“The Persuaders!” was one of the last in a string of very popular action-adventure series produced for the British TV mogul Lew Grade and his renowned company ITC Entertainment, throughout the 1960s and onward into the early part of the ‘70s. Although the Gerry Anderson-backed half-hour series “The Protectors” later followed it, and the late-‘70s also brought forth the ill-advised “The Return of the Saint” with Ian Ogilvy in the title role, “The Persuaders!” represented the high point for a particularly glossy, formulaic approach to popular TV drama that had proved itself a reliable ratings winner at home and abroad for a number of years, and which saw the principle players in the production team behind “The Saint” now reconvening to come up with an all-star, expensive-looking, buddy-buddy format show, pairing the big name Hollywood actor Tony Curtis with the UK’s most bankable TV star at the time, Roger Moore.
The show was produced for ITC by a company called Tribune Productions, consisting of the main players behind “The Saint”, namely show deviser and main producer Robert S. Baker and executive producer Johnny Goodman, with former “Saint” star Roger Moore himself credited as second executive producer. Moore also stepped up to direct three episodes of ”The Persuaders!” out of the twenty-four that were made in total, before he left TV for good at the end of the run, having landed himself the plum career-making film role of James Bond. Despite being by far the most expensive of all Lew Grade’s series in this vein (mainly because of the combined salaries of Moore and Curtis’) and a popular success at home and in Australia, and despite being sold all around the world, the show failed to make a dent against “Mission Impossible” when ABC pitted the series against it in the schedules stateside. The show’s main accent was very much on light comedy, mixed with sumptuous production values and exotic locations based around Europe (which some say might be another factor in its failure to resonate with an American audience); the stories tended to revolve around light crime capers and to rely on contrived tongue-in-cheek plots which often in turn depended on well-worn devices such as a case of mistaken identity etc.; all of them are very much secondary to the foregrounding of the relationship between the two leads, who are each playing exaggerated versions of themselves while foregrounding a side of them that provides a heightened comedic account of class and cultural divergence in Anglo-US relations as they might commonly have been experienced in the early 1970s.
The very first episode of the series beautifully encapsulates all the qualities one tends to remember most when thinking about the show today – to such an exaggerated extent indeed, that it is quite startling to note that a large proportion of the episodes that follow it are not set on the French Riviera or in Rome or Stockholm at all, but in the UK -- in similar-looking types of leafy, hedge-lined country lane locations or elegant central London Mews squares one is so used to seeing on quintessentially British series such as “The Avengers”. The main point is though, that whenever the co-leads jet off to pursue their flamboyant playboy ‘buddy’ lifestyle of gambling, wine, women and expensive clothes (Moore designed his suits and clothes and used the series as virtually a live catalogue with which to advertise his cloth manufacturing interests) the show really does up sticks to go film in the relevant locations, immediately imbuing the episodes with a much more cinematic, glossy quality than is encountered on other, similar themed shows of the period. Previous ITC series -- notably “The Saint” -- would simply resort to using a few stock footage-derived establishing shots before resuming filming the rest of the material on the same backlot at Elstree Studios as per usual. “The Persuaders” actually got to shoot on location in Italy and Monaco when the stories called for it, with interiors filmed later at Pinewood Studios in London.
The first episode, “Overture”, introduces the specific format, then very succinctly sums up the two main characters in a nicely edited opening titles montage sequence, while establishing an aesthetic which is wholly founded in an exaggerated jet-set lifestyle and the privileging of a type of consumerist opulence which now imparts the series with something of its camp, safari-suits-and-medallions quality -- although this is not as pronounced a feature when the show returns to the dozen or so stories that are set in the UK, where the emphasis then tends to be placed on Curtis’s Bronx-raised character, Danny Wilde, attempting to negotiate upper-class British mores, as exemplified by Moore’s arch portrayal of the aristocratic Lord Brett Sinclair.
