There’s a Golden Age of television theme tunes, from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, a time when the programme and the opening music became one in a perfect marriage. The Persuaders is a stand out theme, along with Van Der Valk, but there’s one more worth mentioning: The Champions.
Written by Tony Hatch, who had a run of hit singles writing for Petula Clark, the theme tune for The Champions encapsulated the glamour, the mystique, the internationalism of the programme’s premise. Three supergifted investigators working for Geneva-based crime unit Nemesis.
The Champions was another of Lew Grade’s ITC stable of shows which seemed to be turned out on an annual effortless basis. On this occasion, the USP was centred on three people who, after crash landing in Nepal, are rescued by an unknown community of humans with esoteric powers. On return to civilisation Craig Stirling. Richard Barrett and Sharron Macready find they can communicate telepathically, have heightened awareness and super strength and durability. Talents that come as an infuriating mystery to their boss Tremayne.
As was the case in a lot of ITC productions these super qualities didn’t apply to the scenery. Filmed at Elstree studios in England the production team made good use of the surrounding woodland to double as a somewhat overcast West Indies, a very untropical Burmese jungle and China. The same short street was used for episodes in Paris, Heligoland and Cornwall!
It’s easy to scoff at a mansion used by one villainous group after another as if it were being rented out by a letting agent with a villain-only mailing list. “The last occupants hell-bent on world domination moved out after all their operatives were killed with death rays. . . .”
But what made The Champions such compulsive viewing was the chemistry between its three protagonists: Stuart Damon, the model-good looking American, essential to sell the show to US audiences; dandy-ish William Gaunt balancing intellectual self-confidence with an ability to leap unimaginable distances; and the impossibly beautiful Alexandra Bastedo who endured typically sexist Sixties scripts but still packed a mean right hook in a fight.
The stories were ripping yarns with mad Nazis, treacherous gun runners, psychotic mind-benders and an array of lunatic organisations spread across the world. No attempts were made to ground the stories in realism, there was no need. 1967 and 1968 when the programmes were made were two years of heightened Cold War histrionics in which everyone was a double agent, and every organisation had a shady link to either the KGB or the CIA.
Only two series were produced, in part due to ITC’s insatiable appetite for more thrillers. And what a list: The Champions, The Persuaders!, The Protectors, The Saint, The Prisoner, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Department S, Jason King, and that doesn’t include the puppets, Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. . . .
They might not make them like that anymore, and the theme tunes seldom become household names (or household earworms), but the distance is probably what makes them so special, and why the charm of The Champions is so enduring.