Looking Back At THE PERSUADERS! - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony takes some persuading.
There are TV shows from the 1960s which can still be watched in the 21st century for their plots, their characterisations, and their subtle commentary on the world around them.

The Persuaders! is… not one of them.

Actually, that’s a little unfair, at least as far as the characterisations are concerned. But if you’re expecting The Persuaders! (yes, really – we’re probably contractually obliged to use the exclamation mark!) to be a hard-hitting, gripping show about gentleman spies taking on a world of evildoers, you might be just a little disappointed.

The Persuaders! is actually an odd couple comedy dressed up to look like it’s a hard-hitting show about gentlemen spies taking on a world of evildoers.

Action-comedy then, is the world in which we’re moving – and why not? While Patrick McGoohan was the go-to straight man of serialised drama, with shows like The Prisoner and Danger Man under his belt, there was also clearly room for a little mixture of the thrills and laughter if you had actors who could deliver both (as with Patrick Macnee and his succession of partners in The Avengers).

If you’re going to get the most out of it, you’re also going to have to forgive The Persuaders! its early Seventies vibe from your position here in the 21st century. Fast cars, lashings of dangerous idiot machismo, young women dressed in frequently not a lot, exotic locations, and very much how the other half live is the order of the day for The Persuaders!. There’s even, in common with other, later variations on a theme, like (of all things!) Charlie’s Angels, a governing figure who occasionally sets our heroes off on their adventures. The angels would later have Charlie (via Bosley). The persuaders have Judge Fulton (Laurence Naismith) to bring them together and get them working.
The persuaders? Two men from entirely different worlds, both of whom have ended up at the same point in their lives. Lord Brett Rupert George Robert Andrew Sinclair was born to privilege and has added athletic and motoring success to his family’s list of honours – but that’s about it. Having achieved success, he’s content to bum around Naples, or Monte Carlo, or the next place, seducing women, ordering ridiculously specific cocktails, and fighting anyone who dares put a crimp in his day or his lifestyle.

Danny Wilde was a scrappy young kid from the Bronx till he joined up to serve in the Navy during the war. After that he became an oil baron, and since then he’s both made and lost entire fortunes. Money now comes to him easily, so the sharp edge of life had dulled into equally ridiculous cocktails, a veneer of charm, and that Bronx kid, always ready to fight anyone who gets his goat.

In a sense, it’s pure fantasy wish fulfilment for the TV audiences of the early Seventies. But what makes sense of it from a broader perspective is understanding the actors who were cast as each of the persuaders.
As Lord Brett, there was Roger Moore. Coming more or less straight off the back of his success as Simon Templar, the rogue spy who helps the helpless under the name of The Saint (which finished broadcasting in 1969), it’s probably fair to say that Lord Brett was mostly a take on Templar, but with much less altruism and much more aristocratic arrogance. Moore’s flirtatious relationship with the role of James Bond (being in The Saint hampered his hopes of taking the role initially), and George Lazenby’s casting in the role, followed by a one-picture return for Sean Connery, was what freed Moore up to star in The Persuaders! When he finally was asked to play Ian Fleming’s ultimate spy in 1973, it was one of the main things that killed The Persuaders! in its tracks, and it’s arguable that Moore took the same essential performance from The Saint to The Persuaders!, and on to Bond, tweaking the dials of motivation up and down slightly between roles.

That tweaking is important to understand about The Persuaders! though, because Moore’s is by no means as simple a performance as it sometimes looks. Combining a hardness and a willingness to throw a punch for a cause, a good drink or the right girl, Lord Brett is rather more proto-Bond than he is strictly an evolved Saint. And with hindsight, knowing both what was behind him and what lay ahead, it’s easy to envisage a version of The Persuaders! which was more or less The Roger Moore Show.

But for that to have happened, ITC would have to have cast a lesser personality than Tony Curtis in the role of Danny Wilde.
Curtis was four years Moore’s senior by the time The Persuaders! first aired (and it’s worth noting too that both of them were in their 40s, holding down roles as action men and playboys – something that might be considered unwatchable today), and he had a reputation in both drama but most especially in comedy (Some Like It Hot, anyone?).

It’s the fact that Curtis brings the comedy, and almost forces Moore to unbend and play to it as Lord Brett that makes The Persuaders! watchable today, despite the somewhat hackneyed plots and blatant use of eye candy to keep the viewers viewing. And it’s ultimately in the relationship of the two lead characters that you’ll find the point of The Persuaders! at this distance in time.

If you want thrills and drama, there are better examples from the decade before – again we say, The Avengers exists, and technically it does the thrills and drama better (despite The Persuaders! having respected TV writers like Brian Clemens and Terry Nation among its scriptwriters).

What The Persuaders! does better even than The Avengers though is spiky, off-beat, idiot jibber-jabber dialogue between the leads. It’s like Neil Simon’s Odd Couple Walther Matthau and Jack Lemmon, or Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the Road movies, or (perhaps most specifically), like Michael Caine and Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels… were incarnated as men of wealth and leisure, taking on cases of espionage, chicanery and other international bad behaviour.
Yes, you can watch The Persuaders! for its plots if you like. Yes, you can watch it for its impressive visuals – the locations are frequently stunning, and undoubtedly (like the James Bond novels and movies) they brought some dash and glamour into fairly drab early Seventies British lives (you want proof it was drab? Check out glam rock some time – can we say ‘Screaming on the inside’ much?). But neither of those elements are what will keep you watching through 24 episodes of The Persuaders! What will do that is the interplay of character dynamics between the two leading. When they’re on screen together – and they are, most of the time – there’s a whole lot of comic chemistry and charisma on screen at the same time, and you’ll watch them for the comedy, even when the action is predictable, the plots are ludicrous and the focus on wild, rich abandon and frequently competitive womanizing becomes occasionally uncomfortable from your vantage point in the here and now.

In Moore and Curtis, ITC secured itself a central relationship of comedy gold, while also ensuring that, together or apart, they could at the very least sell the action scenes as believable.

The Persuaders!, re-watched at this distance, has lots to make you tut and disapprove. But in Moore and Curtis, teamed up as the odd couple of espionage, it brings you much more that you can cheer, and chuckle at, and watch, if not compulsively, then with an eye thrown back to a different age, and to two stars endlessly bouncing off each other’s energy and lighting up the screen.

Watch The Persuaders today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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