Jun 25, 2010

DVD Review: The Sentimental Agent

When it’s good, The Sentimental Agent is very good. And when it’s bad, it’s very bad. This early ITC effort is a wildly uneven series based on a fairly tenuous premise, but it’s still absolutely worth buying for one particularly great episode. More on that in a minute. First, let’s focus on that tenuous premise. Honestly, I’m not sure why Harry Fine or Lew Grade or whoever came up with the show decided it would be a good idea to make a series about a debonaire import/export agent. Imports and exports? Really? That’s a profession so nebulous, so bland, so boring that Ian Fleming thought it would make the perfect cover for the British Secret Service in his Bond novels! Of course, those are exciting because it’s just that, a cover. Sadly not so in the case of The Sentimental Agent. Unlike James Bond, Carlos Varella (Carlos Thompson) really is in imports and exports. I suppose that there was still a certain bit of glamor attached to the profession at the height of the Jet Age, since it inherently meant dealing with far-flung regions of the world, but the glamor wears off quickly when the viewer realizes that Varella’s office (housed in a decidedly unglamorous warehouse) is basically just a big mail room. “Transport these goods to America, ASAP!” “Arrange insurance on this shipment!” “Oh no, this product is held up in customs! Quick, fill out a form! In triplicate!” Yes, if you’ve ever wondered how the mail room in your office building works (granted, on a slightly larger scale), then this is the show for you. Personally, I’ve spent a bit too much time working in such a mail room myself to find calculating insurance for an international package all that exciting.

Luckily for us, that’s not all that the show is limited to. You see, the basic formula for pretty much all ITC series at this time (all the contemporary ones, anyway), no matter what the hero’s occupation was, was for the writer to say, “Oh, he’s a ________ [insert import/export agent/international photojournalist/jet-setting playboy/antiques dealer/invisible man/whatever, as needed]? Okay, I’ll just write a story where he’s mistaken for a secret agent or somehow falls in with spies.” And that mentality suits this viewer just fine! In fact, I find it amazing that the same stable of writers managed to generate so many new plots spread out over so many series for what was essentially the same show over and over again. (I know, I know; sometimes they repeated themselves. Still!) Anyway, the basic formula was some guy with a somewhat exotic profession (or pointed lack of one) gets into adventures featuring international intrigue week after week. What the profession is generally doesn’t matter. So as long as the writers stick to the profession not mattering and just put appealing leading man Carlos Thompson in an interesting scrape of the week, the results tend to turn out pretty well. When they focus instead on his boring profession... not so much.

The Sentimental Agent was spun off from another black and white early Sixties ITC series, Man of the World. That show starred Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn himself) as Mike Strait, a globetrotting photojournalist who–you guessed it–got mixed up with spies and kidnappers week after week. (To be honest, that one didn’t have a super great premise either, but it at least sounded a bit more exciting than “import/export!”) Stevens must have wanted some time off one week, so in the episode “The Sentimental Agent” (which really should have been included as an extra on Network’s Sentimental Agent set, but is appallingly absent), his character gets arrested in Havana at the very beginning. His assistant, Maggie (Tracey Reed), turns to the suave rogue Carlos Barella (yes, they later changed his name), an import/export agent based (here) in Havana and Panama City. (Evidently, he relocated to London when he got his own series.) Not an altruistic do-gooder by nature (the “sentimental” moniker is at first intended ironically), he agrees to help but charges $5,000 for his services. He also conspires to profit from the situation on top of that. Straight is suspected of being an American spy, and soon Barella is caught up in a full-on spy plot involving kidnapped scientists, faked deaths and the beautiful Shirley Eaton (playing an American). It’s a pretty great episode–classic ITC–and in many ways the unscrupulous Barella makes a more interesting lead than the straight-edge Strait anyway. It’s easy to see why Grade greenlit his own series based on this very obvious backdoor pilot.

