Children of Bond: Jason King and The Prisoner

Jason king James Bond

Jason King is a cult British television series that ran from 1971 to 1972 for 26 episodes. Jason King, wonderfully played by the urbane and rather camp Peter Wyngarde, was originally a character in a sixties television series called Department S. I've never seen Department S but it was apparently about a team investigating strange mysteries and a flamboyant dandy by the name of Jason King outshone the other characters so much he got his own series. Jason King is a playboy author who writes adventure novels about a character called Mark Caine - who is of course more or less him. He's not just a writer though but a brilliant detective and is forever being sought out by villains, beautiful women, and foreign governments to do something for them, constantly becoming mixed up in all sorts of intrigue. Think of him as a cross between James Bond, Beau Brummell and Charles Hawtrey. A typical morning for Jason King in his bachelor pad will have him contemplating a champagne and strawberries breakfast in an outrageous gold dressing gown and then being kidnapped by foreign villains and waking up in Moscow or something.  

Jason King is still a lot of fun, one of the campest and most ridiculous television programmes ever put on the air and I was hooked from the kitsch title sequence which has a fantastic seventies theme tune and an amusing montage of our hero camping around with his mustache in places like a ski lodge and a sauna. Jason King is absolutely preposterous and - with its comedy acting and wobbly sets - is essentially a real version of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace. One of the funniest things about the series is that Jason King is in a different country in virtually every episode and yet it's completely obvious that the cast and crew never spent a single solitary day abroad. The grainy stock footage of European capitals is almost used as a joke before we inevitably go back to Jason King inside his hotel room yet again. Wyngarde has immortal lines, like when he is late for dinner in one episode and explains that he "couldn't do anything with my mustache". Yes. This is a man who spends hours grooming his mustache so no wonder he's always late! The series was inspired by the spy genre and James Bond and is a sort of Bond with the camp factor turned up to eleven. Wyngarde changes his colourful seventies outfits frequently and seems to be enjoying himself, drawling bon mots and sipping champagne as our unflappable hero.  

It's glaringly obvious that Wyngarde can't fight to save his life when King has a scrap and yet somehow this only adds to the charm. Wyngarde has a wonderful voice and it's a shame that he was banished from television not long afterwards for revelations about his personal life that no one would care about today. Jason King is a series that would probably not get past any political correctness detectors now with its abundance of scantily clad women who are all powerless to resist our hero - despite the fact that he looks like a cheesy entrant in the Eurovision song contest. Wyngarde and the knowingly camp trappings are so much fun it doesn't really matter that the plots are often similar and needlessly convoluted. They come across as rehashes of the sort of stuff shows like The Avengers and The Champions used to do - full of British actors playing shady foreign villains with dodgy accents. There are many familiar faces in the series you'll recognise, everyone from Felicity Kendal to Ingrid Pitt.  

My favourite episode is probably If It's Got to Go, It's Got to Go, which has Jason staying (for reasons which escape me now) at a health farm in Germany where all manner of strange things are going on. The health farm is run by a villainous pair played by no lesser figures than Yootha Joyce and John Le Mesurier and seems to be populated by young women who are always exercising with few clothes on. King is a famous gourmet of course and the basic diet there has him wistfully flicking through a hilarious looking seventies cookbook for much of the episode. To Russia with Panache is another fun one. In the pre-title sequence three Russian men are mysteriously reduced to ashes in a lift and King is kidnapped and sent to Moscow in a wooden crate. He agrees to solve the case for the Russians and soon has the female guide and interpreter fighting over his attention. Before long, everyone there wants to be just like Jason King. Some of the accents in this episode are so funny they must have been intentional.  

An episode supposed to be set in Greece is called Nadine and is also a good one. It features Ingrid Pitt and seventies Bond candidate Patrick Mower. King is sent to Athens by his publisher to work on his book and hangs around his hotel bored drinking scotch in elaborate dressing gowns until a mystery woman enters his life. In case you hadn't noticed by yet, Jason King has a fairly enviable life. This is not a man who has ever waited for a bus in the rain or done a shift in a factory and the total fantasy world one enters here is perhaps the thing that gives the show its greatest appeal. I liked too another episode that I can't remember the name of (there are 26 of them) where King goes to Hong kong when he hears someone has done a comic about him. When he arrives in the morning he goes to the airport bar and declares that it's too early for coffee and he'll have a double scotch!  If you find seventies fashions amusing and like Peter Wyngarde and a bit of fantasy television now and again then Jason King remains great fun.

The Prisoner only ran for seventeen episodes from 1967 to 1968 but its surreal atmosphere and location (the Hotel Portmeirion in Penrhyndeudraeth, North Wales), not to mention the tightly wound, irritable and defiant central character 'Number Six', marvelously played by Patrick McGoohan, was enough to give it enduring cult status and a reputation as one of the most interesting fantasy shows ever to appear on television. Number Six of course was an unnamed British agent of some sort who resigns from his job only to wake up in a strange seaside village that seems to be impossible to escape from, is populated by eccentric characters, and closely watched over by surveillance devices.

Where is he? Who is he? Who is 'Number One'? asked the viewers and The Prisoner's penchant for throwing out questions and mysteries and then never quite answering them sort of made it the Lost of its day I suppose, the latter show obviously owing a debt to The Prisoner. It is especially interesting to look at the ever changing era that spawned the show. The sixties was a decade of great technological advances but also of counter-culture and drugs and an explosion of pop music. The Prisoner managed to tap into many of these things in a series that included spy and sci-fi elements but was difficult to ever shove completely into any one single box. The Prisoner used the fear that technology and science could just as easily be used to sedate and control us as liberate us and make our lives easier to good effect and its often bonkers surreal flourishes (the last episode in particular is one of the strangest!) seemed to be part of the trippy alternative culture that had become an image and symbol of the decade. The Prisoner even used a Beatles song in an episode to signal it too was a part of everything swirling around it at the time.

One interesting thing about The Prisoner is the way it segues in with McGoohan's most famous role until then - that of secret agent John Drake in Danger Man. Number Six is a former spy afterall. The Prisoner was believed to be a forthcoming spy series like Danger Man when it was first heard of but the end result was far stranger and more offbeat than anyone had been anticipating. Penrhyndeudraeth was essentially an extra character in the show and a huge part of the atmosphere. The Bondish retro sci-fi look and and slightly off-kilter sets of the The Prisoner still make it look great today. In a strange show like The Prisoner theories and any vague attempts at clarity are always quite compelling. It's rather like Lost in this respect where a big part of the experience is the personal theories and speculations of the fans. Neither Lost or The Prisoner were ultimately willing to explain all although in the case of the former it was probably more down to the 'we're making this up as we go along' factor rather than the stately obtuseness of The Prisoner's always enigmatic personality.

Although Jason King and The Prisoner are remarkably different shows in tone and style, both are certainly worth seeking out if you've never seen them before.

- Jake


c 2010 Alternative 007