Cult TV: The Champions.


The mid to late 1960s were a very productive time for British science fiction, spy and fantasy television, and in particular, a certain type of slightly fantastic, tongue in cheek adventure. “The Avengers”, probably the trailblazer, was nominally about a British intelligence agent and his civilian assistant, but what it really was about was slightly kooky mysteries. It was not just a “let’s catch a Russian spy this week” type show, but rather a “How did a man drown in the middle of a field near a top secret military research base?” or “Why has an airliner filled with diplomats arrived a day late in Heathrow with the passengers and crew unaware that they are even late?” show. With mad scientists, secret weapons, world domination et al, It was all good fun stuff.

“The Champions”, filmed in 1967, was very much in the same genre. It told the story of three agents of Nemesis, a Geneva-based western intelligence agency that battled everything from Nazis to plots to steal nuclear weapons to mysterious events like Interpol agents committing suicide. Starring Stuart Damon as the cocky American, William Gaunt as the cool dry-witted Brit and Alexandra Bastedo as the strikingly beautiful scientist, all were endowed with special powers after crashing near a Tibetan monastery (I know, I know).

It was, after “The Man From UNCLE”, my favourite TV show growing up, which is funny because I actually watched it at least 15 years after it had ceased production.

Pretty much forgotten today, the plots were all international crisises and high stakes around the world, from Tibet to the Carribean to Wales(!) save for one thing: the cast never went too far from Elstree studios in London. Made by the British television company ITC, the series was produced by Monty Berman who was notorious for doing things on the cheap. Three episodes, for example, were all set on submarines to allow for use of the same set, with the episodes filmed back to back. Foreign locales were always denoted by stock footage, and Nemesis Headquarters (actually an office block in Elstree) always had the same Volkswagen beetle with Swiss plates parked outside! One street set, appearing as a Geneva suburb one week would reappear as a Central American street the next week, with suitable dressing. Ironically, one of the best episodes, “The Interrogation”, where one of the agents is tortured for information, was written for a single set to save money.

Still, it is an entertaining show for its day, although you will find yourself gritting your teeth at the limited scope for Alexandra Bastedo’s character as the scripts hardly ever required her to do anything but look very pretty and provide plot exposition. It is also gratingly sexist, with Bastedo contantly being patronised with “loves” and “dear” and told to keep out of the way, despite the fact she had the same super-strength the other two had. But that was the time it was, and it would make a great drinking game now.

Gaunt and Damon, on the other hand, had genuine chemistry and the ability to bring humour.

If you were a fan of The Avengers, you’ll like this. It’s also great for spotting quite a few British TV actors of the day, and one very famous American actor.

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