PROTECTION RACKET

Sod it. If it’s in your hands, it’s out of theirs. Any archive that is embodied in a physical object rather than floating around the cyber ether is free from editing, tampering, censoring and deleting. Any attempts on the part of streaming services to deny viewers vintage TV in order to protect the oversensitive from being triggered are ultimately futile because it’s already all out there. The Pandora’s Box of the televisual past was opened a long time ago and released into the homes of millions when its curators realised they could recoup an income from it – firstly via VHS, then the DVD and its Blu-ray sibling. And while there may have been a push to proclaim as passé the physical format over the last couple of years, the streaming salesmen are not unlike the record companies of 25-30 years back, the ones that misjudged the value of vinyl when urging punters to buy their albums all over again on CD. It’s in their interests that you subscribe and submit, even though everybody I know who accesses the likes of Netflix does so illicitly and consequently never pays a penny, which is quite funny.

As a format for storing favourite films or TV shows, for my money the DVD is the finest ever conceived – and one that will probably now never be superseded. VHS tape was great in its day, but the DVD is undoubtedly superior. The streaming spiel is that we now have a format-free version of what we might otherwise have had on DVD, but on our phones or PCs and therefore not taking up ‘valuable’ storage space; this is bullshit. We don’t own it just because we can access it online anymore than we own any book we could borrow from a library – whereas we do own the ones we have at home. There’s a difference. Librarians can remove from the shelves any of the books we require their permission to loan, just as broadcasters and streaming services can remove ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Little Britain’, ‘The League of Gentlemen’ or ‘Gone With the Wind’. But if we have them as a physical object, they’re ours to access for life.

Therefore, this seems an apt moment to indulge in one of my periodical forays into viewing habits that serve as a pleasant diversion from a world containing nothing that anyone with sanity intact would want to embrace. The series under today’s spotlight isn’t ‘problematic’ as far as I can tell, though it ran from 1972 to 1974, so I suppose that means it must be racist, I guess. Well, it features three white people as its lead characters, so that’s not a good sign, is it? And only one of them is a woman, which is clearly misogynistic. And they’re all straight, which obviously suggests it’s a very homophobic series. And occasionally actors who do not belong to an ethnically diverse demographic are adopting middle-eastern accents whilst looking like they’ve overslept on the sun-bed, thus being guilty of both ‘blacking-up’ and of stereotyping anyone not white as inherently villainous, which is unquestionably racist and serves to reinforce negative, colonialist perceptions of minorities. Maybe the actors were hired on merit rather than because they fulfilled a quota? Funnily enough, I’m not talking about ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ or ‘Mind Your Language’, but ‘The Protectors’.

‘The Protectors’ was perhaps the last in the run of relentlessly entertaining, escapist adventure series produced by Lew Grade’s ITC from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. These shows – ‘The Saint’, ‘Man in a Suitcase’, ‘The Champions’, ‘Department S’, ‘The Persuaders’, ‘Jason King’ – adhered to a joyously familiar formula in which the lead characters were never short of money for the finest clothes, cars, food, drink, beautiful women and flash pads; they were usually begrudgingly employed by some secret organisation loosely affiliated to government-sponsored espionage – organisations that clearly regarded playboy dilettantes as the ideal employees in the tradition of the gentleman spy, the amateur who saves the world in his spare time. Shot on glossy colour film in order to sell them to the US networks when British TV was still primarily broadcasting in monochrome, all of these series still look visually impressive today and retain their surreal charm.

‘The Protectors’ followed a familiar ITC pattern when seeking American backing, that of giving a leading role to an American actor, in this case the Man from UNCLE himself, Robert Vaughn. He plays the London-based Harry Rule, a man who shares his luxury apartment with a sexy Chinese ‘girl servant’ and an Irish Wolfhound; he’s a member of the mysterious Protectors organisation, which is portrayed as international by having the two other stars of the show working out of Italy and France. Eye candy for the guys is provided by the beautiful and elegant Nyree Dawn Porter as the Contessa di Contini, the exotic English widow of an Italian millionaire (who clearly had nobody else to bequeath his fortune to), whilst eye candy for the girls comes in the suave shape of young Paul Buchet, played by Tony Anholt. All three are effortlessly affluent and can handle themselves in a fight – which is handy, because they get into a lot of fights, albeit fights of the Wild West saloon school.

Surprisingly, ‘The Protectors’ was conceived and co-produced by Gerry Anderson – surprisingly because it lacks the science fiction/fantasy hallmarks that characterise his TV CV. Sandwiched between his first non-puppet series, ‘UFO’, and his final regular television outing, ‘Space 1999’, ‘The Protectors’ is something of an aberration in the Anderson canon, but fits neatly into the ITC pantheon. Money was clearly spent on the series, as location filming, rather than relying on stock footage and back projection, is a key element of its appeal. Although there are an abundance of stories set along the Mediterranean and about half-a-dozen shot in Venice, various European cities feature and the actors are unmistakably there rather than on the ITC back-lot. Viewing it today, it’s refreshing how distinctively different and authentically European – in an old-fashioned sense of the word – these locations look to a modern eye dulled by identikit streets colonised by the same corporate chain-stores the world over. To a British public making its first tentative forays to the Continent via package tours in the early 70s, it must have served as a useful travelogue.

