Friday, June 29, 2007

Review: Robert Vaughn and The Protectors on DVD

Review: Robert Vaughn and The Protectors on DVD

By Wesley Britton

In January 2006, American fans of Robert Vaughn were delighted when Amc began airing episodes of the British-produced hustle in which Vaughn played a senior statesman of, well, high-dollar grifting. In many interviews promoting the show, Vaughn stated he saw his new role as an updating of what might have happened to his iconic character from the 1960s--the elegant Napoleon Solo, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The year before, Vaughn had been interviewed by magazines like Cinema Retro when DVDs for his second TV series, The Protectors, were finally made available for the U.S. market. Back in 2002, I'd asked him about this little known syndicated series, one he acted in during his self-imposed exile from the U.S. during 1972 to 1973. (note 1) He told me Sir Lew Grade, who ran all the commercial programming in England at that time, had called his agent in England and asked if Vaughn would be interested in doing a spy show there. "I said I wasn't very interested," he told me, "and then they said, `Well it's only a half-hour show, you'd only be here one year,' and they offered a pretty good deal. I didn't realize that in England, it took them five to six to seven days to shoot a half-hour show whereas in America it would take only three days. I wound up doing a second season, so I was there almost three years. "

While neither of us knew it during our talk, the circumstances of filming The Protectors would foreshadow his work on Hustle. "I lived in London," he said with fondness. "Every weekend we spent in some place in England, Ireland, or Scotland. We did a lot of filming, actually, on the continent in Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and just about every country available in Europe. " But, of course, drawing too many connections between The Protectors and Hustle wouldn't be fair to the actor or his current project. Hustle is earning well-deserved critical praise and Vaughn himself didn't think much of his '70s show. For many viewers, The Protectors was a transitional series that demonstrated, for one thing, the glories of the '60s spy renaissance were over. Still, the show is worth some exploration even if few modern fans will find DVD sets indispensable additions to their libraries. And, whatever Vaughn is claiming, his current role in hustle has more in common with The Protectors' Harry Rule than U.N.C.L.E.s Mr. Solo.

Creating The Protectors

In the beginning, as they say, the concept came from very creative minds. British ITV head, Sir Lew Grade, the man who'd brought us The Saint, Danger Man, and The Prisoner, Got backing from Faberge for a project produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, then best known for their puppet shows. (note 2) Writers and directors included the likes of Ralph Smart, Brian Clemens, Dennis Spooner, and Donald James whose credits included Danger Man, The Avengers, and The Champions.

Despite such talent, the show's conception was a mixed bag. From the onset, one problem was determining just what The Protector organization was. Apparently, Harry Rule (Vaughn) was the head of a group that had agents based in European cities including Rome and Paris. It's never clear how these "Protectors" got their credentials. They're apparently independent operatives who work for private clients, governments, and carry enough clout to get the U.S. and Russian governments to airlift Contessa Caroline di Contini (Nyree Dawn porter) halfway across the world to help a dictator's wife.

In addition, while the casting might have seemed just right for a new spy series, both Vaughn and co-lead Nyree Dawn Porter were brought in at nearly the last minute, which meant their personalities and characters were ill defined. Porter, for example, brought elegance to her part but it wasn't clear what skills she had beyond good shooting. According to DVD commentary by director John Hough for the first episode, "2000 Feet to Die," This conflict was ongoing and a source of tension between Vaughn and producer Gerry Anderson. For his part, Hough had been brought in because of his experience with stunts, and The Protectors was intended to have more of them than usually seen on television. According to Hough, Bond connections were subtle, as in scenes in the title sequence based on similar shots in From Russia With Love. While he didn't make the connection, Hough used filming techniques Sidney Furie had employed in The Ipcress File. Bringing Furie's cinematic approach to television, Hough said he wanted unusual camera angles, especially reflections from mirrors and windows. At the time, Haugh clamed, such filming was innovative.

