ROOM 31 @ THE NICE ROOMS presents
Department S: Case File 1001 by Adam Lonsdale
Date of Article: 28th March 2016
In an exclusive article for The Nice Rooms Adam Lonsdale explores reasons for the continuing popularity of the cult ITC series Department S that first aired back in 1969
"I was born of the colonies (Melbourne to be exact) but home schooled in the rich education of an English way of life (via parents and TV). I'm previously from a media and animation background but am now leading a more relaxed and family way of life in Adelaide, Australia. My role of TV and Film historian specialising in UK classic TV, film and international animation has lead to consulting work on websites, articles and DVD releases. I'm always working hard to help preserve TV and film heritage both at home and abroad with the acquisition of film prints and related material. My other passions include football, classic cars, art and family."
DEPARTMENT S: CASE FILE 1001 – OPEN STATUS
Joel Fabiani Rosemary Nicols Peter Wyngarde
It can become a habit these days taking television for granted. Modern TV has taken so much from the golden age, but executed creativity so very little. What is so appealing about 1960s' television? Was it the upheaval of social change? New concepts? New ideals?
The 1960s allowed television viewing for the first time to become not so much the standard play in three acts but more a visual stage representing new concepts in visual arts. “Spy-Fi” was a great 1960s' by-product. With the popularity of James Bond (MGM/UA 1962 - ) on the big screen and smaller screen offerings like The Avengers (ABC 1961 – 1969) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E (Arena 1964-1968), the public had a thirst for espionage viewing that soon turned beyond the true-to-life grit to a more witty, slightly light-hearted comic book style of action heroes.
Colour, light, fashion and gimmick was the public’s preferences, so television viewing output was adjusted accordingly. This then gave rise to a phenomenon of fondly remembered, fun and pop styled series that have been imitated but never equalled. Department S was one of them.
Department S Intro (edit: Run time 47 seconds)
Similar dynamics of a previous ITC' success The Champions (ITC 1968 - 1969) were utilised in Department S: namely the concept of the two men, one woman team working together as well as individually on a 2 to 1 ratio under the orders of a central authority figure to provide plot establishment and narrative premise.
Joel Fabiani as Stuart Sullivan
Similar successes previously had been made with Steve Forrest’s John Mannering (The Baron ITC 1966-1967) and Stuart Damon’s Craig Stirling (The Champions). Beyond the surface texture of Stuart’s USA embodiment, there are some redeeming features that keep him ingrained with the team dynamics. Often Stuart acts as the go-between for Sir Curtis and the other members giving rise to the thought that he might in fact be the unofficial person in charge.
Annabelle is similar to the same “void” type of thinking when examining characterisation. Her look is almost parallel with that of The Avengers' girl style and one could even see a physical resemblance to Steed's partner at the time – Tara King.
Rosemary Nicols as Annabelle Hurst and Linda Thorson as Tara King
The cause of this lack of imagination for Annabelle perhaps lay in a deep seeded issue that if she was written to be more independent then it might not set the series apart from The Avengers. Annabelle’s due care of logical deduction and talent that sets her beyond her male compatriots in the way of technological knowledge does offer her the advantage of being one step ahead. She is playful in her endeavours and often can be relied on to offer on the spot improvisation to get her out of sticky situations.
The chemistry between Stuart and Annabelle appears to have been “wanting more” while viewing the series. When it is attempted, it is playful flirting that usually involves Annabelle in a state of undress and Stuart tip-toeing around while trying not to take a cheeky glance. Sex appeal individually was at a high for the male and female audiences, but with each other it appears it wasn’t meant to be.
Peter Wyngarde as Jason King
Jason King is the essential show stealer. Fondly remembered due to the almost comic book stylised portrayal that, although embodied the highest end of male fashion at the time, was essentially outdated by the time the series went to air. Jason was a character that did everything with class and finesse coupled with a genuine jet-set lifestyle. Born as an “Oxford Don” style character on paper, it was up to actor Peter Wyngarde to further push his own interpretation to offer an alternative direction that became an almost parody of parodies in what the excessive lifestyle was. Fine suits, elegant composure, charming demeanour, high theatrics and dangerous tastes; these were all wonderful additions to a character that existed for sheer pleasure and had no shame about how and where he found it. A classic, almost foppish character that saw real life danger as a mere idle distraction from his regular day job.