“Overture” opens by establishing each of the two leads as flamboyant, woman-chasing playboy millionaires flitting about the Mediterranean coast on an extended sabbatical while staying in expensive hotels surrounded by women half their age. Brian Clemens was commissioned to write it and veteran director Basil Dearden (“The League of Gentlemen” , “Victim” ) employed to direct after having recently worked with Roger Moore on the doppelganger themed thriller “The Man Who Haunted Himself”. Dearden had been one of the first British film directors to augment his feature film career by taking up directing jobs on episodes of already established TV series. “The Persuaders!” also employs such luminaries of the British film industry as Roy Ward Baker (Quatermass and the Pit”), Sidney Hayers (“Night of the Eagle”), Leslie Norman (“X The Unknown”), Val Guest (“The Quatermass Xperiment”), Peter Hunt (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) and Peter Medak (“The Changeling”). The fact that many of these directors and others such as James Hill, along with writer Brian Clemens, series script editor Terry Nation and production designer Harry Pottle, had been instrumental in forging the style and format of “The Avengers” during the Diana Rigg era, perhaps accounts for the distinctive Avengery Britishness of some of the UK-set episodes later on.
But no other episode quite manages to convey what is the series’ most overt attempt to place Moore and Curtis as jet setting woman magnets steeped in late-sixties signifiers of youth culture (i.e, they go in for extremely loud shirts, leather jackets and flamboyant neck scarves, fast sports cars in sunny climes and excessively camp discothèque dancing) as this lushly cinematic, over-the-top series opener, in which a somewhat feeble story plays second fiddle to cementing Moore and Curtis’ undeniable on-screen chemistry.
The episode cunningly doles out some typical ITC-style intrigue with a pre-credit sequence in which the semi-regular character whose machinations bring the two together in the first place, the retired former Judge Fulton (Laurence Naismith), engineers their meeting precisely because he knows it will produce a combustible situation which will give him the hold over the two millionaires he needs in order to ‘persuade’ them to work for him. The opening half of the episode drops any story development and is taken up with showcasing the fact that both men have exactly the same wildly excessive lifestyle but have arrived at it through quite different means: Brett Sinclair (Moore) the privileged gent, has inherited his fortune and his seat in the House of Lords; when we first see him here, zooming into Niece airport in an attractive yellow-orange Austin Martin, he’s dressed foppishly in garish turquoise shirt and neck scarf as he drops off a bevy of nubile beauties who’ve been hitching a lift in his backseat. But, in doing so, he’s blocking the exit for self-made American oil millionaire Danny Wilde’s uber-sleek red Ferrari! Unlike the effete Sinclair, Wilde is a Bronx-born street hustler who has broken out of the usual cycle of poverty through a stint in the navy, and who has gone on to make (and lose) several fortunes in the oil industry.
Thus the series starts out as an antagonistic tussle between inherited privilege represented by the English aristocracy, and the ‘anyone-can-make-it-through-hard-work philosophy’ of the American dream. The title sequence, with its gorgeous John Barry composed theme tune, succinctly illustrates all this with a split screen summation of each character’s individual life course (a Harrow and Oxford education followed by dissolute playboy lifestyle, Formula One driving, and the ownership of pedigree racehorses for Brett; rough New York tenements, a service in the Navy, then wheeling and dealing in the oil industry for Danny) which both converge on a friendship spent in Monte Carlo’s most opulent casinos, and drinking champagne surrounded by women in fur wraps and diamond necklaces, etc.
Although the first half of this episode emphases the rivalry and one-upmanship that has its origins in Brett and Danny’s differences in background, and sees them racing their expensive sport’s cars along the French Rivera in an elaborate four-way split screen sequence accompanied by a grating but catchy Tony Hatch-penned ditty, sung by Jackie Trent (nowhere else does the series look more like a car commercial than here) and then having a comic knock-about physical fist fight in an expensive restaurant, the two soon become best buddies; that’s because both share the trait that Fulton has identified when plotting to bring them together in the first place – a lust for adventure and excitement.
