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Gerald Harper

Travers, Death Dispatch
Geoffrey Risdale, The Hour That Never Was
Colonel Corf, Homicide and Old Lace

by Pete Stampede

Gerald Harper's casting in The Avengers is, depending on how you look at it, a clever in-joke or the production team being remarkably forgiving to someone who had the cheek to provide Steed with competition. For Harper was the star of Adam Adamant Lives! (BBC, 1966-67), a series unashamedly modelled on The Avengers, which attempted to create a similar melding of surreal situations and Olde England parody; hardly surprising, considering that it had the same creator, TV drama godfather Sydney Newman.

Born in 1929, Harper, aquiline-profiled, determined-looking (Canadian actor Lloyd Bochner bears a definite resemblance) and armed with a drawling, yet light-pitched voice, trained at RADA and had found a niche on stage in light comedies and musicals by the 1950's. A good example of the latter was Free As Air, a follow-up by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds to their enjoyably twee Salad Days; listening to Harper in this, performing a song called "Mummy Doesn't Like Me Any More", backed by a chorus of frightfully upper-class gels shrieking the title as the chorus, you understand why rock-n-roll had to happen. Also in the cast was Leonard Rossiter, or Len as he was then billed. Film-wise, a murky black-and-white thriller, Tiger In The Smoke (1956), directed by future Avengers man Roy (Ward) Baker and starring the richly hammy (now Sir) Donald Sinden, had Harper improbably cast as a petty crook turned informer called Duds, murdered by a gang of fellow villains in the fog of the title. Minor roles followed in The Admirable Crichton (1957), and, again for Baker, in A Night To Remember (1958), the superior account of the sinking of the TITANIC, as honest and economical as James Cameron's so-called epic was soppy, manipulative and full of cardboard characters. Harper was the third officer on board the Carpathia, which ignored the distress calls; Honor Blackman co-starred in this, with plenty of Avengers faces also visible.

Again as an officer, Harper was one of a Highland regiment in Tunes Of Glory (1960), with Alec Guinness (RIP) and John Mills superb in a character clash; staying in uniform, he was a captain who falls victim to a scam pulled by The League Of Gentlemen (1960), in Basil Dearden's excellent caper movie which has recently lent its name to a disturbingly hilarious comedy series. By coincidence, he was in another film whose title would be borrowed by an anarchic sitcom years later, The Young Ones (1961), attempting to track down Cliff Richard and chums' pirate radio broadcasts; in one quick shot, he was understandably wincing at the foggy moans of "The Mystery Singer", i.e. Cliff. Harper also turned up, in three roles, the largest as an assistant director in dark glasses, in Wonderful Life (1964), another Cliff vehicle endlessly inflicted on kids of my generation on TV during the school holidays. (It's hard to believe that Sidney J. Furie, director of The Ipcress File, also made both of these.)

On TV, Harper's earliest work includes Television Playhouse, "The Sand Castle" (Granada, 1957), directed by Desmond Davis, who would later helm "The Eagle's Nest," and O.S.S., "Operation Sardine" (ATV/ITC, 1957), a WW2-set ITC series which starred Ron Randell, an Australian actor pretending to be American, before a regular role in a short-lived drama (well, early soap, really), Skyport (Granada, 1959-60). Other guest roles followed in the Boris Karloff-hosted anthology Out Of This World, "Divided We Fall" (ABC, 1962), the Avengers-ish G.S.5, "Hideout" (ATV, 1964), with Ray Barrett and Neil Hallett, and Gideon's Way "State Visit" (ATV/ITC, 1964), before doing a couple of episodes of The Sleeper (BBC, 1964), one of a long run of series, or serials as they would then have been termed, by thriller writer Francis Durbridge. Sometimes billed as Francis Durbridge Presents, these originated in the vestigial days of TV drama in the 50's and ran for decades. (I can just about recall the last few, in the late 70's and early 80's.) Always concerned with the upper-middle class, and seldom straying from the reassuring backdrop of the Home Counties, they were nonetheless highly popular, though it seemed weird how along with the familiar themes of murder, robbery and blackmail, Durbridge seemingly never failed to include an adulterous couple in his plotlines. Anyhow, Harper starred in both A Man Called Harry Brent (BBC, 1965), and A Game Of Murder (BBC, 1966), in both as a detective inspector, and both for Durbridge and director Alan Bromly. If he hadn't been playing Adam Adamant by then, he'd have probably done Durbridge's next, Bat Out Of Hell (BBC, 1966), which starred John Thaw instead. In between the two Durbridges, as a change of pace, he was a regular support in The Joe Baker Show (ATV, 1965), a sketch show for rotund Cockney comic Baker, who had just split from his double-act partner, twitchy Carry On star Jack Douglas.