Unfortunately, Barella is not only stripped of his “B” in favor of a “V,” but also loses some of his rogueishness when he makes the transition to leading man. Still, Thompson is a charismatic actor, and clearly had the chops to carry a series–especially with the able assistance of an Aston Martin DB5! That’s right, Varella drives the coolest car of the decade–the same year that James Bond made it famous in Goldfinger. Varella’s DB5 logs most of its weekly mileage in the title sequence, unfortunately (accompanied by a strange–but catchy–theme song that manages to evoke neither the adventure nor the Latin flavor it clearly intends to), and never gets a great chase all its own or anything. In fact, in the first episode (presumably filmed before the title sequence), he actually drives a DB4. But after that, the DB5 lights up any episodes it turns up in, no matter how briefly. And it adds to the series’ spy cred. Not that it really needs adding to, as the very first episode is a full-on spy adventure.

In “All That Jazz,” Varella’s company, Mercury International, is importing a modern jazz quintet. Personally, I found this eye-opening, because I had no idea that you could actually import people–but apparently that’s one of the many exciting components in an import/export career! Anyway, Varella’s muppet-voiced assistant, immediately has trouble doing so, and has to call Varella to come to the airport himself. Apparently the band, The Arthur Rodgers Modern Jazz Quintet (“What extraordinary names these people do think up!” blusters the old MI5 man, demonstrating that he and I must subscribe to very different definitions of the word “extraordinary.”), are considered “undesirable aliens.” Aliens from where, exactly, isn’t entirely clear, since, like most jazz quintets, they’re comprised of white cockneys very clearly not alien to Britain. (I think they’re actually supposed to be American cockneys.) The undesirable part is far easier to understand. You see, wherever they go, Western secrets seem to leak in their path–and tonight they’re scheduled to play for the “Friends of Progress” or something equally Commie-sounding. Very suspicious indeed, as is their mysterious arranger who only sends the arrangements by Express Delivery at the last minute to whatever exotic location they’re playing in.

Varella shows up to do what must be done to get them into the country (one has to keep Special Branch well greased with Scotch) and the muppet-voiced assistant, Bill (Riggs O'Hara) prepares him. “Wait’ll you get aload of them!”

Varella furrows his eyebrows. “Beatniks?”

“The mostest ”

Ironically: “Can’t wait.”

Major Nelson of MI5 (Anthony Bushell) shares his department’s suspicions (and those of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency) with Varella, recruiting him to keep an eye on the band and help MI5 figure out how the secrets are being smuggled. (You will have guessed already.) When Special Branch then releases the shaggy beatniks (including a young Jeremy Bulloch) into Varella’s custody, they launch an onslaught of hip slang (like “Hey, cats! Case the threads!” and “Knock off!” which Varella finds particularly bizarre) and irreverent humor. Only the attractive female xylophonist “Ms. Sarah James” (ITC mainstay Annika Wills) seems at all grown-up, and she flirts with Varella instead of cracking wise.

The first part of Varella’s undercover assignment is to accompany the band to their Friends of Whatever gig at the local Communist embassy that night. Varella requires a lot of briefing for a night out. First, his Chinese Jeeves, Chin (the great Burt Kwouk, who enlivens every scene he’s in), who is more attuned to English traditions than the non-specifically Latin Varella, briefs him on what color carnation to wear to this sort of event. Then Major Nelson gives him a code phrase to identify his MI5 contact: “I’d have thought classical music was more in your line.” To which Carlos is supposed to respond, “One tries to get with it.” Simple enough, right?

“Don’t you worry now,” the Major assures him. “Your contact is one of our very best girls.”

If you can’t predict Varella’s alarmed reply, “Girls?!” then you must not have ever seen any Sixties movies or television.

In keeping with the time and the same appalling attitude, Nelson mollifies him by with some further crucial information. “36-24-34. Don’t say we have your best interests at heart ”

Carlos retorts, “You certainly try to get ‘with it’” and seems very pleased with himself for doing so. Oh, he's "with it" alright!

Unfortunately, everyone at the concert seems more "with it" than Varella, and everyone thinks that classical music would be more in his line! Two girls and one guy tell him that, and he keeps saying “one tries to get with it” without knowing which one is the real contact. Too bad he didn’t bring his measuring tape with him. Actually, it probably wouldn’t have helped. When he finally meets the tiny brunette Tanya, she doesn’t really seem to measure up to the Major’s description.

