Nov 14, 2011

DVD Review: The Baron: The Complete Series

DVD Review: The Baron: The Complete Series


In Memory of Sue Lloyd, 1939-2011

I’ve joked before that the ITC formula was simply to fill in the blank in the phrase “a _____ who gets mixed up in espionage and into adventures” and then copy The Saint. And perhaps no show better demonstrates that formula than The Baron, starring Steve Forrest (S.W.A.T.). If you thought that filling in that blank with “import/export agent” in The Sentimental Agent (review here) was stretching it, then you’ll probably be scratching your head as to how an antiques dealer can manage to fall in with spies and kidnappers and, of course, beautiful damsels in distress week after week. But such is the fate of John Mannering (Forrest), a Texas cattle baron (just to extend credulity even further) turned antiques dealer turned amateur secret agent. So there’s the blank-filling; now how about the Saint-copying?

In the case of The Baron, that part’s more literal than any of the others. The Baron is ostensibly based on a series of novels by John Creasey (in which the character was an actual Baron and not an American, and he moonlighted as a thief, not a spy), which more or less follow the same “gentleman adventurer” format as Leslie Charteris’ Saint stories. Roger Moore saw the two series of novels as interchangeable enough that he pursued the rights to both of them as potential either/or star vehicles for himself in the late Fifties—without success.* He later came around to The Saint again in a circuitous and coincidental manner. When The Saint’s producing partners Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker parted ways following that show’s final black and white series, Baker went on to produce the color Saints and Berman transitioned to The Baron, a series so similar to The Saint in formula that the Saint episode “Lida” by Terry Nation was virtually remade as the Nation-penned Baron episode “Portrait of Louisa.” (This wasn’t that uncommon a practice in Sixties British adventure shows, but proved particularly problematic when the two episodes aired on the same night in America!**) But The Baron’s similarities to The Saint weren’t limited to the types of stories it told. Berman also managed, quite successfully, to duplicate the sense of fun of his former series. And that’s the key to the ITC formula. They may have simply plugged in a different profession to the same formula, but they made all of their shows entertaining enough that it simply didn’t matter. It also made Lew Grade’s ITC a very successful brand. Audiences knew what they were going to get. And if they liked what they saw, they knew where to go for more.

Despite the blatant similarities between the two shows, The Baron in its better episodes actually does manage to feel unique and separate from The Saint. Those episodes take advantage of two key differences: Mannering’s profession and his nationality. The antiques dealer angle lets the show’s writers create some stories (like the great closer, "Countdown") that actually originate from his job, and don't just have him stumble into things coincidentally week after week like Simon Templar. And though casting an American in the lead–especially as a “Baron,” with the weak justification that he’s of the cattle variety–was a concession to the US market, the producers make it work to their advantage. It differentiates the Baron from the Saint. Whereas TV’s Templar (as opposed to Charteris’) and other British heroes had to be very noble, stiff upper lip and stereotypically British the whole time, Mannering was permitted to play faster and looser, and exhibit the gruffness and spontaneity expected of Americans in Europe. (As he climbs out the window of a private train compartment in one episode, the upper-class occupants barely raise an eyebrow and merely comment that “he must be an American.”) This also allows the Baron a less gentle touch when it comes to getting what he wants. John Mannering isn’t above smacking someone around (quite a bit, even) for information. He does it quite frequently, in fact, like a proto-Jack Bauer. The Saint (ITC’s version, that is) would never do that. As a result, The Baron is more two-fisted, and significantly more violent than the color Saint series. (But less so than Man in a Suitcase.) Mannering even gets to mow down his enemies with a machine gun in the episode “Storm Warning.” I don’t think Roger Moore's Saint ever got to do that!

Of course, there are downsides to the choice of nationality as well. Mannering’s one of those annoying characters seen frequently in adventure television of the era who are too perfect. The Saint pulls that off only because he’s British and self-deprecating. Mannering isn’t either. He’s brash and full of the annoying swagger and crass self-assurance that the British associate with Americans. (The only American who ever pulled off playing an overly perfect spy character and remained charming was James Coburn.) Furthermore, poor Steve Forrest was saddled with an annoying haircut, probably also meant to delineate him as “American.” But at least it all helps him stand apart from Roger Moore!

