Curl up in your best kaftan and peel another grape as John reviews Network DVD’s Complete Jason King. Warning: Review contains dodgy seventies fashion
Just to refute the rumours, I am a grown up. Still, the idea of living a cartoon lifestyle of globe-trotting, bed hopping, and keeping one step ahead of the international powers that want to kill me, is rather attractive. I would spend my mornings in bed before waiting for my scantily clad housekeeper, a different one for every day of the week, to come and make me breakfast, and then settle in front of the typewriter to commit my daring adventures to parchment inspired by champagne and strawberries. I would be impossibly gorgeous, irresistible to the beauties of the world, permanently living on my wits and burning all my candles at both ends. I would drop bon mot and attitude in my every conversation, have a glass of scotch in my hand at all times, and I would be fabulously outfitted. In short, I would be Jason King as played by Peter Wyngarde.
I adore Wyngarde. In Department S, he was the highlight of every episode and his fellow actors suffered in sharing the limelight with such an exotic creature as he. It was wholly natural that he should get his own series, and when he did, he was worth every penny as his Jason King lived the high life, foiled international espionage, and notched up more conquests than Casanova and Gene Simmons combined. He was marvelous as he made the shoddy sets, limited location shooting and endless use of stock footage come to life. He raised his playboy writer turned sleuth above preposterous to a sublime level that can only be described as one long and vivacious wink to an audience gagging for kitsch stories, ridiculous clothes, and elaborate twists. Dumb lines became wildly ironic, women dissolved at the slightest attention, and you just knew that Wyngarde was enjoying slumming it as a fop lost in a sea of dodgy central European accents.Barely three years later, it all crashed and burned when the actor was revealed as being a very different man to his creation with the public shame of a conviction for what now is shrugged off as mere cottaging. Wyngarde was deposed as TV royalty and novelty crumpet. His fall was so extreme that he went from being the face of British TV in the early seventies to not having a face at all in Flash Gordon in 1979, when his image had become unwanted and he was cast mainly for his elegant, sonorous voice. It may seem ridiculous that such a fate was visited on an excellent and entertaining performer whose only real crime was to get caught being himself, and above all the chief impression now is that of the waste of a sensational talent.
Let me be clear that Jason King is often formulaic, I would struggle to differentiate many of the twenty six episodes included here from one another. Let me make clear that given the pacing standards of modern telly, it is remarkably pedestrian. Let me insist that women are mere conquests caught in the headlights of this rampant sexist. And let me insist that this is all delicious fun. The stories are never worth too much consideration, but Jason King makes everything all right by being such a totem of heterosexual novelty. His elaborate dress sense, his conceit for his own writing, his horror at the idea of roughing it with the plebs or making economies, Wyngarde is so adorable in his fantasy that you end up believing it all because of the ready charm and wit. If the series itself never catches alight, Wyngarde is never less than smoking, both metaphorically and literally.Individual episodes provide welcome surprises in their construction as Avengers like nonsense is skipped through rather joyously, and sometimes there is real innovation in the treatments. In the episode “Who wants to buy a television series”, King’s usual detective heroics are told through the framing device of Jason trying to sell a script to a distracted TV executive who constantly tries to re-write and re-present the story for TV, adding sex or violence and keeping it very, very simple. The series is also very aware of its genre with nods to Bond, Len Deighton, The Third Man and often it delights when it strays from expectations or offers parody. Jason is often taken down a peg or two for his arrogance or sexism, and occasionally the situation he is placed in is supremely funny, I think particularly of his Moscow bound adventure with good comrades learning his bourgeois ways and affecting his singular apparel.
