Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Champions--A British TV Import in the Wake of The Avengers

William Gaunt, Alexandra Bastedo, and Stuart Damon.
Back in the 1960s, the U.S. television networks would occasionally opt for fresh summer programming instead of showing repeats of their regular series (yes, this was before cheap reality TV and original cable fodder!). Often, these "summer replacement shows," as they were dubbed, were imported from Britain. Thus, American viewers were introduced to The Avengers, The Saint, Secret Agent (known as Danger Man overseas), The Prisoner, and Man in a Suitcase (one of my favorite titles).

One of the lesser-known of these imports is The Champions, which debuted on NBC in the summer of 1968. It lasted for 30 episodes and then pretty much vanished...only to become something of a cult show 30 years later. It's easy to see why: the premise is a lot of fun and the writers included British veterans such as Brian Clemens (producer and writer for The Avengers) and Ralph Smart (creator and writer for Secret Agent).

Damon as Craig (the American).
So what is the premise? Three secret agents, being pursued by bad guys, crash land their plane in the Himalayas. All but dead, they are found by an elderly man who takes them to an ancient city occupied by a secret civilization (shades of Shangri-La). Not only are our heroes healed, but they are "made better." They gradually learn that they have been given superhuman powers: they can communicate telepathetically, their senses are heightened, and they possess great strength. They can also "sense" when danger in imminent or when one of them is in trouble.

Working for the worldwide organization Nemesis, the following Champions are dispatched to fight for the forces of good: dashing Craig Stirling (Stuart Damon), scientist Sharron Macready (Alexandra Bastedo), and clever Richard Barret (William Gaunt). Damon, who's American, was the most recognizable of the actors, having appeared as Prince Charming in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella. Post-Champions, he scored a long-time gig on the daytime drama General Hospital. Bastedo and Gaunt remain best known for their roles on The Champions.

Bastedo as Sharron.
Although never in the same class as The Avengers nor The Prisoner, there are some standout episodes of The Champions. One of my favorites is "The Experiment" (written by Philip Broadley), in which Sharron is recruited into a training program apparently intended to produce fellow agents with extraordinary physical abilities. In the episode "The Survivors", our heroes discover World War II officers left for dead in an underground bunker...who believe that the war is still being fought.

Both seasons of The Champions are available on DVD. A&E included the first season of 16 episodes in The Spy Collection boxed DVD set, which also contains episodes of The Prisoner, The Protectors, and The Persuaders.

Anyone else remember this show? If so, what are your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. I was 5/6 in the Summer of '68 and this caught my imagination. I loved this show and the dynamic and gentleness of great storytelling of great adventure, ingenuity and quiet bravery.

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