"The Protectors" is one of those classic old series from the early seventies for which I can't help but retain a certain regard and a measure of fondness that probably goes way beyond the show's actual worth. Certainly it doesn't compare all that favourably alongside some of the other great ITC Productions of the period for inventiveness or quirkiness -- series such as "Department S" or, earlier, "Danger Man", for instance -- and has dated rather badly in many respects. The show was really just a rudimentary exercise in the bog standard action/thriller routines of that era, and most of the episodes run through the standard TV time-filling rigmarole of car chases, shoot outs and punch ups before, each week, the titular 'Protectors' neatly manage to vanquish their, usually rather blandly generic, criminal foes at the end. Although an hour long running time (fifty minutes once add breaks are factored in) was generally the rule by the time "The Protectors" aired on British television, the series, rather curiously, continued to adhere to the old twenty-five minute format, which limits the story lines in most cases to perfunctory kidnappings, robberies, cold war plots and -- that regular standby -- an assassination plot against one of the trio of main stars, usually an old adversary who has returned from the shadows of their former lives to exact revenge.
And yet, most of these weekly twenty-five minute chunks of highly superficial espionage/crime/detective shenanigans display an attractive sheen of lavish retro seventies gloss that's still rather entertaining all these years later. Just the opening chimes of that fabulously evocative theme music, running alongside the well-chosen quick-cut montage of clips that make up the accompanying title sequence, does the job: mostly colourfully kinetic images of sports cars overturning and bridges exploding, sandwiched in between main star Robert Vaughn, Bond-like in his tux or else, weirdly, togged up in a comfy dressing gown and apparently whipping up a quick soufflé in his '70s-chic London bachelor pad while the absolutely gorgeous and impossibly glamorous Nyree Dawn Porter (schoolboy crush alert here, readers!) looks ever lovelier in a series of possess during which she is pictured, firstly, in an elaborately piled & styled hair-do, despite having just been woken in bed by the phone ringing in her baroque Italian villa, and then also looking lovely when fencing, scuba diving or displaying a nice line in pinstriped trouser suits -- all this is enough to bring back those stabs of childlike glee and excitement.
For "The Protectors" was indeed a stylish and, at the time, glamorous, action series offering a vision of sophisticated spies in a jet-set '70s age of undreamed of affluence; the stories were indeed often wafer-thin, but the series always held out the offer of handsome, well-dressed heroes and a beautiful red headed heroine nearly always in impressively glamorous European or North African locations, driving chic sports cars around the streets of Italy, Barcelona or Paris; cruising in speedboats off the coast of Malta; or recklessly flying noisy helicopters over some decidedly less glamorous-looking deserted English aerodromes somewhere in Hertfordshire. This was arguably one of the last of those formulaic adventure series in the classic ITC mould, quite obviously spun out of a flimsy premise Lew Grade probably cooked up in five minutes and then left to reluctant producer Gerry Anderson and his old AP Films partner Reg Hill to turn into a watchable piece of prime time TV for the iconic distributor. Grade also 'saddled' the former puppet animator with his two leading stars, Vaughn and Porter (despite Anderson's original treatment not even having a role for a female), but then left the rest of the show's development for the producer to sort out for himself. Anderson apparently only accepted the series because it was the only potential project on the table at the time.
Anderson was given the freedom to take the show in any direction he wanted to, and this seems to have encouraged him to leave the general premise fairly open and undetermined; which at least meant that the kinds of stories the series was able to tackle became very diverse and occasionally quite odd (a necessary bonus seeing as the running time of each episode was so short). It was not even vital for all three leading characters to appear in every episode, so generalised is the overarching premise. Basically, the series is founded on Lew Grade's original sketchy outline, and very little else. The idea is that a team of detectives and private investigators from all over the world have somehow teamed up to form a 'Protector Organisation', charged with working outside the law in order to tackle the cases the state cannot normally handle when following the normal rules. They work for money, which means they're generally employed by the very rich. We never learn very much, if anything, about the structure of this organisation -- only a handful of episodes even refer to it, and then only in passing -- and we hardly ever see anyone else who works for this shadowy group other than the three main protagonists. However, everyone involved appears to be hugely wealthy, thus furnishing the whole series with a generally opulent air and with stories which take place in a wide variety of exotic locations, giving the series its lavish jet set feel.
Those three leading characters are themselves endowed with only the flimsiest of back stories. Harry Rule (Robert Vaughn) is the leader of the group, an American living in a wood-panelled, rather luxurious penthouse in central London with an oriental woman servant and masseur called Suki (played by Yasuko Nagazumi, whose un-credited role in "You Only Live Twice", at least enables the series to claim the involvement of its very own Bond Girl) and a load of high tech communications equipment in the corner. The former "Man From U.N.C.L.E." star is reported to have been unimpressed with the series and had a fraught relationship with the production. Nyree Dawn Porter, at the time better known for appearing in the wildly popular series "The Forsyth Saga", is a widowed Italian art expert called the Contessa Caroline di Contini, who specialises in tracking down stolen artefacts. She lives in a lavish villa in Rome with her oriental manservant, Chino (Anthony Chinn). Already, this all has a very nineteenth century, Boys Own adventure feel to it! Backing up these two is handsome French playboy and man-about-town Paul Buchet (Tony Anholt) -- really just a faster pair of legs (often clad in trendy purple slacks!) to take the strain off the, by 1972, fairly middle-aged, greying and paunchy Robert Vaughn. So tenuous and flimsy is the set-up that we never ever learn anything much about any of these three. It's mentioned in a couple of episodes that Harry has an estranged wife and a young son -- but they only turn up in one episode. The Contessa is also widowed and some of the episodes seem to suggest that she and Harry have something of a flirtatious, almost romantic relationship (with Buchet often looking like something of a gooseberry in-between). Later episodes, if anything, seem to play this theme down though.