Unfortunately, it’s the more grating aspects of Mannering’s Americanisms that manifest themselves on the first disc of Koch Vision's Region 1 DVD set.
Even Barons sometimes have to adjust themselves--when they're American

Like Acorn’s Man in a Suitcase, the episodes are not presented in production order, though it’s clear that “Diplomatic Immunity,” the first one presented here, is indeed supposed to be the pilot. The first scene introduces us to the character in a decidedly Eurospy fashion: the Baron gets recognized on an airplane. Not by a beautiful young woman, though, but by an aging hausfrau. “My dear,” she tells the young stewardess excitedly, “I heard you mention that gentleman’s name. He’s not John Mannering?”

“That’s right,” smiles the attractive attendant.

“The man they call ‘the Baron’?” the older woman clarifies.

“Yes! You’ve heard of him?”

“Well, anybody who knows antiques knows about him. I expected him to be an older man. He’s… well… handsome!” Because he’s handsome (which doesn’t exactly contradict being “older;” Forrest is no spring chicken in his early 40s), she scrabbles down the aisle to approach him. “Mr. Mannering,” she coos, “I simply had to meet you! I’ve read so much about you! I’m terribly interested in antiques.” The woman then goes on to tell him about her brass rubbings which he politely acknowledges as being “very interesting.” She threatens to show him a wallet full of photographs, but luckily the young stewardess intercedes and saves the Baron by telling the older woman they’re about to come into London and she needs to take a seat. 

Mannering thanks the stewardess and she assures him it’s all part of the service. He says perhaps he can thank her properly over dinner.  (You see where this is going, right?) She says, “My place, or yours?” He says, “Mine. I’d like to show you my… brass rubbing.” With the salacious emphasis and everything. Just like a tacky Eurospy. Honestly, it’s not that suave an introduction… and there’s probably a bigger age difference between Mannering and the young stewardess than Mannering and the old hausfrau!

Mannering is met at the airport by his assistant, David Marlowe (Paul Ferris). David specializes in getting knocked out, and that happens for the very first time before we’ve even met Mannering in this episode, when an attractive young woman in a wig gets him with the old knockout-powder-in-the-cigarette-case trick in order to steal a Faberge carriage model right out from under his nose. Consequently, he greets his boss with bad news: “It’s about Lord Carleton’s Faberge…”

Security cameras identified the thief as a girl who works as a courier in the Pomoranian embassy. (A classic ITC made-up-Eastern-Bloc-country name.) Because she has diplomatic immunity, the police can’t lay a finger on her, despite the evidence.

Being a private citizen, the Baron posits that diplomacy shouldn’t stop him from bursting into the embassy and demanding the return of his property, so he sets off to do just that, which affords us a good introduction to his cool—and very unique—car, a Jensen CV8 MkII. (This is a more exotic cousin to the Jensen Interceptor recently touted on Top Gear as a car that should have starred in its own ITC adventure show.) Whereas the Saint’s vanity plate on his trademark Volvo P1800 reads “ST1,” the Baron's reads “BAR1.” See what they did there?

Cool car or not, though, Mannering never makes it to the embassy to start a row. Instead, he’s intercepted by men with guns who take him to a mustachioed gent with glasses. This is John Alexander Templeton-Green of the “Special Branch, Diplomatic Intelligence,” and he will recur throughout the series as Mannering’s envoy into the shadowy world of spies. On the occasion of their first meeting here, Templeton-Green (Colin Gordon, Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick in the first Pink Panther) recruits Mannering to go behind the Iron Curtain into Pomorania to retrieve not only his own property, but also four other priceless items that have been stolen in the same way. Because the Baron is an “expert” on antiques, he’s apparently deemed more qualified than a British agent. Templeton-Green turns out to be both M and Q rolled into one, so he gives Mannering a bunch of gadgets for his mission including a lighter that doubles as a gun (which he demonstrates by destroying one of the Baron’s personal antiques—but the Baron doesn’t seem to mind; I don’t think he really likes antiques that much despite his ostensible profession) and a clothes brush with a tape recorder in it. You know, basic stuff.

When the Baron checks into his hotel room in Pomorania, he hears splashing in the bathroom. So he opens the door—naturally—and we’re treated to some beautiful-girl-in-the-bathtub music. And, sure enough, there’s a beautiful girl in the bathtub to go with it. The beautiful girl in the hotel bathtub is such a common Sixties spy trope (in TV and movies) that I should really give it it’s own tag on this blog. In this case, the girl in question is Sue Lloyd from The Ipcress File (as well as The Saint and The Avengers and other spy shows), and she introduces herself as Cordelia Winfield, Mannering's contact in Pomorania.