Meanwhile, the success of The Avengers was giving Sydney Newman, in his capacity as Head of Drama at the BBC, cause for concern. W. Stephen Gilbert's biography of Dennis Potter (Fight And Kick And Bite), states that one of Newman's maxims was, "ya gotta grab 'em by the balls in the first thirty seconds"; and certainly, with audience-catching a priority, Newman had no qualms about countering ITV'S shows with ones along the same lines. Debatably, Doctor Who was devised to get the imaginative older child away from comparable adventure series on ITV (and Newman had produced a sci-fi series, the Pathfinders sequence, himself during his time at ABC); while The Wednesday Play, as a vehicle for new dramatic writing, unashamedly mirrored Armchair Theatre. Newman's first move to catching the Avengers audience was to attempt to acquire the rights to Sexton Blake, a kind of Sherlock Holmes for younger readers which originated in magazines and 'pulp' novels of the 20's and 30's; but ITV beat him to it, although the resulting series, starring a regrettably forgotten 50's actor, Laurence Payne, was screened in children's viewing times.

Eventually, Newman came up with the idea of a Victorian stiff-upper-lip adventurer, frozen in suspended animation by his arch-rival in 1902, and who resumes his career of derring-do upon thawing out in 1966, despite being somewhat startled by what he finds. He handed the job of producing the show to one of his favoured producers, Verity Lambert, who he had earlier trusted with launching DOCTOR WHO; after a spell as head of production at Euston Films, she's still in the fantasy-thriller genre today, as producer of the highly enjoyable Jonathan Creek (BBC, 1997- ). Nigel Davenport—seen in "The Danger Makers" and "Split!"—was originally considered for Adam Llewellyn de Vere Adamant (as Newman eventually named his character, after experimenting with Damon Kane, amongst other, unintentionally camp-sounding possibilities), but Lambert cast Harper after being impressed by his swordplay in a classic serial version of The Corsican Brothers (ATV, 1966), directed by Avengers hand John (Llewellyn) Moxey. It can't be coincidental that both the other regulars had made Avenging appearances. Juliet Harmer, seen in "The Town of No Return," was cast as Georgina Jones, a typical 60's dollybird who befriends Adamant on his recovery; in what was a kind of reversal of Steed's relationships with Cathy and Emma, blonde Georgie had a definite crush on Adamant, but as befitting his upright manner, it was never reciprocated. Despite getting into a few fight scenes, she also differed from Steed's leading ladies in that she was far more prone to being kidnapped. Gravel-voiced Jack May, who was in "The Secrets Broker," played Simms, Adamant's cigar-smoking, limerick-spouting butler; and utterly stole the show, IMHO, although he wasn't in every episode. (A thought: why did Steed never have a "gentleman's gentleman"?)

Getting the format right didn't prove easy, with much re-shooting on the pilot episode, "A Vintage Year for Scoundrels" (1966), attested to by the finished episode crediting three writers and two directors. The episode began with Adamant, in 1902, being lured into the suspended-animation trap by his leather-masked adversary, The Face (later to reappear in some episodes). His last memory of his former life was his "sweetheart" Louise, revealed to be in league with The Face, intoning, "So clever... but oh so vulnerable"; in a repetitive device more suited to an American series, every episode would include Adamant being knocked unconscious, accompanied by a reprise of this sequence.

To someone who hasn't seen the series, Adam Adamant is best described as combining Emma Peel story lines with Cathy Gale production values. Cases included a line of dresses that cause their wearers to come under remote control (which was also used in an Avengers strip in the comic Diana), a threat to pollute London's water with a deadly virus by a madman (played by that marvellous diabolical mastermind, the late Peter Jeffrey) with a private colony of Beautiful People, and a train that disappears en route to its destination, with Simms on board, into a loony doctor's private station. For comedy purposes, much was made of Adamant's being amazed by cameras, air travel and the like, and the contrast between his Victorian attitudes and the liberated ethos of Swinging London; he also, in a Doctor Who-like manner, baffled people by boasting of meeting the long-dead great and good, and claimed to have opened the Brighton Pavilion, for example, in "Death Has A Thousand Faces" (1966).

As regards the Avengers similarities, "The Village of Evil" (1966) had the "Murdersville"-ish concept of Adamant being held prisoner in a village where all concerned try to fool him into thinking he's back in1902 (and this was a year before The Prisoner), while the premise of "Death By Appointment Only" (1966) was downright identical to that of "The Murder Market." But, as anyone with the slightest exposure to early Doctor Who can testify, the methods of BBC drama production at the time, really only one step up from the days when everything was live (although Adamant did have quite a lot of filmed location shots) did not really lend themselves to special effects, or convincingly staged fight sequences. For example, in a climactic duel in "The Terribly Happy Embalmers" (1966), in which Adamant supposedly runs through frequent Avengers doppelganger Jeremy Young with his sword, it's obvious to a trained monkey that the sword actually goes underneath Young's arm.

