Featuring the Saint

(Continued from here.)

With 12 novels, 34 novellas and 95 short stories (collected in 24 volumes), the sheer volume of Leslie Charteris’s work can be daunting.

The beSaint Plays with Fire.jpgst Charteris novel I’ve read is The Saint Plays with Fire (1938).  ‘Retired Generals, great financier, and ex-Cabinet Ministers couldn’t conspire to cover up murder: it was one of those things which simply did not happen.’  Thrillers are often thought of as right-wing, pitting square-jawed Englishmen against dastardly foreigners.  Charteris was definitely liberal.  Here, the Saint fights the Establishment.  Charteris suggests that the people who run Britain (and France and Germany) – the politicians, the army, the businessmen – are the enemy of their country’s citizens.  Kane Luker (Cain Lucre) owns newspapers and armament factories in all those countries, and tries to start a major European war to line his pockets.

Saint Around the WorldThe later short story collections, The Saint in Europe (1953), On the Spanish Main (1955) and Around the World (1956) are great.  As the titles suggest, the Saint is a globe-trotter, who finds adventure as far afield as Canada, Haiti, South-east Asia, the Middle East and Europe.  Charteris is equally venturesome, and tries something new with almost each story.  One story might be a whodunit or an action piece, another is a character piece about the reformation of a spoilt heiress (the delightful “Golden Journey”), the next is a domestic murder drama influenced by Somerset Maugham (“The Pluperfect Lady”), and a fourth puts the Saint in an ethical dilemma.  Among the best are “The Rhine Maiden”, in which the Saint deals with a crooked financier on a German train; “The Black Commissar”, set in Jamaica, and which shows the half-Chinese Charteris’s dislike for racism – Simon horrifies a dowager by shaking hands with a black man; and “The Questing Tycoon”, with a respectful treatment of voodoo.

Best of the Saint.jpgThe Best of the Saint (2008), two volumes of short stories, will give you both The Saint in Europe and Around the World, as well as Enter the Saint (1930) and stories from The Saint vs. Scotland Yard (1932), The Saint in London (1934), The Saint Goes On (1934), The Happy Highwayman (1939), Follow the Saint (1939) and The Saint in the Sun (1964).

The earliest Saint stories, written in Charteris’s early twenties, are exuberant but unpolished; although the dialogue is bright and clever, the prose can be luridly purple and the plots are sometimes a confusing blur of gunplay and fast cars.  So far, the best of the very early ones is “The Wonderful War”, in which Simon and three friends bring down a Latin American dictatorship.  Simon pretends to be a Spanish peon, gets thrown in jail, escapes after months, and takes a bath in the president’s bathroom.  Chutzpah!

Moore Saint gif.gifThe TV series (1962-69) featuring Roger Moore (a decade before 007) as “the infamous” Simon Templar is fantastically entertaining – an adventure series with a witty, cosmopolitan tone and the production standards of a movie.

Moore is in his element as the debonair Saint: charming and roguish, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of menace.

The cast reads like a who’s who of 1960s actors.  There are big film stars: Oliver Reed, Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie, Anthony Quayle.  There are stars of Doctor Who, The Avengers, and the James Bond movies: Patrick Troughton, Roger Delgado, Honor Blackman, Nicholas Courtney, Ian Hendry, Jean Marsh, Shirley Eaton and Lois Maxwell.  And there are character actors: André Morell, Julian Glover, Warren Mitchell, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Philip Madoc, Judy Parfitt, William Gaunt, Andrew Keir, Nyree Dawn Porter, Peter Wyngarde, Nigel Davenport, Geoffrey Bayldon, Robert Hardy, Peter Bowles, Peter Jeffrey, Michael Gough, Christopher Benjamin, Nigel Stock, and Freddie Jones, to name but a few.

Even the minor episodes are never less than entertaining.  There are gritty, film noir episodes: “The Contract”.  There are witty episodes, often set on the Riviera: “The Persistent Patriots”, “The Lawless Lady” and “The Spanish Cow”.

Best episodes include:

“The Pearls of Peace” (8 November 1962)

Pearls and girls in Mexico.

 

“The Element of Doubt” (22 November 1962).

A clever biter-bit story about a crooked defence lawyer in the States.

 

“The Saint Plays With Fire” (28 November 1963)

This is strong stuff.  The political angle of the original is absent; Simon’s enemy are neo-Nazis rather than big business, the army and politicians in cahoots to start a war and take over Europe.  From the opening at a Nazi rally in 1960s Britain, there isn’t a single dead minute.  Joseph Furst plays Kane Luker; unfortunately, he doesn’t shout “NUZZINK IN ZE VORLD CAN SCHTOP ME NOW!”.