Jason become much more than a hero, he became a sex god. Highly sexist in a time where we weren’t as progressive, Jason still managed to squeeze in all manner of trysts with many beautiful females he lay his refined paws on. While he was courageous and brave, he often came off second best with opponents during his more physical assaults. Having the grace of being involved in a punch up behind closed doors while a helpless ‘girly’ stood outside would eventually lead to Jason opening the door with a cool, calm and collect manner without a hair out of place, acknowledging said 'girly' with a charming flash of his pearly whites, and then, with great comic timing, keel over onto the floor. It is safe to assume that Jason would have originally leapt at the opportunity to work for the organisation as it would have given him great dollops of inspiration for each new Mark Caine novel. His eccentric personification gave the series its most exciting character that, understandably, paved the way for a future solo outing.
In the shoes of the figure of authority we have Sir Curtis Seretse.
Dennis Alaba Peters as Sir Curtis Seretse
In a more contemporary way of thinking when looking at Sir Curtis’ character, we could almost say that there isn’t much to believe in way of progressive thinking at that moment in time. These days, and indeed what should have been back then, was that the colour of a person's skin does not hinder their abilities whatsoever. In the late 1960s it was very rare to have anyone in a primetime TV series that wasn’t white. Stories have been abounded throughout TV history of producers and writers advising that casting in this fashion would hurt potential sales in territories, namely the USA. Sir Curtis bucked the trend by allowing the issue of race and colour to be taken away in his portrayal of not only a non-stereotypical nondescript African / West Indian / Caribbean diplomat, but also the leader of the series’ own organisation, a position of power that would have scarcely been allowed in other countries at the time.
It can be argued that Sir Curtis’ minor role does not set him amongst other trailblazers, but taking into consideration the marketability of Department S in the UK and the USA, it was a good step forward. Played to perfection by Dennis Alaba Peters, Sir Curtis was a friend to some of the highest dignitaries encountered throughout the series. His genuine “diplomatic” shine with an expert demure at seriousness gives the viewer the impression that he, although not on camera for the bulk of an episode, is the man in charge and the knowledgeable guru to offer further guidance to our intrepid team.
Department S lends itself to the more extraordinary styles that were popularised in 1960s' television. Free thinking ideas coupled with artistic mystery was a staple amongst other by-products of the era that explored colour, light, concept and surrealism. The style of plots reflect heavily the modern day concerns coupled with conceptualised intrigue - The simple juxtaposition of beckoning the viewer in with a wild premise that would be completely out of place on first sight, but when it is explored offers a logical explanation to the crime at hand. The style Department S portrays is individual in its own right. An episode will begin with an on screen location and date (sans year as to allow a floating timeline) to signify the investigative touch of case file viewing - similar to ITC’s later series Strange Report (ITC 1969-1970) that had case file numbers attached to the title of each episode. We are then lead into a seemingly ordinary situation that then cumulates to a bizarre occurrence that then starts the opening theme. Prior to the opening titles however, we do have the on screen episode title and writer which for its day was unusual.
Dennis Spooner has put Department S' investigative style along the lines of how the Mary Celeste mystery would be investigated in a modern era. This accounts for the set piece of an ordinary situation that on closer inspection is quite inconceivable.
Why is it so?
Who could have done it?
Why are there so many missing pieces to this puzzle?
While mystery thrillers were not a new thing at the time, the idea of a series based on the premise of a baffling case hinges on the more bizarre overtones seen in the later series of The Avengers. The main difference between the two series is the fact that Department S does have a strong presence in a world that, for all intense and purposes, is quite real. We are taken to exotic locales via Elstree to give the viewer a wider scope of how far our investigators can reach. While the bulk of stories are largely contained in the UK or very UK looking mainland European countrysides, the use of stock footage and back lot locations can give the impression that a foreign city is not just inhabited by our three heroes, the weekly baddie and a cameraman. We are given a rich, textured world that although can at times lose itself in the production values (or lack of) with studio bound beaches and forests, it can take us back to “reality” by use of location filming. Quite often we get to see country roads and scenery coupled with all too familiar locations around the immediate areas of Elstree and London.
