Creating a spin-off series can be a hazardous business. There’s no cast iron guarantee that you’ll succeed. Get it right, and you’ve got a Frasier on your hands. Blow it, and you’re lumbered with Joey. It’s risky. Sometimes a series beds itself in immediately with the intended viewership and you’re in business. If you’re really unlucky, it doesn’t fly at all. Laverne and Shirley, or K9 and Company? It’s your career.
And then there’s The Sentimental Agent. Careering off from an earlier show (Man of the World) and unleashed on a public which didn’t even ask for it, The Sentimental Agent took its first faltering steps into the world on 28th September 1963. Up against Wells Fargo on BBC1, sandwiched between Comedy Bandbox / Cheyenne / Bonanza (depending on which region you were in) and Charlie Drake, it stumbled into the light, blinked a bit and staggered off down its own most peculiar path.
Thirteen weeks later, it finished staggering and disappeared – never to be heard from again. That’s a shame, because it’s actually a lovely little show, and well worth investigating. You can now do just that, as The Sentimental Agent surfaces on DVD. It’s well worth it.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a pot-boiling little action adventure series, and that description fits The Sentimental Agent like a glove. The setup is simple – import/export agent Carlos Varela runs his own company Mercury International from the heart of London’s dockland. Hugely successful, respected and honoured by all, he’s a trustworthy dealer with an international reputation to preserve. If something goes wrong in a business deal, he’ll do his level best to put it right, whatever it takes. He has a keenly developed sense of honour and personal obligation – he’ll go anywhere and do anything to protect his business partners or friends. He’s a Sentimental Agent, and that’s very handy for getting him into trouble.
Genre fans will raise a cheer when I tell them that Burt Kwouk is on hand as the ultra-reliable, highly intuitive Chin, who acts as Varela’s personal valet, oddjob man and all-round human sonic screwdriver. You’d want this man at your side. Not only does he know precisely which colour of rose to wear in your suit at Ascot, he’s also not averse to standing off a room full of desperate types with a handful of dynamite (and getting his hands burnt in the process). Rather alarmingly, poor old Burt is forced to deliver all of his dialogue with an extra “l” where one isn’t needed (“I bling new tlavelling arrangements, honollable master”). As Varela comments, “he’s quite capable of saying it normally, he just does it to make himself appear more inscrutable”. At which point, Burt grins. Inscrutably.
Any successful business venture needs a secretary, and Carlos has one of the best in Susie Carter. Played with a cool, effortless calm by Clemence Bettany, Susie is efficiency personified – whiplash thin, ethereally beautiful in an endless series of early sixties power-suits, the character initially exists to do no more than book airline tickets and answer the phone while the boys go out on madly exciting adventures. Obviously the production team realised she was more than capable of carrying a bit more of the workload, as Bettany gets more and more to do, culminating in a couple of adventures where she actually gets to leave the office and interact with the real world. She’s great, and it’s a shame she’s so underused.
The series nominally stars Carlos Thompson as the debonair (and somewhat oversexed) Carlos Varela. Thompson had appeared in the aforementioned Man of the World as a character named Borella in an episode called “The Sentimental Agent”. Obviously he impressed someone sufficiently to think that with a quick name change, the character could carry an entire series himself. Sadly, that didn’t prove to be quite the case.
With English not his first language, Thompson found himself struggling terribly with the scripts for the new series, and extensive production delays ensued. He appears in the first seven episodes of the show, disappears for a week, returns for two more and then is absent right to the end of the series, apart from two very odd cameos in the last episode.
That’s a real shame, because when Thompson’s on screen, he absolutely owns it. Debonair and charming, effortlessly suave in a white suit and obligatory cigarillo holder, he’s like a magimix of every British television action hero you can think of. Sometimes he’s Roger Moore. Sometimes, he’s Patrick MacNee. Sometimes – and it’s alarming to think that such a thing might be possible – he’s both Roger Moore and Ian Ogilvy at the same time. When he’s out and about or behind the wheel of a car he sports a jacket and checked cap that makes him look like a ringer for Patrick McGoohan in the early 50 minute episodes of Danger Man.