After leering appreciatively, Eurospy-style (again), the Baron then proceeds to tell her how to do her job—this despite her being a professional spy and him being an antiques dealer. This dynamic basically defines their relationship to come. Cordelia conveniently ends the episode persona non grata in Pomorania, which suits the Baron just fine. He says as much in an overly suggestive manner and for some reason that makes her smile. Perhaps she’s got a thing for older men. (Steve Forrest is only in his early 40s, but like his brother, Dana Andrews, he’s got that sort of post-war American look that makes him appear older than he is.)

Mannering’s charms don’t improve right away. In “The Legions of Ammak,” the Baron demonstrates that he lacks the savoir-faire of Simon Templar by tussling with a nightclub dancer who’s trying to protect her boyfriend and then telling her, “If you ever want to wrestle again, I’m in the phone book.” While I could see Moore pulling off a line like that (not that he’d ever get into a scrap with a lady), Forrest doesn’t manage to come off as very charming spewing such come-ons. He again seems more like a Eurospy jerk, in fact, than a debonair ITC hero! Since Mannering’s naught but an uncouth Texan, it’s up to the fey David (“the boy who works with the Baron!” as someone calls him in this episode, even though he’s obviously in his late 20s at least) to spot that the supposed king of a Middle Eastern nation is wearing the wrong school tie. Fortunately, “The Legions of Ammak” has other stuff going for it. Besides sharing the occasional plot, ITC shows also frequently shared guest stars. One of my favorite guest stars who made the rounds of pretty much all the British spy shows in the Sixties (and even one American one, I Spy) before starring in his own was Peter Wyngarde. Wyngarde turns up on The Baron fairly early on. And in dual roles, no less, as the eye-patched Middle Eastern monarch and a drunk Gielgudian actor named Ronald Noyes hired to impersonate him.

Poor David, by the way (who to the surprise of all is revealed to have “ladyfriends”), was an early victim of the all-important American market. U.S. network execs wanted the Baron to have an attractive female assistant instead, probably owing to the success of The Avengers on American television. And guess what? In this rare instance, the American network execs were right. That paved the way for Sue Lloyd to return, and she proved a definite improvement over the luckless Ferris—and she did indeed lend an Avengers-like crackle to her repartee with Mannering as his new assistant. (However, since the episodes didn’t air in the order they were shot, David would still pop up from time to time.)

It’s no surprise that the most Avengers-y episode of The Baron comes from the pen of Avengers mastermind Brian Clemens (writing under the nom de plume Tony O’Grady) in “The Maze.”  The basic premise recalls a number of episodes of that series, especially “Death’s Door” and “Stay Tuned,” and the banter between Mannering and Cordelia is particularly Avengerish (points for me for using the words “Avengers-y” andAvengerish” in consecutive sentences!), even if these particular stars lack the expert chemistry of Macnee and his female co-stars (especially Rigg). Where Lloyd falls short of Rigg et al. is on the physical side. Cordelia is more likely to sit out the fisticuffs herself and just yell encouraging remarks like “Look out!” to Mannering than to save his butt the way Emma Peel was known to do for John Steed.

“The Maze” opens with a beautiful woman escaping some would-be kidnappers only to find herself chased through the woods by men with guns. As fate (or Clemens) would have it, she just happens to dash out of those woods in front of the Baron’s Jensen. Is she lucky? Well... maybe... but luck is relative. Wouldn’t she have been luckier if she had run out in front of the Saint's Volvo instead? Surely the odds were good it would be one or the other of them! When he tries to help her, the Baron’s car is shot full of holes and he passes out and has a psychedelic dream involving a porcelain Siamese cat morphing into a beautiful woman and some sort of Origami dragon-looking thing as well as giant scales, a plastic bag (looking rather similar to The Prisoner’s Rover), a giant gloved hand that points in various directions and himself running, Vertigo- or Spellbound-style. And all that’s great stuff!

