During the early days of the Hellfire Club, Mr Dennis Spooner was kind enough to answer some of our questions for the Club magazine.
I’d like to thank his sister – Mrs. Anne Frost, who is a very dear friend, for kindly organising our meeting.
Dennis Spooner’s ITC series like The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), always sold well in America and other overseas territories and , for that, he was criticised.
“During the Sixties,” he says, “I was bitterly attacked by somebody who said, ‘Look! There’s Spooner sitting at Elstree pandering to the American’s!’ I wrote him a letter saying you’re wrong. I’m pandering to the Japanese and the German’s and everybody. ITC were basically exporting company. We were earning foreign currency. We got the Queen’s Award to Industry. It’s no good trying to sell a locomotive to America if they insist on building it for a gauge track that’s relevant to Britain. I don’t see why people get so upset when you do the same thing in television. The alternative was not that we would make a TV series without pandering. The alternatives were even worse. They made the last series of The Professionals for something like £169,00. You have to sell an expensive series abroad.
The ITC adventure series of the 1960’s were undoubtedly expensive and certainly successful abroad, but Spooner’s favourite series is surprising: “I very much liked Jason King,“ he says. “Because I think it’s a hell of a lot better than it was thought at the time.” Jason King was, of course, a spin-off of the previous ITC series, Department S, which the company saw as following a successful trend of Fraud Squad, Ghost Squad and Interpol. When Dennis Spooner was first approached to write the new series, he thought, ‘God’! What department hasn’t been done yet?! It seemed that everything had been done, so he thought up a new department: “I thought – ‘What we’ve got to do is bring up-to-date the Marie Celeste. If the Marie Celeste were to happen tomorrow, who would investigate it?’ So the gimmick of Department S was that every ‘hook’ was a Marie Celeste. There was an absolutely inexplicable beginning, which we then spent 50 minutes explaining.”
The three central characters in the series were straightforward investigator, Stewart Sullivan (Joel Fabiani), a computer Genius who worked on facts and probabilities, Annabelle Hurst (Rosemary Nicols), and Jason King (PETER WYNGARDE), an imaginative writer.
“I knew,” said Spooner, “that during the war, Winston Churchill had got hold of Dennis Wheatley and said; ‘Ok. You’re clever. Get me six thriller writers and tell me how to win the war!’ If they were ever to get a department to investigate Marie Celeste’s, they’d get Ian Fleming and Dennis Wheatley. With the three heroes in Department S you got the normal approach and the analytical approach and a hair-brained approach from someone who gave ridiculous explanations which, every now and then, were right. Jason King tends to turn up for ten minutes in Department S; behave like a combination of Ian Flemming and Noel Coward – obviously thought he was God, and made lots of money. He worked very well because we saw him in small doses and he never dominated the show”.
The outcome of these relatively short appearances, though, was astonishing. PETER WYNGARDE became a television star in Britain and a megastar in (West) Germany. “He was enormous in Germany,” says Spooner. “He got voted Man of the Year with Willi Brant second. We paid PETER so many pounds in salary, but he made sort of a million quid a year going over to Germany every Sunday opening supermarkets.”
PETER was such an international success that when Department S ended, ITC got worldwide bookings for a Jason King series before they’d even they’d even thought of making any such show. Because the buyers clearly existed, ITC felt that they were commercially obliged to make the series and asked Dennis Spooner to create it.
“I’m not saying that I didn’t want to do the Jason King series,” says Spooner, “but I thought the failing of Jason King was just what it turned out to be – that in big doses, he’d be too flamboyant.” On the other hand, there were immense possibilities for humour which appealed to Spooner.
“What other series could you have a hero who hardly ever won a fight?” he asks. “In one episode, he knew the crooks were going to meet in a warehouse, so he had himself delivered to the warehouse in a packing case with champagne and everything. It goes into the warehouse, but then they put about 30 other cases on top of it and he never got out until the end of the episode! What other show could you do that to your leading man?”
The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/