The Adventures of William Tell

1958 | United Kingdom

Conrad Phillips starred as the legendary hero from the Swiss settlement of Berglan in Uri, who became a folk hero very much in the Robin Hood mode. The story of William Tell goes back nearly seven centuries (first appearing in a chronicle of 1470) to the days when the Austrians were the overlords of the states that now make up Switzerland, and the invading Austrian Governor Landburgher Gessler ruled with tyrannical force. To make sure that he was feared and respected Gessler placed his hat on a pole in the market place of Altdorf and ordered every citizen to salute it as they passed by. Then one day Tell walked into town with his son, and disgusted with the Austrian rule and the crippling taxes that they had imposed, walked past the hat without even looking at it. He was immediately seized by soldiers and taken before the tyrant. Gessler, who had heard of Tell and his skills as a bowman, told him that he could only avoid execution by shooting an arrow into an apple placed on his son's head from a distance of 20 paces (try it, it's longer than you think). 

Legend has it that Tell succeeded and later slew Gessler and so initiated the movement which secured Switzerland's independence. In Altdorf today there stands a statue of William Tell holding his son in one hand and his crossbow in the other. However, like most folklore, the story -as well as Tell's own existence- is open to dispute. For the series, Tell had kept an extra arrow for Gessler (Willoughby Goddard), in case he failed to shoot the apple, and on discovering this, the Governor ordered his re-arrest. But Tell escaped and fled to the mountains with his son, Walter (Richard Rogers) and his wife, Hedda (Jennifer Jayne), before leading a small band of followers into a series of forays against the Austrians. Actor Conrad Phillips was 34 years of age when he took the part of William Tell. A Londoner who served in the Navy during the war he was also an ex student of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. 

Phillips performed most of his own stunts and by the end of the series he had suffered a broken ankle, torn ligaments, and was left with a scar across his right shoulder as the result of a sword fight that became too realistic. The format of the series altered slightly during the run. Originally the Tell family was made up of wife, son and dog, but the dog was quickly dropped after the first few episodes when it was realised that far too much time was needed for it to learn its stunts. Next went the son, played by child actor Richard Rogers, allegedly because he was late for work too many times, holding up filming. Then, when actress Jennifer Jayne complained about not having enough to do, apart from appearing as the dutiful wife at the beginning and end of each episode, her part was expanded-even to the point where Jayne was giving fencing lessons so she could join in the action.

Location work took place in and around the area of Snowdonia and the usual ITC stable of writers, directors and producers were employed. Of more interest however is the impressive list of 'guest' actors who were starting out on the road to stardom (and in some cases superstardom). Early roles were given to Michael Caine, Christopher Lee, John Le Mesurier, Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wilfrid Brambell. Phillips re-surfaced years later as an estate agent in the rural soap Emmerdale Farm (another vehicle for Frazer Hines), and later still in 1989 in an Anglo-French remake of the Tell saga, in which he made a guest appearance. 

Published on November 27th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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