Sunday 6 June 2010

TV COPS WEEKEND - Guest Ian Dickerson

As TV Cops go Simon Templar is definitely one of the more unconventional.

One of the supporters of our Saint weekend was Ian Dickerson HERE. He’s written a book, called The Saint on TV, which will be published by Hirst Books early in 2011. It details—and I doubt anyone will be surprised given the title—for the first time, the very roots of the Saint’s TV adventures in 1940s Hollywood and follows them through American TV’s formative years in the 1950s through to the boom years of the 1960s ITC programme factory. Moving onwards the book shows the full evolution and production of the 1970s series Return of the Saint, and takes an in depth look at why the 1980s Saint failed and even documents some of the attempts made to revive the character on TV once Val Kilmer tried to murder him in the movies.

Ian has put together a drastically condensed version of the story for our TV Cops weekend.

Over to IAN:

So our illustrious editor e-mailed and asked if I fancied contributing to his TV Cops weekend, noting that something about the Saint would be a perfectly valid contribution.

Well I rarely need an excuse to write about the Saint but it did get me thinking—does the Saint really qualify as a TV cop?

I suppose he does in the loosest sense of the term for he is—occasionally—a good guy and has this habit of going round catching the bad guys. It’s just that sometimes his methods are…a little unusual. But the dictionary definition of a cop is a slang term for a policeman and the Saint most definitely ain’t one of them. However the Saint on TV has worked with the police and law enforcement agencies a few times, quite a few times actually, so maybe, if we’re being charitable in our definitions, then maybe the Saint does qualify as a TV cop.

And if that is the case then the story behind his TV career makes him one of the oldest cops on the box, for it pre-dates Dixon of Dock Green and is still going on today.

The path to TV Heaven for the Saint and Leslie Charteris started in 1952, but the signposts to it had been planted in the 1940s: Vincent Price, during his spell as the Saint on the radio, had observed that the Saint’s creator Leslie Charteris “wanted to play it in every media” and in late 1948 Charteris had been approached by an Argentine company wishing to produce a series of Spanish-language Saint shorts—that is to say a series of films lasting twenty-five minutes, not an item of Saintly apparel. He refused them point blank. Even in the media intensive 21st Century Argentinean film and television productions are not know for the international sales and recognition that Charteris felt his creation deserved.

It wasn’t until 1952, with the American TV industry still very much wearing its nappies, that Charteris began to seriously study ways to put the Saint on television; the blossoming small screen industry seemed the perfect next step for the adventures of Leslie Charteris, as creator of the Robin Hood of Modern Crime.

Earlier that year he’d renegotiated the contract for the Saint radio shows retrieving control of the TV rights, which had previously been bundled alongside the radio rights as TV hadn’t really kicked into gear. He was now determined to develop a TV show for the Saint and penned a number of scripts, designed to show how a half-hour Saint TV show would run.

He set to work with an LA based producer packaging the scripts and offering them as “a series or program of motion pictures for use exclusively on television and radio” targeting David Niven for the lead. It never made it in to production and with the benefit of hindsight it can be suggested that no one was willing to risk engaging Charteris, who had absolutely no experience in producing or directing a TV show.

Some verification of this theory was offered over a year later when Ted Ashley, of the Ashley-Famous Agency had tried to sell the Saint on TV. He summarized the problems they were encountering;

I regret having to advise you that the general opinion has been that the scripts are not sufficiently interesting and particularly, not of the proper type, in terms of general content for a motion picture television film.

...we have indicated that you would write scripts or have them written under your supervision...

...there are many indications that a pilot film and possibly a commitment assuring the production of a minimum of 13 pictures can be obtained, if you would be willing to limit your relationship to that of general advisor on scripts, casting, direction and production...

By 1960 the Saint was still to conquer television.

The man who initiated the chain of events responsible for bring the Saint to a new generation was writer and director John Paddy Carstairs.

Carstairs, an established film director, has started his career as an assistant cameraman in the late 1920s. He’d gone on to direct several films before contributing to the adventures of the Saint by directing the 1939 film The Saint in London. On that production he’d struck up a friendship with Charteris which had endured that less than spectacular movie.