Although Fulton initially blackmails them into helping him solve a trivial racketeering case in this episode, thereafter the two are never far apart and as the title sequence ends by showing us, enjoy a very close relationship marked by constant banter and micky-taking but which is ultimately based on a mutual respect. Actually, that title sequence comes across as quite camp, with Brett and Danny pictured laughing and joking and waving at each other whilst water-skiing side-by-side etc. If it weren’t for the fact that they’re also shown sharing an ogle at a bikini-clad beauty (Moore’s eyebrow acting is already in plain sight) some viewers might be tempted to interpret the closeness of their relationship in a different way!
There are occasional episodes here in which something happens to cause a rift between the two (“Someone Like Me” sees Brett either brainwashed or an exact double produced who then tries to kill Danny, while the episode “Angie … Angie” has the two fall out over an old childhood pal of Danny’s whom Brett suspects of being a hired hit man) these are always the more sombre, serious episodes in the run. Most of the rest of the time, the show’s writers have a whale of a time sending up the lavish consumer lifestyle the two lead, in a series of otherwise fairly standard crime stories, mysteries and espionage conspiracies. Many of the episodes which are set in England (“Greensleeves”,”Someone Like Me”, “A Home of One’s Own”, “A Death in the Family”) are also structured very similarly to late-period Avengers, with the main difference being the physical comedy and often semi-improvised banter between Curtis and Moore. The episode “Anyone Can Play” even includes a Steed-like spy who dresses with the traditional bowler hat and umbrella (this one’s set in the slightly less exotic location of Brighton, with location shooting on Brighton pier).
The trend reaches its apotheosis in “A Death in the Family” which starts off as a pastiche of “Kind Hearts and Coronets” with Moore playing multiple roles as various members of the elderly Sinclair lineage, who are each being killed off one by one (Moore drags up at one point for a cameo as Aunt Agatha, and Curtis ends the episode by dragging up to play his own middle-aged cousin in a scene which is more scary than comic!) by a killer who wants to accelerate his own claim to the Sinclair inheritance. The episode ends up following exactly the formula of the Diana Rigg/Linda Thorson era colour episodes of “The Avengers”, with enjoyable and colourful guest appearances from Willy Rushton and Denholm Elliot. All of the 24 episodes also stand out for the quality of the guest stars, particularly the female guest appearances, which read like a roll-call of top British starlets from the era: Joan Collins, Susan George, Jenny Hanley, Imogen Hassall, Anouska Hempel, Suzy Kendall, Valerie Leon, Kate O’Mara, Catherine Schell, Madeline Smith, Melissa Stribling, Yutte Stensgaard, Diane Cilento – the list could go on and on!
“The Persuaders!” is classic ITC entertainment. The era for such shows had probably just passed by the time the show came to British and American screens in the early ‘70s, when its excessive concentration on the portrayal of the lavish lifestyles of the mega rich with all their consumer trappings of expensive sports cars, campaign and exotic holidays in perpetually sunny regions of Southern France might possibly have begun to seem rather tasteless in the grim context of the economic reality of life in Edward Heath’s Britain for most of the country’s population! And besides, by the mid-seventies spiralling inflation had made the kinds of budgets routinely seen on the show now increasingly beyond the ken of TV producers. Nevertheless, the show emerges as one of the best of the ITC bunch, with Moore and Curtis at the top of their game and those top class production values now really paying off in the HD format. To put it simply, these high definition restorations are some of the best I’ve ever seen for vintage TV releases. All twenty-four episodes look absolutely immaculate and pristine with excellent fine detail in fabrics and furnishings visible, and total clarity of image throughout. The mono soundtracks are similarly robust.
