The Champions
The Complete Series Special Edition

Starring: Stuart Damon, Alexandra Bastedo and William Gaunt
RRP: 59.99
Certificate: PG
Available 31 July 2006

Agents Craig Stirling, Richard Barrett and Sharron Macready suffer a near fatal plane crash whilst on a secret mission. Rescued by an enigmatic Tibetan monk our heroes are transformed into beings with special gifts such as strength, telepathy and E.S.P. These attributes are kept a secret which allows them to use their powers for the common good in their work for the international spy agency Nemesis...

The Champions is perhaps one of the more neglected and overlooked shows to have emerged from the legendary ITC stable. An unusual hybrid of espionage thriller and supernatural chiller, a total of 30 episodes were transmitted in 1968/9, every one of which is presented here in a bumper 9-disc boxed set from Network that is positively overflowing with special features.

Dreamed up by the dynamic partnership of writer Dennis Spooner (Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Man In A Suitcase, Department S) and producer Monty Berman (The Saint, The Baron), the series chronicles the exploits of three agents - Craig Stirling, Sharron MacReady and Richard Barrett - working for Nemesis, a top-secret law enforcement organisation based in Geneva.

In the pilot episode (imaginatively titled The Beginning, just in case you were starting to get confused already), the three agents miraculously survive a plane crash in Tibet and are mysteriously bestowed strange powers from an enigmatic Monk with a nice beard. These new super powers tend to come in dead handy for the following twenty-nine adventures, as our heroes develop telepathic skills, E.S.P, unimaginable super strength and, my own personal favourite, the ability to jump really, really high.

Top billing is given to Stuart Damon as Craig Stirling, the typically heroic and good-looking American agent, apparently insisted upon by the mighty Lew Grade in order to gain financial interest from the States. The glamour is provided by Alexandra Bastedo as British agent Sharron MacReady, who as well as carrying the burden of being 'the pretty female one' also proves to be refreshingly capable and resourceful in her own right. The real undisputed star of the show though (despite being billed last) is the brilliant William Gaunt as Richard Barrett, the British Gentleman agent, who manages to be charming, sly, intelligent, funny, heroic and devious all at the same time. It's Gaunt's heroically likeable performance that really makes the show, as he consistently overshadows the supposed leading star.

It's genuinely surprising just how many of these episodes have stood the test of time - yes, there are a couple of damp squibs lurking in the collection but the majority of these stories are fast-paced, sharply written action adventures with a wry sense of humour oozing deliciously all the way through them. The production standards initially seem surprisingly high for such a low-budget show, as our globe-trotting heroes save the world against a backdrop of diverse internationally-flavoured locations - although after ploughing through a number of episodes, you do eventually begin to see a fair bit of recycling from the budget-conscious production team. There are no less than three episodes set in the Arctic and a further three set in very similar looking submarines, whilst the use of old stock footage is sometimes just a little too inconspicuous and distracting. Nevertheless, for a show rapidly approaching it's 40th birthday, it still looks pretty damn fine to me.

Dennis Spooner and Monty Berman were often struggling to drag the series in opposite directions. Spooner was keen on developing the supernatural side of the show and exploring the effects of the special powers bestowed upon the agents, whilst Berman favoured the straightforward spy thriller grounded in reality. It would seem that Berman won the battle. As the series progresses, the focus deepens on tense espionage drama, with the telefantasy side increasingly relegated to a couple of scenes an episode. Looking back, that's a bit of a shame - it seems odd to devise such a bold and fascinating concept, and then go on to back-peddle the entire premise of the show.

But there is still plenty to savour in this vast collection of entertaining episodes. Several familiar faces from the world of telefantasy make welcome appearances (the likes of Peter Wyngarde, Roger Delgado, Nicholas Courtney, Philip Madoc) as well as some rather more jaw-dropping appearances from Julian Glover, Stephen Berkoff and Donald Sutherland.

The final episode, Autokill, is without a shadow of a doubt, the finest of the entire run. Just as the show begins to look a little like it's running out of puff, the golden touch of Brian Clemens completely revitalises the format, as he turns the show upside down and turns the agents against each other. It's a wonderful piece of writing that ends the show on a high, but left this reviewer wanting to see further episodes of this rich quality.

Sadly, dire TV scheduling didn't give The Champions much of a chance - the episodes were held back until well over a year after they were produced, and they were finally transmitted regionally throughout the UK in varying time slots, denying the show any national impact.

In 1983, ITC culled together a feature film Legend Of The Champions for the overseas market, which was basically a slightly reworked compilation of two of the episodes, The Beginning and The Interrogation. The choice of episodes couldn't have been more absurd, as The Interrogation, whilst a perfectly pleasant episode in the right context, was virtually a 'clips show' from previous episodes and was entirely inappropriate for what was supposed to be a coherent feature film. Still, for the completists, I'm pleased to say that Legend Of The Champions is presented here in all it's glory.

In fact, the amount of special features that Network have crammed onto these nine discs is breathtaking, and it's probably worth considering buying the set even if you already own all the episodes.

Of major interest to Champions fans will be a very special extended edit of the first episode, bookended with two interesting sequences in the Nemesis Headquarters which were cut before transmission, and are presented here for the very first time.

We are also treated to a brand new documentary We Were The Champions which reunites all three leading stars for the first time in over thirty years, to reminisce with great fondness their time working for Nemesis. Stuart Damon in particular is a revelation - after watching him play the cool, arrogant American hero throughout the series, it's a delight to see the actor himself is such a jolly and bouncy character, as he exchanges warm anecdotes and memories with the rather more restrained Gaunt and Bastedo. This happy reunion is interspersed with contributions from the likes of Brian Clemens, director Cyril Frankel and many others, all of whom shed new light on some of the hilarious tight-fisted budget-saving tactics of producer Monty Berman.

The three Nemesis agents are reunited again to record brand new commentaries for the first and final episodes, gently poking fun at some of the more dated material while clearly enjoying each other's company as they view their finest hour together.

Additional extras include original artistes test footage, image and music galleries that have clearly been prepared with great care and affection, a feast of trailers, reconstructed ad-caps, an extensive merchandise gallery and much, much more. One of my favourites though is the chance to view the extremely rare Champions comic strips from the short-lived Joe 90 - Top Secret comic, presented here as PDF files.

Network really have pulled out all the stops on this to present the definitive Champions package, it's hard to think of anything more they could have possibly included. The series itself may not have been the very best of 1960's television (or even the very best of ITC's output) but the episodes remain an enjoyable slice of slightly off-the-wall telefantasy.

If you're a fan, then The Complete Series Special Edition is nothing short of essential.

Danny Salter

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