In 1961 Carstairs dropped by the offices of his friends film producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman, who were looking to break in to the growing TV market. Baker mentioned that he thought the Saint would make a good TV show; Carstairs mentioned that he knew Leslie Charteris…

As a result in December 1961 Baker found himself in Florida in a week long negotiation with Leslie Charteris. Successfully concluded, five months later production started with Roger Moore in the title role. Charteris’ agreement with Bob Baker, aside from providing a suitable pension for his old age, allowed him the position of consultant on the show and prior to any significant pre-production work Charteris would be sent scripts and synopses and pass comment on them.

At first his comments were quite vitriolic, for the 50 year old author wasn’t familiar with the limitations placed on his creation by the broadcasting authorities, but he grew to appreciate the show and Moore’s portrayal of his creation.

The show was a global success, with Lew Grade’s salesmanship taking it to almost 100 countries and helping persuade American TV network NBC that perhaps they’d made a mistake by letting the show go into syndication. They promptly commissioned another series, this time in color, which Messrs Baker and Moore, through their newly found production company, Bamoore, were only too happy to provide.

The color episodes of The Saint with Roger Moore, despite in the large part not being based on original Charteris stories, took the show and the character from strength to strength. The show finished in the top 10 shows of 1967 and gave life to several long running comic books (including one that ran in Sweden for over 20 years) and an amazing range of merchandise. Indeed all 118 episodes of the series have found a new lease of life in the 21st century with DVD releases happening around the planet on a scale comparable to the sales of the show in the 1960s. But by late 1968 both the show’s star and the show’s production team decided to call it a day. They decided it was time to take a break from the Saint and try something different.

Baker and Moore took an undeveloped idea they’d had for the Saint and developed it into the feature film, Crossplot. Then they went on to produce and star in The Persuaders! for Lew Grade before Moore started impersonating a chap called James Bond.

Just a few years later it was Upstairs Downstairs that helped persuade Bob Baker that the Saint should return. For one actor, who guest starred in a handful of episodes, seemed to the producer to be right for the role of Simon Templar. With Ian Ogilvy lined up and Lew Grade again backing the show it wasn’t long before cameras were rolling on Return of the Saint. But unlike the previous Saint show to compete with other more glamorous 70s TV shows they made little use of the Elstree back lot, preferring instead to go out on location traveling around Europe filming in Italy and France as well as the more traditional London locations.

The show initially fared well and sold again on a global scale. But Lew Grade took a dislike to it and a proposed second season fell victim to his desire to make movies, primarily his attempt to Raise the Titanic.

In the early 1980s producer Robert S. Baker and his business partner, Roger Moore, decided to try and resurrect the Saint. They commissioned Return of the Saint scriptwriter John Goldsmith to write a couple of scripts, period pieces loosely based on classic Charteris novels. Despite the high pedigree they couldn’t get any network backing and the project sank without trace.

After the global success of the Roger Moore series and the moderate if stunted success of the Ian Ogilvy series it took a few years but the Saint slid down the quality scale rather rapidly.

In 1987 talent agent turned programme and format distributor Don Taffner approached Robert S. Baker and enquired about yet again resurrecting the Saint. A deal was struck and soon, with the international programme market very much in mind, Australian actor Andrew Clarke was cast as Simon Templar.

Openly aping Magnum, a popular detective show at the Saint, the hour long pilot was written by Peter Gethers and David Handler, a couple of sitcom writers. Their pedigree was obvious and rather than play like an update of an action-adventure classic it ran more like a poor sit-com with the Saint suffering all the excesses of the period and a hole in the plot so big that my eight year old son spotted it without any prompting

The show aired on the CBS network in the USA as part of a pilot try-out season under the umbrella title of CBS Summer Playhouse. It came last in its timeslot and was universally slated. Unlike the Moore and Ogilvy shows, this one has never been shown again. Anywhere.

Taffner wouldn’t give up though and in a remarkably short space of time he put together a ground-breaking deal for a new series of six TV films featuring the Saint. He figured that, since the Saint had international appeal, any new series should feature the Saint in various international locations. And without one network’s backing how could these be financed…he found broadcasters in various countries willing to finance up to 2 of these films, in exchange for the rights to all 6.

