Jan 16, 2009

DVD Review: The Saint Steps In.. To Television (2008)

Time and again, U.K. company Network has proven itself one of the greatest allies to fans of classic British television. Not only do they release more cult series from ITV’s Golden Era than anyone else, but they do it in style. No other company in Britain or America (or even Australia, where Network’s only serious competitor, Umbrella, operates) regularly produces as many DVD series sets (or CD soundtrack sets) with as many excellent extras as Network. Most of their sets include an embarrassment of archival extras, ranging from original promos to films made out of two-parters to PDFs of scripts and annuals. But Network doesn’t stop there. They often include newly-produced extras, ranging from the excellent commentary tracks and interviews of the sort Umbrella sometimes includes to lavish, newly-produced feature-length documentaries. Each volume of The Saint that the company has released (The Complete Monochrome Series, The Complete Colour Series and Return of the Saint) has contained a documentary in the neighborhood of forty minutes, and the company has gone above and beyond what most of their kind do: they’ve edited the three together into one two-hour-plus documentary feature and released it on its own disc, affording Saint fans worldwide the opportunity to see what amounts to the definitive story of the series without buying (or re-buying) the entire, expensive series!

The Saint Steps In... To Television is comprised of the original, shorter "The Saint Steps In... To Television" (named after author Leslie Charteris’s novel The Saint Steps In), "The Saint Steps In... To Colour" (both narrated by Seventies Saint Ian Ogilvy) and "The Saint Steps In... To the Seventies" (narrated by Roger Moore). Since the three pieces focus on different eras of the character and are edited sequentially, they easily come together to form a cohesive whole that for the most part avoids repetition and proceeds chronologically.

After a brief introduction showing headshots of every actor to play The Saint (from Louis Hayward to Val Kilmer), some background on Charteris with shots of some of the paperback covers and comic strips (featuring Moore’s likeness) and an exciting montage of clips from the show, the first third settles into a series of talking heads. I found myself wondering why they didn’t edit in more clips to illustrate the speakers’ points (that may be an American thing, since we seem to have shorter attention spans than Brits–or it may just be a budgetary issue), but it didn’t really matter because the speakers are all key figures in the history of The Saint. Fans of the series will be so fascinated by what they’re saying that they don’t require clips.

The speakers cover some stories that die-hards will have heard before (like how the Saint came to drive his trademark Volvo after Jaguar stupidly refused to lend or even sell the production an E-Type) but are crucial to the overall story of the show–and many that are fresh. Those interviewed include Moore and Ogilvy, Charteris’s daughter, script supervisor Harry Junkin, guest stars like Kate O’Mara, Burt Kwouk and Alexandra Bastedo, and many key behind-the-scenes production personnel. All share fond, not-so-fond and humorous anecdotes about the making of The Saint. The late Leslie Charteris himself serves as a commentator throughout the entire documentary in the form of his many, many memos addressed to the writers, which are read by the narrators. They are nearly all derisive, berating the producers for ruining his masterful short stories in the adaptation. Particular vitriol is reserved for Junkin, whom the author didn’t seem to realize was very successfully shepherding his character from the page into a wildly popular TV show. ("As usual, this script is fit for Junkin(g)!") If I have one minor criticism of The Saint Steps In... To Television, it would be that they perhaps travel to this well one or two times too many, since the tenor of all the memos is pretty much the same. But then again, they are too amusing to neglect.

Ogilvy has fun narrating the portions on the Moore show, and doesn’t take any of it too seriously. I think it’s the appropriate tone for the subject matter, but I could see the style being a bit off-putting to some viewers. Also, since the narrator isn’t introduced in the course of the documentary, it falls to the audience to know why he gives an exaggerated, comically annoyed sigh every time he says the name "Roger Moore." Then again, if you’re watching this disc, you probably know exactly who Ian Ogilvy is and why he’s doing that! I suppose that was the producers’ assumption.

