"The Sentimental Agent" was a short-lived black & white 35 mm film series, produced by ATV at Shepperton Studios, and distributed by ITC in 1963. Created as a spin-off from a single episode of the series "Man Of The World" and based around the exploits of a main support character who appeared in it, played by Carlos Thompson, the show was similar to many of the ITC shows that came before and afterwards, in that its premise seemed built to allow for an entertaining and frothy blend of action, intrique and light comedy that takes place in a number of glamourous and exotic locations around the world. In this case, the leading man is a sort of jet setting cross between Alan Sugar and Cary Grant, called Carlos Varella -- a smooth, confident and impecabley charming latinate import-export agent based in London, with a roving business head and a taste for adventure; his wide-ranging business connections take him all around the world in search of the perfect deal, but also result in him habitually getting involved in all sorts of local plots and intrigues, invariably with a pretty (and sometimes dangerous) female guest star by his side. Produced by Harry Fine and with script supervision by Ian Stuart Black, the series was given a prime time Saturday evening slot in the ITV regions during September 1963 and was expected to do well. The fact that you've almost certainly never heard of it before probably fills you in on how that expectation was rewarded in actuality.
Thompson was an actor of mixed European parentage who moved from a series of successful stage and screen roles in his native Argentina to a short career in Hollywood during the mid- to late-fifties, where he often played the kind of suave, womanising characters of a type very similar to Varela in tone. The title sequence of "The Sentimental Agent" introduces a breezy, white-suited businessman with an eye for a pretty lady, a panama hat and a cigarillo clamped nonchalantly between his teeth. Accompanied by the irritatingly jaunty theme tune of Ivor Stanley's, Varela is shown entering the warehouse headquarters of his agency, Mercury International, which is based in a rather insalubrious area of the London docklands, where he is abetted by an efficient and pretty Miss Moneypenny-like secretary and aid called Suzy Carter (Clemence Brittany), and a wily Chinese valet called Chin (the then ubiquitous to ITC productions of the day, Burt Kwouk).
With writers of the caliber of Julian Bond ("Tales of the Unexpected"), Tudor Gates (the Karnstein trilogy of Hammer vampire films), Brian Clemens ("Thriller", "The Avengers") and Ian Stuart Black ("Danger Man"); alongside the reliable directorial talents of Charles Frend ("The Cruel Sea") and John Paddy Carstairs; and with the glossy and filmic stylishness that helped make so many other ITC productions of the period so enduring, one would have indeed expected the series to have taken off: it's replete with all the guest stars you expect to see in '60s TV. Warren Mitchell, Patrick Troughton, Patrick Allen, Peter Arne, Patrick Magee are just a few names who regularly cropped up all over the ITC output and get to make some nice little appearances here. The list of female guest stars is even more impressive, with Varela often teaming-up with or pursuing such up-and-coming British starlets as the lovely Doctor Who assistant Anneke Wilis, appearing in an episode called "All That Jazz" where she plays a bubbly young beatnik jazz musician who becomes inadvertently involved in the activities of a group of spies who use her musical scores to pass on secret messages in code; or the gorgeous Suzanna Leigh who plays the daughter of an elderly couple who are fleeced by some card sharks operating onboard one of Varela's cruise ships. Meanwhile, Sue Lloyd is striking as the model-cum-business woman who teams up with Varela's second-in-command Bill Randell in the quirky episode "The Height of Fashion", in order to help him convert a rejected order of 30,000 horse blankets for a foreign Government into a luxury fashion range; while Diana Rigg sparkles in her very first TV role in the episode, "A Very Desirable Plot", as a woman who wrongly suspect Valera of malpractice when a landowner with whom he has arranged a contract to build some luxury homes, turns out to have sold his unsuspecting clients swamp-land on which it is impossible to build anything. Other notable female guest stars include Carol Cleveland and tragic British horror starlet Imogen Hassall.