Although the plot lines are often necessarily fairly uninvolved, they do at least move at a cracking pace most of the time and are crammed with lots of regular guest star actors of the era's TV including the likes of Patrick Troughton, Patrick Allen, Jeremy Brett, Ian Hendry, Anton Rogers, James Bolam, Peter Bowls, Stephanie Beacham and Kate O'Mara. Standout appearances come curtesy of Michael Gough and Freddie Jones who endow their rather faintly written villains with their customary individually patented mannerisms and behavioural ticks, to great effect. The show pooled the talents of some of the best TV writers of the times, with familiar names such as Terence Feeley, Dennis Spooner, Donald James, Terry Nation and Brian Clemens often managing to create interesting variations on some otherwise fairly routine thriller plot lines. An experienced team of TV and film directors appear including the likes Don Chaffey ("One Million Years BC"), John Hough ("Twins of Evil") and Cyril Frankel ("Never Take Sweets From A Stranger").
Often though, the stories are clearly intended to be of secondary concern to that of showing off the lovely locations, which the series was able to make use of thanks to some hefty financial backing secured by Grade from the Fabergé perfume company. For instance, the weakest stories in the whole two series fifty-seven episode run are those three which were filmed for the first series on location in sunny Malta: they certainly look exotic and expensive, but they soon resolve themselves into a series of set-piece boat chases or gun battles designed purely to best show off the Mediterranean locale in which they've been shot, and are actually pretty damn dull and listless. Ironically, many of the strongest episodes end up being the ones shot in the considerably less glam-looking environs of Kensington or that traditional English countryside location that features in almost all British-made film series of the sixties and seventies -- Hertfordshire.
One of the best episodes, "Thinkback", written by Brian Clemens, is shot entirely at Elstree studios in Borehamwood and uses the undressed studio itself as the site of the climactic shoot out. This episode is one example of a nice line in quirky story lines which help leaven the otherwise standard adventure fare that sometimes threatens to take over the series completely. There's even a curiously edgy and intense episode late in series two which feels almost like a gritty "Get Carter" influenced story, in which an assassin assigned to murder Harry first harasses a female passenger on a train before hunting Harry through a quarry after they both leap off the moving vehicle. Another episode, "A Pocketful of Posies", from series two plays like a mini giallo with Eartha Kitt in the main role as a singer being tormented by a masked assailant, first in her opulently designed apartment, and then back stage at the theatre where she is appearing in a big comeback show. The episode, written by Terry Nation, comes over like a cross between the opening 'Telephone' segment of "Black Sabbath" and a precursor to Dario Argento's "Opera" (which, of course, was a long way from yet being made in 1973!). Who knows, this ornate giallo feel may not have been entirely unintended since Kitt's husband is even given the name Mario! Another oddball episodes is "For The Rest Of Your Natural ..." in which Caroline is kidnapped by a psychotic murderer who puts her on trial in front of a jury made up of a Peter Blake-style assemblage of cardboard cut-outs which is presided over by a ventriloquist's dummy as the judge.
One of the main ingredients that goes a long way towards helping the nostalgia appeal of this series eclipse its sometimes rather routine adventure thriller origins is the groovy music -- most of all, of course, the catchy opening theme (one of the best TV themes of the era, I believe) and the corny but addictive Tony Christie sung end credit theme 'Avenues And Alleyways'. Composed by Mitch Murray and Pete Callander, the song became a minor top forty hit at the time. Just as good, though, are John Cameron's diverse and memorable incidental music cues, which also play out on many of the menus for each of the seven discs in this new Network Releasing complete series box set, which collects all 57 episodes together for the first time. The music is very much of its time, but adds greatly to the marvellous retro '70s feel the series captures so beautifully.
All of the episodes ever made are included here and look fairly colourful given their age and the fact that they've evidently not been remastered for this release. They don't look anywhere near as sharp as one would wish, although the episodes of the latter half of series two look considerably better. The final disc of this 7-disc collection includes over 1500 photographs comprising production stills for each of the episodes on each disc and a behind-the-scenes production gallery. Considering it will take you well over an hour to view this little lot, it's a shame that some of Cameron's incidental music couldn't have been provided here as well, as accompaniment to the viewing experience. Also here are copious amounts of promotional materials, included in the form of PDF files which can be viewed on a computer. ITC produced brochures, biographies and series outlines are included as well as over 120 pages of ITC's synopsis of every episode ever produced. Finally three beautifully illustrated TV Action front covers can be viewed in PDF form.
This is an enjoyable slice of '70s action adventure with better than average production values and loads of great guest stars making up for the somewhat threadbare plotting and the truncated running time of each episode. If you're a fan of ITC productions, you'll probably need little prompting to pick up this little gem.