Flying high with 007, taking a ticket to ride with the Beatles, a cinema date with the Saint, seeing justice served with Danger Man or soaking up the Riviera sun with Jason King – these are just a handful of examples from the onscreen adventures of actress Caron Gardner.
Caron has enjoyed a prolific career, which has taken her from modelling in the 1950s, through representing ‘London After Dark’ in New York in the 60s and working with Hammer at Bray, plus so much more. She recently agreed to chat about her role as Billie in the ‘Department S’ episode, “Blackout.”
PETER and Caron Gardner
A: When you look around, if anything was anything in the Sixties, you were there. You experienced the best of the times I think.
C: It was a fabulous time! Every job I went for I got. I did the Hammer films. Freddie Francis liked me so whenever he had a film he’d say, “Oh I think you can do this- I think you can do that…” and it was just one thing after another. And television work- I did a lot of things like Benny Hill and Morecambe & Wise before I went to New York. Then when I came back there were lots of things at the BBC I did. Some things I can’t now remember- and when these things come up, when your pictures come up, you sort of think, “When did I do that?” I was flat out!
PETER WYNGARDE & ‘DEPARTMENT S’
A: Did you audition for ‘Department S’ or did you just get a call through your Agent?
C: Do you know I can’t remember! I do know did have a good Agent called Richard Jackson.
A: Do you recall if you got much rehearsal for ‘Department S’?
C: Well PETER didn’t need much rehearsal because he was so accomplished, and I wasn’t. I have to say that at the time- you know when you do a scene dancing with somebody, in real life you’d look them in the eye? He was looking over my shoulder! Well I know what he was doing- he was looking at the camera. He was aiming at it with his best profile, which is what you do on film. If he’d looked at me all you would see would be two sides of faces. I learned from that.
A: How many days did you do on ‘Department S’ for the role?
C: I can’t remember. I’d have to find my 1960s diaries. I’m better with diaries now, and I was certainly better when I was doing all this advertising and modelling, because I had so many different agents- I had to keep account of who’d paid me and who hadn’t!
A: Did you know PETER before you did the ‘Department S’?
C: No I didn’t. We didn’t really share a social circle; I was just work, work, work in those days. My social life was more Variety Club of Great Britain and the Water Rats. You were mixing with actors and things but it was more on the charity side. For ‘starlets’ it was signing autographs and going to premieres. I didn’t do a lot of stage work. I did my stage work probably in the late 60s, but I didn’t actually do the sort of work he did.
A: Your initial scene with PETER set in the bar, with him coming on to you.
C: I’m sitting on the stool and he starts to talk to me. He’s talking about my face and my eyes, saying, “Does she talk?” or something like that. (Laughs)
A: That’s correct. You were given direction, obviously, just to be inscrutable.
C: Yes, and not say anything and just sort of look- look at the party and just keep still. I’m supposed to be listening, enjoying it but not taking too much notice.
A: Was it difficult to keep that steadiness with PETER beside you?
C: No, because his lovely voice, his rich voice, and the way he spoke- it was just beautiful.
A: Your Director was Ray Austin- how did you get on with him?
C: Oh fine. Yes, he was nice to work with. I wish I’d been to see him actually, when he came back to the UK recently. I looked him up- that’s what you do now with your I-Pad or your computer, you can find out about all these people that you knew all those years ago. I did check him out and I thought, “He’s done well!” (Laughs)
A: So in your appearance with PETER was that your own voice?
C: That was my voice. Or at least I think it was. It sounded like me. I seem to remember doing that beach scene.
A: Towards the end of the scene in the bar PETER leans in to you and whispers something into your ear.
C: I don’t remember what he said! What did he say?
A: Well it’s out of mike range and I just wondered if he’d said anything cheeky to you, that you could remember at the time.
C: He probably would because we were sort of cheeky with each other on the beach. I can’t remember what he said but I think he did it to relax me. (Laughs) Gosh, if only I could remember!
A: I suspect he might have said something saucy, (C: Probably) something to tease you and try to break your concentration.
C: Well what was my reaction- do you remember?
A: You were perfect- you were fine. I assume you reacted as you were supposed to. You turn out to be well, I was going to say ‘a bad lot’- but I don’t think that’s right. It’s probably more sort of ‘easily led astray’. In the beach scene you talk of, you’re used by the villains to act as a diversion.