When I mentioned an arranger who express ships the arrangements at the last minute before each gig (leaving poor Sarah “headed for Crackupville, USA unless this schnook gets hip enough to send the arrangements in time for me to learn them!”), you figured out how the secrets were being smuggled, didn’t you? Of course you did. So does Varella. In the course of the evening, he is able to use his knowledge gleaned from years of importing and exporting pianos to realize that “The middle register’s been re-tuned!” on one in the embassy. “Don’t you see? Musical notes are like the letters of the alphabet. Except that in this baby here, the order in which they run has been changed around. They must be using this instrument to decode the music those kids are playing this very minute! That's how the information is being passed.” So all the intelligence services needed this whole time was to hire an import/export guy with an ear for music!

Upon making this discovery, Varella awakens poor Bill with the perhaps the greatest urgent exclamation ever to awaken a sleeping assistant: “Bill! Get me a piano tuner right away!” It sounds even better in Thompson’s vaguely accented delivery.

When Tanya is kidnaped, Varella’s appalled when Major Nelson doesn’t lift a finger to help his agent, and for an episode with so many musical performances (even Carlos gets a solo), it takes a surprising turn into dark, Le Carré spy territory. “She’s a national of their country,” he explains cooly. “They have a perfect right to hold her, even send her back where she came from.”

“She works for you!” protests Varella. “Rather loyally I’d say.”

“Not anymore,” the spook reasons. “Her cover’s been broken; she’s no further use to us. Unfortunately, my job is security, not sentiment.”

Varella is, of course, a more (ahem) sentimental agent, so he disagrees. “Do you sleep well at night?” he asks.

“The day this job can be taken over by machines, I for one shall give three rousing cheers! We didn’t draft her into this you know. She came into it, with her eyes wide open.” I was surprised to see this otherwise lighthearted series make a left turn into Deighton territory so early, but sadly it’s not representative of what’s to come. Major Nelson has turned out to be a great spymaster character, but unfortunately he doesn’t recur. That doesn’t mean we don’t get some more healthy doses of espionage, though.

“Express Delivery” is a really great, old fashioned spy story through and through. Do you like that Man From U.N.C.L.E. where Napoleon is trapped behind the Iron Curtain and has to escape with a busload of school children? Or that Saint where Simon finds himself trapped in East Germany and has to run for the border? I do. I love border-crossing spy stories, and I love episodes of TV shows that put the main character in such a predicament. This is Varella’s turn, and it doesn’t matter if he’s an import/export agent or what; he’s simply got to get out.

Unlike many ITC shows, The Sentimental Agent uses real countries (usually). Varella is traveling in Poland, an Eastern Bloc country crawling with secret police and CIA agents and defectors and would-be defectors and phony defectors. He meets a beautiful blonde in a hotel bar who implores him to aid her in an escape to the West. But who does she work for? Varella knows he can’t trust her, but he opts to help anyway. Their escape plan puts them on a train ride with sinister sorts sharing the compartment (a shady priest who packs a gun, a seemingly obvious secret policeman, military types, etc.), fulfilling another of my favorite spy tropes: the train story. On top of all those shady characters, we have disguises and quick-changes and more wonderful genre staples at their best. Varella is caught up in the middle of all this, and ends up a pawn of both the secret police and the CIA in either helping a defector escape or else helping a fake defector be planted in Western intelligence. Great art direction with obvious backdrops on cobbled, Eastern European-feeling streets adds to the mystique making “Express Delivery” a standout example of the Cold War spy genre irregardless of the show it’s part of.

Even when not fully spy, we get plenty of the sort of mystery and intrigue typical of ITC series. “The Beneficiary,” for instance, follows a Maltese Falcon plot, wherein lots of mysterious parties including a Fat Man, an effeminate Peter Lorre-type (who Varella repeatedly disarms, recalling Bogie’s treatment of Elisha Cook, Jr.) and a femme fatale chase after a mysterious Macguffin. (Bringing a spy element to the table, the Macguffin turns out to be some sort of metallurgical formula that’s the key to creating a death ray!) Varella gets in on the action when his old Korean War buddy calls him up out of the blue from Lisbon, then gets himself shot while he’s on the phone (as happens). Naturally, Carlos hops the first flight to Portugal to avenge him. There’s no import/export plot in this episode, but Carlos does keep trying to sell people cases of stuff when he meets them. (He successfully interests the Lorre-like character in some sort of allergy medication and even tries to line up shipment of two crates as the guy’s trying to kill him!) “The Beneficiary” is a really solid example of great ITC-style entertainment.

