The Ingrid Pitt Column: spies of the 60s

Ingrid takes a look back at some of the spies that helped define the 60s...

Ingrid Pitt

Whether the Sixties was a good time overall is an ongoing debate. There is one field in which there is no doubt. The Sixties was the decade when the ‘Spy’ genre and its siblings flourished. The threat of the Reds under the bed and Apocalypse being nigh was very real and it was reassuring to have brave, competent, super-patriots keeping the West safe for Democracy. Even if some of the shows took a lot of belief suspension. More pleasing was the fact that so many of these flag flutterers came from British studios – with the odd American leading man.

One of the first troubled heroes to flicker into life, in 1960, was the stone faced Patrick McGoohan in Danger Man. His day job was as a fast moving travel agent. Away from the posters for cheap trips to Benidorm, John Drake was a gadget loving agent for HMG in M9. Danger Man was hard and committed and inspired McGoohan and David Tomlin, to create the iconic and puzzling The Prisoner series, in 1967.

This was made in the holiday village of Portmeiron in Wales. It is never divulged what the purpose of the gilded prison is, but if our man tried to get away he was pursued and engulfed by a rampant blancmange. Head Warden (in-mate?) was known as Number 1 and played by various well known actors. McGoohan’s frequent claims that “I am not a number” were because names were forbidden in the village and he was Number 6. The cry was often heard in the school playgrounds of Britain in the 60s.

In ’61 there was the somewhat confused evolution of The Avengers. Originally a vehicle for Ian Hendry, playing the wronged Dr. David Keel seeking revenge for the loss of the love of his life, the distraught doctor was left behind when John Steed (Patrick Macnee), a cuckoo-in-the-nest secondary character, ushered in a series of high profile women. The leather clad ladies and Patrick Macnee’s bowler and umbrella kept the show in focus to become the longest running British thriller series ever made. Even hatched an offspring, The New Avengers, a decade later.

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Another icon to hit the small screen in ’61 was the dare-devil Simon Templar. The Saint had been appearing in books and films since Leslie Charteris penned Meet The Tiger in 1920. He wasn’t an agency man but would help out if the situation demanded it. Roger Moore fitted smoothly into the part and the appearance of his quiff and angelic halo, in 1962, was dreaded by the evil doers.

American studios best throw for the period was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and dissident Russian, Yuri Kuryakin (David McCallum). The ill-assorted duo used uninvented technology while yanking the planet from the brink of annihilation and swapping wisecracks. Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, as tennis playing hustlers Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, in ’65, did very much the same sort of thing only in white tennis shorts.

In 1966 instructions were given via a recording, to super agent, John Phelps, offering an opt-out if he didn’t fancy the job and to stand clear as the tape was going to self destruct in five seconds. The stories for Mission Impossible were highly imaginative and, indeed, impossible.

Against such fearsome opposition ITC Entertainment launched Department S.

Department S was a department of Interpol which operated along lines which shifted with every episode. Up-front man was the wiry Peter Wyngarde who had the chameleon gene and mutated throughout the series. There were 28 episodes between 1969-70 created by Dennis Spooner and Monty Berman. Among the actual writers were stalwarts Philip Broadley (who died recently) and Terry Nation of Dalek fame. The lead-in to the programme started with the legend, “When a case proves too baffling for the minds of Interpol they turn to the talents of Department S.” I should think that was enough to get Interpol rattling Wyngarde’s cage whenever he stepped ashore in some foreign clime without any other little hostages to fortune the energetic Peter might toss their way.

The strong point of Department S is that it is character driven rather than an ensemble piece. Although there are three lead characters, Jason King, Stewart Sullivan (American Joel Fabianni) and Annabelle Hurst (Rosemary Nicols) they all bounce off Wyngarde. It is alleged that King is based on Bond creator, Ian Fleming. King is a writer of note and his novels have a very Bond-like leading character, Simon Caine. King rather fancies himself as his fictional hero, Caine, and when in doubt or danger, relies on his creation to get him out of trouble. Sullivan is down to earth, firm jawed, leading man material. He can’t quite cope with the dandified Brit but acknowledges his ability while being less than thrilled with King’s often high-handed manner. Rosemary Nicols is sweet. The perfect foil for both men in her life. She is a hi-tech computer expert before computers were high tech. She could invade dark caverns of the computer brain that are still unfathomable.