The unfortunate upshot of his bad trip is that the Baron wakes up missing a whole day!  (Which begs the question: If they had a whole day to spare, why didn’t the baddies dump him in a whole other part of the country instead of just down the street from their hideout?) Of course no one believes him when he tells his wild tale—not the local police inspector, not even Cordelia. But viewers who’ve seen any of those Avengers episodes or the Man in a Suitcase episode “Brainwash” might have some idea what’s going on. Not Brian Clemens, though, apparently; in a good audio introduction, he talks about setting out to write a puzzle that felt like a dream; the trick, of course, was that it could not be a dream. He also reveals that he needed to use the O'Grady pen name on the episode: because he was moonlighting from another series to which he was under an exclusive contract.

Sadly, not every episode of The Baron is anywhere near as wildly fun as “The Maze.” Some are downright boring (like the run-of-the-mill recycled blackmail plot in “Portrait of Louisa”) or even offensive, like “Samurai West.” You’re already on thin ice when you devote an entire episode to Englishmen playing Japanese characters and demonstrate a shaky grasp of Japanese culture (though some ITC programs have succeeded in that arena as long as they’re fun); it’s a cardinal sin to then be boring on top of that. But if you put on a stiff upper lip and slog through the more rote early material, you’ll be rewarded; The Baron certainly gets better as it goes on!

“Roundabout,” for instance, is a standout, elevating what could have been a very ordinary drug smuggling plot with good acting and interesting twists. Drugs are being smuggled into England through antiques shipped to Mannering, implicating him in the crime. Luckily, the beautiful narcotics agent assigned to the case finds his American… charm? …irresistible, and she ends up joining forces with him to solve it rather than throwing the book at him. The first step looks to be a trip to the Paris hair salon run by the bad guy’s stunning Lady Macbeth of a girlfriend. As soon as the Baron sets foot in it, of course he’s attacked, which puts him on the right track. From there it’s ITC business as usual, and I mean that in the best sense as opposed to the worst. “Red Horse, Red Rider” is also highly entertaining, with all the behind-the-Iron-Curtain hero-vs.-secret-police action that I crave from an ITC adventure—and the beautiful Jane Merrow to boot!

“Epitaph for a Hero” is another really good episode, in which David accompanies the Baron to the funeral of his friend Jim Cary. A lot of particularly unsavory sorts turn up at the service, where they laugh and behave in a generally un-bereaved sort of way. (That part doesn’t really make sense in the context of the plot that follows, but I’ll never fault a Charade reference.) It transpires that Jim isn’t really dead, and he wants Mannering to help him out in a robbery. British Intelligence, in the person of Templeton-Green, is interested for some reason interested in this larceny plot. They want the Baron to play along, thus conveniently giving him license to participate in a really cool jewel heist, with alarms and metal bars and everything.

This episode features David and Cordelia, who makes contact with Mannering on a train this time, instead of popping up in a bathtub. (But he still bursts in on her in a state of undress: "Don't you ever knock?"/"If I did, I'd miss all that lovely scenery.") The Baron is whisked off the train and Cordelia loses him, but she later catches up at a funhouse thanks to a radio transmitter. Unfortunately, when she follows him inside, the Baron gets found out by the gang, but he’s still forced to help in the heist or they’ll kill Cordelia. The gang, incidentally, is led by the first Mrs. Michael Caine, Patricia Haines, who will probably be more familiar to spy fans from her memorable appearances on The Avengers, The Saint and other contemporary adventure shows.

At this point, it should be noted, the Baron isn’t especially keen on taking Templeton-Green’s jobs, and shows his propensity for threatening to punch people when asked. (Ah, Americans!) “Look, Temp,” he snarls, using his favorite nickname for the spook. “One of these days I’m gonna stop fooling around with your special assignments and get out. And when I do, I’m gonna come in here and bust you one right in the jaw!” Templeton-Green, it’s important to realize, has really done nothing to earn this sudden venom, and presumably there’s nothing stopping Mannering from just outright refusing his entreaties at any time he likes. After all, Mannering doesn’t work for Diplomatic Intelligence, and he’s not even a British citizen! At any rate, Templeton-Green lets the volatile outburst roll off his starched sleeve. Apparently that’s just what Red Sox fans used to refer to as “Manny being Manny.”

