Department S (1969-70)
By Tony Williams.
“Peter Wyngarde defined the complete, bravura actor who dominated a stage with an incomparable elegant physical presence and a voice which defined emulation, a voice akin to music.”Steven Berkhoff (190)
“Peter Wyngarde is an incomparable player of dashing, juicy rakehells, men on the edge, pagan creatures. A star in the grand style, with the ability to lengthen his vowels and pierce with his eyes, never afraid to add touches of the absurd and the surreal. Remembered now not for his extraordinary range & charisma during the 1950s, but for his campy thriller-writer-sleuth Jason King in the early 70s.”Keith Howes (168)
Although popularly well known as the title character of the 1960s TV series Jason King (1971-1972), one of the influences on the Austin Powers franchise, Peter Wyngarde (1928-2018) was far more talented than the performances he contributed to that series and its Lew Grade ITC predecessor Department S (1969-1970). Wyngarde often operated in the manner known as “the actor as auteur” creating his performance in a manner designed to evoke the best possible result, something that most control freak directors react against rather than work with in a collaborative manner with creative associates. Jack Clayton proved one notable exception in The Innocents (1961), by accepting the actor’s suggestion that made one scene much better than it appeared in the script (126). Despite Richard Matheson’s credit as scenarist for Night of the Eagle (1962), the final screenplay resulted from a collaborative re-write by director and actor (137). Wyngarde was actually responsible for the creation of Jason King’s character from a senior Oxford don/James Bond Q stereotype to a more contemporary figure (169-171). He also had a clause in his contract allowing him final say on the other main cast members in Department S. One wonders whether Wyngarde’s reputation for being “difficult” resulted from his meticulous sense of artisanship rather than excessive ego. Both Department S and Jason King only lasted one season each, perhaps due to the actor’s frustration of working in the then conveyor-belt television series practices as well as with journeymen directors wanting to supply non-distinctive product.
Looking from a fundamentalist perspective, dramatically and intellectually, Jason King was inferior to Department S. The problem with the series from certain viewpoints was that the character of King became too over-the-top and cartoonish in its depiction of the ideal `woman’s man.’ Peter was also to make the fatal mistake of allowing the boundaries between actor and character (to) become blurred; this could be seen in any number of the interviews he gave at the time. In a way, he’d fallen for the sex symbol status he’d acquired and had encouraged it Instead of distancing himself, keeping his head down and making people sit up and concentrate on him as an actor. (210-211)
Although Wyngarde was wise enough not to sign up for any of the Carry On films that Peter Rogers wanted him to do in the 60s (101), Jason King had the same effect on the actor’s future that the Carry On films did to Kenneth Williams. Popular memory could never again take them seriously as accomplished actors. It is often forgotten that Orson Welles selected Kenneth Williams (with whom he had first worked with in Herbert Wilcox’s 1952 version of Trent’s Last Case) to play several roles in his 1955 London stage production of Moby Dick Rehearsed. Williams also played The Dauphin in a 1958 BBC TV production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, and Napoleon (seriously) in the 1964 BBC TV Wednesday Play production of Jean Anouilh’s Catch as Catch Can that I actually saw.
Although capable of becoming the heir to Laurence Olivier, as Steven Berkhoff notes in his poignant afterword, “Sadly, most of the public only know him as the jaded TV hero Jason King” (512). Yet, though he always delivered a professional performance, limiting the actor’s legacy to this particular role is as reductive and unfair as exclusively identifying Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars trilogy and Ian McKellan as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Both knighted thespians have left enough surviving material of different performances on film and television to allow us to correct such popular misconceptions. However, this is not the case with Peter Wyngarde, one of the most talented actors of his generation. (1)
This 532-page biography (from Austin Macauley) appearing some two years after the passing of its title character is a “labor of love” in many ways and certainly, no “Love Labor’s Lost.” It comprises a detailed inventory of the actor’s life and comprehensive achievements in all the major arts as actor, singer, writer, and director. It is also a sensitive and very understanding chronicle of a complex person, often treated badly by press, so-called friends, and peers in his lifetime. He who could often be difficult (Michael Powell once mentioned in our 1981 meeting at Zoetrope Studios that all creative people are “difficult”). However, Wyngarde also earned the respect of sincere friends in the profession and those rare souls who genuinely appreciated him, especially the author who was his loyal partner and soulmate for nearly thirty years and remained with him in his last days. As well as providing one of the most accurate and detailed accounts of the actor’s long career, she offers a personal (but not sanitized) record of a man of many faces who hid his genuine self behind an artificial mask of celebrity but also revealed his inner person to those he felt he could trust. Peter Wyngarde: A Life Amongst Strangers is a complementary bio-bibliography akin to those in the Greenwood Press series but providing poignant personal insights into an actor who did spend his entire life “amongst strangers” yet attracted a few genuine souls into his life.
