The Protectors (1972)

1972 - United Kingdom

'There is a small group of private detectives who are able to work more efficiently because they are operating outside the law.'

The above outline was handed to Gerry Anderson early one morning by ATV chief Lew Grade, and would form the basis of Anderson’s first full live-action (devoid of models or space-age gadgets) series – The Protectors.

Anderson was accustomed to early morning meetings with Grade, who consistently began his workday around 6:30 am. Over the past decade, the pair had maintained a strong working relationship, with Anderson producing some of ITC’s most successful transatlantic TV series. However, on this particular day, Anderson noticed that Grade was in an unusually foul mood. When Grade handed Anderson a piece of paper containing a scant series outline, his demeanor suggested a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude. Anderson sensed that declining this offer would leave him with no other options. Nevertheless, the outline, about an international crime fighting agency for hire, and its jet-setting operatives, was vague enough for Anderson to believe he could virtually create his own series, so he accepted it. Grade promptly placed an initial order for 26 episodes.

The series would receive joint financing from Lew Grade and John Barry of the Fabergé perfume company, allowing for a larger-than-usual budget and ample foreign location work. Anderson and Reg Hill developed the concept of a brotherhood of the world’s top private detectives, led by a London-based American named Craig Bradford. Assisting him would be a German investigator named Kurt Neilson, along with the beautiful Contessa di Contini (formerly the British aristocrat Lady Caroline), who was actually modelled after Sylvia Anderson’s puppet creation, Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds.

Some weeks after the casting of Tony Anholt, Anderson attended a Screen Writers Guild dinner. Lew Grade was there too, and so was actress Nyree Dawn Porter, who had been a hit in the classic BBC series The Forsyte Saga. "I was sitting at my table when suddenly a cigar appeared over my shoulder followed by the legendary Lord Lew," remembered Nyree. "He said to me, 'My dear, I'd like you to do a series for us.' Of course, I was thrilled and said 'How lovely. Could I see the scripts?' He answered 'don’t worry, they'll be written for you. Now, who would you prefer as your leading man, Gene Barry, Chuck Connors or Robert Vaughn?'"

Gene Barry had already been approached by Grade to star in his own series for ITC (The Adventurer) but luckily Porter said that she would like Vaughn to be her leading man. She only discovered later that he had already been cast. It was a deliberate ploy by Grade to make the actress think that she had a say in the casting process. With the shake of a hand the deal was done and Grade then sought out Anderson whom he found at the bar. "I've got marvellous news for you!" He told Anderson. "I've just signed Nyree Dawn Porter for the second lead in The Protectors." Gerry Anderson thought this less than marvellous. "But Lew, the second lead is a male!" "Oh well," said the TV mogul with a shrug of his shoulders. "You'll just have to rewrite the scripts, won't you?""

The Protectors

The publicity blurb, when it came out, read like this: "The organization exists to protect those in peril, its members being super-agents from the world's best detective agencies. Every Protector keeps in close communication with his colleagues so they can draw on the collective intelligence and skills of these international networks. It is a private organization, unrestricted by the technicalities, which so often hamper the law. Protectors can break through handicapping legal red tape and international frontiers, their methods often being as unconventional as they are hazardous. Money is no object. The Protectors are expensive to hire and are called upon not only by private individuals but also by powerful groups. Those bodies employing them know they are hiring not only individual and collective skills, but also the latest scientific devices".

The series predominantly concerned itself with the two main leads, Harry Rule, living in a mock-Tudor mansion somewhere in London and the Contessa Caroline di Contini (who resides in her late husband’s villa in Rome) with Parisian based playboy Buchet appearing every so often over the course of the first series rather than as a regular. Other characters in the earlier episodes included Chino (Anthony Chinn), the Contessa’s karate expert chauffeur and Suki (Yasuko Nagazami), Harry's judo expert au pair.

The Protectors, penned by top TV scriptwriters of its time, didn’t consistently meet the high standards viewers anticipated. Against glamorous backdrops the series unfolded at a breakneck pace. In true Gerry Anderson fashion the opening sequence featured car chases, brawls, and explosions. The closing theme, Avenues and Alleyways, struck a chord with audiences, becoming a top thirty hit (peaking at number 37) for Tony Christie and remained his longest-running chart hit until 2005. The lyrics of the theme song aptly captured the show’s essence: "In the Avenues and Alleyways: Where the soul of a man is easy to buy. Everybody's wheeling, everybody's stealing, all the low are living a high. Every city's got 'em. Can we ever stop 'em?. Some of us are gonna try."

The Protectors

However, the quality of the stories varied, leading to behind-the-scenes challenges. Gerry Anderson clashed repeatedly with Robert Vaughn, who openly expressed his dislike for the series and his unpleasant experience in the United Kingdom. Vaughn even labeled all European technicians as a “load of crap” in the New York Times before the show aired, his frustration coming from the strict union rules that the crew were forced to work under. The feud escalated to the point where Anderson threatened to sue the star, and Vaughn considered flying back to California without further filming. Despite their differences, both men managed to find common ground. Yet, they never became close friends. Similarly, tensions flared between Anderson and Nyree Dawn Porter, who once unleashed a drunken foul-mouthed tirade against him in a restaurant over a dispute about her makeup artist. Anderson later admitted "It was not a happy series."

Nevertheless, The Protectors became Gerry Anderson’s most successful TV series since Thunderbirds, and it marked Vaughn’s first triumph since The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The show’s popularity led to a swift commission for a second season. Notable guest stars included UFO’s Ed Bishop, Thunderbirds’ Shane Rimmer, and a lineup featuring Stephanie Beacham, Patrick Troughton, David Suchet, Eartha Kitt, Kate O’Mara, Joss Ackland, Jeremy Brett, Anton Rogers, and John Thaw. Unfortunately, plans for a third season fell apart due to a falling out between Fabergé’s John Barry and Lew Grade.

Following the cancellation of the series, Gerry Anderson went off to make Space: 1999 a series of his own creation that was much more in keeping with his reputation. Still, The Protectors remains popular to this day and is a good example of the last of a genre that is popularly described as 'cool spies and private eyes.'

The Leads

Robert Vaughn

Robert Vaughn was born in New York City on November 22nd 1932. Vaughn's first notable appearance was in The Young Philadelphians (1959) for which he was nominated for the Academy Award. Starting in 1964, he starred as Napoleon Solo, the eponymous Man from U.N.C.L.E., along with British co-star David McCallum. He was the last of the seven main stars of The Magnificent Seven to remain alive. He continued to act in film and television until he passed away in 2016, probably his best remembered later role was in the 2004 - 2012 BBC series Hustle. He passed away in November 2016 at the age of 83.

Tony Anholt

Tony Anholt was born in Singapore in 1941. Anholt moved to England with his mother when he was three. He worked as a teacher before moving into acting at the age of 26. Apart from recurring roles in The Protectors and Space: 1999, Tony also played suave tycoon Charles Frere in Howards' Way for five years until the show ended in 1990. Sadly, Tony passed away in July 2002 at the age of 61. 

Nyree Dawn Porter

Nyree Dawn Porter, whose first name means little flower in Maori, was born in New Zealand, the daughter of a butcher. At 20 she won an acting scholarship to London and her first TV job was in the title role of BBC2's serial Madame Bovary. She won a host of admirers for her role as Irene Forsyte in The 1967 series The Forsyte Saga. More than 160 million viewers world-wide in 26 countries followed the series, which is one of the most celebrated British period dramas ever made. Nyree passed away unexpectedly in April 2001. Like Tony Anholt, she was just 61 years of age.

Published on April 30th, 2024. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.

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