Needless to say, the Baron continues to accept British Intelligence assignments. It is, after all, a very convenient plot device—and one far more conducive to thrilling adventures than mere antiquing. In “Farewell To Yesterday,” the writers are still clearly figuring out what works in this series, and it’s obvious that spy missions work. That’s what ITC viewers expect! So this time, Templeton-Green sends Mannering to Rome to use his expertise to get back some priceless artifacts that have been stolen from the Vatican. Conveniently, Mannering used to be involved with one of the ladies caught up in the scheme (the past relationship: another favorite ITC trope). He promises her love so she has to either die or betray him in the end, naturally. I’m not spoiling anything for you, am I? No, certainly not. You didn’t think the Baron was going to up and get married in the middle of his series.

When Mannering’s not taking orders from Templeton-Green, he’s usually taking them from some villain of the week who kidnaps one of his friends to force him to do their bidding. By the time that happens in “The Persuaders” (a fortuitously prescient episode title for Lew Grade’s company!), it’s about the fifth or sixth time already. But then that’s bound to happen, I suppose, when one of your friends’ specialty is getting conked on the head, and as I've mentioned, that’s David’s specialty. In this case, the man behind the conking is James Villiers. In my review of Man in a Suitcase, I posited that it was inevitable that at one time or another an ITC hero is bound to encounter either Villiers or Nigel Green, and for the Baron, that moment has come, elevating this episode considerably above its rote set-up. The always watchable Villiers brings his usual droll delivery and reliable condescension to the proceedings, playing yet another snooty, urbane bad guy.

David: You’ll never get away with this!

Villiers: Oh come, come, come, my dear David. If you must speak, does it have to be in cliché?

Villiers’ character is the nephew of the crass millionaire art collector who has a standing order for Mannering to buy him any Renoir that comes on the market, and Villiers wants Mannering to sell his uncle a fake one. His girlfriend further spices things up with a very cool mod haircut and matching mod watch.

David comes out of it all alright in the end, but the last we ever see of him in the series is as a grunting heap in the back of a van, making for a rather undignified exit.

By Episode 9 in this set, “Something For A Rainy Day,” David is clearly out of the picture as Mannering considers hiring Cordelia as his new full-time assistant, which Templeton-Green thinks would make a splendid cover for her. Lois Maxwell guest stars as an insurance executive, which is apparently quite funny to Mannering. “Charley, you’re the only insurance executive I know who wears lipstick,” smiles the Baron. (Get it? She's a woman!)

“And you’re the only client who gets away with calling me Charley,” Maxwell at least gets to come back with, adding, “I like Charlotte much better.” That’s the first hint of some no doubt custom-written Bond/Moneypenny-type flirtation between Charley and the Baron. Later on, while she’s being fitted for a dress, Charley proposes marriage, which the Baron says sounds like a business deal.

“You’ve got a computer for a heart,” he tells her. “I can buy a computer.”

“Not in a cabinet like this,” she offers, flashing a glimpse of her lingerie.

But it’s not all chauvinism and flirtation in “Something for a Rainy Day.” There’s an art thief, too, fresh out of prison. The thief, Seldon, wants Mannering to broker a deal between him and Charley’s insurance company. Charley’s not big on go-betweens, so she has her own investigator follow Mannering to try to recover the collection before him. It’s interesting that while she played the ultimate Good Girl in the movies, Maxwell’s TV roles were usually on the shady side. Charley’s not bad (like some memorable Maxwell roles on The Avengers and The Saint), but she certainly dwells in a nebulous grey area, which must have made her fun for Maxwell to play.

The premise is actually quite intriguing (as a private dealer, the Baron will receive a 15% commission on the insurance company’s sale of the collection), but quickly turns into the standard ITC kidnapped daughter plot when rival bad guys grab Seldon’s daughter. Rote or not, however, this is an episode that every ITC aficionado will want to view. Why? Well, because towards the end, the bad guys attempt to make their getaway in a white Jaguar. Anyone who’s seen a few ITC programs will no doubt know what’s coming next: the Jaguar goes over a cliff. They’ll know this because that shot of the white Jag plunging over the precipice and exploding on impact is used again and again in nearly every ITC show to come. But the reason fans will want to see “Something for a Rainy Day” is because, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time we see that Jaguar! Yep, this is the place where it all begins! So legendary is the plunging white Jag that Network cheekily chose to feature the image of the teetering vehicle as the artwork behind the discs on their excellent Music of ITC CD release. Once you’ve seen it here, you can revisit that doomed car in The Champions, Department S, Jason King, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Adventurer (my favorite of its appearances—and one of the worst matching) and probably more. “Something for a Rainy Day” is also noteworthy for its weather, which is not merely rainy, but downright wintry. I can’t recall too many ITC shows filmed in outdoor locations with actual snow and ice on the frozen ground, so that gives this episode an extra edge.

There’s a welcome commentary track on “Something for a Rainy Day” with Sue Lloyd and director Cyril Frankel, in which Frankel discusses the series’ production order (different from the broadcast order, as previously noted), and how the American backers liked Lloyd, leading to her being invited back after what was initially intended as a guest role. Frankel reveals that he became involved with The Baron when Bob Baker (who was evidently active in the development, before the color Saint series was picked up and occupied his time) called and said he and Berman “had a problem, and the problem was Steve Forrest. He was so stiff and unrelaxed.” It was Frankel’s job to encourage him to relax. Perhaps he succeeded to some degree, but Forrest’s stiffness would return. The star has a funny way of walking, as if he’s made of blocks. It’s like he’s been studying Jack Webb, but the motion plays differently on a guy like Forrest, who’s built like a linebacker. I suppose it plays stiff and unrelaxed.

“Enemy of the State” begins with the on-screen slug “EASTERN EUROPE,” generally a good signpost that we’re in for an excellent espionage episode. In this case, it’s an accurate signpost.

As the action kicks off, Mannering is on an active assignment for Diplomatic Intelligence. He’s supposed to make a delivery of cash to a British agent in our anonymous Eastern European country to fund a network, but a captured agent has revealed this to the security police and they’re waiting to intercept our hero. (No lip service to his antiquing profession this time.) Instead of Mannering, though, they end up grabbing Cordelia! And they arrest her. Templeton-Green (“Temp,” as Mannering calls him) says there’s nothing he can do about it; they’ll just have to wait five years or so for the spy scandal to blow over, and then they can exchange her for an Eastern agent in their custody. Mannering’s not happy with that answer, so he decides to take matters into his own hands (something Templeton-Green was probably relying on him to do), and sets out to kidnap the security police honcho who had Cordelia arrested (Anton Diffring)! You have to admire the audacity of his action.

All this leads (via the Baron riding on the back of a Beetle) to a suitably cool exchange at the border followed by a perilous frontier crossing. Only that crossing is a tad underwhelming. Whereas I would have liked for Mannering to outsmart the bad guys and leverage them into letting him cross, instead he and Cordelia just make a run for it, dive in the Elbe (well, presumably) and swim, with border guards and security agents firing machine guns at them all the while. Of course our heroic pair manage to avoid any bullets, despite the sheer number being launched at them. That we see all the time, but a smart counter-maneuver from the Baron would have been a welcome alternative. Oh well. It’s still a good episode with some great spy elements.

“The Seven Eyes of Night” is notable to Sherlockians at least because a young Jeremy Brett appears as baddie–and quite a baddie, at that! His character is an utter psychopath happy to kill anyone, even women he’s been involved with, and he remains completely dispassionate about it. There’s also a good plot with lots of twists and betrayals, which kicks off when the Baron meets a woman at what he thinks is her house and purchases a priceless family heirloom for $300,000. Then he’s followed back to his hotel and it’s stolen. Then it turns out he didn’t buy it from the true owner to begin with, but an imposter... and the necklace has been put back! But who has his money? At its best, The Baron is capable of spinning a very intriguing mystery like this one. At its worst, it spins muddled yarns like the confusing intelligence caper “The Edge of Fear,” memorable only for its monocled, Caspar Guttman-like villain.

Often, Sixties spy series from both sides of the Atlantic churned out two-parters that could be conveniently edited together to form a “feature film” for overseas audiences. The Baron boasts two such two-parters. (I can't find any evidence that either one actually managed any theatrical bookings, though their trailers made it onto the Region 2 Network edition of The Baron.) One of these “movies” was known as Mystery Island, and the episodes that comprise it are “Storm Warning” and “The Island.” With that big-screen endgame firmly in mind, no expenses are spared on extras casting, and ITC viewers are treated to an extremely rare glimpse of  actual Asians to make the Macao setting seem more real—and actual Asians who aren’t Burt Kwouk for that matter! (Not that I’m ever let down by Kwouk, but how can one guy play all the Asian characters on all the shows all the time?)

