying to preserve his secret identity.
ITC shows were mainly the work of one production company, Scoton, formed by Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner. Scoton’s shows, the last of which was The Adventurer, had certain common themes: they were crime or spy shows, usually with some element of the extraordinary in them; they typically had one or two leads, one of whom was American for international sales purposes; and they used many of the same writers, directors, actors and crews, so there was often a certain similarity of styles and scripts between series.
The Adventurer was no different and suffered from certain problems right from the beginning as a result. The concept of a millionaire playboy who fights crime had already been well-covered by Scoton’s previous shows Jason King, The Persuaders!, The Saint and The Baron. Apart from the movie-star angle, there was little to differentiate Bradley from his predecessors other than the fact Gene Barry was playing him.
Then there was the episode length. Lumbered with a half-hour run-time, thanks to a back-to-back slot with The Protectors in the US, there was very little time to fit in the plots of the show, let alone any character exploration that could have fixed this problem. How Bradley earned his money, became a spy and became a movie star are never explained. To fit the needs of the plot, his character alternates between constantly refusing to do anything for Parminter because he’d rather be sunbathing or dining “with the ladies”, and badgering Parminter to take on various cases he’s been investigating in his spare time. The only common thread is that Bradley is adored by millions, including himself – not a particularly good starting point for a hero.
Then there was the star himself. Barry was 52 by the time the show started filming in 1971, and was definitely past his prime. Even with a slightly unconvincing wig, Barry was implausible as an action figure who could knock out dozens of men in a fight; and his constant chasing of women half his age while draped in the latest 70s’ fashions didn’t add to the realism either.
Scoton had originally intended the 34 year-old Stuart Damon, the American lead of The Champions, to fix this problem. Damon was to have looked after most of the action scenes while Barry provided the brains and the expertise. Unfortunately, Damon suffered from a serious disability that resulted in his barely appearing in even the two episodes for which he’s credited, let alone the whole series, despite having a year’s contract with the show.
Damon’s crippling disability was his height. At 6’3“, he dwarfed the significantly sub-6’ Gene Barry. Barry took one look at Damon at their initial meeting and Damon’s chance at UK stardom evaporated in an instant. (A regular pay cheque from the US soap General Hospital for the next 40 or so years has helped ease his pain though.)
In his place came a rotating roster of much shorter assistants for Barry, the most featured of which was Garrick Hagon (Moonbase 3) sporting a not-totally convincing American accent. Catherine Schell (Space:1999), originally intended as a regular female companion for Bradley, proved to be too tall for Barry as well. She ended up sitting down for virtually all of her scenes with Barry until she was summarily expunged from the show. Thanks to some confusion among the writers, she was able to return for a couple of episodes later in the season that didn’t involve any interaction with the star.
With no other characters for the show to focus on, the show very much hinged on Barry. Although Barry managed to develop some repartee with Morse as the series progressed – leading the producers to give Morse directing duties on several episodes – he was never ever able to bring any real depth or charm to his performance, a fatal flaw with so much depending on him.
If the usual Scoton magic had been working, the creative team might have been able to lift the show to a higher level. But like its foundations, the show’s creative trappings were pretty uninspiring. The scripts were at best generic and at worst utterly forgettable. The directing was pedestrian, despite the presence of stalwarts like Val Guest and Cyril Frankel. The titles were little more than a montage of action scenes and of Barry looking important and a little unfit, making them distinctly unmemorable.
Easily the best part of the whole series in fact is the theme tune by John Barry, which is still practically a carbon copy of his theme for The Persuaders!.
Perhaps the only other real virtue of the show was in its use of location filming. ITC was infamous for its use of stock footage and backdrops to simulate its supposedly exotic locations. It was a trend that changed in the 70s, with The Persuaders! able to muster up shoots in Italy and the South of France. The Adventurer, despite its short run-time managed to shoot an enviable number of episodes overseas, with France, The Netherlands and Germany all getting a visit from cast and crew alike. It was only when faced with locations like India and Istanbul that Scoton returned to their film library for some suitable inserts.
With that level of mediocrity, it’s hard to pick any outstanding entries in the 26-episode canon. While almost every ITC show had at least one fondly remembered, stand-out episode, you’d be hard-pushed to find anything that could even be called above-average. But there are a few that are at least a little better than the rest.
Probably the best of the episodes is Brian Clemens’ ”Action!“, which sees Bradley getting the full Ipcress treatment and being brainwashed into shooting an American general. Its pat resolution undermines much of the set-up, but it’s still more interesting that most of the other episodes combined.