“The Wonderful War” (2 January 1964)

The Saint in the Land of Black Gold!  Was this actually filmed in the Middle East?  There are Arabian palaces with doorways and pillars; markets with donkeys; townspeople in robes and keffiyeh; helicopters; and camels.  The Saint disguises himself as an objectionable American oil millionaire, J. Pierpoint Sykes.

“Sibao” (25 February 1965)

The Saint in the West Indies, in an adventure involving voodoo and murder.  This is almost a dry run for Live and Let Die, one of the best 007 movies.

“The Old Treasure Story” (26 August 1965)

Who can resist a story about the lost treasure of Blackbeard?

“Locate and Destroy” (16 December 1966)

Not based on a Charteris story.  The Saint in Peru, helping the Israeli secret service bring a Nazi to justice.  Enough thrills for a movie.

 

 

 

The Infamous…

Occasionally a series clicks.

Exotic locales; a cosmopolitan, man of the world attitude; hairsbreadth escapes from death; plenty of good fights; diabolical masterminds and ingenious plots – and a belief in adventure and excitement for their own sake.

For someone who has subconsciously had Hergé’s Tintin as his yardstick since the age of four, The Saint is manna from heaven.

SaintLogoThe Saint, for the uncanonised, is Simon Templar, a suave, globe-trotting adventurer and modern Robin Hood – and possibly the coolest fictional character ever.

He travels the world, enjoying the company of beautiful women, and thwarting the ungodly – war profiteers, crooked businessmen, spies, blackmailers, frauds and murderers – and the occasional giant ant.

Not, like James Bond, because his government orders him to, but for the sheer giddy fun of it.

He is, his creator Leslie Charteris wrote,

a rambunctious adventurer … who really believed in the old-fashioned romantic ideals and was prepared to lay everything on the line to bring them to life.  A joyous exuberance that could not find its fulfilment in pinball machines and pot.  I had what may now seem a mad desire to spread the belief that there were worse, and wickeder, nut cases than Don Quixote.

Even now, half a century later, when I should be old enough to know better, I still cling to that belief. That there will always be a public for the old-style hero, who had a clear idea of justice, and a more than technical approach to love, and the ability to have some fun with his crusades.

The Saint does have fun, and so does the reader of the 37 books published between 1930 and 1963 and the viewer of the screen adaptations, particularly the TV series starring Roger Moore.  The younger Saint lives for the sheer joy of living.

Moore Saint

He ought never to have been let loose upon this twentieth century. He was upsetting. Far too often, when he spoke, his voice struck disturbing chords in the mind. When you saw him, you looked, instinctively and exasperatedly, for a sword at his side, a feather in his hat, and spurs at his heels. There was a queer keenness in the chiselling of his tanned face, seen in profile—something that can only be described as a swiftness of line about the nose and lips and chin, a swiftness as well set off by the slick sweep of patent-leather hair as by the brim of a filibustering felt hat—a laughing dancing devil of mischief that was never far from the very clear blue eyes, a magnificently medieval flamboyance of manner, an extraordinary vividness and vital challenge about every movement he made, that too clearly had no place in the organization of the century that was afflicted with him. If he had been anyone else, you would have felt that the organization was likely to make life very difficult for him. But he was Simon Templar, the Saint, and so you could only feel that he was likely to make life very difficult for the organization. Wherefore, as a respectable member of the organization, you were liable to object…

He, of all men living, should have known that the age of strange adventures was not past. There were adventures all around, then, as there had been since the beginning of the world; it was a matter for the adventurer, to go out and challenge them. And adventure had never failed Simon Templar—perhaps because he had never doubted it. It might have been luck, or it might have been his own uncanny genius, but at least he knew, whatever it was he had to thank, that whenever and wherever anything was happening, he was there. He had been born to it, the spoilt child of a wild tempestuous Destiny—born for nothing else, it seemed, but to find all the fun in the world.

(The Avenging Saint, 1930)

The nature of the Saint is irrepressible.  Even when staring down the barrel of a gun, he makes up limericks about his enemies and gets riotously drunk on language.

Farnberg’s gun levelled accurately at the pit of the Saint’s stomach.

“How did you get here?” he rasped, and the Saint actually simpered.

“Don’t you think I’m a peach?” he said.

The eyes of the other two ranged behind him, to the packing-case that stood against the wall.  The lid was open, and it was beautifully empty.

“Of course, I’m not canned,” said the Saint, in his earnestly conversational way.  “That’s very important.  And I’m full of heroism, but absolutely void of heroin.  Perhaps she arrives in the next chapter.  You haven’t by any chance got a sister, have you, Jack?”

