The Saint and His Besetting Sins

The Saint and His Besetting Sins

By Malcolm Sharps

Long before producer Monty Berman brought together the elements of his TV series of The Saint in 1962, Roger Moore was a fan of the teflon-coated adventurer, playboy Simon Templar, the literary creation of the British writer Leslie Charteris. Moore identified so strongly with Templar that from the earliest days of his involvement with the series he wanted to own the various rights to the character known as the Saint. It was a time in British screen productions when one could observe a real divide in television and cinema. The cinema still was in large part claimed by Realism, while the television studios went wholeheartedly for Stylization, exercises in controlled artificiality. We see it in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and Department S, also Monty Berman projects, in The AvengersDanger Man and in the ultimate in stylized productions, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. As producer and director, Patrick McGoohan also carried something of that through to his contributions to the American detective series Columbo.

Berman’s series had a distinctive period modernity, it had mini-skirts and floppy shirts, it had chain necklaces and flared trousers. It might also have had eye-dazzling contemporary colours – though for the initial 71 episodes filming was in black and white only. This is not to say that The Saint was entirely a creation of England’s swinging 60s by any means. Charteris’s first Simon Templar novel dates back to 1928. Many more Templar novels and short stories were to follow over the next four decades, and by the early forties The Saint in print had spawned a radio drama series, a comic strip series, a photographic magazine adaptation and eight films with RKO; with an early Hammer production making a ninth. A progression of actors portrayed Templar, including George Sanders, Vincent Price and the embodiment of old-school-tie good manners, rigid-jawed, plummy-voiced Basil Rathbone.

Moore saw himself as naturally reflecting many of Templar’s characteristics. Charteris describes a debonair, smiling, constantly quipping, immaculately tailored avenger of the crimes of low-life criminals. He also tells us this key fact about his hero:

Anxiety was a sensation that had never troubled his young life. 

Imagine that, a young man without anxiety? To have gone on dates and never have worried that your breath smelled or that you would let slip you were still a virgin. And I thought we felt anxiety as a defense mechanism like pain to help us protect our bodies from damage. Except, with anxiety, it stops us from getting into fights we don’t stand a hope of winning. In his enthusiasm, Charteris gave his hero a characteristic more suited to a young psychopath.

Fortunately, in this television manifestation Moore doesn’t play Templar in any way as a psychopath; his acting range is way insufficient for that. For the most part Moore portrays Templar as an English gentleman without a thought in his head; at least, I can’t discern one. There are externalities, of course, an air of suavity, of smug conceit and luxuriating self-satisfaction. It is something any man from the lower ranks would instantly recognise as the mark of his betters, the upper officer class; if not an actual aristocrat, one of nature’s.

Moore is at his most English gentlemanly when dealing with women. He negotiates them rather than interacts with them, making courtship seem like an act of administration. Moore plays the part of the peacock displaying himself to the dowdy peahen far more often than the reverse. And he does it without showing a trace of passion or, dare I say it, animal desire? Lust never raises its ugly head in The Saint; in fact, I can’t imagine it raising anything else either. This makes The Saint the perfect family entertainment you need not prevent your unbalanced Uncle Stan and sensitive Auntie Jessie from watching. The most we observe of physical intimacy are discreet ‘before and after’ glimpses, and we are left to imagine for ourselves the sanitised congress which takes place in between.

Wikipedia tells us this about the production of The Saint:

The entire series was shot at Associated British Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, with very few scenes shot on location elsewhere. This was achieved by making extensive use of the sets at Elstree, early blue-screen technology to simulate different locations in the background, painted or projected backdrops, and revolving painted backdrops for moving scenes.

Wiki doesn’t mention that the illusion of being in foreign parts was also supported through a number of cheap tricks that don’t work too well. An acoustic guitar playing tells us we are in Spain, an accordion tells us we are in France. Or a local comes very quickly into the opening shots and announces: ‘Ah, senor Templar, your return to Roma is most welcome’. Or to Madrid or Pa-ree, as the case may be.

The budget for sets on The Saint was scandalously low. A single room often had to suggest a whole country in the way a restaurant serving an ethnic cuisine does, with the associations of the country piled on thick. In one episode set at the Colosseum, Rome, after five seconds of stock footage actually shot in Rome, the budget allowed for a chunk of nondescript Roman wall and one pillar executed in what looked like painted canvas on wood. The sound and the lighting of the series were marvellously stagey as well, as was the array of creaky B movie bit-part stalwarts who played the street vendors, barmen, guides and taxi drivers with whom Templar has an easy rapport. The series teamed Moore with actors of the calibre of Warren Mitchell and Peter Wynegarde, television regulars that Moore was in no danger of catching acting skills from.

It is not clear whether Templar was supposed to be speaking to the local characters in their own languages as in all the dialogues they address him variously as Monsieur Templar, Signor Templar or Herr Templar, while otherwise speaking English. In one episode in Venice, however, Moore got a chance to speak two lines of Italian. Bravo! Signor Templar.

