Why do all the passengers from an airline go missing mid-flight? How does a food critic wind up in the middle of a desert after a night at the opera? Why has the ground floor of a stately home, found to contain a mentally handicapped young man and the dead body of a woman, been constructed inside an old warehouse? These are just some of the unsolved mysteries- ranging from the believable to the outright bizarre that British 1960s TV series Department S throws at you in its gripping opening title sequences.
Once the pre-titles have hooked you in, the action freezes and the dramatic theme tune (courtesy of Edwin Astley) starts up. This segues into the brilliant multicoloured opening credits in which four people checking the contents of a top secret file has never looked so cool.
The four people in question make up the Department S team- dedicated to solving the unsolvable. They are Jason King (Peter Wyngarde), a flamboyant playboy novelist, the more down to earth and pragmatic Stewart Sullivan (Joel Fabiani) and the meticulous intelligence analyst Annabelle Hurst (Rosemary Nicols). The team is supervised by Sir Curtis Seretse, a very important member of the government (played by Dennis Alaba Peters, at a time when it was unusual to have a pivotal character who was black on UK TV).
Jason often spends most of the first half of each episode seemly doing nothing but sitting around smoking, drinking and flirting. He is useless in a fight and usually gets knocked out quickly- which becomes a running in-joke (lots of cardboard boxes in the background, naturally!). However he makes up for this by often working out a key aspect of the case in the eleventh hour (by comparing the case to a situation that his character Mark Caine had to deal with in one of Jason’s novels).
American former FBI agent Stewart Sullivan is the best in a fight and good at giving an overview the pieces of the puzzle that Jason and Annabelle have unearthed. He provides a good, grounded contrast to the excesses of Jason’s character.
Annabelle Hurst keeps a cool head in a crisis and, in the cases when she does get abducted, calmly questions her captors about their motives (no useless screaming female sidekick here!). She is also in charge of the team’s computer, Auntie, that rattles out a printed reply to questions about the case.
Although the three members of the Department S team work together well- there is often rivalry between Annabelle and Jason- the two having opposing ideas about the case, as well as clashing personalities. Jason perceives Annabelle as too uptight and straight laced, whereas Annabelle dislikes Jason’s sometimes egotistical, devil-may-care outlook. The barbs and comebacks that fly between them can be quite entertaining. The pragmatic Stewart often acts as a buffer between them. There is also a latent attraction between Annabelle and Stewart running under the surface which is never fully explored and all the more entertaining for it.
Department S was made on a limited TV budget and this sometimes shows (in sharp contrast to later ITC series The Persuaders!). Good use is made of stock footage of different exotic locations to provide establishing shots and give the series a globe trotting feel. Then the programme switches back to the studio to show the characters in a hotel in Beirut (A Fish out of Water) or a cable car in the Alps (The Ghost of Mary Burnham). These expense saving methods are mostly effective and don’t detract from the programme- with the exception of one scene where Stewart discusses the case with Curtis while they are jogging (The Last Train to Redbridge). The actors are running in front of a film backdrop, which just looks clunky. The crane shot which concludes the pre-titles of The Pied Piper of Hambledown (one of the best episodes) probably accounted for a chunk of their budget that week!
The costumes are great and reflect the characters’ personalities. Annabelle favours bold monochrome skirt suits and dresses in bright oranges, light blues, deep greens or sunny yellows. Stewart’s clothing leans towards neutral beige and dark suits, providing a sharp contrast to Jason. Jason King’s flamboyant style is an institution in itself, and Peter Wyngarde would go on to win the ‘Best Dressed Man in Britain’ award in 1970- among other similar accolades from popular magazines.
Overall there is much to enjoy here. While some cases are more cleverly written or more intriguing than others- what really makes this series a must watch is the relationships between the main characters. Peter Wyngarde really makes the eccentric Jason King his own and would continue to do so in the more frivolous spin-off series Jason King.
All 28 episodes are readily available in a special edition DVD in the UK, which you can buy from Amazon UK HERE.
This edition comes with lots of extras including a ‘Making of’ documentary, commentary tracks and an episode of ‘Man in a Suitcase’ featuring Rosemary Nicols.
Unfortunately for US fans, Department S doesn’t have a Region 1 release- though the spin off Jason King does, which you can get from Amazon.com HERE.