So why is it that "The Sentimental Agent" never quite seems to grab the viewer in the way other series of the time such as "Danger Man" still do? My guess is that while the business-centred plots which dominate the series provide ample excuse for a wide variety of exotic locations, from the Bahamas to Greece or the Arabian desert to Ireland (mostly realised with stock footage), the writers always seem to struggle to produce interesting plots on the basis of such a limited premise. The episodes appear to have been arranged in production order across this four-disc box set from Network Releasing and the series actually starts off well, and is at its strongest when it more or less avoids too much emphasis on Mercury International's wheeling and dealing and proceeds more along traditional espionage lines, with Carlos Thompson essaying a likable Cary Grant style of nonchalance in episodes that play like mini-Hitchcock spy thrillers. A particular highlight for me is the episode "Express Delivery", an escape thriller that plays out a "Torn Curtain" scenario in which Valera agrees to help smuggle a young girl out of an Eastern bloc country. "The Beneficiary" is another strong episode in which spying and espionage play a strong roll; here an old war time friend of Valera's is murdered just after he delivers a pre-arranged distress signal to Mercury International's offices.
As the series goes on though, someone must have thought that the import-export business of the main protagonist ought to have more of a role in generating the plots. Thus, many episodes see Valera dealing with foreign corruption, usually after unaccountably losing 'a sure-thing' business opportunity leads him to investigate: episodes like the Tudor Gates scripted "A Little Sweetness and Light" in which Patrick Allen is a shady business rival on a small Greek island who uses threats and violence to get his way; or "A Box of Tricks" in which Valera's partner Bill Randall is dispatched to the Italian village of Palabria to investigate why the authorities there will not accept a charity gift of £11 million; and "Not Quite Fully Covered" where, once again, Bill Randall, is the victim of a dodgy insurance scam when importing some antique French Furniture from Beirut.
These later episodes struggle to make the series' business-orientated shenanigans compelling viewing, the scripts being wordy and often grounded in complicated issues of law which don't sit particularly well with the show's light action and comedy centred style of adventure. Varela's partners, Miss Carter and Chin, get very little to do in most of the episodes, the chemistry between the three of them never quite comes to life: Clemence Bettany is an appealing presence, but in many of the episodes she only appears as a bookend to the adventure in hand, manning the telephones in the Mercury International office while Valera gets involved in all the action in various exotic locations. The same goes for Burt Kwouk -- stuck with a typical and stereotypical 'inscrutable' Chinese man-servant role, as was invariably the case during this period of his career, he spends most of his time top-and-tailing the episodes with a quirky Chinese proverb or two, although he does eventually get to play more of a role in the stories as the series goes on, especially if they involve gambling (Chin is always offering Valera winning betting tips) or conjuring tricks, at which he is is a past master.
Another odd thing about the show is that lead Carlos Thompson either only makes a small contribution to, or else doesn't appear at all in, about a third of the thirteen episodes that were shot for the series. British actor John Taylor crops up to take over, first of all in the fun Hitchcockian episode "Meet My Son, Harry" in which some stolen top secret British aerospace plans are hidden in an obscure book of algebra by some crooks, which is then bought by the precocious son of one of Valera's millionaire friends, thus embroiling Miss Carter and Bill Randall in a dangerous situation when they accompany the boy home. It's interesting that as soon as Thompson begins to play less of a role in the episodes, they become more of a team effort with Bettany and Kwouk getting to share much more screentime with John Taylor's slightly more fallible character, Bill Randall. Nevertheless though, I much prefered Carlos Thompson's episodes, and it is difficult to see why he was increasingly sidelined as the series progressed, despite being the main character.
All the thirteen episodes are included on this box set and most of them look pretty good, although a few do seem slightly blurry, and I'm guessing that these probably come from 16 mm copies of the original 35 mm negs. Each disc features a photo gallery of episode stills, while the third disc also features a fifteen minute featurette in which Burt Kwouk is interviewed about his ITC career. Kwouk talks about all his major appearances in episodes of "The Saint", "The Champions" and "Jason King" among others. He describes "The Sentimental Agent" as quote: 'a very strange series'. And this seems as good a summery as any. It's not the pinnacle of the ITC era of tele-film series, but fans of this period of British TV production will find much to appreciate in its eccentricities, nonetheless.