That episode featured John LeMesurier as a psychiatrist who arranges for his wealthy patients to fake their own deaths, with full undertaking service and burial provided, in return for handing over their estates to him—upon which, they are promptly killed for real. If this plot line sounds familiar, it's because this episode's screenwriter was none other than Brian Clemens; ever resourceful, he re-used the basic idea in "Bizarre," while LeMesurier's casting rather suggests his similar role in "Mandrake." Along with Adamant's script consultant, fellow Avengers scribe Tony Williamson, Clemens also came up with the story for "A Slight Case of Reincarnation" (1966). Other writers common to both shows were Richard Harris and Robert Banks Stewart; Roger Marshall, a key Cathy Gale scriptwriter but who, as he admitted in the Avenging The Avengers documentary, was starting to have differences of opinion with Clemens around this time, did some "fixing" on the show, but wasn't credited on screen (possibly as he was still under contract to ABC). Guest stars who had been or would be in The Avengers included Peter Bowles, Colin Jeavons, Kate O'Mara, Peter Vaughan, Annette Andre, Patricia Haines, T. P. McKenna, Judy Parfitt, Charles Tingwell, Kenneth J. Warren, John Carson, Gerald Sim, Michael Robbins, Talfryn Thomas and even stuntmen Alf Joint and Nosher Powell. Dame Gladys Cooper and Upstairs Downstairs co-star and co-creator Jean Marsh (both of whose guest roles were more often on American TV) also turned up, and there were more or less straight parts for Max Adrian (Frankie Howerd's slave-master in Up Pompeii!), barking mad Welshman Windsor Davies, and Sykes cohort Deryck Guyler, while Patrick Troughton did "D For Destruction" (1966), as a military villain, which aired three weeks before his first appearance as Doctor Who. And a former set designer, Ridley Scott, got early chances to direct with "The League of Uncharitable Ladies" (1966), "Death Begins at Seventy" and "The Resurrectionists" (both 1967).

Complete with a truly magnificent title song, ("if you should look... for a man who loves danger!... to whom love is a stranger…"), characteristically shouted rather than sung by chanteuse Kathy Kirby, the series made its debut as the BBC's summer replacement for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., on Thursday evenings after Top Of The Pops. (Transatlantic trivia; The Time Tunnel's first British showing was as the Beeb's summer replacement for Doctor Who.) It quickly proved popular, leading to a second series with an increased budget and, significantly, a schedule change to Saturday nights; opposing The Avengers, in some regions. In those days, however, ratings weren't everything, and Newman wasn't happy with the show overall, and the star in particular.

Harper played Adamant in an energetic but mannered fashion, sometimes almost staring straight into the camera, and delivering his lines in a declamatory fashion which at least reflected the Victorian styleof acting. Indeed, it could be said that he was deliberately acting as if he was in a different show to everyone else, to emphasise Adamant'sfish-out-of-water nature. But, along with the production values, this does mean that the show compares rather unfavourably to The Avengers; via Patrick Macnee's more believable method of acting, we laugh with Steed, whereas with Harper the temptation is to laugh AT Adamant, and therefore at the series, for the wrong reasons. After the second series, Newman called Harper in for a meeting, during which he informed the actor he was "too stuck-up" in the role. When Harper refused to change his style, Newman cancelled the series, stating he felt it hadn't gelled properly anyway. It may, admittedly, not have been as completely successful as The Avengers, but compared well with most of the ITC series, its other form of competition, so no third series was a shame (if made, I think it could well have been in colour, as Peter Cushing's Sherlock Holmes series was).

