In May 1971, ABC's legendary late-night programme, The Dick Cavett Show
, temporarily relocated to the 'Old Country' – broadcasting from what its host called 'the real outskirts of London', where exiting the studio by the wrong door saw you wind up in deepest Wales. On Friday 14 May, Cavett hosted a trio of unlikely bedfellows, chatting with the writer, physician, and opera director, Jonathan Miller, and Conservative MP, Enoch Powell – who would soon be voted the most popular politician in Britain – and the actor then best known as Lesley Charteris's The Saint
, Roger Moore.
In addition to needling Powell by telling him that, contrary to his dire prognosis, India wasn't lost but was, in fact, 'East of Africa and West of Ceylon' – although he conceded that he had been 'nodding off from time to time' while the Member for Wolverhampton South-West was speaking – Roger Moore was on Cavett
to promote his forthcoming 'buddy' series, The Persuaders!
, which first aired on London Weekend Television 50 years ago this week. A tongue-in-cheek, 24-part action-comedy series, it chronicled the adventures of two womanising playboys: the raffish, globe-trotting English peer, Lord Brett Sinclair, and Danny Wilde, a New York oil millionaire, played by the 'American Prince', Tony Curtis.
In recent years, this iconic British series has acquired something of a cult following, with fans praising its light comedy touch, its evocative John Barry theme, the warmth of Curtis and Moore's on-screen relationship, not to mention the allure of the Riviera lifestyle it portrayed.
As The Independent
recalled on its 40th anniversary in 2011, the series—which was initially going to be called The Friendly Persuaders
and was inspired by Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable's relationship in Boom Town
– adopted a 'devastatingly simple' premise, with Wilde and Sinclair getting into 'all kinds of scrapes and adventures just as long as there's a pretty girl at the end of it'.
In addition to highlighting that Lord Sinclair had served in the British Army after being educated at Harrow and Oxford, while Danny Wilde had grafted his way out of a tough life in the Bronx and now 'never has to worry about being able to make another fortune if necessary', the show's promotional material stressed that both are equally 'handsome and highly personable' and 'magnetic to beautiful women'. One famous fan, Steve Coogan, who once tried to put together a Persuaders!
film, said that he particularly 'liked the fact that, after Moore had punched someone, he'd take a comb out, sort his haircut and wander off'.
The unusually high production costs associated with the making of The Persuaders!,
with it being shot 'on location' in France, Spain, and Italy, also made this light-hearted series one of the most expensive in Lew Grade's Incorporated Television Company's history, with each episode reportedly taking 12 days to make at a cost of £100,000. With two of the most striking and prolific actors of their generation cast as its leading men, and guest appearances by Patrick Troughton, Ian Hendry, Nigel Green and Dame Gladys Cooper, Bob Baker, The Persuaders!
producer who had also worked with Moore on The Saint
, once suggested that 'you could make a series out of their salaries alone'.
The strong claim that The Persuaders!
was the most glamorous series in this country's TV history – as well as one of the most unlikely to be made in 2021 – was enhanced by the two exclusive luxury cars driven by the series' protagonists. Loaned to the production by an Italian collector and Aston Martin (who also assigned a mechanic to the series), Tony Curtis opted for a red left-hand-drive Ferrari Dino 246GT while Roger Moore's Lord Sinclair drove a 'Bahama Yellow' Aston Martin DBS, wearing circus impresario Billy Smart's infamous 'BS 1' number plate.
Despite the lasting success of the series, its production was not without its trials and tribulations. In later years, cast and crew remembered their difficulty in handling their erratic American leading man, with production executive, Johnny Goodman, recalling that Curtis – who was 'very inventive' with the dialogue, occasionally declaring, 'I love you, Roger!' mid-scene. Likewise, in addition to calling guest star, Joan Collins, a 'c**t' during the filming of Episode 17, File Miles to Midnight,
Curtis was also fined £50 by a London magistrate for attempting to bring marijuana and a pistol through British customs, inspiring Bob Hope's quip that 'Tony Curtis has been flying around London for three months, waiting to land!'
The most memorable episodes were filmed in Continental Europe, but viewers also caught glimpses of famous domestic landmarks, primarily in the 'Old Smoke', including the Millbank Tower – which doubled as the headquarters of Sam Milford (played by Bernard Lee) as Sinclair grapples with a perfect double of himself intent on killing the reclusive millionaire – as well as Thurloe Square in South Kensington and the Tower of London.
Scotland featured infrequently, appearing in just two episodes – with the country's sole contribution to The Long Goodbye
seeing Wilde and Sinclair discover the remains of a missing physicist in a heather- and fern-covered clearing, with Moore wearing a kilt for the occasion to underline that the pair had briefly travelled north of the border.
However, the country did have a starring role in arguably the finest entry in the series, A Death in the Family
, a take-off of the classic 1949 Ealing comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets
, in which the Sinclair Clan is targeted by an unknown killer, seeking to expedite his path to the dukedom. Whilst the majority of this episode was filmed in Heatherden Hall, and backlot of Pinewood Studios, the heart of the episode sees Moore and Curtis's characters guarding key members of the family, with Lord Sinclair tasked with protecting his bagpiping uncle, Sir Angus – who serves Scotland's greatest delicacy before being crushed to death by a dismounted wooden portcullis – in his Highland fortress.
Despite a remarkable ensemble cast of Ivor Dean (best remembered as Inspector Claud Eustace Teal in The Saint
), Roland Culver (known to Bond fans as the Foreign Secretary from Thunderball
), Denholm Elliott, Willie Rushton, and Diane Cilento (who was then still married to Sean Connery – whose replacement by Roger Moore as 007 scuppered a second series of The Persuaders!
), A Death in the Family
saw Moore pay homage to Alec Guinness by playing four Sinclairs, including Brett's deaf and eccentric Aunt Agatha. The episode concludes with Sinclair and Wilde setting up Danny's aunt, 'Mrs Schwartz', (played by Curtis, wearing an unconvincing black wig), with the Duke.
Whilst The Persuaders!
is by no means the most hard-hitting 1970's show, it is one of the most opulent, giving free rein to two of the most charming and attractive actors of their generation, showcasing sumptuous landscapes and the finest hotels, and paving the way for later 'buddy' shows including Starsky and Hutch
and The Professionals
In the same way that Only Fools and Horses
, which marks its 40th anniversary this year, perfectly captured life on the margins of British society during the 1980s, The Persuaders!
reflected the insouciance of the idle rich in 1970's Britain. Five decades on, as one of the perpetually idle and impoverished, 'persuading' still looks pretty good to me.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly