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?
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.)
“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!
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.
“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.
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?
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!)
“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.
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.
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.
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.