All the time though, there’s something unique about him. Even more than MacNee or McGoohan, this is a character who relies on his wits to get him out of situations (and indeed, into them). I’ve watched all of this series in the last few days and I’m hard pushed to think of even one moment where he carries a gun or indulges in fisticuffs. There’s a brief grapple in “All That Jazz” (first episode) and he delivers a lovetap to another character’s chin about ten minutes into “A Most Blessed Plot”, but that’s about it. More than most sixties heroes, he talks. I’d say that the dialogue count in The Sentimental Agent is about forty percent higher than any other British action show. No wonder Thompson had trouble. Even a fluent English speaker would have had trouble keeping up with these levels of dialogue.
Produced by ATV and shot – as the end credits proudly state – entirely on location at Shepperton, The Sentimental Agent is an ITC show in all but name. ITC doesn’t feature anywhere on screen, but all the signs are there. An international leading man. Solid support from every beloved character actor you could possibly name who was active at the time. Globe-trotting locations. Stock footage, lots of it.
Pleasantly barmy plots. Lots of those, thank you. Behind the Iron Curtain, skullduggery in latin countries, shady goings on in the English countryside – all there. The only thing missing is the obligatory episode shot in a submarine, or on a snowfield. Guess Shepperton hadn’t built those sets yet. If it had survived for more than one series, it would definitely have happened. It eventually settles into a nice mix of The Saint, the more grounded Diana Rigg-era episodes of The Avengers, with perhaps just a smidgen of The Man From U.N.C.L.E‘s cheery loopiness thrown in.
It has a top theme tune too, a latino-flavoured smooch from Ivor Slaney, which you’ll be singing for days. I have been. It’s got a lovely little male-choir counterpoint going on which I didn’t spot for a couple of episodes, and it’s just lovely. Sets each episode off well, before the madness begins.
Things get off to a pleasantly bonkers start in “All That Jazz” – within minutes we’re plunged into a plot involving a red-hot jazz combo who are inadvertantly passing coded millitary secrets through the medium of their craaazy sounds. Solid gone, man. Solid gone. Anneke (or “Annika”) Wills pitches up as a Vibes player, with Jeremy Bulloch also lurking in the band’s ranks. Polly from Doctor Who and Boba Fett. There’s a group you’d buy a ticket for so long as you didn’t have to listen to them. Things reach a lunatic pitch when the same coded phrase is uttered by four different people within two minutes, leading to confusion as nobody can work out who the actual spy is, and who’s an innocent. Needless to say, it all ends well thanks to Carlos’s keen ear for music and schmmmooooth way with the ladies.
We’re off to Lisbon for “The Beneficiary”, an episode which benefits from Aubrey Morris’s unique blend of snake-eyed venom and sleaze. Derek Francis pitches up as well for a tale of double-double cross which – despite the international setting – takes place entirely in a series of cramped interior sets. I suppose the suggestion of an exotic locale was enough. This is the first in the run which shows off Carlos’s signature method of letting the crooks hang themselves while appearing to do nothing. Like a swimming duck, he’s totally calm on the surface, occasionally quacking softly and preening himself, while underneath he’s paddling frantically to stay afloat. I’m sure he’d have been delighted with that description.
Here’s a clip, courtesy of those nice people at Network. Theme tune included.
Tenko’s Ann Bell pitches up for episode three, “Express Delivery”. Carlos finds himself the recipient of an icy welcome behind the iron curtain in an episode which tiptoes perilously close to surreal at times, especially in the opening moments when the local authorities wait until he’s gone to check into his hotel before putting up a giant no-parking sign which they just happen to have brought with them and using it as a pretext to arrest him.
Carlos soon finds himself embroiled in a plot to get a mysterious femme fatale (is there any other kind?) out of the country via train, but there’s another woman on the train as well – could it be that there are some madcap disguise antics going on? I don’t think I’d be giving anything away when I say… yes. There just might be. Very very silly, but still enjoyable, it’s already becoming obvious that The Sentimental Agent will stand or fall on the strength of the leading cast. Thankfully, Thompson is always watchable, and he carries this one alone as neither Chin nor Susie are along for the ride. He plays the rising frustration of a man confounded by the authorities very well, switching to some keenly played farce in the train sequences.
