✻ Steve O’Brien looks back on ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ – “the missing link between Sgt Pepper and Blow Up.”
“It was trying to step back and take a look at how we were behaving in the 60s,” explained producer Verity Lambert, “about how it would look to somebody who came from a completely different era with different moral standards.”
A gentleman adventurer cryogenically frozen awakes decades later in a radically altered world… Sound familiar?
Thirty years before Mike Myers dreamed up the anachronistic exploits of Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery, there was Adam Adamant – an Edwardian swashbuckler, frozen since 1902 and re-awoken in the swingiest city of the swinging sixties.
As a TV series, ‘Adam Adamant Lives’ pedigree couldn’t have been more wow-some. Its creative parents included many of the bright young things behind ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘The Avengers’, and it was one of the shows that a young Ridley Scott cut his directorial teeth on. But despite all this, it was never cherished as much as its fantasy siblings, and is considered now a brilliant concept somewhat squandered.
If you’d have been hanging around Piccadilly Circus one evening in the early months of 1966 you might have seen a man gussied up in Edwardian party gear, wandering dazed and confused below its neon lights. It was there that actor Gerald Harper found himself acting out the moments where Adam Adamant, gentleman adventurer, comes face to face with modern-day London for the first time, a dizzying, mind-bending kaleidoscope of flashing lights, deafening noise and boyish looking girls. “It was trying to step back and take a look at how we were behaving in the 60s,” explained producer Verity Lambert, “about how it would look to somebody who came from a completely different era with different moral standards.”
Adam Adamant was not your usual 1960s television hero. With his démodé moral code and courtly manners, he was the kind of hero sixties moral crusader Mary Whitehouse might have wished up. Not only would Adam Adamant not sleep with a lady acquaintance, he could hardly bear being the same room as her, for fear of ruining her reputation. James Bond this man wasn’t.
Like so many of the great telly ideas, ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ was borne out of desperation. Sydney Newman, that brash, Canadian-born populist who had created ‘The Avengers’ for ITV and helped devise ‘Doctor Who’ for the BBC, had been eyeing up turn-of-the-century hero Sexton Blake for a potential small screen series. Blake was an aquiline-faced Edwardian adventurer created in 1893 by Harry Blyth, under the pen-name Hal Meredeth. But Newman was unable to nab the rights to the character sometimes dubbed “the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes”, and so began hunting for a replacement idea. Then, one day, he heard the sound of drilling outside his office at Television Centre and, according to an oft-told story, wondered what would happen if those workers had chanced upon a frozen man from the early 20th Century.
But what to call a gentleman adventurer from the times of empire? Cornelius Chance? Rupert De’Ath? What about, ahem, Dick Daring? Dexter Noble maybe? Then what about Aurelian Winton? Magnus Hawke, anyone? Hell, even Darius Crud was briefly considered. In the end Newman went with Adam Adamant, inspired by the mineral adamantine – tougher than diamond.
Newman hired Verity Lambert, whom he had once famously described as being full of “piss and vinegar”, for producer. Lambert was only 31 and had already made waves at the male-heavy BBC as the first producer of ‘Doctor Who’. It was her that cast 37-year-old Gerald Harper as Adam, upon chancing upon a screening of Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Corsican Brothers’ on ITV. Lambert saw a lot of the embryonic Adam in Harper’s debonair turn, and that he could handle himself so well with a sword didn’t hurt.
A pilot was written and shot, but barely anything exists of it now. Reminiscent of Doctor Who’s first steps three years earlier, Newman was unhappy with the initial results and ordered a rewrite and a reshoot. Quite what was in that first attempt that rattled Newman so much is hard to get at. No script exists and the only footage to survive – of Adam in 1902 being kidnapped and frozen by his arch enemy, The Face – was reused in the transmitted episode one. Everything else was dumped at some point in the years after. A few photos exist however of Ann Holloway as Georgina Jones, the hip young thing intended as Adam’s co-lead in the series, whom it was deemed “wasn’t quite sixties enough” and was let go.
Juliet Harmer, on the other hand, was about as sixties as it got. With her curveless Twiggy figure and perky tomboyishness, she was the perfect decade-defining foil for Harper’s stiff-collared Edwardian. Georgina meets Adam for the first time when he’s wandering, bewildered, around Piccadilly and takes him back to her achingly contemporary pad. She’s very aware of who Adam Adamant is, having grown up admiring his swashbuckling turn-of-the-century exploits.
“It was impossible to remember all the lines,” recalls Harper. “It was a sheer act of will. I just opened my mouth and something came out.”