Throughout the book, the author provides the actor’s personal comments in bold italics either from memory or recorded material. It is almost as if he were still with us to provide illuminating commentaries on the events described. One of the author’s regrets was that very few of those who interviewed him in his later life drew on the actor’s encyclopedic memory of a lost world of film, theatre, and television to which he once contributed. Final chapters dealing with the actors’ last days are touching in the extreme revealing a very different National Health Service from the one Wyngarde (and I) originally knew. Fortunately, the author was there in her partner’s final hours to look after his interests (as she always did) and become “Keeper of the Flame” in promoting his real personality and achievements.
At this point, I wish to contribute some personal memories. Although I only watched one episode of Department S when it first appeared, it was not until recently that I watched my first episode of Jason King. I knew of its existence at the time as well as the actor’s adopted persona but was also fortunate enough to grow up seeing his earlier 1950s television performances, the majority of which are now lost, but which contained scenes still imprinted in my memory. Wyngarde played Sydney Carton in the BBC TV mini-series A Tale of Two Cities (1957) though he didn’t appear till the beginning of the second episode. He personified a jaded lawyer bored with another day in court who nonetheless came to the rescue of accused Charles Darney anticipating how he would redeem himself at the end. He appeared alongside Mervyn Johns as Mr. Lorry, Margaretta Scott as Madame Defarge, Duncan Lamont as her hapless husband (who did not “marry a monster from outer space” like his earlier 1953 role in The Quatermass Experiment but a fanatical Revolutionary monster), and Edward De Souza as Charles Darney. Wyngarde displayed theatrical professionalism as team player and star in the final scene. After encouraging the seamstress (Carol Marsh) to meet her underserved fate, he ascends the steps moving towards the guillotine, slowly approaching the camera, his final speech delivered in voice-over, before he bows down, and we see the deadly descent of the instrument of execution. The screen fades to black.
It is a great performance showing what television was capable of at that period of its existence, a performance leading both to acclaim and later suggestions that he, rather than Dirk Bogarde, should have played the role in the 1958 film version. Coincidentally, the Hammer Dracula featuring Carol Marsh appeared that same year. Wyngarde later played the title role in a 1975 stage production (253-257, 518). However, he had earlier portrayed an ageing matinee idol based on Bela Lugosi in the ITV Love Story series episode “It’s A Long Way to Transylvania” (1967) (that I also saw at the time). It was one of his favorite roles (163).
A year before he appeared in “The Duel” (1956) episode of Assignment Foreign Legion (1956-57), a TV series that escaped the notice of his otherwise meticulous biographer, as it seems to have had for those keen contributors to the Facebook Unofficial Talking Pictures TV Discussion Group. (However, one cannot often cover everything 100%.) Hosted by Merle Oberon, the episode also featured Anthony Dawson (1916-1992) known for his various roles in Dial M for Murder (1953), Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Dr. No (1962), and Death Rides a Horse (1967). Dawson played a callous duelist who allows his victim, Lt. Charles Designe (Wyngarde), to live in an act of sadistic revenge rather than immediately firing the final bullet to put him out of his misery. Directed by Terence Fisher, the role allows Wyngarde to display non-histrionic feelings of terror and paranoia, especially when he re-experiences the duel in a nightmare. The Legion sends both men on a deadly vision against Arabs known for torturing their captives to death. When the Arabs capture the terrified Designe, Dawson finally delivers the final bullet knowing what his eventual fate will be. Assignment Foreign Legion often featured distinguished performances by actors such as Patrick McGoohan, Richard Johnson, Tom Conway, Anton Diffring, Ferdy Mayne, Patrick Troughton, Roger Moore, Andre Morrell, and many others offering them a showcase for their talents.
In 1958, Wyngarde played a young Long John Silver in The BBC TV mini-series The Adventures of Ben Gunn far different from the Robert Newton stereotype (see also 90-91). When he appeared in the closing minutes of the last episode, it was as a poignantly decrepit old man approaching his final days. In 1962, he featured in the BBC Sunday Night Theatre production of John Galsworthy’s Loyalties as the maligned Jewish outsider Ferdinand de Levis who dares to question honorable “officer and gentleman” Captain Dancy (Keith Michell) over a stolen item. One of the scenes I remember is Michell’s disdainful aristocratic Aryan look of disgust at a Jew who is clearly “not one of us,” as Mrs. Thatcher would later say. Once the real facts finally emerge de Levis shows himself to be more of an honorable man than his entitled and privileged opponent. This was another accomplished performance now probably lost.