Network have put an enormous amount of effort into making this mammoth set definitive, and seem to have rounded up every conceivable piece of ephemera that could possibly be connected to the series for inclusion among the extras, which are mostly congregated on disc six but some of which can also be found in various scatterings all across the 8-disc set. There is the usual complement of commentaries and documentaries of course, but every image ever captured that relates in any way to Moore and Curtis’ involvement with the show can be found in a plethora of photo galleries distributed among the discs as well: we have individual episode production still galleries, actor portrait galleries, publicity shot galleries and merchandise galleries galore, as well as extensive behind the scenes and film offcuts and trims for many of the episodes – many of which have only recently come to light. A previously unseen alternate cut of the title sequence is included; alternate French end titles; commercial break bumps; and script PDFs. There is footage from a series of European promotional films, recorded on the set of the episode “A Death in the Family” with Moore and Curtis seated in a Chinese restaurant as they read through a promo script in French, Spanish and German. There are foreign trailers from the US and Italy and a bizarre promotional film for the 1970s Top of the Pops dance troupe Pan’s People, set to John Barry’s theme music.
More substantial extras have been rounded up from the TV archives and provide us with some fascinating 1970s contemporary footage: we have what looks like factory employee silent home movie footage of Tony Curtis visiting a car factory and test-driving a Lagonda; a short piece of black and white film featuring Roger Moore being interviewed on the set of the series by a French TV crew; and another black and white puff piece which seems to be a news feature about Roger Moore’s role as a design consultant and salesman for Yorkshire cloth! There’s some lengthier colour video footage of Tony Curtis receiving two awards for “The Persuaders!” at the 1972 Sun awards (“The Sun” newspaper, that is) in which he shares the award for best actor with Edward Woodward for his role in “Callan”; and then there’s an odd French documentary, shot on the set of the show and including interviews with Moore, Curtis and guest star Terry Thomas, which is distinguished by the nervous interviewer, whose baffling questions are delivered in broken English throughout. A lengthy interview with Curtis from a few years after the show aired, conducted by the habitually annoying chat show host Russell Harty, is included -- which only serves to make one ponder why he wasn’t clouted by his guests more often (Grace Jones once memorably punched him out, live on air!) and there is also inclusion of the footage from an on-screen reunion between Moore and Curtis recorded for the almost-as-annoying Alan Titchmarsh show. The last two discs of the set are devoted to the four feature length movie versions (really just two or three of the standard 50 minute episodes edited together) and the attendant trailers for each of them.
In addition to all this material, disc six also includes a specially commissioned documentary retrospective called “The Morning After: Remembering The Persuaders!” which luckily includes interviews with Tony Curtis and director Roy Ward Baker caught before their recent deaths, making this a definitive look back at the series. Contributions also come thick and fast from Roger Moore, series deviser Robert S. Baker and executive producer Johnny Goodman as well as production manager Malcolm Christopher and assistant director Ken Baker. Brian Clemens also appears here, since it was he who wrote the series pilot. The background to the series is talked thorough and Curtis and Moore talk about how they approached the development of their individual characters. There is a surprising amount of frank discussion about Curtis’ behaviour during the making of the series with Goodman kicking things off with an anecdote about the actor being caught with cannabis on his person at Heathrow airport when he flew in to start filming. Roy Ward Baker describes Curtis as being ‘one of the awkward squad’ and there are various anecdotes from almost everyone participating, all of which hinge on the actor’s changeable moods and how difficult he could be to handle. Even Curtis himself relates a story about co-star Joan Collins, which ends with him calling her a cunt! About the only person who remains discreet about the temperamental star is his co-lead, Roger Moore: the two always play off each other very well on screen, and Moore seems to have been easy-going and confident enough to take Curtis’ eccentricities in his stride, probably already knowing that he was a shoe-in for the James Bond role once the series finished shooting. Interestingly, though both Moore and Curtis talk about the American star’s constant ad-libbing, Robert S. Baker sees Moore as the better ad-libber of the two since he was able to bring any improvisation back to the script, while Curtis was chaotic and did something completely different in every take, making life extremely difficult for the continuity girls. The documentary is a frank and entertaining blow-by-blow account of the making of the series and covers all the more memorable episodes of the twenty-four that were shot in total.
