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

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Looking Back At THE SAINT

Tony searches for his halo.
Roger Moore is an actor synonymous with British adventure heroes. But where many people identify him most strongly with James Bond, the role that really set him on his path towards practically a working lifetime in suave espionage was that of Simon Templar, known both for his initials and for some of his more particularly ‘Robin Hood’ ways, as The Saint, in the TV series that ran from 1962-1969.

Based at least initially on the novels and novellas of Leslie Charteris, who first created Templar in 1928 and who steered him through a large number of moral or semi-moral ‘crusades’ against wrongdoers, from bootleggers through corrupt politicians to the actual Nazis, the show, much like the character, would evolve over the course of its run.

It started off as an almost standard mystery series, but with a compelling central character in Templar himself. While Charteris always made his exact origins a mystery, there was plenty of characterization to work with. Templar would often help those who were beyond the aid of traditional agencies. He would (in a precursor of the likes of The A Team) frequently act on his own, technically non-existent authority, more because he felt a person or group were in the right and were being unfairly persecuted than because he was paid to fight their corner.

In essence, then, The Saint on TV was something of a moral crusader with the skills of a secret agent. But like his all-too-looming counterpart, James Bond, the Saint was always written as a normal man with exceptional skills, rather than some immortal or superhuman spy. And for the most part at least, the TV series honoured that idea.

If you think about it especially hard, the idea of The Saint is actually a morally dubious one – he’s a lone actor, unafraid to kill those he deems to be sinners, wading into delicate political situations and frequently changing them on the basis of his own, vaguely religiously-derived moral and ethical code.

Looked at one way, the Saint could be accused of being a terrorist. But then, looked at the same way, so could Iron Man, and that never stops anyone cheering him on.

Early series of The Saint in black and white followed Charteris’ blueprint for Templar fairly rigorously, with Moore combining physical action, an overwhelming suavity, and a quirk of breaking the fourth wall to address the viewers. Yes, Charteris did that in some of his books too, having Templar shatter the tension by announcing to readers that he couldn’t die so early in a story, and so on.

It was elements like this quirkiness that let The Saint stand out stylistically against the likes of The Avengers and Danger Man (though Patrick McGoohan, Danger Man and later The Prisoner star, was the original favourite to play Templar on TV – despite Moore having previously tried to get the rights to make the show himself!).

As the show evolved, it became closer both to other TV super-agencies and individuals like Danger Man and Man In A Suitcase, and, inevitably, to Bond on film. It’s one of life’s compelling ironies that the first Bond movie, starring Sean Connery, hit the big screen in 1962 – the same year that Roger Moore first took on Simon Templar’s halo on the small screen.

And apparently, Moore was contacted about transferring from the halo to the Walther PPK several times during the course of his seven years as the Saint – but was of course unable to take any of the officers, because The Saint ran for all those years.

That’s entirely understandable, because as the show went on, The Saint grew to feel almost like a more whimsical, funny, TV version of Bond, but with added personality.

Where both characters did whatever proved necessary to get their job done, Templar was a wild card guided solely by his own code of ethics – and crucially he had no licence to kill. That didn’t especially stop him, but the people against whom he pitted himself were self-determined evildoers, rather than, as with Bond, State-identified dangers that needed investigating and, if necessary, taking out.

There’s also a much greater flexibility to Moore’s performance in The Saint than he was ever particularly allowed when Bond finally – after a stint in The Persuaders for ITC in the early 1970s – caught up with him. His Templar is roguish and charming, but actually much more akin to his Persuaders character, Brett Sinclair, than to Bond.

The show got more complex, more international, and jussst occasionally more fantastical when it flipped a switch and went from black and white to colour – but it also lost the whimsicality of the broken fourth wall, replacing it with internal monologue voiceovers, sometimes to set up the premise of the episode.

For example, at the start of the first episode of Series 5 (in colour), Templar is in Monte Carlo, and he gives us a stylish but cynical monologue about the kind of people who come there to pit their wits against an implacable foe – luck. It’s a stylistic decision which crushes some of the fun out of The Saint, and draws it closer to a Perry Mason or a Philip Marlowe approach – with which, to be fair, TV viewers at the time were much more familiar.

The show gave Templar a familiar cast of allies and his own version of Sherlock Holmes’ Inspector Lestrade – Inspector Teale, played most regularly by Ivor Dean. Dumbed down from Charteris’ novels for the on-screen adventures of The Saint, he’s otherwise drawn from source, mostly immune to Templar’s charm and seeing him as both a common criminal and potentially dangerous.

If there’s a style to The Saint that’s lacking in other similar productions of the time, it’s there because of the significant weight of Charteris’ literary back catalogue of Saint stories, giving the character a background without ever going into too many specifics, an ethical code without ever necessarily nailing down its precepts.

And of course, it would be a woeful idiocy to underestimate the importance of Roger Moore’s performance in selling The Saint as a believable hero, both then and now that at least some of the episodes have arrived on Britbox. (It’s worth noting that so far, only Series 5 and 6 have landed at the channel, so for the more whimsical earlier series, you’ll have to look elsewhere).

Moore in The Saint feels like Moore actually at the peak of his performative powers, his facial and physical flexibility, and it’s a joy to watch. Yes, absolutely, the trademark Bond eyebrow-raise is there, but it’s accompanied by so much more in The Saint – comedy, charm, certainty of direction and movement, and a real, fairly complex character. Admittedly, these are all the things he would eventually bring to the role of Bond, adding significantly more charm to Fleming’s spy that was there either in the books or – controversy alert – in the Connery movies.

Ultimately, that’s why you watch The Saint. It’s a great action adventure concept, it has settings that feel both lush and true (the whole of The Saint was recorded on film, to add to that expensive feel), and above all, it has Roger Moore looking like he’s having the time of his life as the lone ‘angel,’ righting wrongs as he perceives them – whether or not his view is backed up by any official agency or government.

If you want proof that Roger Moore felt more at home as The Saint than he was ever to do as Bond, there’s that initial evidence that before The Saint was even a TV show, he wanted to buy the rights to make it himself. But it goes significantly further than that. Over his post-Saint decades, Moore was regularly to announce plans to revive The Saint with other leading actors.

In the Eighties, he was reported to have proposed another future Bond, Piers Brosnan, as the new Saint in a movie that sadly came to nothing. In 2009, Moore announced he was to play a small role in a new version of The Saint starring Dougray Scott. This was unlikely to have been just wishful thinking, as Moore’s son, Geoffrey, was down to produce. And even as late as 2012, Moore was involved in trying to get a TV pilot of a new version of The Saint made, this time starring Adam Rayner as Templar. This was filmed, with both Moore and his technical TV successor, Ian Ogilvy (who took on the role of Templar in The Return of The Saint) starring in small cameos.

Clearly, more than Bond, it was Templar who lived and breathed in Roger Moore’s imagination. And that’s absolutely what you see when you watch or re-watch The Saint today. It’s Moore having found the perfect vessel for his talents, and neither Brett Sinclair nor even his version of Bond really ever comes close to matching him in Templar’s shoes.

Pure adventure entertainment with a good heart, a degree of cheesy goofery, such as the frequent on-screen appearance of the Saint’s ‘halo,’ and quite possibly the finest thing Roger Moore ever committed to film?

That’s The Saint.

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

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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