Also lost is his performance in the title role of the BBC TV mini-series Rupert of Hentzau (1964). He played the title role combining the swashbuckling prowess of Douglas Fairbanks Jr from the Ronald Colman 1937 Prisoner of Zenda with a touch of decadence. Wyngarde’s acting, complemented performances by George Baker in the dual role of Rudolf, Barbara Shelley as Queen Flavia and John Phillips as Colonel Sapt (who appeared two years before in the now-lost Nigel Kneale TV play The Road).
I mention these performances to complement the author’s diligent research in bringing them to our attention as well as emphasize that long before Jason King, a role that resulted in him not given respect later, Wyngarde had already shown himself an outstanding actor. He suffered from making poor choices later as well as professional malice. He incurred the enmity of Peter Hall since 1954 (56). Nineteen years later, Wyngarde learned from Laurence Olivier that Hall, then Director of the National Theatre, had blocked his nomination to lead a company there (235). Wyngarde had the respect of virtually all the actors of his generation, often helping others out and receiving no thanks in return, which he never wanted in the first place. He assisted Alan Bates at an early stage of his career (120-121). His generosity towards others less fortunate than himself appears throughout this book, and it is heartbreaking to learn how several unscrupulous people took advantage of him.
Apart from scandals that drastically affected his later career, Wyngarde had the potential (and showed it) of being a major star. Fortune cast him a double-sided coin: one side brought him fame and high profile as Jason King, but the other led to amnesia concerning theatrical roles that only contemporary audiences could see as well as early television performances that disappeared. He was also the victim of malicious press attacks and denigration by people who never bothered to research his achievements, preferring instead slander.
Some film performances reveal his potential, such as his distinctive role as Peter the Painter in The Siege of Sidney Street (1960) that outshone its leading star Donald Sinden (not too difficult to in terms of his contemporary unmemorable screen presence). Wyngarde’s non-speaking presence as Quint in The Innocents displays accomplished silent film acting. His starring role in Night of the Eagle (1962) reveals remarkable abilities. Yet the challenge of different parts in theatre and television also tempted him to flex his muscles in ways that did not please those who wanted conformist actors. He could usurp an initially scripted limited role by suggesting different ways of staging scenes to any mediocre director’s chagrin, especially when confronting someone who knew what he was talking about, though not always in the diplomatic manner needed. He did not “suffer fools” gladly, and this attitude has consequences in acting (or academia). Wyngarde was an accomplished director as well as actor, as his biographer thoroughly documents. Even his later “man behind the mask” role as Klytus in Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon (1980) contained memorable elements, so much so that it became along with Jason King one of his most well-known roles.
Amazingly, for a book of this length, I have only found one typo on p.146. “James Bolam” rather than “James Bowlam” appeared in the 1964 ITV Play of the Week production “A Choice of Cowards# 1 – Present Laughter” where Wyngarde played Garry Essendine. However. Hodges did not direct Wyngarde in the 1959 TV play Engineer Extraordinary about Isambard Kingdom Brunel (293). The two reunited for Flash Gordon but Hodges functioned as Teleprompter Operator at the time Wyngarde was also appearing at the Bristol Old Vic as Cyrano de Bergerac, a production also well-covered by this very diligent author-researcher (see 99-100, 146, 152, 244). (2)
I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone, not just for the author’s strenuous work in setting the record straight but also for her sincere, unvarnished depiction of a man who could be awkward, difficult, and provocatively iconoclastic, as well as one possessing unique personal and creative talents.
posthumous reputation resembles that of Joseph Wiseman (1918-2009), best
remembered for playing the title role in Dr.
No (1962). According to his daughter, he regarded it “with great disdain”
and preferred posterity to value his theatrical work. See https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-joseph-wiseman21-2009oct21-story.html
His theatrical work was never recorded.
The same is true for Wyngarde’s distinctive stage roles. Harold Bloom regarded Wiseman as the best Edmund he had ever seen in a stage production of King Lear, a role that few actors accomplished successfully. “Wiseman played Edmund as an amalgam of Leon Trotsky and Don Giovanni, but it worked brilliantly, and there is much in the play’s text to sustain that curious blend”. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, 476. This evokes imaginative interpretations Wyngarde often attempted throughout his career, especially on stage. Apart from the 1950s, most of Wiseman’s television performances have survived. Sadly, like Wiseman’s theatre performances, most of Wyngarde’s distinctive television work only exists in memory or lost forever unless secondary source documentation, used extensively by Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins fills in those missing gaps.
2. I wish to thank Mike Hodges for his very prompt and gracious response in his May 15, 2020 email. He also informed me that his directorial debut with actors actually began some 7/8 years later.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and Contributing Editor to Film International.