A familiar stable of story weavers can been seen at the forefront of Department S' strange goings-on. Drawing on already popular writers of this particular genre from ITC’s own past series and beyond, we can see a delightful selection presented to us with the likes of:
Terry Nation (The Avengers, Doctor Who - BBC 1963-1989),
Philip Broadley (various ITC action series),
Donald James (Space: 1999 - ITC 1975-1977, Doppelganger -Universal 1969), and
Tony Williamson (The Persuaders! - ITC 1971-1972, Adam Adamant Lives! - BBC 1966-1967).
Terry Nation and Donald James
These names were perfect choices to contribute to a series that was carrying forward the previous feelings of mystery and unease while offering the direct, light heartedness we were accustomed to and welcomed previously.
The coupling of many fine directors like
Ray Austin (The Avengers),
John Gilling (Gideon’s Way ITC 1965-1966),
Roy Ward Baker (Moon Zero Two Hammer - Warner 1969, Minder - Thames 1979-1994),
Leslie Norman (Shirley’s World ITC 1972, Return of The Saint - ITC 1978-1979),
Paul Dickson (The Adventurer - ITC 1972-1973, Jason King - ITC 1971-1972) and
Cyril Frankel (who even took out extra credit as creative consultant) further cemented a perfect team to bring this subtle, but at times cock-eyed collection of intrigue to the screen.
With the set-up of surreal mystery at the start of each story, it lent itself to matters that had the viewer baffled as to what was going on and then being hooked right from there. The explanations that followed were sometimes quite simple, while offering a new type of villainy that boarded on the line of creative genius. Gone are the usual Communist takeover plots or singular high powered lunatic, we were now dealing with a more playful type of dastardliness in the shape of using a creative “smokescreen” to hide simple cases of blackmail, financial gain, scientific breakthroughs, revenge and sins of the past.
The more memorable scenes that we are faced with are the likes of:
- A plane that arrives at an airport supposedly 30 mins early, but is informed that they are actually 6 days late (Six Days).
- An entire town goes missing in one night (The Pied Piper Of Hambledown).
- The recent death of a man is exposed as him being at least 60 years old but looking as if he is in his 20s (Spencer Bodily is 60 Years Old).
- A sleeping man has a rubber mask glued to his face resulting in suffocation (The Man Who Got A New Face)
- A doctor about to perform a tricky operation is knocked out cold but replaced with an imposter who performs the operation to perfection (The Perfect Operation).
- An assassination on an airliner complete with passengers is performed on a stage in an empty warehouse. (The Mysterious Man In The Flying Machine)
- An important gentleman is one minute sitting in the back of his car reading a newspaper and then is revealed to be a skeleton (The Bones Of Byrom Blain).
The first episode Six Days offers a very definite opening to the series. A personal favourite merely based on the realisation at the start of the episode is what I found as a brilliant entry into a world that was going to present more than just a simple whodunit.
Amongst fans, the favourite is often The Pied Piper Of Hambledown. The general atmosphere it conveys is similar to (yet again) something out of The Avengers (Town Of No Return etc) but when the investigation is concluded we are presented with a satisfactory outcome to a relatively simple means that could not be obviously deducted by the viewer from the start. It would be quite terrifying waking up one morning and finding everyone in your street, town or city gone and you were the only left. This is where the episode punches on target to evoke paranoia within the viewer.
Department S has had its fair share of familiar guest stars and I’m sure like myself you would be sitting there spotting those familiar faces that were already stalwarts of the ITC genre machine, but also some actors that would go on to be more famous in years to come. Anyone reading this would ultimately know that I’m about to allude to Department S' most talked about and much lorded over guest artist Sir Anthony Hopkins (A Small War Of Nerves). It seems an all too familiar boast by fans, but we do often forget the other wonderful actors that have graced this series. Too numerous to list, I would encourage you to buy the DVD set and view for yourself the array of great international talent.
Music for this intrepid series was scored by the late great Edwin Astley. Edwin was the ITC maestro of music for the action series stable and the music for Department S doesn’t miss a note.