Harper next did an episode of The Caesars (Granada, 1968), as Lucius Vitellius, with Freddie Jones as Claudius, then returned to The Avengers for the doomed "The Great Great Britain Crime," followed by The Champions, "The Fanatics" (ATV/ITC, 1968), also with Julian Glover, in which William Gaunt (seen in "Traitor in Zebra") joins a cell of assassins and is ordered to kill his own boss. Frankly, when the second of these was rehashed as "Homicide and Old Lace," it looked more like a Champions episode, with its use of heavy post-production including dubbed voices, reliance on stock footage, and unconvincing foreigners (to cap it all, Donald Pickering, the agent who rises from the dead in what was presumably the original episode's teaser, was in "The Fanatics" as well). And it's tempting to see the aunts' comments on how stupid Harper's character is as Clemens having a sly revenge on his imitators. Harper wasn't on the guest-starring treadmill for long, though; he was soon regularly appearing in Gazette (YTV, 1968), a series about a provincial newspaper, as James Hadleigh, the squire of Melford Park and son of the paper's owner. This character became so popular with viewers that an eponymous series, Hadleigh (YTV, 1969-76), was swiftly concocted and became a long-runner. It was one of those shows that was hugely popular at the time while seldom if ever connecting with reality; the audience of housewives for whom Harper presented a dashing and compulsive character were presumably unaware that the real-life squires were either dying off or on their uppers financially. To be fair, Hadleigh (after seasons of being a swooned-over eligible bachelor) did acquire a wife who'd previously been a secretary, while fighting off the prospect of losing his home and horses became a recurring plotline. Later seasons found Harper growing a Jason King-style moustache, perhaps to counteract his hair thinning on top (he'd actually worn a "widow's peak" toupee as Adam Adamant); he wore some pretty cool velvet smoking jackets as well.

Again for Brian Clemens, Harper did an episode of Thriller, "If It's A Man—Hang Up!" (ATV/ITC, 1975), Clemens' anthology series of feature-length tales that (despite being made on the British system of 625-line videotape) was also shown in the US as part of ABC's Wide World Of Entertainment. Despite Clemens' strong female characters in The Avengers, however, he seemed rather too fond for my liking of the storyline of a lone woman, in this case Carol Lynley, the obligatory second-rank American star, being menaced by a killer and/or rapist, before being rescued by a man (Tom Conti here); he used it in at least two other Thriller episodes, and re-jigged this one as a West End play, "Lover". The remake of The Lady Vanishes (1979) was one of the last films made by Hammer, I'm afraid one book on the studio states that they rejected Diana Rigg, amongst others, for the female lead; Cybill Shepherd and Elliott Gould were annoying leads, while Harper, along with other such lovely people as Arthur Lowe (soon to be qv), Angela Lansbury and Ian Carmichael, was only required to be old-fashioned in support.

No doubt building on his Hadleigh image, Harper had an implausible role as a DJ on the London-only station Capital Radio in the 70's and 80's, where he played slushy love songs, read out listeners' romantic messages and dedications, and sent flowers and bottles of champagne to some of them. He later crossed over to the BBC network Radio Two, a station which in terms of music and style of presentation remains locked somewhere in the 50's; he used to begin this show by declaiming, "My name is Gerald Harper—welcome to my Saturday Selection", sounding as if he was wearing full evening dress. It was the kind of thing that could probably only be done now as a send-up, but it ran successfully until 1990. Continuing in the voice-over vein, he has lent his tones to several documentaries, including the long-running documentary series World In Action, and innumerable commercials. One on-camera appearance he probably doesn't care to be reminded of was an unfunny stand-up performance by Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson (apparently now big in the US, and they're welcome to him), with even weaker framing sketches, made in 1989 as If It's Tuesday This Must Be Cokerfield. Peter Cook and Frankie Howerd, comic geniuses who sadly needed the work, were roped in, with Harper unrecognisable as a Cockney stage doorman; after it was retitled The Craig Ferguson Story, Harry Thompson wrote in his biography of Cook that Channel 4 judged it "so hopeless that transmission was delayed until 1991, in the forlorn hope that the impact of reputations falling on to concrete from a great height might be dulled by a suitably obscure placing."

Harper was the victim—oh sorry, subject—of the inevitable This Is Your Life in 1980. Following Hadleigh, most of his career has been on stage, where he still remains busy, including The Business Of Murder, again by Francis Durbridge, and a one-man show on Rudyard Kipling, The King's Trumpeter, in the 80's; The Royal Baccarat Scandal, with Keith Michell, in the West End in 1990-91, and most recently, George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, earlier this year. He has most recently been on screen in a silly and rather sexist infomercial, advising oldies that falling down stairs is not a good idea.

With Adam Adamant Lives! continuing to be frustratingly hard to get the chance to see (about half the series wiped, no repeats, and a video release of just two episodes), screenings in the National Film Theatre's television retrospectives have been particularly welcome. For the record, the NFT has twice compared and contrasted the series with The Avengers; in June 1993, the aforementioned "League of Uncharitable Ladies" formed the co-feature to "Escape in Time," while in June 1997, as part of a tribute to Sydney Newman, "A Touch of Brimstone" was screened alongside "Sing a Song of Murder" (1966), in which a record turns Georgie and other grooving teenies into unstoppable killing machines upon hearing it. Nice double-bills, both.

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This bio Copyright 1999-2008 Gavin Gaughan.
Page last modified 1 September 2002.