Many groovy old British television shows have been finding their way onto PAL DVD recently in the UK, but most of them are not available in the US. This is really unfortunate because there were lots of great television programs produced in Britain during the sixties and seventies that are almost unheard of outside of the UK. Thanks to Image Entertainment, Americans will finally be able to see the popular British crime and espionage series Jason King which ran on British television between 1971-72 and it’s well worth a look if you enjoy shows such as The Avengers, Secret Agent Man, The Prisoner, The Saint and The Persuaders.
The Jason King series was a spin-off from another good British series called Department S, which featured a team of detectives who were able to solve the most impossible crimes. For some reason, American audiences are getting Jason King on DVD first and I have no idea if we’ll ever see a DVD release of the Department S show but at least American audiences can now enjoy the exploits of the ‘international man of mystery’ known as Jason King.
The series features the brilliant British actor Peter Wyngarde as a suave, witty, womanizing pulp novelist and part-time detective Jason King, who smokes a pipe and wears tailored suits that would have made Brian Jones envious. He seems to own an endless amount of ascots and beautiful ladies are constantly charmed by him. To complicate matters, King’s crime novels feature a fictional character called Mark Caine who writes trashy novels while helping Scotland Yard solve crimes. The “real” world of Jason King often crossed paths with the fictional world of Mark Caine, which led to some interesting plot twists and laughs.
The show is well written and very entertaining. It often spoofs the various James Bond adventures that it takes inspiration from. The humorous elements help keep the show interesting and give Peter Wyngarde plenty of opportunities to have fun with his role. The series also features lots of beautiful British actresses from the period such as Hammer glamour queens Ingrid Pitt, Yutte Stensgaard and Stephanie Beacham, as well as the lovely Alexandra Bastedo. It might be hard for modern audiences to understand Jason King’s appeal now, but back in the early seventies his big hair, thick mustache, and low-cut shirts were considered very sexy.
Peter Wyngarde is a fascinating actor with an interesting background. He was the son of an English diplomat and spent much of his childhood moving around the world. In 1941 he was left in the care of another family living in Shanghai just as the Japanese military took over the city. Following his capture, the young Wyngarde spent four years imprisoned in the Lung-Hai prison camp where he experienced extreme brutality until he was finally rescued by British soldiers. In many ways, his youth was similar to author J. G. Ballard’s who wrote about his experiences in Empire of the Sun (made into a 1987 film by Steven Spielberg).
While attending college Wyngarde started acting on the stage and finally begun appearing in movies in the early sixties. He was in two of Britain’s best horror films early in his career (The Innocents, 1960 and Night of the Eagle, a.k.a. Burn Witch Burn, 1962), and then went on to have a very successful career in television. He had guest roles in many of the decade’s best TV shows including The Avengers, The Saint, I Spy, The Champions and The Prisoner, where he played Number Two in the infamous “Checkmate” episode before he got a starring role as Jason King in Department S. Wyngarde’s popularity on the show led him to star in his own series simply called Jason King.
During this period Peter Wyngarde even recorded an album called When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head which was released in 1970. The album is a strange mix of psychedelic, lounge and folk songs that include Wyngarde’s unusual spoken word lyrics. One of the record’s most memorable tracks is called Rape, where Wyngarde casually explains what rape means in different languages and cultures in 1970. It also includes a song called The Hippie and The Skinhead where Wyngarde reads a letter written by two skinhead girls and then goes on to describe a beating that skinheads give a “queer, pilly, sexy Hippy” named Billy. It’s impossible to take the songs completely seriously, but it seems that many people did. RCA had expected Wyngarde to record some kind of pop record where he crooned sexy songs to his adoring fans at the time, but instead they got an extremely odd and experimental album that sounds very campy now, but actually does contain some interesting music. When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head caused such a ruckus that it was pulled from record stores after only a few weeks and disappeared into obscurity until it was reissued on CD in 2001.
When Jason King went off the air in 1972 Pete Wyngarde was one of Britain’s most popular actors, but unfortunately, his fame was rather short-lived. In 1975 he was arrested and convicted of an act of “gross indecency” with a truck driver (aka a homosexual encounter with another consenting adult, which was illegal in the UK at the time thanks to some ridiculous and bigoted laws) the bathroom of a British bus station. Sadly, his career never seemed to fully recover from that and he had a hard time finding work as an actor in Britain. After losing his celebrity status, Wyngarde began acting and directing at the English Theater in Vienna and appeared on German television. In 1980 he had a role in Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon playing General Klytus and afterward, Wyngarde acted in a few good television programs such as Doctor Who (1984) and Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1986), but for the past 14-years, he hasn’t done much.
It’s impossible to measure the influence that Peter Wyngarde’s Jason King has had on popular British culture. Mike Myers has signaled out Jason King as one of the main influences for his popular Austin Powers character and Jason King has been the inspiration behind many interesting comic book characters including Fireball from Beano’s Bullet series, Mastermind aka Jason Wyngarde from John Byrne’s hugely popular Uncanny X-Men series as well as Mr. Six from Grant Morrison’s brilliant Invisibles.
American audiences finally have a chance to enjoy the Jason King series for themselves with the release of the show on DVD. The new Image Entertainment box set features no extras and is very bare-bones but it does include all 26 episodes of the show. The picture quality is a little rough on some episodes but considering that this is a British TV series from 1971 shot on 16mm, I’m just happy to finally have access to it. Hopefully, it will be successful enough to warrant the release of the Department S series in the future.
You can also check out some clips from the Jason King series on YouTube:
– The opening credits featuring the show’s great theme music
– A clip from the Jason King episode A Deadly Line in Digits