The comic tone doesn’t just come from Ogilvy; it’s in the script as well–and it keeps the whole 124-minute feature from ever getting remotely dull. There are various snide remarks about some of the actors at the beginning (particularly Kilmer and Jean Marais) and pretty hilarious cigar-chomping portraits used to depict ITV mogul Lew Grade every time he comes up. On top of that, Ogivly does an amusing (and I assume accurate–if exaggerated) impression of the man. (Most of the narrated bits amount to comic relief, as the principal talking heads do a great job of telling the relevant story on their own.) Later on, as the transition to color is discussed–as well as The Saint’s contemporaries and imitators–there’s an amusing series of variations on the famous Saint stickman logo representing each of the other shows mentioned. While most of them are pretty straightforward, the producers slip in a laugh-out-loud hilarious in-joke about The Adventurer. I had to go back and pause the screen to tell what the drawing was, but when my girlfriend and I realized that it was a very short stick figure next to a taller one (and you just know angry about it!)–with a height scale included to drive the point home–we both cracked up. If you’ve ever watched Network’s fantastic extras on their DVD of The Adventurer (or followed this amazing website devoted to the series), you’ll know that star Gene Barry incurred the enmity of all who worked on the show for his refusal to work with actors and actresses who were taller than he was–which was pretty much everyone. Clever, Network, clever!

Certain episodes get singled out for individual attention, including the color highwater mark "The Fiction Makers" (a two-parter combined as a feature for sale in Europe because "there’s always a demand for theatrical product"–or apparently was back then!), the infamous foray into ludicrous, giant ant-driven sci-fi in "The House On Dragon's Rock" and the stellar episode that served as an unofficial pilot for The Persuaders!, "The Ex-King of Diamonds."

Moore takes over narrating duties as the story shifts to the Seventies–and the Saint switches to a Jaguar after all. While some of Ogilvy’s anecdotes are recycled from his interview and commentary on Umbrella’s Return of the Saint set, there’s a lot of fascinating new information here about the revival–which has generally received less attention than Moore's longer-running series in the past. The scenic European location filming that makes the show so good is covered, as well as Charteris’s increased involvement with (and generally increased approval for) this incarnation of his character. Ogilvy and Charteris formed an unlikely alliance, united against the worst of the scripts. Together, they dug their feet in about an episode entitled "The Prince of Darkness" which would have found the Saint fighting vampires. While I can see their point (that that’s way out of the standard realm of The Saint), I personally would have loved to see such an episode! How cool would it have been to see Ogilvy’s Simon Templar wander into a Seventies Hammer movie? Oh well. Missed opportunities.

The documentary concludes a little abruptly with the implicit promise of more to come by briefly mentioning the Eighties version (powered by Simon Dutton) and stating via narration that "that’s another story." I’d heard that Network had abandonned its ambitions to release the Dutton series (which was at one time rumored to also include the misguided 1987 Andrew Clarke pilot which found a mustached Saint bombing around Manhattan in a Lamborghini like a third-rate Magnum), but this tease makes me hope that’s not true! I’d love to see another chapter of this top shelf documentary about The Saint stepping into... whatever he stepped in in the Eighties. I suppose that’s a subjective question, but the producers of this documentary never shy away from the subjective...

The Saint Steps In To... Television is far more than what we’re accustomed to in DVD special features–especially on TV shows. It’s a legitimate, full-fledged documentary on the history of one of the cornerstone Sixties spy shows, and it’s absolutely essential viewing for fans of Simon Templar and Roger Moore. The producers manage to find a way for their documentary to both serve as a good primer on The Saint for neophytes just dipping their feet in, but at the same time entertain and enlighten even the most hardcore halo-heads. Network should be applauded not only for making such an in-depth documentary on the subject, but also for making it available to viewers independently of the show. It’s a Region 0 PAL disc, so anyone with a DVD drive on their computer should be able to play it, no matter what country they’re in. Since A&E didn’t offer any extras on their Saint DVDs, I would recommend it as ideal supplemental viewing to Americans. Even Australians with the Umbrella DVDs should order this Network web exclusive, as it contains completely different, new material.

Network has previously made their Prisoner documentary, Don’t Knock Yourself Out, available independently of the series set. I hope this sells well, and they continue that trend. I’d love to be able to buy their Persuaders documentary next!

1 comment:

Ian Dickerson said...

"Those interviewed include Moore and Ogilvy, Charteris’s daughter, script supervisor Harry Junkin..."

Erm no. Dear old Harry Junkin died many years ago and our ouija board wasn't that good. Perhaps you're thinking of script writer Brian Degas?

Glad you enjoyed it anyway