Anyone interested in the history of British television will be aware of Lew Grade’s company, ITC. Dominating the 50s, 60s and 70s with shows such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Danger Man, The Saint, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, The Prisoner, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Jesus of Nazareth, and Sapphire and Steel, ITC was a production powerhouse, the likes of which we’ll probably never see again.
Robert Sellers book, Cult TV: The Golden Age of ITC, attempts to chronicle at least some of that history. With a foreword by Sir Roger Moore and an afterword by Gerry Anderson, the book includes interviews with many of the shows’ surviving stars and production staff and provides some insight into their continuing success as cult television, even if it’s not the perfect .
Giving full or even partial details about every ITC show ever made would be an almost impossible task for a single volume, as the book’s own “TV-ography” appendix confirms. Instead, Cult TV starts with a brief look at Lew Grade’s career and the establishment of ITC before it pushes on with a whirlwind tour of the top-name shows that most people associate with ITC, as well as some of the minor shows that were important historically, but are not as fondly remembered today.
After clearing the 1950s’ historical epics (Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, The Buccaneers, William Tell, HG Wells’ Invisible Man) in a single chapter, the book settles down slightly to give a whole chapter to the revolutionary Danger Man and The Saint.
Since we’re (scarily) 50 to 60 years after the event, it’s not surprising that Sellers has access to few of the original stars, relying instead on newspaper interviews of the time, as well as his own interviews of the shows’ guest stars. Nevertheless, he does get Conrad Phillips (William Tell), William Russell (Sir Lancelot) and Roger Moore (Simon Templar, aka The Saint) to recall some of their finest hours. It’s all a little ‘surface’ and if you’ve never watched the shows, you’re not really going to get much of a feel for them from the book. But it’s all interesting stuff.
Later chapters benefit greatly from access to more of the stars, although Patrick McGoohan proves as reclusive as always. The book does have a tendency to skip around and over things that prove inconvenient, with UFO and Space 1999 mysteriously getting their own chapter before the earlier Jason King, Persuaders and Protectors, for example.
It’s hard not to think, however, that Sellers only wants to write about the shows and actors for which he has a personal enthusiasm, rather than chronicle the most important shows. He gets some genuinely amusing nuggets about Wyngarde for example from director Cyril Frankel:
“My job was to control him and stop him from going too far,” the director claims. “Occasionally, he might say to me, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be good if I had a falcon on my arm?’ And I would say, ‘No.’ ‘Oh,’ he’d say, ‘you’re so mediocre.'”
But he has an odd habit of wiping people from history if he can’t get access to them or anecdotes about them. While the Department S section has the double coup of interviews with both Peter Wyngarde (who played the Austin Powers-eque Jason King) and Joel Fabiani (Stewart Sullivan, the token American), Rosemary Nicols gets a somewhat uncomplimentary solitary paragraph and Dennis Alaba Peters, the department’s head and the first black authority figure in any show of the time, doesn’t even get a mention – he’s not even listed as a regular in the appendix. Strange Report‘s Kaz Garas is referred to only as the “American assistant” except in a photo caption, and neither he nor Anneke Wills, Strange’s other assistant, get listed as series regulars at the back, although she does at least get a name-check in the main text.
Indeed, Strange Report is one of a whole crop of shows missed out of the main narrative and relegated to a chapter at the end. While it and The Baron are certainly strong candidates for skipping over, if indeed skipping is something that should be done in an authoritative history, The Adventurer, for example, while really quite awful, is important as a show that pretty much spelled the end of the ITC style of spy/action shows until Return of the Saint put the final nail in that particular coffin. An even more unfortunate few don’t even get that much, with long forgotten shows like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Fury, and O.S.S. as well as ITC’s final show, Shillingbury Tales, only getting a listing in the appendix. Quite why some overlooked shows deserve a chapter and others don’t isn’t quite clear.
I don’t think Cult TV should be looked upon as much more than a good overview of some ITC shows. It contains inaccuracies and omissions that you wouldn’t get in an Andrew Pixley book. There are fuller looks at almost all the shows mentioned in books and back issues of Time Screen. There’s no index and anyone looking for episode guides had better go elsewhere. It also a little cheap, its poorly leaded text and black and white photos make it look more like a bit of vanity publishing than something put out by a professional company.
Nevertheless – and I appreciate there are a lot of criticisms there – it is a very enjoyable and interesting read for anyone interested in British TV history. If you need an introduction to ITC, it’ll stand you in good stead, although you’ll need to keep in mind there are considerable gaps in the text that you’ll need to fill in with information from elsewhere. If you’re already an ITC aficionado, you’ll still find things you didn’t already know or that should entertain.