"We're different. We're very different."
"Craig Sterling, Sharon McReady and Richard Barrett. The Champions, endowed with the qualities and skills of superhumans. Qualities and skills both physical and mental to the peak of human performance. Gifts given to them by the unknown race of people from a lost city in Tibet. Gifts are a secret to be guarded, a secret that enables them to use their powers to their best advantage as the champions of law order and justice."
A covert operation by two men and a woman in China to recover evidence of biological warfare. Their escape and subsequent plane crash which results in their bodies and lives being transformed forever. Or at least for thirty episodes of The Champions an adventure series from the ITC stable of the late sixties. Craig Stirling and Richard Barrett, two members of the international agency Nemesis joined by new recruit, the recently widowed biologist Sharon MacReady, steal grub samples and head off across the Tibetan mountains hotly pursued by their oriental foe. When their plane is hit the trio crash in the snow covered mountains. A near dead Stirling sees an elderly man approaching and amidst a wealth of bright lights is taken to a lost city. Surrounded by a group of strangely garbed people he undergoes a strange operation.
Awakening back at the crash site he finds himself and his colleagues surprisingly healthy and focused, the only signs of their injuries being traces of silver stitches. Realising they were "different" Richard sets off alone to find the answer whilst his colleagues continue their assignment. Craig and Sharon are captured whilst Richard encounters a member of the lost civilisation who saved them. Explaining that, whilst not invincible nor immortal, their senses and strength have been enhanced to superhuman capabilities. With that knowledge Barrett sets off to rejoin his team. Using their new-found powers, The Champions manage to defeat their foe and trek across hundreds of miles of snow-clad mountains back to base to their bewildered and spiky-haired boss Treymanye (Antony Nicholls). And so began.The legend of The Champions.
Through a further twenty-nine episodes the team faced voodoo (The Night People, Shadow Of The Panther}, drug runners (To Trap A Rat), invisible men (called surprise surprise The Invisible Man) and a suspicious amount of trouble aboard submarines (Twelve Hours, The Search, The Silent Enemy).
Dennis Spooner, who had created Man In A Suitcase, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) and Department S as well as scripting episodes of Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5 and The Baron, wanted to create a whole new concept for British television. Inspired by the comic book hero Incredible Wilson he had adapted the story into the intriguing premise of three agents based in Switzerland who had various (but ill-defined) powers. Telepathy, super-strength, occasional mind-control and a brilliant ability to flick cups into a bin were amongst the skills presented. Along with producer Monty Berman he developed the story and presented the format to a delighted Lew Grade who promptly sold the concept to American network NBC in 1968.
Grade, ever conscious of a world market, had encouraged the casting of different nationalities. Stewart Damon, an American resident in Britain at the time, was cast as the square-jawed, tough, no-holds barred unofficial leader of The Champions. To counterbalance Sterling's arrogant hero, Yorkshire born William Gaunt was cast as Richard Barrett, another Nemesis agent caught in the ill-fated Red China mission. To add the necessary glamour Alexandra Bastedo more than made up in looks what she lacked in acting ability as Sharon MacReady.
According to Dennis Spooner there was never an alternative to Damon. Earning a living as a singer in New York, he had travelled to Britain to perform in the musical "Man of Magic" in the West End playing the lead in the adaptation of Harry Houdini's life. It was apparently there that he came to the attention of Monty Berman who made the decision on the spot. Bastedo would however later state that she and Damon tested together and the fact that He had appeared two years earlier in the Man in a Suitcase episode Man From The Past would seem to contradict this statement.
William Gaunt had appeared in the victorian detective series "Sergeant Cork" and was considered an ideal contrast to Damon's traditional sqaure-jawed good looks. The main problem was casting the female lead. Annette Andre, Marty's widow in Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), was approached but declined.