Next up, we’re off on a cruise as we’re served up the dire warning – “Never Play Cards With Strangers”. When Varela hears that some customers of his have been bilked by card-sharps on board a luxury liner, his sense of honour leads him to do what the authorities can’t, and teach them a sharp lesson, knock-for-knock, like-for-like. One slight problem – he can’t play cards. Not to worry, Chin is on hand, and honourable cousin of humble servant just happens to know a few things about the game.
This is actually very very good indeed – a nicely played little morality tale which ties up neatly at the end with all the bad guys punished. Just not quite in the way you’d expect. The Sentimental Agent occasionally refuses to see things in black and white – sometimes some very sharp practices indeed are used to bring things to a resolution, corruption in the business world is accepted as a given and every now and then it’s enough to rap the villain across the knuckles and warn them that they’re being watched. Remarkably refreshing, actually!
Next up – oh, dear. The series’ first total misfire, as “May The Saints Preserve Us!” delivers a tale of an Irish castle which has been bought and is to be shipped brick by brick to Texas, an alcoholic Irish Playwright, and some remarkably harsh sentiments regarding Northern Ireland from all of those in the South. Alarmingly this one’s written by Patrick Campbell, later to spend the seventies swapping Bon Mots with Frank Muir on Call My Bluff. De Valera is deified, Beer is quaffed, the Irish are all shifty and untrustworthy (or mad), Carol Cleveland turns up as a Texan, and Carlos ends up shaving the alcoholic playwright and using the shavings as a false beard. Next! Quickly, please. This one’s best forgotten.
“Scrolls of Islam” features a visit to Fictionopolis in the ancient country of Madeupistan, as we visit that stock locale of sixties adventure series – the desert country with despotic, barbaric ruler. Albeit a ruler played by Patrick Troughton. In Brownface. And a toga. The series’ odd morality shows again here as Varela sees nothing wrong in tying someone up and putting a live scorpion on their thigh until they crack and tell him what he needs to know. This one’s heavy on the stock footage, with a few sandlots at Shepperton serving for the location shoot and an exotic dancing girl parachuted in for no other reason than – well, do you need a reason?
By this point the production difficulties are beginning to show and it becomes necessary to introduce another leading man to take the weight off Carlos Thompson’s shoulders. Varela is missing entirely from “Meet My Son Henry”, which sees the introduction of square-jawed man of action and occasional love interest for Susie, Bill Randall – played with a certain verve and crumpled suited charm by John Turner.
This one’s almost overbalanced because the damn thing relies on that most hated of television cliches – the child prodigy. And the titular Henry is Satan in a pork pie hat. Within ten minutes I wanted to thump him. Within fifteen, I wanted John Turner to thump him. And by the end, I wanted everyone to thump him. Needless to say it doesn’t happen, but this simple story of the theft of some secret plans, a book of advanced calculus and some stink bombs does at least give some much needed location time to Clemence Bettany, who has a certain spark with John Turner. Just as well, as they carry the series between them from this point on.
That said, this episode does feature Vladek Sheybal. Everything goes better with Vladek Sheybal, who murmurs and flicks his tongue about in that uniquely lizardy way of his, lifting every scene he’s in. Actually, if he’d thumped the child prodigy, I’d have been lauding this as the best episode of the series. But he doesn’t, so it gets no more than a ho-hum. Necessary to set up the new direction, but not one to revisit too often.
Carlos returns for his final pair of episodes, and immediately gets embroiled in a visit to another district of Madeupistan in “A Little Sweetness And Light”. Here, the gun-running, despotic bandit ruler of a tiny little island has become old and complacent (indeed, he’s regenerated into Patrick Newell, aka Mother from The Avengers), and the American gangsters have moved in. Carlos sees no harm in working to depose the new mob and return the island to the state of casual terror it presumably previously existed in by erm, selling guns to everyone. “A Personal Deterrent at such a reasonable price! Who can resist such an offer?” Hm. There’s also evidence of format tinkering going on as suddenly we’re presented with pre-credit teasers for a couple of episodes before the idea is quietly forgotten about.