The best episode of the bunch, however, and the one that makes this a must-buy set for spy fans (or at least for Avengers fans) is “A Very Desirable Plot,” written by Brian Clemens. This is the episode that marks the screen debut of Diana Rigg, and she’s absolutely riveting–no mean feat in such a throwaway series! Seriously! In a show as lightweight as you can get (sorry, Carlos), Rigg manages to elevate the material to the level of, well, The Avengers. (And that is high praise indeed!) You can absolutely tell during every moment she’s on screen that this beautiful young woman is going to be a star. Watch, for example, her subtle movement as she jumps back a little, sharply intakes her breath and straightens herself up as Varella passes by to leave in an early scene. It’s fantastic, seemingly spontaneous body language that adds a trillion more layers to her character than what’s written.

It’s a good part for her, too. Rigg plays Francy, an inquisitive, unstoppable young British woman and the daughter of a land buyer who’s been ripped off in a Bahamian land scheme blamed on Varella. She stands up for herself and for her father, and she’s disinclined to let poor Carlos off the hook even when he insists that he has nothing to do with this villain who’s been billing himself as his partner. In fact, her cat-like curiosity nearly derails Varella’s intricate, Mission: Impossible-like plan to out-con the bad guy and see all the swindled landowners become rich in the process.

NOTE: I would love to provide illustrative evidence of Diana Rigg's lovely presence, but I've been having trouble with my screen cap software and wasn't able to get any from that disc. 

Burt Kwouk gets a lot to do in “A Very Desirable Plot” as well, even if he has to talk like Charlie Chan to earn some extra screen time. Actually, that’s all part of the con. Varella instructs his able assistant, Miss Carter, that Chin should “wear what Charlie Chan would wear” when posing as a Chinese investor. The villain’s secretary notes the resemblance as well, and asks him, “Who are you? Charlie Chan?”

“Most flattered by resemblance to illustrious detective,” Kwouk replies in a perfect Chan cadence, “but regret cannot claim relationship.”

“A Very Desirable Plot” is not only the best episode of The Sentimental Agent, but an episode that could stand against the best of any ITC series. Strong, witty writing, a clever plot and solid performances all around are catapulted into the stratosphere by Diana Rigg’s barnstorming, force-of-nature television debut. If you’re an Emma Peel fan or a Diana Rigg fan, you simply must track this down!  (Also watch for a very young Donald Sutherland in a blink-or-you'll-miss-him role as a hotel receptionist.) 

Unfortunately, despite such strong episodes as I’ve so far discussed, The Sentimental Agent slides into mediocrity in the second half of its single season. The problems are twofold. Firstly, the plots start to focus less on con jobs and international intrigue and more on freight jobs and international trade–the very things you would expect of a show with this premise. Secondly–and probably more detrimentally–the charismatic Carlos Thompson ceases to be the lead of his own show, replaced in most of the later episodes by John Turner as Bill Randall, one of Varella’s employees. (Not the same character as his wonderfully muppet-voiced assistant Bill in the first episode.) Turner is weird-looking and generally less appealing. He’s also a terrible television actor. Perhaps he was a good stage actor, but those skills don’t always translate directly to other media. Performing as if he’s in a West End theater, Turner punctuates every line he utters (delivered stagily, from the diaphragm) with some sort of larger-than-life facial expression or stilted gesture. He might have made a decent ITC sidekick, but a TV lead he is not. (Decades later, however, he did an excellent job and made me laugh quite heartily as the very theatrical supporting role of Roderick Spode on Jeeves & Wooster.) It’s a pity that the estimable Mr. Kwouk wasn’t promoted to lead in Thompson’s absence instead, but apparently Britain wasn’t ready for an (actual) Asian television star. Kwouk does, at least, get to do more in these Varella-free episodes, which makes them bearable.