Most episodes parade fine supporting casts with the likes of Dennis Price, Roy Kinnear, Felicity Kendal and co providing King with targets for his tongue and his ruses. The sheer unashamed cattle market of the female love interests and totty is unforgivable, but more than a little endearing. King is often the reluctant investigator who seems rather bored with his solutions and pleased with his own cleverness. He never loses sight of his pleasures and he always comes out on top. And above all, he “abhors violence”. In the current TV climate, Jason King’s comic leanings seem rather ahead of their time and this kind of light hearted adventure is not that far from the plethora of quirky dramas which haunt the schedules of a Sunday night. Back in its day they certainly churned the episodes out, and sometimes the plot or action labours over repetition and cliché, but modern TV could certainly be improved with the addition of a program of this kind of quality and entertainment. More importantly, Wyngarde’s peculiar talents have been denied to us for too long and this set serves to underline the loss that prejudice and shame cost the TV watching public.
The Complete Jason King is presented on eight discs and carries the twenty six episodes that were first shown on TV in 1971 and 1972. After a little bit of checking it does seem that the episodes are not included in the order they were first shown on UK television but this is the order in this set:
A Thin Band of Air
A Deadly Line in Digits
Flamingos Only Fly on Tuesdays
Chapter One: The Company I Keep
If It’s Got to Go, It’s Got to Go
Variations on a Theme
Buried in the Cold Cold Ground
As Easy as A.B.C.
A Kiss for a Beautiful Killer
A Page Before Dying
It’s Too Bad About Auntie
A Red Red Rose Forever
Uneasy Lies the Head
The Constance Missal
Wanna buy a television series?
To Russia with Panache
All That Glisters: Part 1
All That Glisters: Part 2
Every Picture Tells a Story
A Royal Flush
The Stones of Venice
An Author in Search of Two Characters
That Isn’t Me, It’s Somebody Else
Every episode is shown full screen, and because they were shot on 16mm, time has not been kind to the underlying prints with hairs, tears, discolorations, some colour bleeding and sound dropouts all occasionally evident. Some of the episodes here are very soft indeed and all of the series suffers from faded brightness and a brownish hue, unless restoration takes place, I can’t imagine that they can look too much better. Individual episodes have marks down the side of the screen, Every Picture Tells a Story has blue edges to the frame and the location shooting looks very very worn. If you have seen the series recently on ITV4, don’t imagine that it looks better on DVD than the visual presentation there. Sound comes with occasional tape noise, knocking, hum and hiss, pops and distortion, again quality is compromised by the base materials.The extras include the interesting addition of a TV play called Crossfire which features Wyngarde as a French Fascist in Algiers as civil war is breaking out. Ian Hendry and, the Master himself, Roger Delgado appear too in a liberal and well meaning piece which seems a little stagey and post “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Wyngarde is a revelation as a severe and caniving husband sans moustache and frankly the best thing in it. Shot in longish takes and transferred from a source which emphasises the TV lines, it is an interesting reminder that Wyngarde was a revered stage actor with tremendous presence.
Image galleries accompany each disc with stills from the episodes, and this option comes with music accompaniment. Also included is an interview with Wyngarde on the Russell Harty show where he is publicising the musical The King and I and actually sings from it. Harty asks arch questions and comes over as a little insidious as Wyngarde’s homosexuality was an open secret in showbiz circles when he asks “Why has no woman tamed you”. Opening and closing titles are included along with the ad break bumper, and there is textless material which was made for foreign markets to add subs to the story. Best of all, is a 40 minute featurette which features contributions from guest stars Burt Kwouk and Kate O’Mara, along with contributions from his Department S co-stars and key crew members. The spin-off is explained as being due to Lew Grade’s wife’s fondness for Wyngarde and the actor’s demanding nature is revealed from interviews with others. The featurette is honest in appraising the quality of the series and shows that Wyngarde was every bit the dandy as his character – he used to take 2 hours a day on his hair in make-up during Department S until Lew Grade demanded that he wore a wig instead.
Fans of the kitsch may quibble with my assessment of the series, but for new fans this is really best enjoyed as evidence of Wyngarde’s wonderful persona. This set comes with decent extras but the unrestored prints do lead to poor A/V quality, this is though well worth a rental
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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