❉ Looking back on the stylish ’60s action series starring William Gaunt, Stuart Damon and Alexandra Bastedo.
The Champions, which begins a screening on Talking Pictures TV this Sunday (7 March 2021) is a gloriously enjoyable example of the work of the ITC production company. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching it before, I’d like to take the opportunity of giving a spoiler-light preview, focussing on the opening episode.
The Champions offers 30 episodes of beautifully stylish television that plays to all the ITC strengths. It was comfortably, not lavishly, budgeted, but never allowed financial restraints to stop the action taking place all around the world, while the cast and crew rarely strayed far from Elstree Studios in sunny Hertfordshire.
You need to set aside your expectations of the ultra-realism of modern TV drama. This was made to be watched on 1960s TV sets, where a few potted palms and some back projection were enough to make the viewers accept the scene was taking place in South America or Burma, or somewhere equally international. Throw in the trademark ITC glossy film work, and the absolute sincerity of the actors’ performances, and there’s nothing to worry about. Luxuriate in the silky colour palette and refreshing lack of realism of this fantasy spy drama.
The three lead actors add to the gloss. Square-jawed Broadway star Stuart Damon plays Craig Stirling, piercingly blue-eyed William Gaunt is Richard Barrett, and as Sharron Macready, the luminously beautiful Alexandra Bastedo is perhaps the best-remembered of the trio.
The first episode, unfussily entitled ‘The Beginning’ establishes the premise of the series, making it the only episode to have an established place in the viewing order. It’s written by Dennis Spooner who was the Script Supervisor and co-creator of the show. Spooner was a highly-experienced TV writer, with credits on Coronation Street, Thunderbirds, and Doctor Who.
While escaping from a mission in China, our heroes’ plane is hit by gunfire and crashes in the Himalayas. Craig, Sharron, and Richard appear to be done for – but this is Tibet in the 1960s. So of course there’s a lost city, whose friendly inhabitants don’t just repair the bodies of the agents but upgrade them to have superpowers. They’re better, they’re stronger, they’re faster – it’s little wonder that a decade later, Dennis Spooner would view The Six Million Dollar Man with something of a jaundiced eye.
Back at the Geneva base of their organisation Nemesis (it’s not an acronym, just a cool name), boss Tremayne waits anxiously for news of his missing operatives. He’s played by the fourth regular cast member, Anthony Nicholls, who does a fine job of peering out suspiciously from beneath quite a lot of postiche at the top or tail of each episode.
While the beginning of ‘The Beginning’ is occupied with setting up the premise, the second half gives an idea of future missions. 007-style MacGuffins, breezy wit, a dash of sometimes quite blunt violence, and those super-handy superpowers are all present and correct. As is inevitably, the occasional outdated social attitude – but on that score The Champions comes off remarkably lightly for a show over 50 years old.
Another element of every episode of The Champions that will warm the hearts of fans of the TV of this period is the wonderful array of actors filling the supporting roles. Here we have Felix Aylmer as the wise old lama, Burt Kwouk as the commander of the Chinese troops, and Joseph Furst shouting at (and over) Tremayne. Later episodes will give us such familiar faces as Nicholas Courtney, Bernard Lee, Caroline Blakiston, Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley, Kate O’Mara, and some that I’d like to leave as surprises for new viewers.
So if you’re looking to escape the troubled present for an hour or so, travel back to the Sixties with The Champions. This is a beautifully-made series; straightforward storytelling mixed with a note of fantasy and presented with the most exquisite design choices the budget will allow. In terms of sound and vision, The Champions is a gorgeously attractive TV show. Its adoption by Talking Pictures TV has been met with cries of delight by many of those who remember it fondly. Whether it’s through those screenings, or through the excellent DVD release, fans of vintage telly have an elegant treat in store.
❉ Starting Sunday 7 March 2021, ‘The Champions’ can be seen every Sunday at 9pm on Talking Pictures TV. Watch on Virgin 445 | Freeview 81 | Sky channel 343 | Freesat 306 | Youview 81