The Saint was broadcast between 1962 and 1969, at a time when a high proportion of the audience had never been abroad or knew parts of Europe and Asia only from the partial point-of-view of army life as combatants or occupiers. Few people knew continental Europe well enough to say, ‘Venice isn’t a bit like that’ or ‘I can’t believe that was shot in the Greece I know’; they had a very high tolerance to an abroad that was really Paris, Hertfordshire; Rome, Hertfordshire; or Istanbul, Hertfordshire. I was a child of nine when the first series started, I had never been outside my own country, but I wasn’t taken in by any of it.

As for the Volvo P1800 sports car, licence plate ST 1, the one luxury indulgence allowed our hero in post-war straitened times, it seldom went outside Elstree studios. When it did, a stand-in driver usurped Moore’s position at the wheel. If poor Roger Moore never got a free holiday abroad out of his role, he never got to drive with abandon on the hair-raising bends of the massif de L’Esterel or jaunt down the AI4 coastal road to Ancona either. To simulate road journeys and chases a cut-away car interior was used with back-projected window views, the work of a technically primitive pre-digital age which produced a sense of uneasy spatial dislocation rather than movement.

But I want to correct a misapprehension that my dear reader might have assumed so far, quite understandably so. I adored The Saint television series. Looking back, I wouldn’t want to have changed a single thing about it. To have done location filming would have made it look sophisticated and flashy and utterly charmless. And when I consider a different actor from Moore playing the lead, giving it subtler nuances of humanity and suggesting a full range of emotions, I’m filled with horror. I’d have hated such a monster. To put in good actors to play the bit parts as living people saying credible lines written by a script writer with an ear for spoken language, would have destroyed the magical corn of the Goodies versus Baddies storylines. It hardly bears thinking about. I loved The Saint, it was like the United Kingdom itself at the time, a bumbling post-war, post-colonial former power, licking the wounds of its pyrrhic victory against Nazi Germany, yet clinging to the tatters of its dignity. Though it was one of the victors in the war, the exhausted UK was the last country – coming later than Germany itself – to suspend food rationing but it still tried to hold its head up high, serve tea ruined with the addition of milk, and maintain appearances. And just let those swarthy thugs try to smash our hero hard in the face, for all their efforts, his hair still remained immaculately in place; The Saint was the UK, the triumph of style over reason!

There was a chat show I used to watch regularly on Pro Sieben, a non-subscriber German television station. I could hack the low level their German demanded to follow interviews with the likes of Dolly Buster (for those who don’t know her, the name tells you everything). Towards the end of his life Moore chose Gstaad in Switzerland as his main home, a resort town in a German-speaking Canton. I knew there was going to be an interview one evening on Pro Sieben with Roger Moore, but when he appeared it turned out the future Sir Roger and UN Goodwill Ambassador had elected to be interviewed in English on this German language channel from near his German-speaking home. What happened to the easy rapport communicating with the locals in their own tongue? I wondered. Was this the real payoff of all those years on phoney sets of European cities built in a studio in rural Hertfordshire? Was this the payoff in terms of knowledge of the world he’d acquired in almost one hundred episodes playing opposite English actors with bogus accents who pretended they were speaking another language? To not be able to face an interview in the language of the country in which he had settled?

Charteris conceived of Templar as a man of exceptionally hiqh IQ, like himself; one who travelled extensively and picked up languages easily. But Moore was an actor and not the man he played: in any case, a fictitious character. He identified closely with Templar and at times thought of himself as the embodiment of the man. But dedication and not identification is what brings about knowledge of a language. What did he imagine? That the damned foreigners could all learn his language? Moore giving his interview in English was like someone trapped in a 60s’ time warp, transported back to the times of the Associated British Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire where the whole world spoke English, even to each other in their own countries?

Charteris made no secret of the fact that he hated those Berman productions and the manner in which Moore distorted his hero in every way, toning down the darker aspects of his character. And now Moore was betraying the spirit of Templar again, the character who Charteris conceived as fluent in German, French, Italian and Portuguese. His imitator was speaking to a German audience in English. It was dashed bad form. It was damnable. Moore letting the side down. It was hardly cricket. Hardly the way of the Saint, the way the multi-lingual citizen of the world, the man who feared no one, who took on all challenges and was at home anywhere, would behave.

2 Responses to The Saint and His Besetting Sins

  1. Peter Bendall says:

    A penetrating depiction by M. Sharps of a cardboard pillar of post-war British culture, deftly combining sociological analysis, critical insight and sparkling wit. I never saw any episodes of The Saint, as we didn’t have a television at home, but the vivid descriptions of Moore’s (non-)acting skills, the tawdry sets and the whole ethos of the series almost makes me think I must have done. In a short space Mr. Sharps conjures up, from his account of a hackneyed character in a hackneyed series with low production values, a portrait of a country just recovering from its post-Empire exhaustion that is worth more than quite a number of books about it.

  2. Steve O'Connor says:

    I feel entirely inadequate to comment after reading Mr. Bendall’s comment. I’ll only say that I found the piece engaging even though I don’t thnk I’ve ever watched an episode of The Saint. Sharps presents the series as a cultural artifact that anyone who lived through the sixties or is interested in that period would find interesing and educational.