Freewheelers

1968 | United Kingdom

One the most fondly remembered children's adventure series of its generation, Freewheelers was an adrenalin-charged 30 minute actioneer from Southern Television that featured all the gadgets of a decent Bond movie minus the sex and sadism. 

The Freewheelers were a group of teenage (usually about 18 or 19 years old) agents working under the umbrella of MI5 and who got their orders from Colonel Buchan (Ronald Leigh-Hunt). The original line-up consisted of Chris Kelly (Gregory Phillips), Bill Cowan (Tom Owen) and Terry Driver (Mary Maude) and told the tale of a student who stumbled across a mystery at a railway station, teamed up with two similarly young bystanders and formed a mystery-cracking team. 

The original cast of Freewheelers

The regular villain of the piece was a disgruntled Nazi called Von Gelb (Geoffrey Toone) who was trying to avenge Germany's defeat in the war. Von Gelb lived on a motor launch which would have been beyond the budget of most children's series. However, Southern Television owned an outside broadcasting/news gathering boat called The Southerner (the only British TV company to possess one), which conveniently doubled as the villain's craft and had numerous storylines devised around its employ. 

Von Gelb (Geoffrey Toone)

The Von Gelb character was dropped when the series was sold to West Germany but the format remained the same with the current baddie bent on world domination via the kidnapping of a famous scientist who had just invented a new mind control drug, killer laser beam, etc...but the plotlines were usually secondary to the action which took the cast and crew to Spain, France, Holland and Sweden for location work. In all probability series producer Chris McMaster was able to gain backing from the various countries as he filmed almost travelogue style as recorded in the following quote from the ITV Guide to Independent Television 1974:

"The schedule was tight. In three crowded weeks it was planned to film at a colourful gypsy festival on the shores of the Mediterranean; on the desolate marshy wastes of the Camargue; at a chateau whose history dates back to the thirteenth century; in the shadows of the awesome 'Pont d'arc', a majestic natural bridge of rock more than 150 feet high and 200 feet wide, spanning the Ardèche."

Publicity stunts were also cleverly utilised, in the case of the French jaunt it appears that a French television service got wind of the filming and turned up under the misapprehension that a new James Bond movie was in the making. In the end the eight man French crew left but three of its team stayed on several days with the British location unit. 

Wendy Padbury joined the cast of Freewheelers

The cast of Freewheelers changed over its eight season run as the producer injected a little more sex appeal by casting Adrian Wright (as Mike Hobbs) to set female pulses racing with his pin-up good looks from series four, and former Doctor Who companion Wendy Padbury joining the cast (as Sue Craig) from series five. But there was never any suggestion that any of the characters ever enjoyed anything but a purely platonic relationship, being too busy racing around and swapping punches with the baddies. 

A lot of Freewheelers was junked during the late seventies/early eighties purge of the archives, however, Mike Wormersley, the original film editor on the series privately saved many episodes and the entire first series was recovered in 2000 followed by a special screening of one complete adventure by the British Film Institute. 

In its day Freewheelers was a refreshing change to the standard kids adventure series, being packed with fast cars, speedboats, punch-ups and pin-up characters-it wouldn't be out of place on today's television.




Published on December 14th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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