Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Beyond Borehamwood: The Champions

Back to the ‘60s again.

The British television production company ITC, run by the flamboyant Lew Grade, had a big hit with its adaptation of Leslie Charteris’s stories of The Saint, starring Roger Moore. It spent the rest of the decade producing imitations about globetrotting adventurers (as well as financing Gerry Anderson’s puppet fantasies, but that’s another story). Danger Man, The Baron, Man in a Suitcase - all shared The Saint’s conviction that there was no country in the world that could not be replicated by stock footage, the parkland around Borehamwood studios, and a population of British character actors.

In 1968, The Champions stretched ITC’s resources further, by endowing its lead characters with super-powers. Craig Sterling, Richard Barrett and Sharron MacReady, agents of the international secret police organisation Nemesis, crashed their plane in the Himalayas, and were rebuilt by the inhabitants of a hidden city. Unfortunately, although their powers supposedly included super-strength, there was little more money in the budget for stunts and special effects than for foreign travel, so the stories tended to rely on such less visually interesting powers as super-hearing and telepathy instead. What feats and fights as we saw were largely hogged by Sterling and Barrett, either because of assumptions about gender roles, or because of the shortage of stunt women to double for lead actress Alexandra Bastedo.

The comics faced no such constraints.

Sadly, comics adaptations didn’t always take this sort of opportunity. The later ITC television series Department S involved a team assembled by Interpol to solve unsolveable crimes. It consisted of dogged investigator Stewart Sullivan, wild theorist (and novelist) Jason King, and rational researcher and computer expert Annabelle Hirst. Although Jason King was clearly the stand-out character, and eventually got his own spin-off series, the three principals treated each other as equals, and needled each other constantly.

Which is why the disappointment of the only comic strip adaptation of Department S that I have seen lies not just in Annabelle’s demotion to secretary, but in her deference to the menfolk.

Win one, lose one. But the win has that lovely sleek shiny artwork by Ron Turner, so I’ll read that one more often.

The Champions “Error of Judgement”, art by Ron Turner, Joe 90 Top Secret Comic Annual, Century 21 Publishing/City Magazines, 1969

Department S “The Silent Men”, writer and artist unidentified, Thunderbirds Annual 1971, City Magazines, 1971


Walaka said...

I remember all three of these series fondly - and again, I have never seen the comics spun off from them. Good stuff!

On a related note, I believe that the Marvel character "Mastermind" - Jason Wyngarde - was a bit of an hommage to Peter and his best-known role. Check this out.

Steve Flanagan said...

Peter Wyngarde also played the villainous leader of a Hellfire Club in an episode of The Avengers called " A Touch of Brimstone" (Emma Frost, the White Queen, is named after Emma Peel, the Queen of Sin in that episode).

I think that there was a "Comic Book Legends Revealed" post at Comic Book Resources that identified the originals of all the Claremont/Byrne Hellfire Club characters.