A worldwide talent search was planned to find the new Saint but it didn’t take long, with actor Simon Dutton soon securing the role.

Plans were announced to shoot the films in London, Sydney, Paris, Berlin and other locations around the world. It all sounded wonderfully glamorous. So to, did the role call of stars signed up to work alongside Simon Dutton. But when the films debuted on the ITV network in the Saint’s home country it all started to go wrong; it got slammed by the critics and the remaining four were kept over for screening until the following summer, when they would be guaranteed to barely trouble the ratings.

Despite the critical slating each of the films got an individual audience of around 8 million and that, combined with the audience from the rest of the world, was enough for discussions to start about doing a second series. Storylines were written, consent granted by Leslie Charteris, a story editor almost hired…and then Robert Evans steered Paramount film studios into the equation, and their generously proportioned wallets soon ensured that Simon Dutton would lose his halo whilst Paramount pursued plans to bring the Saint back to cinema screens.

Initially lauded and planned as a franchise to compete with James Bond the Saint film spent several years staggering through script after script, whilst leading men such as Tom Cruise, Hugh Grant, Ralph Fiennes and—shudder—Arnold Schwarzenegger—all dismissed the role. The end result, when picked up by Val Kilmer and rewritten to his taste, bore little resemblance to the Saint of the books or the TV and was universally panned.

Desperate to get in on the act when the Paramount movie was announced RKO announced their own rival Saint plans, a remake of their old film The Saint in New York. They even went so far as to commission scriptwriter Larry Cohen who turned a remarkably Saintly script, but they weren’t able to agree further terms and the project—strictly a TV movie of the week—died.

After a while, a suitable period of mourning once the Val Kilmer film had nipped in and out of cinemas, interest in the Saint began to perk up again with most interest coming from what many Saintly personnel considered his natural home, television.

Somewhat inspired by the RKO script David Hasselhoff, who at the time was looking to break away from Baywatch, had extensive talks with a US TV network about portraying the Saint, though he was very much focused on him being a retired cat burglar.

The network balked but it was long before another major US network showed interest and took an option on the rights. This staggered along until, in a moment of desperation towards the end of their contract period, they suggested casting a well known female actor as Simone Templar. The Estate of Leslie Charteris promptly ripped up the contract.

Then a couple of Saint fans turned writers adapted one of the original short stories into an hour long script, as the proposal for a new one hour period piece Saint show. This was turned down by the BBC, not because they felt it was badly done, but simply because, in a time long before the resurrected Doctor Who made family viewing hip again, they couldn’t see a place for it on their schedules.

Plans to take it elsewhere were halted by the reappearance of Bill Macdonald. Long time Saint fan Macdonald was, at one stage, in charge of Hollywood producer Robert Evans’ production company and was in fact responsible for introducing Evans to the Saint. Early on the Paramount films painfully long gestation period the production was taken away from him (and Evans) and taken under the control of Paramount Studios—perhaps accounting for the final turkey.

Macdonald was desperate to do the Saint properly, believing there was a place for Charteris’ character along with his attitudes and philosophies in the 21st century.

So did Geoffrey Moore.

Moore had the Saint in his genes, for his father is Sir Roger Moore. And having been very successful as a restaurateur he was keen to break into television and film production, believing it was time for the Saint to return properly.

Macdonald and Moore joined forces and secured independent funding and the interest of many TV networks around the world.

An initial plan, to have James Purefoy in the lead with a script that owed quite a bit to The Da Vinci Code fell by the wayside partly because of the writer’s strike of 2007/2008 but also because Purefoy and Barry Levinson, who was being touted as director, opted to work on The Philanthropist for NBC instead.

Further work, on both financing and the script, delayed the project even further however both those factors are now in place and a formal announcement is due shortly. Just like they said at the end of all those old Saint books, you really should watch for the sign of the Saint, for he will return…

2 comments: said...

This is really a great story about The Saint on TV, and I'm happy to see that it is going to be published soon! Thank you so much for the teaser glimpse into the years of research that Ian has done!

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said... - I'm eager to get my grubby little mitts on the book myself. Ian is a great guy and is only too happy to share his immense knowledge.


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