By this point, the series is beginning to buckle a little. Thankfully, an incredible high point approaches with “A Very Desirable Plot”, in which Brian Clemens takes over the scripting for a week. That double-pun in the title signals a classic bait-and-switch plot which actually has the characters tell you what’s going to happen, does it, and then has you completely fooled anyway. Extraordinarily well done, this tale of what an import / export agent has to do when he accidentally sells several hundred acres of swamp without checking if you can build on it features an unexpected television first. Not the appearance of Donald Sutherland as a bellhop – although that’s surprising enough – no, it’s Diana Rigg, in what would appear to be her first mainstream television appearance. Certainly her credit at the end has an “Introducing…” tag on it.
I find myself wondering if Brian Clemens – embroiled as he undoubtedly would have been in planning for Season 4 of The Avengers, and looking around for a new female lead after Elizabeth Shepherd didn’t work out- thought back to this one, and had a lightbulb over the head moment. Certainly watching this one felt like discovering a little bit of television history. Just lovely, and a great, great episode too. Possibly the series’ best shot.
Things take a turn for the silly again with the return of Bill Randall in “The Height of Fashion” – a broad-brush satire in which Bill is landed with 30,000 horse-coats that he can’t shift. Not to mention a stock of vintage Rolls Royces which need to be stored somewhere. But there’s rather a lot of horse-coats in the way. What is a hard-nosed salesman to do? Turn them into clothes of course, and sell them to the high-fashion set.
The plot’s exceedingly wobbly, a trait shared by the end credits which shift alarmingly from left to right on screen for the duration – a rare lapse in an otherwise exceptionally high production standard.
Enlivened no end by The Baron’s Sue Lloyd vamping it up, Warren Mitchell as a clothing retailer seemingly perpetually on the verge of panic and a classy cameo from Dennis Price as tailor to the gentry Victor Frey, this one’s funny, silly and warm-hearted. And very very stupid.
But not as stupid as “Finishing School”, in which Bill has to deal with what appears to be a kidnapping at a girls school. Featuring endless scenes of twenty-something women in their nighties pretending to be teenagers and Annette Andre as an off-the-rails American, it’s the rompiest romp wot’s ever been romped. Again, rather warm-hearted as nobody suffers per se (although a souped up Hillman Imp with a racing car engine does come off somewhat the worse for wear). By this point John Turner is definitely the star, and Carlos Thompson’s been more or less forgotten. Even Chin’s calling him “Boss” by this point, a sure sign that the reigns of power have been passed.
Rather surprisingly, at one point there’s a mention of Victor Frey from the previous episode, and when Annette Andre is pulled out of a car wreck Turner produces one of those bloody horse-blanket coats to wrap around her. A sweet, understated little bit of continuity, and one which I wasn’t expecting at all. Lovely. Annette of course, would spend a year trailing around a sixties Action Hero called Mr Randall. Not this one, though.
Stampeding to the end of the series, we first have to endure a slight dip in an otherwise hugely enjoyable second half as Randall is involved in a somewhat complicated insurance scam and finds himself “Not Quite Fully Covered”. Cyprus is our destination, with Zena Marshall as a boggle eyed teenager who has become mixed up in attempt to sell off her inherited collection of antiques without her government finding out.
Not for the first time, Mercury International takes a bit of knock as Bill’s bull at a gate tactics lead him down a path which may drag the company into disrepute – all seems lost when – yes – a cargo of rice in a ship’s hold sweats too much and gives off a gas which causes the boat to explode. Hate it when it does that. Thankfully, faithful Chin is on hand and everything wraps up in time for a final sigh of relief from Randall, and a disinterested shrug of the shoulders from the viewer. Despite the best efforts of all, this one’s oddly uninvolving.
