Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Jason King (1971)

Jason King
Debut: September 15, 1971
Created by:  Dennis Spooner, Monty Berman
Starring:  Peter Wyngarde
Synopsis: Playboy novelist, Jason King, after working as a consultant with an intelligence agency as a sideline, keeps finding himself thrust into the role of international, amateur sleuth.

Trey: The character of Jason King was created for the British spy-fi series Department S (1969). Spooner and Berman originally conceived the character as a sort of middle-aged, tweed coat and pipe smoking academic sort, but when Peter Wyngarde came on board, he had other ideas. According to Wikipedia, Wyngarde "applied much of his own personality, style and wit to the role." With the Swinging London style, and cool wit, the character was apparently compelling enough to spinoff. It ran for one, 26 episode season.

We watched the first episode, "Wanna Buy A Television Series?" on YouTube. I have to say it's perhaps the cleverest structured show we've watched so far--and unusual in the sense that the character Wyngarde plays in the most scenes in the episode isn't Jason King but rather King's blatant author-insertion protagonist, Mark Caine. Caine is solving a mystery set among the glamorous Mediterranean, as a group of criminals give a woman plastic surgery to look like a dead woman to attempt to scan yet another criminal. All these (fictional) doings are intercut with scenes of King trying to sell this script and series to an American TV exec. 

I thought the metafictional touches were quite clever, though I agree with the TV exec that the basic plot of the script King is pitching is pretty convoluted.

Jason: An opinion I share. Which would elicit exasperated rebukes from Jason King, who has only limited patience for unsophisticated Colonials unable to keep up. 

I also enjoyed the show's premise and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of its execution. The interplay between the frame story and the meta story was quite clever and frequently amusing. It felt good to be genuinely entertained by a piece of entertainment, no ironic detachment required.

Trey: Wyngarde's cool is definitely of its place and time. Without the clear context clues to know how his world takes him, I think he might be a bit baffling to the modern viewer.

Jason: Modern Bafflement Exhibit A: King's astonishing hair do and mustache situation!

Trey: The past is a different country. One with tonsorial excesses. 

Jason: But I was won over pretty quickly! As the story(ies) unfold, the cumulative effect of Wyngarde's multiple subtle and not-so-subtle characterizations reveal an entertainingly complex King, who is no mere Bond parody despite the intrinsic humor. 

According to Wikipedia this ITC production was shot on 16mm film (rather than the more expensive 35mm as a cost-saving measure) which makes it look infinitely better than Star Cops (produced 15 years later!) Jason King actually had a budget and it shows. 

Trey: Anyway, It's worth pointing out the influence this actor, character, and series had on comic books. The X-Men villain Mastermind is named "Jason Wyngarde" after the actor and this character and draws some from a villain he played in The Avengers episode "A Touch of Brimstone" which is where Claremont got his Hellfire Club. In Morrison's The Invisibles, Mr. Six has some of Wyngarde's style and appearance (including his moustache) and at one point works for an organization called Department X.

Jason: I am illuminated!

Trey: But wait! There's more! Outside of comics, the flamboyantly dressed protagonist of Kim Newman's The Man from the Diogenes Club, Richard Jeperson, is partially inspired by Jason King.

Jason: I have to admit the actor was never really on my radar until watching this show but he will always have a place in my heart for his portrayal of the diabolical Klytus in Flash Gordon. His performance in Jason King only enhanced my admiration.

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