The wonderful use of horn selections offers a rich audio vibrancy that can be enjoyed with his other ITC work. It follows a delectable blend of modern, jazzy lines coupled with intense surprising stings that help complement the thriller nature of the programme. The theme song is indeed one of the best.
Coupled with brilliant visuals, the main theme is a very exciting piece that also lends itself to the “groovy” ideals of 1960s. The use of Hammond Organ and violin backing give it an almost motion picture feel of bold excitement with the opening emblem card title sting!
As Department S was only a one series wonder and taking longer for syndication in the USA, it is inevitable that heavy merchandising was not forthcoming. Naturally the theme song was available as a 45rpm LP single (Cyril Stapleton orchestrated, PYE Label) and a semi-regular comic strip could be found in some publications including continental European comic magazines.
7 inch Single: Theme From Department S / Cyril Stapleton and Orchestra
Der Mann, der zweimal starb
Image courtesy of Adam Lonsdale
Department S did have the privilege of being available on domestic Super 8 film. It was rare for a TV series to get a Super 8 release as the format was more popular with shorts, cartoons and feature film cutdowns. Department S made it albeit in abridged form (30mins approx.) for a handful of episodes from Technofilm of Milan, Italy. Technofilm produced some beautifully packaged films with wonderful colour photo covers and all prints were colour with magnetic sound. To my knowledge, only the following titles were available and only as 2 reel cutdowns;
The Trojan Tanker (300,301)
The Trojan Tanker Super 8 Front & Back Packaging (English & Spanish)
Images courtesy of Adam Lonsdale
Last Train To Redbridge (possible French only release) (302,303)
Last Train To Redbridge Super 8 Packaging Front & Back
Images courtesy of Adam Lonsdale
The Duplicated Man (unconfirmed, but has appeared on lists). Germany released them also, but under the UFA brand in conjunction with Technofilm. There was only one full length Super 8 released but was not available commercially like 16mm duplicates supplied to other territories or the even rarer 35mm duplicates. This was an optical Super 8 print of The Shift That Never Was and was only supplied to airline companies for showing on flights before video tape was installed. During the home video tape revolution, Department S was not picked up by early labels. Many ITC TV series were often re-edited into a feature length films primarily for US cable networks. This then made them commercially viable to be released on home video tape. Prior to this there were a handful of ITC action series that were re-edited for release in cinemas (The Persuaders!, UFO, The Protectors, The Champions, The Baron, Man In A Suitcase), but this was mainly restricted to continental Europe. Department S never had a feature film re-edit, and thus was skipped over from early release. It wasn’t until the early 1990s when Polygram was the then owners of ITC’s output that episodes started to appear on VHS tape for the first time. They were released simultaneously with other ITC titles including Jason King. There were only about 4 volumes consisting of two episodes each which were released and a subsequent few afterwards that were now packaged as a double tape with two episodes of Jason King.
Jason King & Department S VHS
In 2000, Carlton Media were the new owners of ITC’s library and were starting a new release line of VHS tapes and for the first time DVDs. Sadly, while some other series did gain a full release on DVD (The Champions, The Persuaders! etc), Deptarment S had only 4 VHS tapes released and one DVD of two episodes. In 2002, TF1 in France were the first to release a complete DVD box set, however it wasn’t until Oct 2003 that the series was finally released in full on DVD in an English territory with sizeable extras. This was Umbrella Entertainment Australia’s 35th Anniversary 7 disc boxset that had a host of extras including commentary from star Peter Wyngarde.
Since then, Department S has been widely released in full on DVD in the UK (Network) and Germany. At the time of writing, only one episode has been released on Blu-ray disc and that is “A Small War Of Nerves” via Network on Vol 1 of their special “ITC Action” blu-ray sets.
Department S was on the tail end of a wild, colourful era that did for a few years follow into the early 1970s but was quickly falling out of favour. After 28 episodes of one series, Department S was stopped mid-investigation to make way for other projects. Some explanations over years have cited falling ratings, lack of return sales or budget constraints as being factors in a non-renewal, but we can be rest assured that 'The Department' was still operating with allusions made in the following series of Jason King. Whatever the case may be, it was a fantastic ride while it lasted and there were other more equally fantastic ITC produced series on the horizon.