Thankfully, the final episode pulls out all the stops, with Mercury International as venal and hard-nosed as we’ve ever seen them. “A Box of Tricks” hinges on a business deal which must be sealed within two days but which can’t be done unless everyone involved takes a massive bung. A bung which the absent Carlos has accounted for, and indeed helpfully provided in sealed packets as a business expense for Bill. Unfortunately, the characters involved are being watched by a gimlet-eyed official government official on the eye out for any sign of corruption, and unless everything’s above board and honest, everyone goes to chokey. With Mummy-reviver / Lunatic representative of the Brotherhood of Logicians extraordinaire George Pastell on hand as the representative, everybody has to be on their best behaviour, and Mercury stands to lose millions.
Thankfully Bill is a cunning, conniving old soul, and not even the presence of a banana-eating Walter Gotell as this episode’s hard man can stop him. Buying paintings to the precise value of the intended bribe, utilising a suddenly rather good at magic Chin to deposit five grand in someone’s wallet as part of a trick without anyone noticing, and – oh, yes – betting the government representative that the deal he’s supposed to be watching for dirty tricks won’t go through – well, you’ll have to watch for yourself, as the series ends on a remarkable up-note, with a nifty cameo from Carlos (ensconsed on an oil-tanker with a leggy lovely), some telephone confusion from an unusually flustered Susie, and Bill getting a joyous last word. It leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
The series DVD release presents the entire show over four disks – three episodes each on the first three, with the final four on disk four. Each episode looks breathtakingly beautiful – either the episodes have been stored extremely well over the years or some sympathetic restoration has been going on, as the black and white prints are as clear as anything I’ve ever seen. Only some light evidence of scratching on some of the stock footage, and a slightly murkier-than-the-rest print on one of the latter John Turner episodes even comes close to letting the side down. Believe me, it’s a mere degree of quality, and everything else is pristine. Sound is clear as a bell, presented in original mono and every line clearly audible. This is also a clear boon when the music’s as good as it is in this series. No complaints here.
Flip to disk three, and you get a rather lovely twenty minute interview with Mister Burt Kwouk. Looking ancient and venerable, the great man is still pin-sharp and lucid, with some warm memories of all the various ITC series he was involved in and with some great stories to tell. He’s refreshingly honest about some of the parts he was given to play and their – shall we say – lack of inventiveness regarding stereotypes – “I had to pay the rent somehow”. Quite right, Burt. And you were never less than superb no matter what you were given to do, so you get a free pass from me. A great little extra, well worth your time.
See for yourself –
Every episode comes with an image gallery – a remarkable number of special stills appear to have been taken, and they’re all here in a simple-no-fuss format which anyone who’s seen Network’s other ITC releases will be familiar with. It works, why tinker?
You’ll also find a wealth of PDF material generously thrown in on Disk 2. Included are episode summaries, ATV’s original pressbook, and some promotional series notes which alarmingly describe Chin as “a sort of Limehouse Jeeves”. It really was a different world back then. Shooting Scripts are included for several episodes – “A Box of Tricks” reveals the original title to be “Bribery and Corruption” (which is accurate, if not very poetic) scribbled out in biro with the new title hastily scrawled over the top. A work in progress indeed.
Likewise “May The Saints Preserve Us” is revealed to have originally been “The Return of The Wanderer” and “Never Play Cards With A Stranger” is “Redouble And Quits”. Nothing says “production difficulties” faster than a show that can’t decide what to call its episodes until the last minute.
I can’t make any great claims for The Sentimental Agent as a ground-breaking, undiscovered classic of television. It isn’t. What it is however, is a lovely little romp which usually has involving plots and some great performances. The scripts – by some hardy stalwarts including Julian Bond, Ian Stuart Black and Brian Clemens – are usually witty, fun and slightly detached from reality, and it’s usually beautifully directed. It’ll leave you feeling a little better about than the world than before you started watching it. And sometimes, that’s just enough. Highly recommended. Put aside a weekend, and wallow.
The Sentimental Agent is available as a Website exclusive release from Network, priced £39.99. Available Mon 17th May.