❉ Mark Trevor Owen looks back at the Swinging Sixties ITC sleuth-fest half a century on…
As ITC shows go, Strange Report, first broadcast 50 years ago, is indeed strange. The single series was filmed in 1968 and broadcast in the winter of 1969 to 1970. To a modern viewer, it’s intoxicatingly Swinging Sixties London in its style. Compared to other ITC programmes of the time though, Strange Report has a grittier, earthier feel. Consciously stripped of the glamour and gadgets of its stable-mates, it veers towards realism. The settings are recognisably real world. This is a London that goes beyond Carnaby Street to embrace dingy bedsits, Brutalist tower blocks and glass-lined polytechnics. Contemporary, hard-hitting issues form the background for many cases – racism, student unrest, human trafficking.
Retired criminologist Adam Strange is called in as a consultant on a variety of cases that could be described as, if you will, strange. Just as well he isn’t called Adam Insoluble. That’s the bracingly straightforward premise. Strange has no superpowers, few quirks beyond driving an ancient taxi and living in the kind of self-consciously wacky flat compulsory to all ITC sleuths. He’s just somebody very skilled at what he does. While the lack of gimmickry suits the realist setting, it does mean that the plotlines are occasionally a little too straightforward for their own good. One or two episodes do leave you wondering if the police or government really weren’t able to crack them, and were just using Strange as a kind of temp. Some of Strange Report‘s reports could be stranger, but the best episodes weave satisfying mysteries. ‘Skeleton’ tells of a crime committed in the past, as building site workers discover human bones, with a stunning opening scene. ‘Shrapnel’ is a chilly tale of betrayal in suburbia, boasting a satisfying handbrake turn in the plot.
The surprisingly heavyweight casting for the lead is classical actor turned movie star, Anthony Quayle. If they had to jump through a few hoops to get him on board, it was worth it. As you might exepct from an actor of such pedigree, his performance is a delight. He avoids the obvious idea of Adam Strange being a crusty old fish out of water in the happening new world of the Sixties. He makes the far more interesting choice of depicting Strange as an older, very much establishment figure, who has retained his open mind and ability to contemplate new ideas. One episode has him visiting the recording studio of a psychedelic young musician. Listening to the feedback-drenched electronic sounds, Strange asks “Is that music?” It’s not phrased as a curmudgeonly old coot sneering at the fashions of youth – it’s a genuine question from somebody who’s encountered something new and wants to know more about it.
A consulting detective needs backup, and almost every good ITC series apparently needs an American cast member. Here it’s Kaz Garas, bringing a breezy Midwestern charm to the role of Strange’s assistant, Hamlyn ‘Ham’ Gynt – as happy thumping baddies as he is exclaiming excitedly into a microscope.
The third member of the regular line-up is Strange’s neighbour across the hallway, Evelyn Maclean. She’s the kind of swinging young woman of this era for whom it’s compulsory that she’ll be an an artist by choice, and keep the bills paid with a bit of modelling. There’s a cute running joke about ‘Old Faithful’, a painting she’s completely unable to sell.
It’s with the use of Evelyn that Strange Report does disappoint. She’s played with terrific energy and likeability by Anneke Wills, who brought the same sense of style to Doctor Who a couple of years earlier when she played Polly, the groundbreakingly groovy companion of the Time Lord. The problem here, is that for all that Wills works hard, the scriptwriters don’t seem to know what to do with the character. Her career choices mean Evelyn doesn’t get involved in Strange’s cases quite as naturally as Ham. Sometimes there’s a contrivance to bring the disparate worlds together – one especially dayglo episode revolves around corruption in the fashion world – but Evelyn is reduced to tea-maker and kidnap victim far too often. This is particularly unfortunate when the programme makes so many other sincere strides to embrace the new and forward-thinking.
Watching Strange Report straight after a rewatch of The Champions, ITC’s big series from the previous year, the show’s limited use for its female lead is also a little puzzling. In The Champions, Alexandra Bastedo’s character suffered the occasional moment of chauvinism from the writing team, but was generally portrayed as an equal to her two male colleagues so naturally that it’s rarely remarked upon. The influence of the women of The Avengers seems to have swerved Strange Report.
The show rose and fell as a result of the slightly unusual behind the scenes structure. While the majority of ITC’s series were British productions, with a well-positioned American lead to help US sales, Strange Report was a joint production between ITC and the American network NBC. Their plan was to continue producing the series in America, moving the characters stateside. The plan came unstuck when neither Anthony Quayle, or Anneke Wills (who was married with a young family) were keen on the idea of an extended stay in LA. So, Adam Strange hung up his pipe after a mere 16 reports.
Looking back at Strange Report from half a century later, it’s certainly a curiosity. It loses points for the sometimes rather pedestrian nature of a few cases, and the often poor use of the female lead character. On the plus side is Anthony Quayle’s sterling performance and great rapport with his assistants, many familiar faces in the supporting cast, and the unexpected grimy reality of the settings. Oh, and Roger Webb’s gloriously parping theme tune will be your earworm for days. If you enjoy the glossy sheen of its better-known ITC cousins, then the slightly rougher and tougher Strange Report is well worth discovering.
❉ ‘Strange Report: The Complete Series’ (Network Distributing) is a five-disc set including all 16 digitally restored episodes alongside a fifth disc packed full of special features, RRP £13.78.
❉ Mark Trevor Owen is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.