Department S may not have left as huge impact on modern pop culture as previous ITC series did. The Saint (ITC 1962-1969) offered six whole series, two feature length releases and a follow-up series that more than likely was bolstered by an already established and popular series of books that it was based on. Department S came and went, and although it took the next three or so years after the original run for it to penetrate international territories, it could be regarded as slightly forgotten even after the follow-up series of Jason King was sure to leave a lasting waft of Brut 33 in the air for years to come.
The 1990s brought an obsession for things that were “pop” or “kitsch” and the 1960s was its hallowed ground for recycling of imagery and novelty. It is no doubt that while the character of Austin Powers (New Line 1997-2002)was a combination of many influences, we can be sure that when it came to outward style beyond that of James Bond clone-like hero, Mike Myers definitely must have seen Jason King as a style trendsetter. Parody was not far for the likes of the popular Channel 4 comedy plays of The Comic Strip Presents…. (Channel 4 1982 - ) with the crew taking the TV detective drama output by presenting Detectives On The Edge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1993) as being the last chance saloon for the 1970s' detective franchises.
Peter Richardson as Jason Bentley (The Comic Strip Presents..)
One can almost draw the conclusion that more contemporary series must have drawn some inspiration from the likes of Department S.
The popular BBC series Jonathan Creek (BBC 1996 - 2016) shows similarities in which (albeit) amateur sleuths are investigating some of the most baffling mysteries or crimes that could easily find themselves in the files of Department S. Some have also seen the US series The X Files (Fox 1993 - 2002) as taking some inspirational cues for the illogical angle of investigation. A UK band also exists that has taken its name from the series and has frustrated many an eBay user for years while trying to look for memorabilia to do with our favourite investigators but rather coming up against many 45s and LPs that are mysteriously titled “Is Vic There?”…..During the 90s' period of hunger for retro value, home video was entering its peak, and coupled with ITC’s new ownership under Polygram (as mentioned in the previous section) the stage was now set for the vaults to be opened to allow the buying public for the first time to own an array of 'telly goodness' to watch again and again. Department S became available for the first time on VHS as well as many other ITC favourites like The Saint, The Champions, Dangerman, The Baron and Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). Even further back, but fondly remembered series like The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITC / Official Films 1955-1959) and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (ITC / Official Films 1956-1957) were also given a chance to see daylight again.
The Adventures Of Robin Hood & The Adventures Of Sir Lancelot
Pay Television was forging new territory in the UK and Australia during the same period, and while domestic TV was only concerned in showing very few repeats of old material due to the restriction of the number of channels, satellite / cable TV saw the potential gold mine of repeat viewing of classic series to help pad out their further expansion. For the first time in a long time we could sit down at a primetime slot and bask in the technicolour glow of Department S and other wonderful examples of trailblazing TV. It’s hard to think now, in the age of on demand viewing and affordable purchase of DVDs and Blu-ray disc sets that we did indeed struggle to gain access and enjoy Department S at our own leisure. In taking for granted the ease in which we can watch the series again now, we forget that once upon a time we had to spend enormous amounts of money to buy a handful of episodes on Super 8 film or a stalled run of VHS tapes.
Why is Department S so fondly remembered by TV aficionados? Perhaps the popularity lies in notion that it was an individual in a group of individuals? It was born in an era that envisioned having a wonderful time - An everlasting colourful party that came just before the cold harsh realities of strikes, shortages and further political upheaval that resulted in viewers shifting towards an underclass style of hero operating in a world not too far away from their (the viewer’s) own doorstep. These were apparent in future series like:
Callan (ABC / Thames 1967-1972),
The Sweeney (Thames / Euston Films 1975-1978),
The Professionals (LWT 1977-1983) and to some extent
Minder (Thames 1979 - 1994)
But that is another investigation for another time..
"Please note. While every effort has been included to represent accurate facts, incorrect primary and secondary resources may have been utilised and considered incorrect by individual parties that do not evidence any errata. This article was never considered or executed as a definitive guide or fact file. Every care has been taken in research to present a critical review accompanied with basic facts."
~ In memory of Peter Wyngarde: Born 23rd August 1933 Died 15th January 2018 ~