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The Protectors – the forgotten Anderson series?

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Although The Protectors itself can hardly be said to be an entirely forgotten series relatively few people realise that was in fact a Gerry Anderson production, being produced in the gap between UFO and Space:1999 from 1971-73. Across two seasons and fifty-two episodes the Protectors, an international detective agency with agents in every major city on Earth, tackled all manner of crimes across England and Europe.

The reason the show’s Anderson heritage may have escaped many fans could be partly due to the fact that the series was not based on a concept he created, but rather one that he was presented with by Lew Grade and essentially told to get on with. Gathering together as many of his familiar team as possible he set to work fleshing out Grade’s one-line concept; ‘there is a small group of private detectives who are able to work more efficiently because they are operating outside of the law’, and the result was ironically one of the most successful series he would ever produce.

Despite this however, the series tends to be more often thought of as ‘just another’ in the long line of filmed action series produced by ITC through the 1960s and early 1970s – and it’s easy to see why. Being a contemporary thriller series The Protectors lacks any of the fantastic vehicles, secret bases or impressive gadgets almost all of Anderson’s other work is known for, and while this may be a contributing factor in the show’s lack of appeal to Anderson fans that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good series here worthy of attention – one that perhaps has more in common with his other works than it would first appear.

While the production of the series was by most accounts not a very happy affair there’s no denying that the three central characters – Robert Vaughn’s Harry Rule, Nyree Dawn Porter’s Contessa Caroline di Contini, and Tony Anholt’s Paul Buchet – do work well together on screen and have a very good chemistry. Harry Rule may not always be as warm or charming as Vaughn’s Man from UN.C.L.E. Napoleon Solo was just a few years earlier but he also feels more credible here, more dangerous. Nyree Dawn Porter brings all the glamour and sophistication of a live-action Lady Penelope (right down to the Rolls Royce and chauffeur) while also being just as formidable in a fight as her male colleagues, and it isn’t hard to see why Tony Anholt was brought back a few years later for Space:1999’s second season. All three characters felt like the traditional globetrotting adventurers of previous ITC shows but were also credible as agents capable of handling themselves in a scrap, and it wasn’t uncommon for one to carry an episode alone if either or both of their co-stars weren’t around.

Unique among Anderson’s live action shows (and most other ITC action shows of that time) each episode of The Protectors was only twenty-five minutes long. While this sometimes created scripting problems (the convoluted 2000ft to Die fails as an opening episode, and if anyone can tell me what A Case for the Right is even about I’d be grateful) and character development usually takes a backseat to the action, the same could equally be said of Captain Scarlet, Stingray, or Joe 90. On the other hand, as those shows proved, a shorter running time almost certainly avoids having episodes drag. When The Protectors is working particularly well (Balance of Terror, The First Circle and Shadbolt) the resulting drama and action are easily as entertaining as the very best episodes of any of those earlier series. It also avoiding becoming formulaic, as the vague nature of the show’s original premise allowed for a wide variety of stories to be told; from conventional ITC cops and robbers fare like Your Witness and Thinkback, to intense two-character stories like The First Circle and For the Rest of Your Natural…, surprisingly though-provoking political dramas like The Last Frontier and Border Line, and even to occasional comedy episodes which veer from genuinely charming (Sugar and Spice) to THE ABSOLUTE VERY WORST THING WITH THE GERRY ANDERSON NAME ON IT EVER.

Bad episode! Look what you did! LOOK WHAT YOU DID!!

The series also benefitted from ITC’s decision at the beginning of the 1970s to start shooting their action series on location as much as possible, thus the Europe of The Protectors wouldn’t be the same Elstree backlot street set that The Saint or The Champions set their Europe on; it would now be the real thing. Memorable stories would take place in Malta, Venice, Rome and Salzburg to name just a few, and the show took full advantage of the storytelling opportunities these locations presented. At times The Protectors almost feels as prestigious and expensive a series as Thunderbirds and later Space:1999 do, and while 1999’s budget would be used to create some extremely impressive indoor sets The Protectors was the only Gerry Anderson show whose world did not have to be built from scratch; they could find adventure literally on their own doorstep.

Longtime Anderson fans may also enjoy seeing familiar faces from his other shows turn up in guest roles, including Shane Rimmer (who also wrote several episodes), Jeremy Wilkin, Cyril Shaps, Vladek Sheybal, Neil McCallum, and most notably Ed Bishop who plays a mentally disturbed Vietnam war veteran in arguably the show’s best episode, The First Circle. The Protectors is also full of enjoyable guest turns from such notables as Patrick Troughton, Derren Nesbitt, David Suchet, John Thaw, and Eartha Kitt. We also mustn’t overlook the show’s music, with a sparkling main theme and incidental score from John Cameron, as well as perhaps the most enduring element of the entire series; Mitch Murray and Peter Callandar’s Avenues and Alleyways, sung with typical gusto over the end credits by the legendary Tony Christie.

After a successful first season the show received minor cosmetic changes going into its second year, with greater emphasis placed on the three main characters and more of a inclination towards downbeat endings that perhaps reflect the shifting attitudes of the early 1970s. The era of the millionaire playboy television hero was almost at an end, and several of The Protectors’ cold and grey London-based final episodes (most notably Shadbolt) feel closer in tone to The Sweeney than the affluent globetrotting of its earliest installments. Had the show earned a third season it would have been interesting to see whether or not this trend would have continued, and seen The Protectors step from the shadows of its predecessors to truly pursue its own path. Sadly, this was not to be; Fabergé, who financed both seasons, pulled their support for the show and the planned third season never materialised.

The Protectors will likely always remain the odd series out in the Gerry Anderson catalogue due to it being so utterly unlike anything else he ever produced, and yet it remains one of his most successful. Aside from the usual flurry of books, comics and home media releases it is one of only a handful of his shows to go to a second season (especially revealing when taking into account that very few of the ITC action series ran for more than one) so there are more television episodes of The Protectors in existence today than any of his other shows – fifty-two!

Longevity alone is no guarantee of quality, yet The Protectors is easily one of the best ITC action shows of the early 1970s. The Persuaders! remains hugely entertaining but the rest are a mixed bag; The Zoo Gang was decent but ended as soon as it started, Jason King is based around a character who doesn’t want to do anything and so doesn’t, and The Adventurer was dead on arrival and only went downhill from there. During a period when the regular ITC team were struggling to produce decent (or even watchable) shows Gerry was handed a blank-slate of a concept and brought the same perfectionism to it as he did to all his other shows. The result was a slick, energetic and confident series that hit the ground running; at times in the wrong direction, but always with a dynamism and scope that its contemporaries sometimes lacked – or took for granted.

Over the years Gerry’s comments on the series tended to cover more the various personality conflicts involved with its production, yet I’ve often wondered what he thought of the finished product itself. For the first time in more than a decade he got to step away from the world of science fiction and produce a kind of series he wasn’t used to making, but had always dreamed of. That the result was not only the equal of similar shows of that era but at times exceeded them was certainly something he should have been proud of.

Five to see: The First Circle, Shadbolt, Balance of Terror, The Big Hit, Zeke’s Blues

Five to flee: A Case for the Right, See No Evil, Quin, Goodbye George, Burning Bush

One to destroy with fire BUT IT KEEPS COMING BACK: It Could Be Practically Anywhere on the Island.

If you’re a fan of The Protectors, then you may also be interested in our range of The Protectors merchandise – available exclusively from the Gerry Anderson Store.

 

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