‘The Saint’ Is a Charming Fairy Tale in the Form of a Spy Mystery

Effortlessly charming and infinitely resourceful, Roger Moore's Simon Templar sets the world to rights in hourly installments in The Saint.

The next time you find yourself complaining about the sameness dominating the cultural scene these days, take a chill pill and remind yourself of one thing: sometimes sameness is a feature, not a bug. Franchises and series and spinoffs have been a vital part of popular culture for decades, centuries, or perhaps forever, depending on how specific you want to be with your definitions. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but just something that simply is, like the weather, and finding the right mix of innovation and repetition is the key to a successful franchise. Now stop yelling at those kids to get off your lawn.

If your goal is to create a blockbuster franchise, a good start is to come up with a memorable central character, one that is both attractive and a bit off-center. If it’s an action franchise, the central character will almost certainly be male (exceptions such as Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel notwithstanding), and he needs to both fit the mold (so as to not put off a mass audience) and offer a little something different (in order to be distinguishable from the many other similar characters competing for attention). This character must be specific enough to be memorable, but flexible enough that he can be put into any number situations and function plausibly, with “plausible” defined according to the rules set up by the franchise rather than through comparison to reality.

The character of Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was created by Leslie Charteris and featured in a series of novels and short stories (some of the later works were written with collaborators, and a few more without Charteris’ participation). The character of Simon Templar has been featured in a variety of media, including movies, comic strips, and television series, demonstrating that transmedia storytelling is nothing new. Not all have been successful (try sitting through the 1997 film featuring Val Kilmer if you need an illustration of this point), but the British television series The Saint, which ran for 118 episodes over six seasons, from 1962 to 1969, got it right.

The Saint succeeds because it knows that the key to the series is the character of Simon Templar, played with wit and charm by future James Bond Roger Moore. It also gave the audience familiar tag lines and bits that proclaim the created nature of the series. The most famous may be Moore’s identification early in many episodes as “the famous Simon Templar,” after which a cartoon halo appears over his head; underlining the joke, Moore sometimes glances upwards at the halo and shrugs. Moore’s direct-to-camera addresses, jettisoned in the later series in favor of voiceover narration, serve a similar purpose, alerting the audience that they are entering a fantasy world that has some resemblances to the world in which they live but is not identical to it.

If you can get audience buy-in, you can do almost anything, and the The Saint frequently did. Since verisimilitude is never the point in this series, the remarkably clumsy staged fights and amazing displays of shooting prowess are just part of Templar’s fantasy world, as are his amazing ability to be expert in anything (languages, explosives, martial arts) required by the story at any particular moment. Similarly, using sets and backdrops and blue screen technology instead of location shooting is not a serious distraction, it’s just part of how the game is played.

The plots of individual episodes of The Saint reflect the perceived threats of their times. The series kicks off with a domestic mystery in “The Talented Husband”: was that falling flowerpot really an accident? And where did the housekeeper with the accent right out of central casting come from? But the series soon began using more plots of the “modern problems” variety, involving matters like corrupt officials, organized crime, international espionage, and political unrest.

The supporting characters are also a product of the period, with innumerable short, greasy-haired, tackily-attired villains contrasted with Moore’s natural beauty and height, which of course are symbolic of his essential goodness. There’s a reason fairy tales feature handsome princes and ugly villains, and the same formula holds true in The Saint, with both beauty and ugliness being defined by audience taste.

The action in this series belongs mostly to the men, which is also what audiences of the time would have expected. (The fact that this pattern still holds true today is unfortunate, but a topic for another day.) Through it all, there’s never a moment’s doubt that Simon will solve everything by the end of the episode, nor is there any serious questioning of the proper British values that he represents. While this means the series lacks a certain nuance — today we realize that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter — it’s also pleasant to visit a fictional world where right is right, wrong is wrong, and there’s no troublesome complexity to stress out your brain.

The main DVD extra provided for this series is audio commentary on nine episodes, including the very first, “The Talented Husband”, and the two-episode “Vendetta for the Saint” from the final season, which featured location shooting on Malta. Guest commentators vary from one episode to the next, but include Moore, series Executive producer Robert S. Baker and Associate Producer Johnny Goodman, and various directors and stars from the episodes. There is also a brief featurette, “Behind the Scenes with Sir Roger Moore” (two minutes) featuring Moore’s narration of a scene from “The Miracle Tea Party”, a season two episode that he directed.

RATING 5 / 10