Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Like many people living in the 21st century I was completely unaware of the late 60’s early 70’s gem that is Department S and its spin off Jason King. I stumbled on it by chance when I found out, on line, that Austin powers was partially based on the character of Jason King. It took years after this realization for me to sit down and type Section S into the Youtube Browser and actually watching the show.
The premise of the show is that Department S is an off the books part of Interpol, that is stationed in Paris but works all across the continent. The show capitalized on the 60’s/70’s spy-fi TV show craze, like many shows of the time, it blurred the lines between espionage and detective genres. They get the cases that other departments cannot solve or just too weird for them. Such as why would a gang of thieves break in to a warehouse to steal a single crate of soup, or when a plane lands and all the passengers are missing. If I had to beak the show down to a mathematical equation it would be Mission Impossible + Banachek = Department S.
The team’s field leader is Stuart Sullivan, a former FBI agent with a bit of a temper played by American actor Joel Fabiani. In ways he is a James Bond stand in. You see him sometimes wearing a tuxedo and on an occasion he had to engage in games of chance with his enemies. There are other Bond references, such as being a golf fan and a feme fatale whose last name is Lynn. Fabiani has this cleft in his chin that one could remove a bottle cap with.
Annabel Hurst was played by Rosemary Nichols. She is a computer scientist that deals only with the facts. She is mainly a researcher, but when she needs to get into a crime scene without a warrant or permission she is an ace lock picker. Nichols was a beautiful woman and often wears skimpy disguises, like the time a double agents girlfriend caught her in his apartment, she striped to her underwear and dawned a blonde wig. to trick her into thinking she was the other woman.
Peter Wyngrade played the playboy author, Jason King. A gallivanting upper-class bon voyant who uses his creativity to look at mysteries in a way others do not. His in world author avatar is Mark Cane, and he bases his character’s adventures on the team exploits. With his flamboyant suits, and acidic wit, he is the last of the British aristocracy detectives, much like a gunfighter in a western set in the 1890, times are changing and he is the last of a long line of dinosaura, who plans to go out in flames of glory.
Denis Alaba Peters plays Sir Curtis Seretse, the team’s boss. He hobnobs with the highest levels of society. What makes this character so unique for the time, is that Sir Curtis is of Nigerian descent and Peters plays with a dignity that is compelling every minute he is on screened.
The thing that I love about this show is how the three main characters each tackle a problem. Sulivan uses police procedures and spycraft, Hurst use logic and science, where King relies on hunches and out of the box thinking. Yet they pretty much come to the same conclusion at the same time, or build on each others theories.
The breakout character is Jason King (as demonstrated that he got his own spin off series). He is also gets some notoriety because he is the spiritual uncle to Austin Powers. Originally the Powers identity was Mike Myers contribution to a celebrity band called Ming Tea. (That is Susana Hoff’s Gillian Shagwell shredding on the rhythm guitar) Myers wife at the time encouraged him to make a movie on his persona in the band. It is easy to see where King’s DNA came into play when Wayne was fleshing Powers out. Where the International Man of Mystery is an over the top type character, King is just subdued enough to be believable, despite that he he is Polyglot that seems to speak any language that is needed, but he is balanced out by his faults.
King is a lover not a fighter so he gets knocked out quite a bit. Sure if the plot calls for it he can through a punch or two, and take down second level minions. But he is not as combat proficiant as Stuart, who also gets knocked out more than one would expect with a trained FBI agent.
I love the pilot to the spin off, Jason King. Where Jason and the studio executive have different opinions on how a Mark Cane series should be done. How much flesh the bikini girl should show, to the type gunfight that would work on the show. This show has a genre savvy and a meta understanding that you don’t see until two decades later with the 200 Episode of Star Gate or Dead Pool.
There is also a subtlety in the writing. Like where King realizes there is a third man in the hotel room, because the man who he is talking to is smoking a cigarette and he smells a cigar.It is shown in the scene and not explained untill much later. The writing passes the test of time. Now I am not saying that DS & JK are written for the ages. They are very much set in the hip me decade that is part of their charm, but the writing rise above the time period, so they are still enjoyable.
Why the show vanished in to obscurity is not much of a mystery. In the latter part of the 60’s and early 70’s there was a glut of TV spy shows. Many of them vanished after a syndication run. But there are many things that were affected by Department S and Jason King that are not Austin Powers. There is a punk band called Department S. The Band The Smiths used a picture of Fabiani for the cover of one of their albums. The marvel villain Jason Wyngrade AKA The Mastermind is based on King. Though I have never seen anything by Chris carter to confirm this many people have felt that a FBI agent investigating outlandish plots was a an inspiration for X-Files.
All the episodes of these classic spy-fi thrillers are available on Youtube, and are worth checking out.