They don’t make them like The Champions any more. A classic ITC show from the 60s, it featured three agents of the international ‘Nemesis’ organisation travelling around the world fighting dastardly evil-doers. And good old ITV4 is repeating it again, starting at 6pm tonight.
What lifted The Champions out of the ordinary and made it just so fun to watch was its premise. You’ll need to being sitting down for this one.
Our three heroes’ plane crash-lands in Tibet during the first episode. On the point of death, they get rescued by a lost civilisation, which saves their lives. But their rescuers do more. They ‘enhance’ them to the limit of human abilities. They make them as smart as Einstein, as strong as Olympic champions, able to hear the slightest sound, see in the dark and more; they even get a form of shared ESP.
I told you you’d need to be sitting down for it.
The Champions‘ somewhat silly sounding premise did at least have a good rationale behind it. Watch any TV show fight scene and often you’ll come away with the impression that all you have to do is punch someone once and they’ll fall over unconscious. In the real world, that doesn’t happen.
Wrestling with this thorny problem, which beset shows of the time including ITC’s own The Saint, the producers eventually came to the conclusion that you’d pretty much have to be super-human to knock someone out with a single punch. Couple that with a dimly recalled memory of the myth of Shangri-La and the then spy show trend (The Avengers, The Man from UNCLE, I, Spy and others were around at the time) and you have the premise of The Champions.
Apart from the superhuman theme itself, the main draw of The Champions is the interaction between the characters: Craig Stirling (Stuart Damon), Sharron Macready (Alexandra Bastedo) and Richard Barrett (William Gaunt – yes, that guy off 80s sitcom No Place Like Home), a “two guys and a girl” combination of leads that the show pioneered and which still exists in action shows to this day.
Stirling is an easy-going but intense US pilot, while Barrett is a slightly more staid character with a sardonic sense of humour. New girl Macready, still traumatised by the death of her husband, is cooler, but is able to tease as well as she is teased by her two ‘surrogate brothers’. A neophyte agent when the show begins, her character grows during the show’s run to become as steely-eyed and as competent as the others. Together, they try to do their jobs without alerting their boss Tremayne (Anthony Nicholls) to their new powers.
Unlike similarly themed shows, ‘The Champions’ don’t actually know what powers they have once they leave Tibet. Each time a new one is revealed, they’re as astonished as anyone – or embarrassed, as when they suddenly start getting extrasensory glimpses of one of their compatriots having sex, for instance. Many of the show’s opening introductions depict them exploring just what they can do, whether it’s through doing judo blindfolded or trying to beat the odds in a casino using their photographic memories and rapid calculations.
There are plenty of fun moments, some relatively good stunt work, and sets that were lavish by the standards of the time.
It’s not all great. The acting has a tendency towards the wooden, although Gaunt is always good. Many of the scripts are crime tales more or less lifted wholesale from other shows, with the occasional super-power moment added to make the plot more ‘Championsy’. There’s also far too great a reliance on submarines, hidden Nazis and trips to snowy wastes, all lovingly interspersed with stock footage from the ITC film library.
Notable episodes, however, include
- Episode 4: The Experiment: someone tries to create his own set of ‘Champions’. As a slight twist, the villain of the piece is also the narrator of all the other episodes!
- Episode 5: Happening: Barrett is trapped in ‘the Outback’ with amnesia. He has to remember who he is while learning about his powers again so he can foil a Russian plot. I’ve added quotes to the Outback, because it’s not like any version of Australia you’d actually recognise.
- Episode 18: The Interrogation: Stirling is abducted and interrogated by Tremayne, who is suspicious of his high success rate. Macready and Barrett have to help him, but without revealing their own abilities
- Episode 30: Autokill: Barrett is abducted and brainwashed into trying to kill Stirling. Notable for its rather brutal fight scenes and a ridiculous amount of blood being spilled
Give it a try, anyway. The first episode tonight is fun, if not brilliant, so don’t go in with massively high expectations. It’ll grow on you and it’s been a long time since anyone’s done escapist fun as good as The Champions.
Here are a few clips: the first is the opening intro to The Interrogation. There was a similar preface to every episode and this gives you a good idea of what the show is like.
The second is a snippet from the episode The Happening, in which Barrett uses his heightened senses to extricate himself from a difficult situation.
The last is from The Iron Man and is a nice piece of Craig, Richard and Sharron interaction. It also includes the classic opening titles, and theme tune composed by Tony Hatch. He went on to write the theme to Neighbours. How odd.
If you’d like to know more, there’s also a Wikipedia article on The Champions with some useful links. And if you can’t wait for ITV4 to get through all 30 episodes, Network has just released a special edition box set of the episodes, complete with commentaries by the stars and a documentary that reunites them all.