“Meet My Son, Henry” is a decent–if utterly unoriginal–spy story with the ever-reliable Vladek Sheybal as the baddie. The episode guest stars a kid in a leading role (the titular son Henry), which would usually spell doom for viewers, but this kid actually turns out to be far less annoying than he could have been (even if he is a big nerd) and a better actor than one would expect. Unfortunately, it features Bill as the lead, with Carlos only appearing in brief segments at the beginning and end. The plot is one you’ve seen a hundred times (a Scarecrow and Mrs. King comes readily to mind for me, since I watched that fairly recently); it’s the one where someone accidentally buys an obscure book at a bookstore that was actually a dead drop for foreign agents. In this version, the book is a rare first edition of a calculus book, the wrong person who picks it up is the kid (told you he was a big nerd!), and the secrets it contains are jet plans recently stolen from the “space agency.” (Did Britain really have one of those?) It’s up to Bill and Miss Carter to save the day. Along the way, we’re treated to lots and lots of filler footage of an “air ferry,” a giant cargo plane that transported people and their cars across the English Channel. It’s actually a pretty cool thing to see filler footage of today–and the second best thing about the episode, after Sheybal.

At least “Meet My Son Henry” had espionage. The same can’t be said for most of the Bill episodes. The title “Not Quite Fully Covered” unfortunately doesn’t apply to lovely guest star Imogen Hassell (who remains fully covered the entire time, unlike her memorable bikini-baring appearance on the first episode of The Persuaders! years later), but to a collection of art that her character wishes to insure for transportation from Beirut to London insured. “In order to do this,” one character remarks, “they need knowledge. They need someone with an expertise in... import and export.” Why, that’s Bill! Yep, this episode is about getting insurance coverage for an art collection. Really. Yay! Insurance agents! And not even the Bulldog Drummond/Eurospy variety. Just plain old, run of the mill insurance agents doing insurance things. Here’s a sample of some actual dialogue:

“But it is a legal point! The policy must be under the name of the owner of the property! It doesn’t matter who pays for the premium!”

And there’s lots more like that. Lots. The Sentimental Agent reaches its premature nadir as we watch Miss Carter aid Bill in navigating the ins and outs of the Sixties insurance racket as it pertains to international boat shipments. This one really reminded me of an average day in the corporate mailroom. (Which isn’t exciting.) Actually, just using the word “racket” makes the episode sound more exciting than it is. I should say “insurance bureaucracy.” At least writers Leslie Harris and Roger East managed to work in a punch-up in an underground chamber involving Burt Kwouk and dynamite to somewhat salvage this episode at the last minute. But if you think insurance sounds dull, just wait until you hear the plot of the series finale, which manages to be both dull and downright unethical at once

“Box of Tricks” finds Bill having a limited amount of time to bribe a certain number of officials in a small Mediterranean country in order for Mercury International to get a big contract. Yes, really; that is the plot. We are rooting for our unappealing lead to successfully grease the wheels for a shipping contract. At least he encounters a number of spy veterans in the process, including the beautiful Zena Marshall (Dr. No) and a young and much more hirsute Walter Gotell. The best part is when Bill is captured and Chin gets to take center stage (literally) for a bit–performing a magic show.

But the series does come to a happy ending: Bill and Miss Carter are going to get married! Yay! That’s what we care about! No, it’s not. We care about Carlos Varella, who is relegated to a terribly rear-projected boat with a beautiful girl at the beginning, then brief phone contact at the end to wish the happy couple well. Then we segue into the remarkably silly end credits, in which the same image of Carlos Thompson’s face (Panama hat and ever-present cheroot included) dances and flips around the screen, being squashed and distorted to accommodate the accompanying credit. It’s hilariously odd on every episode, but particularly out-of-place tagged onto the ones that don’t even star Thompson.

The Sentimental Agent is perhaps the most uneven show ITC ever produced. It goes from truly legitimate highs like “Express Delivery” and “A Very Desirable Plot” to nearly unbearable lows, like pretty much all of the Bill episodes. Overall, however, the highs do make the series worthwhile for ITC afficionados–and the lows are skippable. Some of the early episodes are truly among the studio’s very best output, and the stellar “A Very Desirable Plot” is a lost gem that every Avengers and Diana Rigg fan owes it to themselves to see. In the opinion of this self-confessed Rigg devotee, that alone makes purchase of the entire set worthwhile–and the other good episodes make a nice bonus!