Finally, disc six features an hour long audio interview with Johnny Goodman, conducted by Alan Sapper for BECTU’s oral history project. This is part of a special initiative started up by long term members of the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematographs & Theatre Union, with the intent of gathering an oral record of the recollections and memories of people from the industry to preserve as a history of film and TV production in the UK, and covering the work of areas of the industry often neglected in conventional production histories such as the editors, sound recordists and electricians etc. Goodman covers lots of ground here in an unbroken flow of anecdotes and recollections from a career that spans working at HTV, his association with Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman at ITC and his time at Euston Films when it was making successful shows such as “Minder”. It’s a fascinating in-depth record of a long and varied career with some wonderful recollections; one stand out is a description of a meeting with the first Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert, alongside the equally famous British TV producer Jeremy Isaacs, where he describes her as ‘this bird with a fag dangling from her mouth, trailing a fur coat behind her.’
There are two commentaries for the opening episode of the series, “Overture”. The first features Moore and Curtis, and the second series creator Robert S. Baker and executive producer Johnny Goodman. The two lead actors appear not to have recorded their tracks at the same time, or at least it comes over that way – there is no verbal interaction between them at all, although they don’t overlap or repeat the same material at any point. I’m guessing Moore recorded a track first and Curtis used his comments as a guide afterwards. In any case, this is a fairly entertaining commentary with both actors sounding upbeat about their experience on the series. The second commentary is equally positive although it contains a lot more behind the scenes information, including Baker’s original intention of casting Rock Hudson in the role of Danny Wilde! Goodman and Baker are joined by Malcolm Christopher and Ken Baker with Roger Moore phoning in from his home in Monaco for a commentary on the episode “A Death in the Family”. The producers tend to repeat the same Tony Curtis anecdotes at length but this “Kind Hearts and Coronets” spoof also afforded Roger Moore the opportunity of dressing up as a number of characters, each supposedly related to Lord Brett Sinclair, and Goodman relates a story about not realising that one of the extras who was giving him a hard time on the set one morning, was in fact Roger in heavy make-up!
The set also includes the final episode of Moore’s previous ITC series, “The Saint”. ‘The Ex-King of Diamonds’ features Ronald Radd and Isla Blair as co-stars in a story set up that might sound rather familiar: English Gentleman adventurer Simon Templar (Roger Moore) teams up with an American millionaire to solve a crime while holidaying in the South of France. This episode was deliberately conceived as a dry run for “The Persuaders!” by Bob Baker, although it features one of “The Champions” stars, Stuart Damon, as a Texas oil millionaire called Rod Huston rather than the self-made Brooklyn-born player that Curtis developed for the series in his own inimitable style. The story contains a number of scenes that were later adapted for the opening episode of “The Persuaders!” while the whole thing was shot, as were almost all episodes of “The Saint”, on the cheap using the Elstree Studio backlot with a few fake palm trees, rather than on location in Monaco as were many of the episodes of “The Persuaders!”. The episode also comes with a commentary with Robert S. Baker, Johnny Goodman, director Alvin Rakoff and Roger Moore phoning in once again from his home which is, as was previously mentioned, ironically enough now situated in Monaco! The chat gives a very good account of the effort it took to turn around a full episode in ten days at five minutes’ filming a day. Like all the commentaries, it’s light on specific detail and is really more a chance for old friends to catch up on past times, but it has its moments of fun and amusing recollection.
Last but by no means least the set will come with a fully-bound 156 page book of detailed production history viewing notes by the redoubtable historian of cult TV Andrew Pixley. This was unavailable for review but past experience suggests it is sure to be an authoritative addition to an already features packed set.
This is a truly fabulous, utterly sumptuous and totally comprehensive set from Network Releasing and is sure to be wending its way into an awful lot of Christmas stockings belonging to cult TV enthusiasts this year. Very warmly recommended.