I’ve had more than the usual amount of free time lately. Somehow I decided to watch The Saint, the British TV series from the sixties starring Roger Moore. They made 118 episodes between 1962 and 1969, the first two-thirds in B&W and the rest in color. I found them quite entertaining.
The Saint was a literary character created by Leslie Charteris. He wrote the first Simon Templar story in 1928 and cranked them out as short stories, novellas, and novels for the next 35 years. Almost all of the black and white episodes had scripts based on Charteris stories, while only a few of the color ones were.
I love the character. Simon Templar is famously known as The Saint. Everywhere he goes, somebody recognizes him. In fact, it’s built in to each script: the cold open always ends with somebody ending a sentence with “Simon Templar”, at which point a halo is put on screen above Templar’s head. He often looks up at it.
During the cold open, Templar gives us a few words. In the black and white episodes, he breaks the fourth wall and addresses us directly. His eye will catch the camera and he’ll give a half-nod or beckon us with his eyes and the camera moves in to a closeup. And then he talks to us. In the color episodes he no longer does this; but he still gives his little monologue as a voice-over.
Templar has no job, no visible means of support. The police in every major city of Europe know who he is, and often threaten to jail him under the slightest pretext. They often have an officer tail him. And Templar often buys said officer a nice dinner, or drinks, or takes him to a party. The police all agree he’s a jewel thief, but we never see him steal anything from the thing’s rightful owner, and always on behalf of some wronged individual, although he sometimes gets a reward and occasionally gets a cut.
He is an expert safe-cracker and picklock. He’s an excellent fighter and can take a few punches. That is to say, the fights are pretty hokey, but The Saint almost always prevails over one or two or even three assailants, even if he is unarmed and they have knives or guns or even swords. I love that in about half the fight scenes (particularly in the early episodes), they manage to break every stick of furniture in the room. He’s so good at boxing that in one episode he got in the ring with a championship contender and won.
I like his car, a Volvo P1800, a sporty white two-seater hardtop with red interior (in some later episodes it’s a black interior, but it switches back to red). He’s an excellent driver, which should be no surprise. He’s so good, in fact, that he can drive a Grand Prix car against championship drivers and lead the race. It’s not just Grand Prix cars: he drove (and won, of course) a rally. When he’s not needed to compete in the race, he volunteers to help with the setup of the car: “Do you want me to find the vibration?”
Our hero is also a pilot. To be specific, he can fly a helicopter, a single-engine prop plane, and with a little help flew a Harrier jump-jet in the first year it was in service. (They called it an Osprey, not a Harrier. But it was definitely a Harrier. I’m amused that the US now has a VTOL plane called the Osprey.)
He’s a snappy dresser. He sports a tuxedo or a suit and is almost never casually dressed. He’s able to scale walls and fences and break into mansions, apartments, and hotel rooms while dressed to the nines. I love that when Templar breaks into somebody’s residence and conducts a search, he helps himself to a drink. In one episode he stole cigars instead of drinks, then later smoked one of these cigars in front of the man he stole them from.
He travels to Europe, the USA, South America, and even Australia. Beautiful women are attracted to him. He’s conversant in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. He can spot fake jewels quickly, but isn’t so keen a judge of paintings. He’s a witty conversationalist.
The production, particularly in the black and white episodes, is a bit on the cheap side. That could be due to the truly staggering amount of cigarettes that are consumed. If the alcohol was real, they wouldn’t have been able to afford film. Templar prefers whiskey and soda (dispensed from a seltzer bottle, natch) but will consume a wide variety of potent potables. I’d say the characters are always drinking, but that would be an exaggeration. They don’t drink when they’re in cars, or during fight scenes (although it’s not uncommon for someone to get hit over the head with a bottle of wine).
I shouldn’t make fun of the production. It was above average for its time. The entire run was shot on film. Many sixties shows that were shot on video tape were lost because the tapes got reused. And film transfers to digital better, having much higher resolution.
They shot establishing shots on location, but without Roger Moore. These were always long shots and used a lookalike. Anything close up was shot in the studio. The interiors were obviously designed like those for the stage: there are no interior 90 degree corners. Walls on the left side are not parallel to those on the right side. The actors are often blocked such that they don’t face each other when giving dialog.
They often repeated these exterior shots. For the episodes where The Saint is in Spain or Latin America, they always showed the same hotel: La Perla. Another generic looking building got repeat screen time as a number of different generic hotels. The studio lot evidently wasn’t very big, as we kept seeing the same building exteriors over and over, but with different names painted on them.
We probably also saw the majority of the contents of their props warehouse. I noticed the same suit of armor show up in an English castle, a French chateau, a Spanish villa, and a German lodge. We repeatedly see a series of framed drawings of antique cars. And there are the framed photos of birds. In one episode, Templar asks a woman “did you take this?” and we see the same photo on the wall of a bar a few episodes later. I might not have noticed it if they hadn’t pointed it out the first time.
All that said, I found that the stories were very efficiently told. That is, they packed quite a bit of plot into the 49 minute running times. Harry Junkin was the script supervisor for the entire series. He also wrote a number of the screenplays. Another writer of several early episodes was Terry Nation, who wrote many early Doctor Who episodes and created the Daleks.
On the whole, the black and white episodes were quite good. Primarily, they were detective stories. Templar must figure out who the bad guy (or gal) is, get them to confess, and recover the stolen goods, if goods were stolen. Sometimes it’s a murder mystery: too often, one of Templar’s “good friends” is the victim. (It really wasn’t healthy to be a “good friend” of Simon Templar, given how many of them are killed.)
When they started doing shows in color, they changed the main title music (but didn’t update any of the incidental music). The opening title sequence was changed and lengthened. Originally, it was just the title of the show and the only names were Leslie Charteris and Roger Moore. In the last two seasons, they moved producer and script supervisor to the opening credit sequence. For the final season, they changed the main title music again, and not for the better.
Some guest stars showed up in more than one episode. “Guest star” may not be the best term, as I can’t say that any of them were stars. Bert Kwouk, best known as Cato in the Pink Panther movies, shows up in three episodes (as three different characters). I always liked the Cato character, so when I saw Kwouk playing a Chinese Colonel or a hotel desk clerk, I noticed him immediately. An actress called Dawn Addams showed up in three episodes. I don’t think I’d heard of her before, certainly didn’t think, “Hey, that’s Dawn Addams!” But when she showed up in a second (and third) episode, I thought “she looks familiar.”
Another “gee, that’s familiar” moment was when I watched an episode that involved voodoo. Some of the situations and even little snippets of dialog from this story ended up in Live and Let Die, with Roger Moore playing James Bond.
The stories in the last two seasons were a bit uneven. Only one or two were based on stories by Charteris. The last of the Charteris stories was when The Saint jumped the shark. The story was called The House on Dragon’s Rock. Clearly, after cranking out more than a hundred stories they were finished. This one was a poor rip-off of the movie Them! Templar is reduced to fighting a giant ant. The last season also featured a Terry Nation script. Another dud.
To wrap things up, I watched the 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer. This is definitely not The Saint. They used the character name, and the name of Scotland Yard’s Claude Eustice Teal. But neither of these characters has any resemblance to Leslie Charteris’ Saint. In the TV show, as I said, he was well known by the police. In the movie, he was an unknown, a master of disguises, a wanted man. He used technology to crack safes. He was a crook, only in it for the money. Not at all the same character. It wasn’t necessarily a bad movie, just not The Saint.
Next up: Danger Man starring Patrick McGoohan.