Alexandra Bastedo had been sent to Hollywood after winning an evening paper competition run by Columbia Pictures. At the tender age of 16 she appeared in the William Castle feature "The Candyweb" subsequently being offered a seven-year contract as well as attracting the attention of a certain Alfred Hitchcock. In spite of these promising contacts her parents dissented against such a career path and sent her back to school. Back in England she began acting in television and appeared in the BBC production "The Count of Monte Cristo". Supplementing her frugal BBC wages with modelling she became the Shell girl, but only on condition that the posters would never appear on her home soil. It was a strange twist of fate then that future "Champions" director Cyril Frankel saw such a poster while holidaying in Austria and suggested an audition. Thereupon, at the age of twenty, she became Sharon MacReady, a widow with a vast medical and scientific knowledge who appeared to be enrolled on the team after her part in the Tibetan mission.
No sooner were the leads in place that Spooner hit the same frustrating obstacle which arose the same year whilst developing Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). Wanting to emphasise the more fantastic elements Monty Berman and Cyril Frankel insisted on playing it straighter and focus more on run-of-the-mill spy stories. So The Champions developed into standard espionage thrillers punctuated with moments of superhuman skill. This was what ultimately dragged the series into overall mediocrity, largely forgettable plots with sporadic displays of super skills. Even several episodes with apparent supernatural overtones were finally dismissed with a rational (if far-fetched) denouement. In Shadow Of The Panther the voodoo element was actually mass hypnosis, The Invisible Man little more than a small electronic transmitter and even the superhumans of The Experiment were genetically created.
This instalment featured a scientist (David Bauer who also provides the weekly voiceover) intent on creating a team of superhumans to carry out a series of thefts. Sharon integrates into the team and the episode culminates into a genuinely exciting battle between the Nemesis agents and their foe. However their foes powers are only temporary which enables our trio to gain the upper hand.
There were other episodes of above average merit. A Case Of Lemmings opens effectively with a number of Interpol agents calmly committing suicide. Nemesis are called in and uncover a plot to infiltrate the organisation using a drug which when applied to the skin causes the recipient to kill themselves. Craig, posing as a avenge-seeking gangster, is affected but stopped from jumping to his death by his colleagues. The secret unveiled, the drugs creator is affected by his own monster and leaps to his death, taking his secret with him.
When an Air-force plane is shot down and a number of agents disappear the only option seems to be a military strike on a remote island off the west coast of America. Tremayne is summoned and The Champions are sent to The Dark Island. The trio uncover a plot to fire a nuclear warhead at the US thus ensuring WWIII. With the Navy on red alert, Barrett rescues a number of prisoners, Stirling shoots the bad-guy and destroys the bomb and the world is safe again. The Dark Island exemplifies what the show could have been. Action a plenty, suspense in abundance and some great dialo looking on Barrett casually snaps his iron chains and explains "I led a pure life". Although to be picky why did Sharon throw the rifle to Craig to deliver the fatal shot to Kellor when she had a clear view herself, maybe equal rights didn't include firearms.
Despite its limitations The Interrogation works extremely well. Stirling awakes to find he is imprisoned in a small cell and is subjected to a fierce drug-fuelled questioning by an unknown tormentor (Colin Blakely in fine form recreating his role from Man in A Suitcase opener Brainwash). Using clips from previous episodes it becomes apparent that the interrogator suspects Stirling to be a double agent due to holes in his reports which as we know were left to cover up his powers. Eventually Stirling escapes only to discover that Tremayne is behind the imprisonment and Barrett and MacReady were aware of the capture. The episode ends on a downbeat note as Craig questions his partners loyalty.