C: Well they were supposed to be killing him. I got up, we had this glass of wine- I don’t quite know how I was sent there. Did he invite me? I haven’t seen the show for years.
A: Well I wondered if there was a cut scene because suddenly we jump to a scene where one of the villains’ henchmen is temping you with a bundle of cash- just to take PETER down to the beach and out of the way.
C: I don’t remember that. Gosh! I was luring him to be there and positioning him for being shot I suppose. Then I go to talk to him or kiss him or something and I get it!
A: Yes. He’s being a bit chauvinistic- he sends you down to the bottom of the beach, to get the wine out of the sea (Laughs). A bit naughty! And then you come back and you’re just about to get along with PETER and (as you say) you reach up to kiss him, and you end up in the way of the sniper!
C: So they didn’t get him after all…
A: No. So there’s poor old you, flat out at the end of beach if you remember.
C: (Laughs) Gosh, I’ll have to see this again!
A: Did you do separate publicity shots, because there are one or two of you on the beach?
C: They probably did them in between shots I think. We’re posing on the beach, aren’t we? Just looking at the camera. Then there are dancing ones too.
A: That’s right, yes. Taken in the round what was PETER like to work with on the show?
C: Well as I said I was quite in awe of him because of his professionalism and how much he’d done, and how little I had done. I have to say that I was so thrilled to work with PETER because here was this handsome man. He had a moustache like my father- my father was very handsome. My father had lots of hair like PETER had, except that my father’s was by then very white. PETER had the handsome face, the clothes, the Windsor type knot, and the way he dressed- he was a dandy. It was the look of the day, wasn’t it? (A: Yes, it was).
He was charming- absolutely charming, and I was just thinking, “Why isn’t he looking me in the eye?” and I then did realise afterwards that’s what you do. You have your angles not to look into the camera, but to have the best look, rather than facing into me. It was a good lesson for me. But he was so solid, in what he was doing and in a way that’s quite reassuring.
When I first met him we were doing that scene on the beach, and they wanted him to have a bare chest and he was insisting that he wear his blue towelling beach jacket. There was a little bit of an argument about it. It was a nice blue- and he was right you know, because it actually fitted the scenery. With the beach and trees and thing, the blue stood out. I don’t know whether he didn’t want to show his chest, but he won the day. He said, “I’m keeping this on- I’m keeping this on!” (Laughs)
A: That would have been a beach on a soundstage presumably?
C: Yes- unfortunately, only Elstree.
A: The notoriously tight ITC budgets! Did you get to meet either of the other leads, Rosemary or Joel?
C: Yes I did- Joel Fabiani and Rosemary- what was her surname? (A: Nichols) Nichols, yes. Yes, everybody was very friendly, very chatty; is she still here, in England?
A: Very difficult to say because she slipped off the radar very soon after ‘Department S’
C: I seem to remember her talking about living in a different country.
A: She became an Astrologer or something, it’s said. Some people are a little disparaging about her acting ability when they talk in terms of ‘Department S’. I met Jeremy Wilkin at Westminster and we got talking about ‘Undermind’- the series he starred in with Rosemary- he was full of praise for her.
C: I would have said in ‘Department S’ it was an understated role, but it was perfect for the part she was playing. I do remember her and that she was so cool and so efficient at what she was doing- which was her role in that, wasn’t it?
A: It was indeed, yes – to be the efficient computer expert.
C: It’s funny how that’s stuck with me, isn’t it? (Laughs)
A: Have you met up with PETER since you did ‘Department S’
C: Well you and I sort of said hello at the Birmingham Memorabilia event earlier this year, but it was very brief because you were chatting to Shirley Anne Field and so I went to talk to PETER, then Angela Douglas came over. She grabbed him while I was in the middle of a conversation with him, so that was it- that was the end of my contact! (Laughs) How dare she! How dare she! (Laughs) However, I’d met him before at signings and we’d sat together and he’s still lovely!
Caron’s screen adventures mean that she keeps busy these days, making appearances by popular demand at film fairs and events all over the country. Her singing talents are similarly in demand and she takes great enjoyment in her musical career.
I’d like to give my sincere and grateful thanks to Caron for generously giving her time for this interview and for sharing so many unique and fascinating details of her career.
Thanks also to Tina Bate for initiating the project.
© 2016, Al Samujh
The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/