The Saint of the post-WWII stories and the TV series is older and shrewder, less flippant and more a worldly wise traveller, at ease wherever he goes, from high society to Central American villages, but still with the same hatred of injustice.

On his first appearance, in The Saint Meets the Tiger (1930), we learn that

He had won a gold rush in South Africa and lost his holdings in a poker game twenty-four hours later.  He had run guns into China, whiskey into the United States, and perfume into England.  He had deserted after a year in the Spanish Foreign Legion.  He had worked his passage across the Atlantic as a steward, tramped across America, fought his way across Mexico during a free-for-all revolution, picked up a couple of thousand pounds in the Argentine, and sailed home from Buenos Aires in a millionaire’s suite – to lose nearly all the fruit of his wanderings on Epsom Downs.

Charteris & MooreHis creator led almost as adventurous a life.  Charteris, the Singapore-born son of a Chinese doctor and an Englishwoman, travelled three times around the world before he was twelve.  He worked as a gold prospector in South-east Asia, fished for pearls, and worked in a tin mine in Malaya, while he was a bartender and a bus driver in the UK, played bridge professionally and toured England with a carnival.  Once he had made his name as a writer, he headed to Hollywood, while in later life, he and his fourth wife moved around the Caribbean.

Charteris believed that life should be a swashbuckling adventure, and detested both the dreary, mundane 9-to-5 grind, with its ‘routine office hours’ and ‘ranks of honest, hard-working, conformist, God-fearing pillars of the community’, and highbrow, introspective novelists.

‘I’m mad enough to believe in romance,’ Charteris said in a 1935 BBC radio interview.  ‘And I’m sick and tired of this age – tired of the miserable little mildewed things that people racked their brains about, and wrote books about, and called life.  I wanted something more elementary and honest – battle, murder, sudden death, with plenty of good beer and damsels in distress, and a complete callousness about blipping the ungodly over the beezer.  It mayn’t be life as we know it, but it ought to be.’

Hear, hear!

His first heroes were ‘the Knights of the Round Table – the Chevalier Bayard, Roland and Oliver, D’Artagnan as interpreted by Douglas Fairbanks’.  He wrote episodes of the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes radio series, the same series for which Anthony Boucher would later write.  He dedicated The Saint’s Getaway (1932) to his friend P.G. Wodehouse.

Oh, and he admired G.K. Chesterton.

He chose a Father Brown story for the MWA treasury Murder by Experts (1947).  References to the creator of Father Brown abound in the Saint stories, from “The Man Who Could Not Die” and “The Covetous Headsman” to a pastiche of Chesterton, complete with Indian mystic, light and colour, in “The Arrow of God”.  (Is there a more Chestertonian title?)

Would it surprise anyone to learn that, in that same story, Charteris calls John Dickson Carr a ‘genius’?

The Age of the Sex Olympics III: Twenty-first Century Blues

Modern film and television have little interest in engagement with the outside world. They are distinguished by their nihilism and love of violence; their recycling of ideas; and their tunnel vision.

We live in an age of cultural recycling. Cinema is largely made up of sequels, prequels and remakes. Modern media thinks that self-referentiality – in-jokes and references to television and film, pop culture and celebrities – are witty and original. This is why dreck like The Lego Movie – in which pop culture references substitute for genuine humour and imagination – are popular.

This is a sign of cultural stagnation.

The most popular genres are science fiction, fantasy and superhero films, which are largely vehicles for flashy special effects. It is worth considering here what science fiction actually is.

Science fiction has three main purposes: to hold a mirror to society; to imagine what the future could be, based on current trends; and to instil a particular attitude. Its worldview is material, rational and empiricist, aiming to understand and master external reality through knowledge, and celebrating the mindset that makes this possible. The hero is frequently a scientist, who is intelligent, curious and observant, and has a strong sense of justice and compassion; for instance, Professor Quatermass or Doctor Who.

 

Modern science fiction is “cult”. Cult is ultimately about itself: a closed system. It may borrow some of the trappings of science fiction (spaceships, aliens, etc.) but it is not interested in the same things. It is disengaged from the real world; instead, it is written for fans, and emphasises continuity, series mythology, character arcs and origin stories. Story arcs are more important than stories, and set pieces more important than plot. It is written for fans who like arguing about details, want to identify with characters and write pornographic fan-fiction. We’ve all met them – the bore who corners you at a party and whose idea of conversation is to reel off statistics about spaceships in Battlestar Galactica.  Unsurprisingly, cult leads to tunnel vision.