Unfortunately, plenty of expenses are spared in other departments—like sets and location photography. In lieu of those, most of this two-part story takes place on a boat (a favorite cost-saving trick of ITC’s, also seen in the Man in a Suitcase “movie”), thus cutting down on the former, and grainy stock footage substitutes for the latter—as well as for rocket launches, fighter jets, an aircraft carrier, a tropical island and monkeys. Rear projection is used to simulate an ocean backdrop for Mannering and Cordelia when they find themselves adrift on a lifeboat, and the clumsy foreground bouncing that’s supposed to match that background doesn’t—but it did succeed in making this reviewer a little seasick, so I suppose some points are due for verisimilitude.

The plot itself is borrowed from Dr. No and involves toppling U.S. rockets. The captain of the cargo ship that serves as the episodes’ primary setting is working for the Red Chinese, attempting to send a space capsule off course so that he can retrieve it before the Navy. There’s a CIA man on the case, but he gets quickly killed leaving the fate of America’s space program in the capable hands of an antiques dealer. Luckily those hands are surprisingly dexterous. When Cordelia asks Mannering if the capsule plan is really possible, he answers—very authoritatively—“In theory.” Because, of course, antiques dealers know everything about space capsules! By this point Berman's production team seems to have basically abandoned the antiques dealer angle altogether and just made Mannering another run-of-the-mill secret agent. Furthermore, Cordelia has undergone the opposite transformation. While she started out as a very capable British agent who eventually took the cover of working as Mannering’s assistant, she’s now become her cover and behaves just like an antiques assistant caught up in schemes beyond her grasp. In other words, she’s become completely useless! Instead of a professional spy tasked with handling the talented amateur, all she does in this two-parter is stand around screaming and needing to be rescued while the antiques dealer mows down enemy sailors like fish in a barrel with a machine gun he found in the hold.

If “Storm Warning” and “The Island” demonstrate one direction in which the show could have gone, “Countdown”—the final episode as presented on DVD—ably demonstrates another. In this, The Baron’s finest episode, writer Terry Nation flips the status quo back to normal and plays up Mannering’s antiquing profession rather than ignoring it. And, amazingly, he manages to make it work! “Countdown” is the perfect template for how to make an exciting weekly series about an adventurous antiques dealer. Unfortunately, it came too late.

A potential client wants Mannering to handle the sale of a priceless antique. Unfortunately, the Baron is hijacked on his way to meet with him and a bad guy takes his place and murders the client before the real Mannering can show up. Fortunately, the would-have-been client takes a long time to actually die, and just has enough breath left when Mannering does arrive to whisper the location of his treasure—but not what it is. (Mannering really failed this guy, which is too bad, because he seemed like a nice chap from what we got to see of him.) While Mannering knows where it is but not what it is, the bad guy knows what it is but not where; it’s the fabled “Sword of Kalari” they’re looking for! (As good a MacGuffin as any, I suppose.) This set-up leads to a spirited race between rival parties to retrieve the sword. Along the way, we encounter Valerie Leon as an actress creeping around a film (or television?) set in a skintight red leotard. Besides getting to see the two-time Bond Girl in a skintight outfit, which is always a treat, spy fans will likely get a kick out of what appears to be a not-so-subtle jab at The Avengers and its heroine’s famous Emmapeeler!

But it’s not Ms. Leon’s brief appearance that makes “Countdown” a great episode. It’s Mannering’s rival, the unscrupulous evil antiques dealer Arkin Morley—who’s played by Callan himself, the great Edward Woodward, making a rare ITC appearance. When he’s not dealing antiques or being evil, the impeccably dressed Morley does part-time work on film sets advising directors, thus affording us that glimpse of Val in her fictional spy show. Largely thanks to Woodward, Morley is a truly great character. (In fact, as TV antiques dealers go, he’s a lot more interesting than Mr. Straight-Edge Baron.) It’s too bad the character is only introduced in The Baron’s final episode, because he would have made a terrific Belloq to Mannering’s Indiana Jones, and their ongoing rivalry would have raised the overall quality of the series considerably.