Anybody reading a plot synopsis in their paper in June 1966 for that first episode might have thought they were reading about a new ITV show. “In the sixties there was a big move towards fantasy-adventure,” recalled the late Brian Clemens, who wrote two episodes of ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ as well as countless episodes of The Avengers, “and the BBC had got left behind. Because all these programmes – The Prisoner, Jason King, The Champions – were all ITV shows. The BBC had never quite thrown off the shackles of it’s got to be real, and improve the mind and so on.”
But what those third channel shows had over ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ was stellar production values. By 1965,’ The Avengers’ was being shot entirely on film and by 1967 was being broadcast in full eye-wowing colour. Adam Adamant, meanwhile, was recorded on multi-camera video, giving the series a threadbare, studio-bound sheen compared to the 35mm loveliness of its ITV competitors.
There was also a woeful lack of rehearsal and recording time, which would prove a challenge to even the theatre-seasoned Harper. The cast were given only seven days to learn a new script and only two hours to record this 45-minute show. “It was impossible to remember all the lines,” recalls Harper. “It was a sheer act of will. I just opened my mouth and something came out.”
Despite its occasional greatness, much of ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ has the whiff of something done on the hoof, of something that was never quite cooked enough by the time it hit the screen. Harmer believes that many of the scripts were “dashed off”, and Lambert, until the end of her life, remained frustrated that the series never mastered the right balance of drama and humour. Still, the first series performed well, boasting ratings of over 10 million. A second series seemed a no-brainer.
It was most likely Controller of BBC One, Paul Fox, who decided to schedule the second run of ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ against ‘The Avengers’. It was an especially humiliating way to kill a programme, pitching it against its glossier and sexier TV cousin. There was a good deal of shared DNA between the two programmes – both were headed up by anachronistic, Edwardian-styled gents accompanied by a pretty young 60s It Girl, and not only were they both co-devised by Sydney Newman, but they shared many writers, including story editor Tony Williamson and Brian Clemens. But in the ratings brawl, ‘The Avengers’ pummelled ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ and after its second run of 13 episodes, the series was quietly dropped. The corporation didn’t even organise a farewell party.
Harper, who had, since the first episode, worn fake eyebrows for the show (at Newman’s request, bizarrely), was presented with them, mounted in a frame, as a souvenir by the show’s make-up lady, Jo Young. “Here lie the Eyebrows of Adam Adamant, 1966–1967” it read, and it hangs in the study of Gerald Harper to this day.
“It does stand up,” said Harper a few years ago, after a screening of the first episode, A Vintage Year for Scoundrels, at the BFI. “It has a sort of gaiety, it’s halfway between a comedy and a drama and has an enormous sort of charm.”
There was never much love for ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ at the BBC. Brian Clemens always insisted that it was corporation’s unease with pure escapist fare that sealed its fate, and it’s difficult to imagine the series being saddled with the same pocket money budget and impossible deadlines had ITV helped mother it. But it many ways, it’s a more quintessentially sixties show than even ‘The Avengers’.
Mark Gatiss, a passionate fan of the series, confirmed to We Are Cult that, about ten years ago, he had an idea to do Adam Adamant’s Last Case.
Although it’s often seen as a child of the decade, The Avengers was never about the sixties. There were never any trendy, era-defining nightclubs in ‘The Avengers’, no snatches of pop music or contemporary nods. (Indeed, the unhip ‘Doctor Who’ ticked a few of those boxes in ‘The War Machines’ alone!) The sixties London of Steed and Emma Peel was a stylised, fantasy city, frequented more by middle class, middle-aged men than hip young dudes and liberated It girls.
With Adam in his Mini Cooper S and Georgina flitting about town on her Vespa, ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ is so incredibly of the moment that it feels like the missing link between ‘Sgt Pepper’ and ‘Blow Up’. And the 1960s was one of the only post-war decades where a man wandering around contemporary London done up as an Edwardian gentleman wouldn’t raise an eyebrow (real or fake).
A great idea, never quite done justice – that’s the common consensus on ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ There’s been plenty of talk of a remake over the years, to drop this moralistic adventurer into the 21st Century.
Mark Gatiss, a passionate fan of the series, confirmed to We Are Cult that, about ten years ago, he had an idea to do ‘Adam Adamant’s Last Case’. “Gerald and Juliet were going to be in it and Verity Lambert rang up to ask if she could produce it,” he tells us, “but it never really got any further than that.” He also revealed to us he was sent a proposal for a possible revival quite recently, with the idea of him playing Adam Adamant, but the company failed to find an interested network.
It’s a juicy idea, to put Adam Adamant, born London 1867, into a world of hoodies, global terror and mobile phones. If the Adam Adamant of the 1960s thought the London of 1966 was an alien planet to him, goodness knows what a reimagined Adam Adamant would make of 2016. Maybe the perfect series of ‘Adam Adamant Lives!’ is yet to come.