The spy who stayed home
In John Creasey’s novels the Baron, aka John Mannering, is an ex-jewel thief, a suave, knowledgeable, ethically dubious character who was somehow gang-pressed into assisting the police. The ITC British television series gives Mannering a moral face-lift.
Instead of a jewel thief, he’s an art expert charged with tracing Nazi-stolen art from World War II and returning it to owners. He’s not even British…but rather a Texan ex-cattle rancher, given to the most exquisite of British bespoke suits and without a trace of drawl. The actor Steve Forrest (trivia bonus point: he is Dana Andrews’ brother) was already in his mid-40s when tapped to play this character, and he seems, in contrast to today’s buffed and beautiful 20-something leads, almost shockingly adult in the role.
The Baron, which ran for one season from 1966 to 1967, came from the same studio as The Saint, the television serial that launched Roger Moore’s career, and it shared many of that show’s basic elements: baroque spy plots, improbably beautiful women, fantasy jet set lifestyle accoutrements, and a fascination with – but not any real knowledge of – foreign cultures. It also had a certain amount of technical infrastructure in common with The Saint, including one alley-like set that appears in a slightly different guise in almost every episode. And as in The Saint, the Bond series and other spy fiction of the era, there is a then modern, but now old-fashioned whiff of the ‘60s.
The clothing is wonderful, especially on Sue Lloyd’s Cordelia Winfield character. (She is trying on a particularly fetching zebra-striped, mini-skirted raincoat when Mannering asks her, “Is that new?” She looks at him levelly and replies. “Do you think I buy used clothes?”) Everyone smokes everywhere—in airplanes, during dinner, at gallery openings – and foreigners, particularly of the Eastern Bloc variety, are invariably scheming and diabolical.
The Baron episodes are reasonably well-plotted. The acting is serviceable, though not exactly nuanced. Things pick up immeasurably when Sue Lloyd joins the cast full time, about five episodes into the season. She makes her first appearance in the initial “Diplomatic Immunity” episode, submerged in a bubble bath, but even so, ten times sharper and more sardonic than the show’s usual run of female characters.
It’s no wonder that the show’s producers locked onto her, when looking to replace actor Paul Ferris as chief sidekick and person-in-need-of-rescue. As Cordelia, Lloyd exhibits considerable intelligence and humor and a complete lack of vanity. (In “The Maze”, we see her immobilized by dysentery, and forced, in Mannering’s absence, to do most of that week’s crime solving even so.) A self-deprecating irony hovers around nearly every line she reads. She also drinks and smokes and is none too fond of exercise. When Mannering asks her if she can manage a swim to shore in “The Island”, she says, “Well, if I really try, I might make it half the length of a pool.”
In addition to her own considerable personal charm, she brings out a more playful side in Forrest; he turns less wooden and more urbanely engaging in her presence. And, also, he has someone to care about, which makes a huge difference in the show. In the early episodes, the Baron is simply too stylish and detached to make much of an impact. When he is rescuing Cordelia, which he often is, he comes to life.
The relationship between the Baron and Cordelia – and to a lesser extent the one between the Baron and his secret service contact Templeton-Green (played by Pink Panther vet Colin Gordon) – provide some human tension and emotional grounding, yet in large part, these episodes suffer from the all-plot-no-character disease. No one learns or changes during any given episode. The crime is discovered, then solved, then forgotten, and on to the next. It is like taking a mildly amusing rollercoaster ride over and over again.
There is also the problem of authenticity, for while the Baron travels the world fighting crime and recovering art, the television show and its cast and crew remain resolutely at home. The producers simulate exotic locations through establishing shots and the most blatant kind of blue-screening. In “Farewell to Yesterday”, nominally set in Rome, there is a shot of actor Steve Forrest in front of Vatican Square, which looks as if he has posed in front of a tourism poster. You could get the same effect by cutting out his picture from the front of the DVD and laying it over a photo of St. Peters.
In the same way, an identical stretch of country road appears to run from rural Spain to the north of England to a series of made-up Soviet block countries, and the alleyway I mentioned earlier exists simultaneously in London, Mexico, Italy and perhaps all of the Euro-zone. That carelessness with exotica extends to the supporting cast as well. We have Mexican episodes without any Mexicans, Spanish episodes without any Spaniards and, perhaps, most jarringly, “Samurai West,” an extended meditation on the warrior code of ancient Japan, whose actors all appear to be Turkish at best, perhaps Indian or Italian. They have brownish skin…good enough!
This DVD set collects all 30 episodes of The Baron, as well as a fairly sparse set of extra features, consisting mostly of audio commentaries from Sue Lloyd, production supervisor Johnny Goodman, director Cyril Frankel, Peter Wyngarde (who had a non-recurring part in the “Legions of Ammak”) and Brian Clemens, a writer. None of these commentaries are especially enlightening, though if you have nursed a four decade long crush on Lloyd, you might enjoy hearing her talk. She is still full of fun.
The Baron is full of fun, if you can overlook clumsy production, silly staged fights, cardboard minor characters and villains straight out of melodrama. You can’t take it seriously, but watching an episode or two is a perfectly fine way to spend a weekday evening.