Earlier science fiction and telefantasy programmes wanted to make people think and broaden their horizons, as well as entertain them. The works of Nigel Kneale dealt with the anxieties of the nuclear age and the welfare state. The Doomwatch team monitored scientific research for possible threats to humanity, and dealt with such issues as environmentalism, pollution, urban depression, genetic engineering and the complicity of big business. Doctor Who began as a semi-educational series, teaching children about science and history, and became about humanist intellect, investigative and exploratory, asking questions and making sense of the world. Nowadays, it’s more interested in its own mythology.

The same was true of other genres. Anthology series such as The Wednesday / Play of the Week / Month examined social issues. Spy series like Danger Man were a crash course in international relations, set in foreign countries against a background of contemporary politics.

 

The Goon Show, Monty Python or The Goodies satirised the absurdity of contemporary life, bureaucracy, the class system and current fads and trends.

Most fiction assumed that the world was a fascinating place, and had protagonists who were well balanced, sophisticated, clever and enjoyed life. John Steed and Mrs Peel crossed swords and then were off for diabolical masterminds and champagne.

Tintin, James Bond and the Saint travelled around the world from Peru to the Poles, from the Orient to the North Pole, from the depths of the sea to outer space.

Tintin Red Rackham

Moore Saint

Mysterious Cities of Gold journeyed the length of South America, and ended each episode with a short documentary on history or geography.

Such tales opened up the world; they made audiences curious and whetted their appetites for travel, even if only from their armchair.

An adventurous, optimistic attitude is a healthy one – but it’s not one that is encouraged by the media.

Our entertainment lacks expansiveness, cosmopolitanism, curiosity, a sense of fun and interest in the world. We seem as a society to be in love with misery; the more of it, the better.

Characters don’t have personalities; they have angst and trauma, revealed in elaborate back stories, and brood and mope. The most popular television series feature sociopaths in a moraDexterl wasteland: Breaking Bad, Dexter, Game of Thrones.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are also sociopaths. In the movies, Man of Steel (which particularly disappointed me, as I was expecting a panegyric to Stalin), Batman and the Daniel Craig 007 are sociopaths. Everything is “dark” (when it’s not blue lit).

The movie that most triumphantly set its face against the cult of gloom was The Lone Ranger. The film is unabashedly brilliant: exhilarating, exuberant, subversive and rightfully angry, dealing as it does with genocide and land exploitation committed in the name of capitalism. It champions the individual over big business, idealism and noble causes over greed and self-interest, and proclaims that freedom – fun, humour and cleverness – are better than angst. Hardly surprising that it was a dismal flop in the States.

Angst and trauma, death and darkness, despair and gloom – that’s what life’s all about it. “Sadness,” as Steven Moffat remarked in one of his more idiotic moments, “is happiness for deep people.” Really, what’s so great about sadness?

Such stories (as a wise man once remarked) tell us that we’re dull and damned, as well as being damned dull.

Why, when there’s a world out there, focus on such things? (Something whispers: So that people won’t focus on the world.) If someone thinks the world is an awful place, full of miserable people who do ghastly things to each other from the moment they pop out of the uterus and strangle their mother with their umbilical cord, will they really want to engage with the world? Or are they more likely to lock themselves away and brood?

Life’s too big and complex to be boiled down to gloom, doom and atom bomb dropping planes’ sonic boom. Life’s this great rich glorious thing out there, full of colour and excitement and adventure.

Good art — movies and television shows, theatre, books, music, painting or sculpture — opens up the world. It inspires; it engages with the world; it reflects life in its complexity; and it broadens the audience’s minds. As such, it has an important role to play in shaping people’s attitude to the world. Television and film that makes people think about the world makes for a healthier democracy.

Works that show life as bleak and miserable distort the world – and are therefore dangerous. If people are forced to accept a myth rather than truth – as Hugh Greene, Director-General of the BBC, observed in both Nazi Germany and McCarthyist America – intellectual freedom was stifled and tyranny followed.

NPG x16892; Sir Hugh Carleton Greene by Godfrey Argent

Television, Greene believed, should be:

“a mirror behind what is going on in contemporary society. I don’t care whether what is reflected in the mirror is bigotry, injustice and intolerance or accomplishment and inspiring achievement. I only want the mirror to be honest, without any curves and held with as steady a hand as may be.

“If those who look out, with the eyes we have given them, see only the familiar, the comfortable, the reassuring, then surely we have failed, for the world is not like that. If we ensure that only the ugly, the bestial, the violent and the tawdry appear before them, then just as surely we have failed, for the world is not like that either.”