But undoubtedly the jewel in The Champions crown is the Brian Clemens penned finale Autokill. Clemens was of course The Avengers guru but has an extensive list of film and TV credits including Danger Man, Thriller, The Professionals, The Persuaders and Bugs. It was during his sacking from The Avengers that Clemens freelanced and wrote two scripts; Happening and the tale of a Doctor who is kidnapping and brainwashing Nemesis agents and forcing them to kill each other in an attempt to bring down the agency. First victim is George Brading who attacks several of his colleagues before fatally shooting the Nemesis doctor. The next target is Tremayne who is overpowered by the super-humans before being sedated. Not only is the drug mind-altering it is also fatal after a few days exposure so The Champions are in a desperate race against time to save their boss and find the protagonists. Autokill reaches an incredibly effective climax when Barrett is programmed to kill Stirling and the ensuing fight is not only extremely brutal but moving as Stirling, with Sharon's help, overpowers Richard and systematically beats him unconscious. As Richard falls Craig holds him in a desperate embrace, horrified at what he has done.
All ends happily as the antidote is found and the amnesia struck Barrett questions the battered Stirling about his injuries. In a memorable final line the usually arrogant Craig replies "I got a lesson in equality".
As an Ambassador to the show Autokill is a brilliant piece. Packed with action and some unusually moving scenes such as Brading's demise and the afore-mentioned ending. It was also the only episode which emphasised the Champions isolation. As we watch the deterioration of Brading and his distraught wife it also works as an example of the trios loneliness and lack of any close family. A few years ago I was lucky enough to speak to Clemens about his contribution, he told me "I intended to turn things on their head. The deadliest threat to (The Champions) was of course themselves and I always liked to look at new ideas". Amusingly Brian blamed the bloody fight scene on the stunt director.
The Champions finally aired in 1968 where they met their most formidable foe. After defeating Nazis, gun-runners and super villains they finally fell prey to the TV networks. Despite being a huge success around the world any chance of a second season was scuppered by a change in the British TV franchise which meant The Champions was screened sporadically in various regions around the country thus missing out on an overall national coverage.
In Australia Channel 7 displayed a clever piece of showmanship by running all twenty nine episodes omitting The Beginning and created a large publicity machine by promising to reveal all at the end of the run. After screening the pilot last they immediately repeated the whole season to increased viewing figures.
The rather bizarre choice of The Beginning and The Interrogation were edited together to form a feature film The Legend Of The Champions which was distributed in Europe. The series has been rerun over the years and is still fondly remembered by fans as a forerunner of The Six Million Dollar Man which incidentally also used economical but effective sound effects to produce the illusion of super-human skills. The Champions 25th anniversary video release hit the top ten sales list and rumours have abounded for years of a movie remake.
It emerged later that the pilot episode was actually filmed as a feature length production which was wrapped around The Champions making a recording to give to Tremayne and eventually deciding to keep their secret. Should these additional scenes ever surface it would make for a mouth-watering DVD extra.
Of the trio, Damon appeared briefly in a number of shows such as Space 1999 before returning to Broadway. Alexandrea Bastedo used her physical charms to the full in The Aphrodite Inheritence and a number of horror movies, such as The Blood-Spattered Bride and The Ghoul as well as numerous guest appearances on TV ( Boon and Absolutely Fabulous to name two) before retiring to the country as a full time housewife. She remembers the series with fondness though disappointed that the exotic "locations" were little more than backdrops. William Gaunt can still be seen on TV most notably in the BBC sit-com No Place Like Home. Unfortunately the team have never reunited since filming the series.
Despite it's flaws and its potential never being fully realised The Champions still works as an entertaining slice of British television fantasy. The few stinkers are far out-weighed by the merits of the superior plots and even then always contained at least one enjoyable sequence ( the post-credit intro was always entertaining). And speaking of credits who could forget the simple but effective opening image of our heroes proudly standing in before a huge fountain as Tony Hatch's excellent theme tune heralded the start of a new adventure.
After the totally ill-conceived Avengers movie which led Clemens to state "Making The Avengers in America is like filming The Godfather in Watford" things looked bleak for a big screen treatment. However box office success Charlie's Angels ,soon to be seen Six Billion Dollar Man (that's inflation), I-Spy and green lights for The Prisoner and (heaven forbid) The Persuaders demonstrates not only a renewed interest in cult TV but a lack of original ideas in Hollywood.
Maybe the idea of a big-budget movie treatment isn't too crazy after all.
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