Perhaps. Hough had worked on such shows as Danger Man, The Saint and especially The Avengers, a show that loomed very large in the backdrop of the new series. Along with the writers and directors mentioned above, Terence Fieley, a frequent scripter for The Avengers, wrote the first episode. In both shows, the leads flirted and the male of the species clearly had occasional amorous intentions. Porter, who'd been considered for the role of Cathy Gale and did guest-star on The Avengers, now played a character who had a late husband, a parallel to Mrs. Peel thinking she's a widow throughout her run. One episode in particular, "Disappearing Trick," also Seemed to point to The Avengers. In the 1966 black-and-white season of the Patrick Macnee/Diana Rigg pairing, an introduction for American audiences was used identifying Macnee's JohnSteed as a "top professional" and Emma Peel as a "talented amateur." In the early moments of "Disappearing Trick," we hear Caroline and Rule saying:

"You're a 24 hour surveillance machine."
"I'm a professional."
"What am I? Just a talented amateur?"

This set up one of the better story lines in the series when the Contessa, wanting to prove herself, accepts a job in spite of Rule's objections and finds herself in need of rescue from her team. In another outing, slightly reminiscent of "Return of the Cybernauts" in The Avengers, Caroline and Harry butt heads again when she's reluctant to believe an ex-boyfriend is behind an attempted coup d'etat on an island country. (One last Avenger connection was a rare guest-star appearance by one of the original leads, Ian Hendry.)

Looking Back

For most viewers, The Protectors were too realistic with too little flair of the better '60s fantasy series. With little originality, story lines seem like Saint episodes with two savvy Saint's for the price of one; in others, the plot seemed like a watered down Mission: Impossible. In many episodes, Caroline and Harry take turns setting up cons or discovering they're victims of them. Hmm, expert cons? Shades of Hustle! In most cases, as in "Quick Brown Fox," an interesting premise--in this case about yet another group of neo-Nazis--fizzles into a brawl at episode's end. There were the occasional over-the-top bad guys, like the nutcase who kidnapped the Contessa because she'd testified against him in a court. In one episode, criminal cartels pool their resources and hire a group to take out the Protector organization. Several agents are killed while Rule is tortured to get the names of all the Protectors who had access to then cutting-edge computer technology. Such episodes suggest some series should be issued in "Best of" sets and not first-to-last season runs.

One contribution to the spy genre was the notable theme song, "Avenues and Alleyways," with music by Mitch Murray and lyrics by Peter Callander. Viewers could be forgiven for thinking the singer in the end-credits was Tom Jones as the actual vocalist, Tony Christie, was as close to a sound-alike for Jones as one can imagine. But, in the end, The Protectors remains a series with almost bloated potential that never jelled. Perhaps the 30 minute format didn't allow for character development that connected the audience with the attractive leads. Perhaps the vagueness of the premises were too confusing and not the mysterious milieu the creators had in mind. Whatever the case, The Protectors does have its friends and defenders. For them, the DVD incarnation is a treat. For my money, I await the real Robert Vaughn treasure surprisingly not on store shelves--of course, the show that started it all, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.


1. See "Robert Vaughn, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is Alive and Kicking" also posted at this website.

2. As discussed in my Spy Television (2004), ITV and Gerry Anderson also produced a sister series to The Protectors. Actor Gene Barry, attempting to recapture the style of his Amos Burke, Secret Agent, starred in the syndicated The Adventurer. Like The Protectors, "Barry’s series exploited the marquee draw of star names with production values from the syndicated bargain basement." Barry played Jim Bradly, a multi-millionaire who pretended to be an international film star to work on secret missions near film locations or pleasure resorts. Ex-Fugitive detective, Barry Morse, played his contact, Mr. Parminter. He passed himself off as Bradly’s producer/manager. Filmed in the south of France and England, the 26 short episodes couldn't answer one question. How does one pretend to be a film star, Barry’s ostensible cover? "More likely, the series perished as the ‘60s spy boom was waning, and the show couldn’t survive despite theme music by Bond composer John Barry and production input by Saint producer, Monte Berman."

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1 comment:

Tex said...

"As discussed in my Spy Television (2004), ITV and Gerry Anderson also produced a sister series to The Protectors."

No, Gerry Anderson DIDN'T. It was created by Dennis Spooner, and the only connection is that they were both ITV shows.