”Double Exposure“ features a theme that’s also used in ”Make it a Million“ – an impostor who’s an exact duplicate of the real person. Bradley finds out an old friend of his has been replaced by a duplicate and has to expose the fake while rescuing the real Jan de Groote. This involves roping in his own stunt double, also played by Barry using a ‘cockney’ accent that makes you hanker after the authenticity of Dick Van Dyke’s. (The accent returns for ”Mr. Calloway Is A Very Cautious Man“ and implausibly is good enough to fool Parminter into thinking it’s someone other Bradley. You wouldn’t forget that accent in a hurry, believe me.)
The Dutch location filming and car chase of ”Double Exposure“ lift it above other similar episodes, but its re-use of another standard Adventurer theme – getting the villain to confess everything while a group of police officers are hiding behind nearby twigs – again undermines the preceding acts.
”Going, going…“ has Bradley fighting his own team to get to the secrets being offered by a foreign chemist. It has a couple of interesting character moments and one of Burt Kwouk’s (The Pink Panther) two appearances as generic Oriental characters in the series, but has no real pay-off other than yet another demonstration of Bradley’s immense cleverness.
”The Case of the Poisoned Pawn“ is the worst offender in that particular category. What could potentially have been an extremely interesting set-up for a story is eventually wasted through a combination of run-time and the overwhelming need of the show to make Bradley omnipotent. Asked by Parminter to break a young gambler by beating him at poker, Bradley ends up accepting a rematch, but this time at chess. The problem is that his victim is an Oxford chess blue and Bradley hasn’t played chess since he was 15. While there could have been a hundred interesting conclusions to this particular plot, Philip Broadley’s script has Bradley beating his opponent through simple skill and a week’s training by his butler. It turns out he could have been a grandmaster if only he’d practiced harder…
The two most enjoyable episodes have a common theme: they don’t feature Bradley in any significant role. ”I’ll Get There Sometime“ and ”The Solid Gold Hearse“, which also features the series’ only good fight scene, see Bradley either filming a movie or stuck in various airports during Parminter’s hours of need. So the bowler-hatted one goes into the field with Schell and Hagon, Bradley phoning in advice at appropriate moments. Hagon and Schell both shine in their expanded roles and Morse gets to ham it up magnificently. The two episodes are a glimpse at a better show that could have been made if only some different decisions had been taken. The scripts still aren’t fantastic, but at least there’s a bit more of the fun that made The Adventurer’s predecessors so much more enjoyable.
In fact, there’s only one Bradley-focused episode that could be called intentionally fun. There’s a strong comedic thread running throughout ”Return to Sender“, but the most notable element of it is the fight scene, in which Bradley’s trademark ”grab something above you, hang on, then kick the bad guys“ manoeuvre lands him flat on his back. Unfortunately, it’s inadvertently ruined by an earlier character moment, in which an unsuspecting child who wants Bradley’s autograph is fobbed off with an envelope he didn’t even write. If there’s a moment that sums up the character and the series, that would be it.
There’s a surprisingly large number of extras spread across the four disks in the set. Alongside promotional stills and photos from various episodes, there’s a complete set of variant title sequences on one disk, ranging from a transfer from a 35mm version of the titles to a rough cut of the planned Italian titles which used a very ill-judged alternative theme, complete with song.
There are also three featurettes specially shot for DVD. The first of these is supposedly an introduction by Catherine Schell to the series from the ITC50 DVD set, but amounts to little more than an anecdote about how no one had ever asked her if she could drive before they sat her behind the wheel of a car.
The second features interviews with both Stuart Damon and Catherine Schell about Damon’s non-appearance in the show. As with the third, which is a discussion with Morse about his role in the series, the actors are united in their dislike of Barry and discuss at length his alleged problems dealing with anyone taller than himself. Schell makes frequent comments about Barry’s reliance on idiot boards while Damon is clearly still amazed that both Barry and Scoton/Monty Berman ended up treating him so badly for being of above-average height.
Morse is equally candid about his feelings on Barry’s limitations. Having directed Barry in the show as well as acting with him, Morse is able to explain the techniques he used to get Barry to play nicely, most of which seem to involve explaining in mind-numbing detail exactly what he wanted Barry to do in each shot.
Both featurettes, incidentally, carry a disclaimer that Barry declined an invitation to participate in their filming.
While the featurettes don’t exactly flesh out any of the production history or the creative process behind The Adventurer, and obviously miss a trick by leaving out both Barry and Hagon, they are at least moderately amusing, right down to their recreation of the show’s end titles.
Sound and picture
Picture quality is pretty poor, mainly due to the series having been shot on 16mm – the 35mm title sequence footage is visibly better quality than any of the episodes’. Sound quality is good, however.
The Adventurer is pretty forgettable, both in terms of the episodes and in terms of TV history. At most, it marks the beginning of the end for the ”ITC era“ and demonstrates how the demands of a star can end up fatally wounding a production. For completists only.