As things stand, The Baron is as mixed a bag as you’re likely to find among Sixties spy/adventure series. It’s a wildly uneven show, with some very tall peaks and some very low valleys, all the way to the end. Diehard ITC aficionados and Saint fans who’ve seen every series of that show and are still craving more of (basically) the same (albeit in a slightly lower caliber) will still be rewarded by The Baron. More casual viewers just dipping their feet in the rich waters of ITC, however, can do a lot better for starters by instead opting for the more reliable likes of Secret Agent (Danger Man), The Saint, Department S, and Man in a Suitcase. The Baron certainly isn’t a bad show (although it has some genuinely bad episodes), but ultimately Steve Forrest isn’t a charismatic enough lead to make it a genuinely good one, and Monty Berman’s production team never seemed to get a bead on what, exactly, they were making, and specifically what made it different from The Saint.

Koch Vision's Region 1 DVD set is also wildly uneven. On the one hand, most of the episodes look decent enough and, most impressively, the company has gone to the trouble of not only releasing such an obscure series in America, but also porting over a number of good special features from Umbrella's excellent Region 4 set. These features include several commentaries, like the one mentioned above—most of which are actually more entertaining than the episodes on their own—and select audio introductions from various guest stars and writers. On the downside, there are some serious issues with quality control. The most egregious example occurs on the episode "So Dark the Night," in which the audio is distractingly out of sync with the picture. Viewers of A&E's Persuaders! DVDs will be familiar with this problem, and know that it can sometimes make episodes practically unwatchable. Luckily, it's only the one episode that suffers that fault on this set. Personally, extras mean more to me than a pristine presentation on every episode, so overall I'd recommend the Koch set to fans in the United States. If you do have an all-region player, however, you might wish to import the Umbrella version, as it doesn't suffer from those audio problems. I can't speak to the quality of the Region 2 Network version, but that set has fewer (if different) special features.

*According to Moore in his autobiography, My Word is My Bond
**According to the Network documentary The Saint Steps In... To Television.



11 comments:

MediumRob said...

Excellent work! You make me want to watch them all over again :)

Simes said...

Yes, a lovely fulsome review.

I never cared much for THE BARON though. Steve Forrest wasn't ever really that much of an actor to my mind (he was better in SWAT - and by that time seemed to be wearing a hairpiece or something...!)

There were some quality guest stars in it though. But I think overall - with it's typical 'ITC flavour' and similarity to THE SAINT - this is as good an example of ITC 'cookie-cutter' film-making as you're ever likely to find...

unik said...

Excellent

Armstrong Sabian said...

Peter Wyngarde strikes again!

Tanner said...

Yes, Simes, Forrest is definitely a liability. I think the only way to really sum up his performance is that line I wrote about him walking like he's made out of blocks. He never seems truly comfortable, despite Frankel's best efforts.

I think it's weird that Lew Grade & Co. kept foisting American leads on their programs to appeal to the US market, yet all the British shows that were the biggest hits over here at that time were ones with BRITISH stars (or practically British in McGoohan's case): The Avengers, The Saint, Secret Agent (Danger Man). And (off the top of my head, anyway) I think Secret Agent was only a US hit in its hour-long incarnation, after McGoohan abandoned the mid-Atlantic accent in favor of a more British one. Perhaps ITC or the American networks underestimated American audiences' acceptance of UK stars.

Forrest aside, though, the good ones are definitely good, so I'm glad I inspired you to rewatch 'em, Rob!

And, yes, Armstrong... Peter Wyngarde makes everything better!

Armstrong Sabian said...

I'm glad for this review. I've been scared off of the Baron before, but the criticisms have been vague. I'm watching Man in a Suitcase for the first time currently, inspired by your recent review, and finding my sentiments align with yours on most aspects of the show.

Delmo said...

Roger trying to get the rights to The Saint was also mentioned in Paul Donovan's Roger Moore biography.

bentmoltheringer said...

Lovejoy, antiques dealer and detective. Was that inspired by John Mannering, antiques dealer and spy?

Tanner said...

That question's crossed my mind as well! Despite the profession in common, though, the characters themselves aren't really very alike.

shaun said...

Thanks for the review. The episode Farewell To Yesterday seems to be mostly a copy of The Saint episode, The Saint Sees It Through. Farewell To Yesterday pinches it's train climax from another episode of The Saint, The Rhine Maiden.

Tanner said...

Thanks for those specific connections, Shaun. The Baron seems to be one of the most egregious examples of the ITC habit of rewriting old scripts from other shows!