As for actual bonus features, Network's DVD set may not include Carlos's introductory episode from Man of the World, but it does include a very nice interview with Burt Kwouk (Cato from the Pink Panther films) entitled "With This Face."  This is a very well-produced featurette, with interview footage interspersed with scenes from ITC shows.  Kwouk was in so many of these series (whenever they felt the need for an exotic Eastern setting, as he points out) that the featurette ends up doubling as a de facto introduction to ITC output.  He doesn't really offer any behind-the-scenes dirt (even on Gene Barry!), but he does share his generally positive recollections of each series and its stars.

9 comments:

prustage95 said...

Like the review. I agree the whole premise is weird on thr other hand is import/export any less exciting than antique dealing (The Baron)? Anyway I thought you were a bit unfair on John Turner (Bill). It must have been difficult taking over the lead from such a charismatic actor as Thomson and I found Turner's style to be quirky, humorous and very British (despite occasionally drifting into a fake US accent!)

prustage95 said...

I saw this when it was originally broadcast (which gives you some idea of how ancient I am). I forgot everything except the theme music (which I could still pick out on a piano 30 years later)and the image of Thompson in a white suit and panama.

I would love to know why Thompson left the series. I read somewhere that his English was not very good - he learnt his lines by rote without fully understanding them - and this made him difficult to work with. Clearly something significant went wrong and bringing John Turner in was the beginning of the end. Turner bore a striking physical resemblance to American film noir actor John Payne - which may explain why he chose to adopt an American accent for the role despite being born in London.

Incidentally, I am pretty sure the few shots of Thompson in the "changeover" episode ("A Box of Tricks") are old footage from previous episodes edited-in to a script that was written around them. There are a few scenes that feature the back of his neck which are clearly done by a stand-in. In reality, Thompson was probably already long gone by the time this episode was filmed.

A good game to play while watching this is to spot the Ed Astley music cues. If the background music sounds like a variation on the catchy theme tune then it is most likely by Ivor Stanley but many of the music cues are by Astley - better known for pretty well everything from early ITC - Danger Man, The Saint etc. Listen carefully, particularly during danger, action, suspense and fight scenes - if it has pre-echos of The Saint then its by Astley

Tanner said...

Hi prustage95. Thanks for the comments! Perhaps you're right that I was a bit unfair on John Turner. It IS a tough job filling in for such a charismatic actor. I hadn't noticed the "changeover" bits you point out! That's very interesting. I wonder what the story was? You're probably right about the accent/English issues. I wish they would have asked Burt Kwouk about that in his interview on the DVD.

Shaun said...

Some of the shots of Carlos Thompson inA Box Of Tricks are lifted from The Man Of The World episode, The Sentimental Agent. The first one of him coming down the ramp is, although they reverse it. The next bit of Carlos in the boat waving is lifted from Man Of The World too. Sheree Winton is blocking out MOTW guest star Shirley Eaton by standing in front of her, while the image of Carlos Thompson is projected behind her. So their eyelines don't match up when they supposedly glance at each other

shaun said...

They don't use the Carlos head closing titles on the John Turner solo episodes nor on A Box Of Tricks.

The script for A Box Of Tricks (included as a pdf on disc three) refers to Sheree Winton's character as SHIRLEY EATON and features no scripted dialogue for Carlos Varela

Tanner said...

All very interesting catches, Shaun! I didn't connect that those shots were from Man of the World, but now that you point it out it seems obvious. So did Thompson tape ANY new scenes for the episode? Perhaps the other stuff was made of outtakes from something else with another actor dubbing new lines? I'll have to check out that PDF script. Sounds interesting! Thanks for sharing your cool discoveries!

shaun said...

Well, apart from the footage noticeably reused from Man Of The World, Carlos is seen again only in his cabin with Sheree Winton. But he is never seen in the same shot as Sheree Winton.

In the first two of the three script pdf files, Chin is referred to as Chin Chin throughout. All 3 scripts had their names crossed out and changed.

shaun said...

Carlos Varela appears in A Box Of Tricks for his telephone call in sequences lifted from the 6th episode filmed, The Scrolls Of Islam.

shaun said...

I don't think that Carlos Thopson had anything to do with the final episode. His dialogue is pulled from previous episodes. His first line is lifted from the seventh episode in production order..and his appearances are formed from previously used footage and perhaps one unused sequence.

I watched Man Of The World recently and that had some spy sorts of adventures.