Unusually for an ITC series, ‘The Protectors’ eschews the standard 50-minute format and crams everything into 25-minute episodes. To some degree, this time limit comes at the expense of character development, leaving the three leads as rather blank canvases who have little breathing space to grow as people before the quick-fire plot drags them into action. On the plus side, there’s no padding and no messing about; everything has to be resolved within an extremely narrow frame. However, one could say this might make the series appealing to a contemporary audience accustomed to the fast-paced MTV editing of TV drama today; if you like your adventures diluted into a show that will nicely span your evening meal, ‘The Protectors’ could well be the TV dinner side-order for you.

Guest stars who did the ITC rounds feature throughout – Patrick Mower, Derren Nesbitt, Patrick Troughton, Anton Rodgers, Peter Bowles, Ian Hendry, Michael Gough, Stephanie Beacham, Kate O’Mara – and there are a few surprising cameos from an adolescent Peter Firth, Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones (looking more like a Doobie Brother), and even Eartha Kitt. The enjoyably formulaic plotlines are penned by the usual roster of ITC wordsmiths and, like all ITC shows, it had a great theme tune – in this case, ‘Avenues and Alleyways’, sung by Tony Christie in true melodramatic style. As a slice of vintage escapism, it’s glorious hokum with flamboyant threads to match and a plethora of Zapata moustaches and dodgy ‘foreign’ accents on the part of the villains. There are no attempts at ‘Scandi-Noir’ angst or inserting ‘issues’ into the stories with a sledgehammer. No, it’s actually nothing more than innocent, undemanding fun. Remember that? ‘The Protectors’ now is what it was then, not what 2020 has imposed upon it.

© The Editor

8 thoughts on “PROTECTION RACKET

  1. Sadly the DVD will ultimately fail, as most other formats have failed, through the absence of devices by which it may be read. I still have a pile of 3.5” ‘floppy disks’, previously used as archive storage for my old computers, but no 3.5” slots now. Already binned the 8” and 5.25” ones.

    None of the new physical media has the longevity of paper, that universally simple medium which has carried its content through centuries: the best chance of such longevity now is cloud storage in digital form, enabling the storage and access formats to develop in parallel in perpetuity. Obviously there will be monetising opportunities there, if not for the creators, then for the storage providers. We may have to live with that.

    You’re right, Nyree Dawn Porter was indeed beautiful and elegant eye-candy – that image you use looks remarkably like a lady of my past acquaintance, although I’d not appreciated the close similarity at the time. May have erred in letting her move on.

    I seem to recall that Tony Anholt later ‘progressed’ to ‘Howard’s Way’, mmmm.

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    1. I too still have a box of floppy disks! And it is true what renders these articles ultimately redundant is the equipment to play them on being discontinued. Same goes for VCRs. Yes, I could probably purcahse a machine on eBay, but it’d be old and will probably break and then I’d need to track down the parts, and I just can’t be arsed. Binned hundred of tapes over the past three or four years, but I have to admit the space was welcome in a home in which space is at a premium. I remember reading even NASA got caught out with recordings of the 1976 Viking Mars mission being inaccessible due to the technology used at the time.

      And yes, you’re right; Tony Anholt did end up in ‘Howard’s Way’, but before that he’d done ‘Space 1999’, playing the love interest of another beautiful woman of that TV era, Catherine Schell.

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  2. It’s not just about the player, you need to connect it to a monitor. Sometime soon, the trusty co-ax will disappear from TV sets, then the Scart, and you can only connect with USB or HMDI, neither of which your stone-age player has. One day, your old player or its venerable monitor will die and then you’re stuffed. Progress eh?
    Sometimes you’ve just got to try to keep up.

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      1. I knew I’d found Radio Luxembourg when I heard “Keynsham, K E Y N S H A M” Good old Horace.
        VHS tapes, cassette tapes all gone now, but I still have a couple of hundred shellac 78s, and the wind-up to play them on, many spare needles too. Even if the electricity goes off I can have music!

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      2. I used to listen to Luxembourg in bed in the early 80s, plugging what resembled a hearing aid into the old transistor radio. Hard to believe now it was the only station (bar Radio 2) you could tune into post-midnight back then.

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      3. Even as a naïve teenager, it had struck me that, if Horace Batchelor’s amazing ‘Infra-draw’ method was any good at all, what was he doing pratting about advertising for pennies on a scratchy radio station, when he should have just been using that allegedly amazing system to clean out Littlewood’s and Vernon’s every week? Thus began a questioning life . . . .

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  3. Thank you and your commenters for reviving old and near forgotten memories.
    What I now like about that era of television was the simplicity.
    Never mind the plugging of “ishews”, actors spoke clearly, the music, and it was music, not just noises, was secondary to the spoken word, and the lighting was not the modern gloom but vivid.
    Now having the technology to easily produce vivid colour, our entertainment providers have decided that muddy, grainy near monochrome pieces.

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