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Head of Department S is Sir Curtis Seretse. A bold move by ITC put Dennis Alaba Peters in command of the agents and signalled a massive step forward for how non-white actors were cast in future shows. The creators, Berman and Spooner, showed their more whimsical side in Department S. This was their signature style which they improved and enlarged in follow-up series for ITC such as The Champions and Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased). Some of the bits of business in Department S could easily be inserted into the later shows without showing the seam.

The first episode, aired in September 1969, was typical of those that were to follow. Instead of the standby plots of how the murder was committed in a locked room or who killed Aunt Maud in the potting shed, the premise of the story is the poser of where the passengers on the jet flight into London have been for the last six days.

Everything aboard the aircraft seems to be as it should be if the flight had been on schedule. The pilot even thinks the tail wind from Karachi has gained him half an hour. (I would have had the pilot banged up immediately. Tail winds are prevalent from the west – not the east.) Questioned, the passengers swear to a man, and woman, that the flight has been absolutely normal. The amount of fuel left in the tanks seems to bear witness to nothing being out of order. Just the annoying fact that everyone who wasn’t aboard the flight keep insisting the lost six days have nothing to do with them.

It’s enough to have the numbskulls of Interpol getting shirty, sweaty and running their hands through their hair. However, they do not seem mightily grateful when Beau King nonchalantly strolls onto the scene and treats them as if they are something nasty he has stepped in on the way to the investigation. He soon discovers something that has gone unnoticed by Interpol’s grade D tecs. Each of the passengers, except one, has a peculiar bruise on their arm. This sends Annabelle into a flurry of activity on the computer keyboard and Stewart flexes his muscles. But it is King who puts the jigsaw together and finds the answers.

Other episodes investigated by the ill-assorted trio have equally implausible McGuffins. A beauty queen who wakes up in a deserted village, a mystery woman who is seen at the site of a tanker crash but disappears, a golf champion whose golf clubs are stolen after he is murdered and a number of diplomats, who are healthy and virile one minute and skeletons the next, are all grist for the Department‘s shredder.

When the series finally ran out of grits there was just one man standing. Peter Wyngarde had made such an outstanding job of Jason King that Lew Grade, boss of ITV, had Spooner and Berman dream up a special series featuring King as an investigator with even more outrageous costumes and a bouncier bouffant.

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At first King, now a successful writer, doesn’t want to go back into the sleuthing business but is coerced into his flares by the ubiquitous man from the ministry, played by the unctuous Dennis Price, under pain of being arrested for tax evasion. The series was called Jason King.

I guested on one of the episodes as the eponymous Nadine. I was a little surprised when Peter knocked on the door of my dressing room just after I arrived on location. When I opened it he lounged against the door post and said in a friendly manner, “Any chance of a quick f**k?” I later found out this was his usual greeting – no matter what the gender. I don’t know what his success rate was but in 1972 he was voted the man to whom most woman would like to dedicate their virginity.

Jason King, in many ways was just an extension of Department S. After this series returned to the more tough and gritty type of spy thrillers like le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.

Somehow, since the sixties, the romantic and light comedy thriller has been binned or sold its soul to the big screens of filmland. Although the Department S hero has not been entirely forgotten. The camped up Austin Powers series of movies seem to owe a lot to Jason King.

And Peter Wyndgarde’s one liners.

This is a bit of a swansong from me, as the column is taking a break for a while. A big thank you to anybody and everybody who took the time to read my blather. Especially all those who were double-nice and added a comment. But no tears. Just a limp-wristed flutter of your damp hanky will do. And maybe a sotto voce rendering of Vera Lynn’s belter. All together, “We’ll meet again…”

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Last week’s Ingrid Pitt column is here.