[22 September 2003]
May I present the infamous Simon Templar?
After all these years, I’ve caught you in the act. The famous Simon Templar!
—Friend and foe of the Saint
Try this pitch on your friendly modern network television executive: a weekly drama with a single, relatively unknown lead, no supporting cast, filmed extensively in some of the most exotic and costly locations in Europe and Latin America, and with very little continuity among single episodes. After shaking uncontrollably, that selfsame executive would probably reach for his speakerphone and immediately order up 13 more episodes of “Frat House,” “Gas Station,” “Animal Dates,” or whatever the reality flavor of the month was, just to calm himself down.
Yes, they really did make television dramas like that once. Case in point: The Saint. Today such programs appear almost comically old-fashioned. They were clunky vehicles lacking in everything except personality, running purely on star power. Think Jim Garner in The Rockford Files or George Peppard in Banacek. Each week presented an entirely new situation, usually involving strangers in need, wherein the hero would untangle the web of mystery, find the missing jewels, nab the murderer, crack the smuggling ring or unearth the spy, all in a tidy 48 minutes. They were small-screen equivalents of Burger King. The audience knew exactly what was coming: a Whopper that tasted the same every time.
Television has grown more complex since then. As viewers, our appetite for these hermetically sealed, nobody-important-gets-hurt plots has lessened. Taking their place are the labyrinth multi-episode (or multi-season) storylines in series such as Fox’s 24, ABC’s Alias or HBO’s The Sopranos, in which key characters come and go, heroes stay shrouded in ambiguity, and dramatic resolution arrives slowly or, sometimes, not at all.
What is to be offered, then, in defense of these limited creatures spawned from TV’s primordial ooze? Surprisingly, a fair amount. Perhaps it’s only a late-night, nostalgic craving for simpler times and simpler narratives, but there is some real satisfaction to be found in A&E’s 47-episode, 14-disc The Saint “Megaset.”
While the purpose of owning every episode of a television series may be elusive to some, the difficulty of such ownership lies in determining exactly how to watch a series like The Saint. The sequence, you see, doesn’t matter. There is no plot progression of any kind, no dramatic tapestry woven across the years. Roger Moore, who played the suave Saint, Simon Templar, is precisely the same person in the final episode of the package as he was in the first. He has lost no close family members, suffered no diseases. There have been no battles with the bottle or pills, no heart-wrenching breakups, no losses of money or title.
Hell, even James Bond had a wife killed in the movies (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ) and was booted from the job (License to Kill ). But Simon Templar rolls gamely on, embroiling himself in international intrigue because, well, there just isn’t much else to do in Monte Carlo or Cote d’Azur or Geneva than help beautiful women out of jams. As they say, it’s nice work if you can get it.
Part of the reason for the Saint’s state of suspended animation lies in his history. As a literary creation, he’s proven timeless and formulaic. British author Leslie Charteris developed the globetrotting, dashing, wealthy adventurer in the 1920, and ended up writing more than 50 novels and short stories featuring Simon Templar. The Saint was featured in a series of RKO films in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The 1962-69 British television show, starring a youthful but worldly Moore, became a hit first in England and later, through syndication, in the United States.
The A&E megaset, while not complete, gives you all the Simon Templar you’ll ever need—only the 47 episodes shot in color are included; the earlier 71 in black and white are not. But that scarcely matters, given the show’s well-ordered universe. By the time of the first installment of the A&E set, “The Queen’s Ransom”, the format for the show had been definitively established. Moore’s Simon Templar, dressed for business, appears, for a seemingly random reason, at some international hotspot, only to be drawn into a web of world-shaking intrigue. In “The Queen’s Ransom,” it’s Monte Carlo, where he saves the life of the exiled king of a Middle Eastern nation (deposed monarchs seem to bring intrigue with them like carry-on luggage) and is off again for further derring-do.
The prologue/set-up of each episode, though slightly different each time, is also always, and reassuringly, the same. Templar stumbles upon some wrong that needs righting, engages in some opening-bell rough stuff and straightens his tie. His reputation, as always, has preceded him. “It’s the famous Simon Templar!” someone cries. Then, a small, white halo appears above Templar’s head—the logo of the Saint—marking the segueway into the show’s jazzy, if somewhat a-melodic, theme.
Each week also found the Saint mixing it up with a new gaggle of small-g guest stars. (The most notable was a young Donald Sutherland. Also on board for one episode, ironically, was Lois Maxwell, who played Moneypenny in the Bond films.) As you can see, the stories are rather pedestrian, the action pretty routine and character development nonexistent.
As a result, the show’s prospects rested exclusively on Moore’s charm. Fortunately, he had that in abundance. His Templar is engaging, steely, and appropriately droll. In fact, Moore’s Saint ends up much preferable to the James Bond he would later play in the 1970s and ‘80s. His incarnation of Bond eternally came off as too self-satisfied and more than a bit wimpy when compared to Sean Connery’s. His Templar, by comparison, is somehow both cheekier and tougher than his Bond, more whiskey and water than a vodka martini.
The last episode in the A&E package, “The World Beater,” arrives with no finale fanfare. Templar, we learn, is a world-class auto racer on top of being a fearsome superspy and champion womanizer, and he must help a friend’s racing team win a rally, which of course he does. That’s it. No M*A*S*H*-style histrionics. No summations. No reflections. Like most icons, Simon Templar lived and lives his life traversing a loop in time. The end of one adventure leads to the beginning of another. And there is a welcome relief in that. Right now, in some fabulous corner of the world, a handsome man in a well-tailored suit is standing with a halo shining above his head. Villains watch his every move. A woman smiles. Cue the theme song.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/saint-megaset/