Secret agents are endowed with special abilities following a near-fatal crash.
30 Episodes of 60 minute duration. ITC 1968-1969.
The ITC stable turned its hand to international espionage with a subtly super-powered slant with Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner's 1968-69 action-adventure series 'The Champions'.
The series’ simple yet effective premise involves secret agents Craig Stirling (Stuart Damon), Richard Barrett (William Gaunt), and Sharron Macready (the stunningly lovely Alexandra Bastedo), who suffer a fatal plane crash in the Himalayas whilst returning from a mission. Rescued by a mysterious Tibetan monk and endowed with special powers, the trio are then returned home where they put these abilities to work for their Geneva based organisation, Nemesis. These powers include super strength, telepathy, ESP and a heightening of their natural senses.
Their boss at Nemesis, Tremayne (Anthony Nicholls), is unaware of their new powers as he assigns them to a host of impossible missions. In spite of their new powers, the agents -the 'Champions of Law, Order and Justice'- are by no means invincible, needing to work very much as a team. Often tense, intelligently written scripts were complimented by warmly engaging performances from the central trio of actors. While imaginative direction (often from such luminaries as Sam Wanamaker, Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker), often succeeded in convincingly depicting the use of heightened abilities without the need for the lavish special effects budgets available to similar US shows.
Of the cast, William Gaunt had the most experience of starring in a TV series, having been the sidekick to 'Sergeant Cork' on ATV in the early sixties. Before Gaunt was cast, Ian McShane was among several actors considered for the part of Richard Barrett. Having secured a considerable amount of cash for the series from NBC in America, Lew Grade wanted an American actor in one of the main parts and so New York born Stuart Damon, who was at that time appearing as Harry Houdini in a West End musical, was found. Damon had appeared in other ITC series before as guest star in 'The Saint' and 'Man In A Suitcase.' The least experienced on the main leads was Alexandra Bastedo, who was just twenty at the time, and had made only fleeting appearances in the 1960s James Bond spoof 'Casino Royale' and the Morecambe and Wise movie 'That Riviera Touch.' The series other permanent character, Tremayne, was originally offered to and going to be played by Douglas Fairbanks Junior until he changed his mind about the part leaving the door open for experienced Shakespearean actor Anthony Nicholls who appeared wearing a hairpiece and false beard.
Stuart Damon went on to star in another ITC series; 'The Adventurer' however was a rare flop for the company. He later co-hosted a U.S. magazine programme called 'America' and the daytime soap 'General Hospital.' Bastedo virtually disappeared from our screens following the series, turning up nearly thirty years later with a guest spot in the sitcom 'Absolutely Fabulous', whilst Gaunt fared somewhat better with a host of TV appearances, including starring roles in 'No Place Like Home' and 'Capstick's Law'.
'The Champions' wasn't as big a hit in the UK as it deserved to be mainly due to the fact that it wasn't shown all over the country at the same time. It debuted in September 1968 but Thames Television, in London, held it back until November 1969 when it could be shown in colour...viewers elsewhere had to be content with black and white transmissions. Even so, the series seemed to be more popular in the regions than it was in the capital. Around the world it fared much better and with broadcasts in over 60 countries it soon became one of ITC's biggest hits...just about everywhere...except America. Without the support of an American network any thoughts of a second series were cast aside, which is a great shame because 'The Champions' remains as another excellent example of British Television's long line of enjoyable and well crafted 1960s adventure series.
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