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Wednesday 28 June 2017

Simon Templar and Me

DigitalSpy reports that the unaired 2013 pilot for a modern reboot of The Saint will be available for streaming next month, although the site doesn't yet specify where. It also attributes Simon West's directing credit to Ernie Barbarash, for reasons that lie shrouded in mystery.

I've known about this for a while, and I've been wondering when we might see it get a release.The pilot was financed and made without a network on board, which is always a risky strategy. Networks and cable companies like to put their stamp on every show they air, while distributors who simply buy in product rarely have the means to finance it. But the trailer's fun and the show looks pretty entertaining, if you can get past the notion of a designer-stubble Simon Templar.

A couple of years before its making I had a three-week series of phone conversations with the producer who'd acquired screen rights to the character. He was a deal-maker with a long track record of getting high production values on limited budgets, mainly with action movies shot in Eastern Europe. The budgetary element may explain why the phone stopped ringing the day after my agent became involved, but over those three weeks I had time to think about the material and begin to form a 'take'.

I reckon enough water's passed under the bridge for me to be able to share my first, exploratory memo on the character, written a couple of weeks in. Followers of the blog may recall that I was once asked to offer a similar take on Danger Man. Before the conversation ended I took The Saint a step further with a couple of follow-up pages – nothing like a fully-fledged treatment, just the necessary bones of a story.

But as Laurence Olivier used to say to avoid performing in interviews, you have to pay money for that.
How I'd do THE SAINT 
(not in that sense)

I'd argue that The Saint is to TV what Bond is to film; a classy British export that gradually lost its oomph as it moved further away from its origins. The key to a successful reboot of the Bonds was a return to the underlying material. The key to a rebooted Saint will lie in a return to Charteris' character and story choices.

There were a zillion 'Gentleman Outlaws' in 30s fiction and none of them had the genes for survival we find in The Saint. It shouldn't be rocket science – LC's own description of 'the Robin Hood of modern crime' pretty much tells you all you need to know.

He's a guy with a complete disregard for authority and a rigorous code of personal fairness. He lives high on money he takes from thieves and the greedy rich. He appears to seek a life of luxury and entertainment, and nothing entertains him more than righting an injustice done to an innocent. But every now and again, we get a glimpse of the utter steel underneath. We may get the sense that something really bad happened to him early in life, and it made him who he is. We'll never find out what it was, and it's important that we don't.

The most recent screen incarnations have ignored all that. They've treated The Saint as an ordinary hero and they've flopped.

There's an artistic case to be made for taking The Saint right back to the 30s as a period piece, but not a commercial one. The new show needs to feature his timeless nature in the modern world. Yes, he's British, but it's the kind of Britishness that goes for export. They want the guy in good clothes with the manners and taste and the accent.

We may think of the Saint as a rootless figure wandering the world and encountering random adventures, but he isn't. Some of the ITC episodes presented him that way but Charteris gave him a precinct and a supporting cast, and the old show made frequent, though inconsistent, use of them.

I'm coming to this with a blank slate. I don't know what anyone's expecting to see. But it's been emphasised that the source material should be honoured so here's how I'd approach it.

When not travelling or enjoying the life in 5-star continental hotels, Simon Templar lives in Upper Berkeley Mews in London. Mews are courtyards to be found behind London's grandest rows of townhouses. They were originally built to stable the horses, carriages and grooms of the big houses. Now they're like secret cobbled streets in the middle of the city. Mews cottages are expensive but we never see the Saint concern himself with money, apart from the odd hint about his finances when he pays for a suite with the credit card of some millionaire that he's had reason to punish (he has a wallet full of them). He owns or rents an adjoining property and he's knocked a hole through the wall so that he come and go, undetected by anyone who has him under surveillance. The former stables is now a garage/workshop in which stands a classic Hispano-Suiza car, a thing of beauty but mostly in pieces, a restoration project rather like Gibbs' boat in NCIS; we'll rarely, if ever, get to see him work on it but it makes the point that he's a guy entirely capable of rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty. And the workshop's a handy place to cut open a strongbox, build some device, or question a captured enemy tied to a chair.

World travel was a feature of the ITC series and it needs some thinking about now. There were two kinds of locales; trouble spots, which were usually fictional African or South American countries, and millionaires' playgrounds, featuring casinos and palm trees. Stories set in Miami or the Cote d'Azur sprang from Charteris' lifestyle once the money from his writing enabled him to indulge his own Templar-like tastes.

Watching those shows today is weird because of the transparency of the artifice. One grainy library shot followed by an hour on the backlot, with the same stock company of character actors in ethnic makeup. But when the Ian Ogilvy and Simon Dutton series shot in genuine Mediterranean locations, the production values were higher but there was something missing in the feel of the shows.

If an international element is the key to snagging a US TV network and European sales, then clearly it's a problem that has to be solved. If a US studio is excited by the thought of a rebooted Saint then it would be useful to know what they're seeing in their minds when they respond. Simon Templar + Americans abroad in European cities? Library footage and green-screen work no longer jar, and shows like Alias, Covert Affairs and Nikita include foreign sequences without leaving home. But they make it quick and they don't linger long enough for the illusion to be exposed.

Characters – there's Patricia Holm, sometimes described as the Saint's girlfriend but their relationship is way more subtle and complicated than that. Sex is occasionally implied but they're not a couple. It's as if Charteris had invented the concept of 'friends with benefits' way before anyone else dared to think of it. She'd have him, if he was a normal, available guy, but she knows him well – probably better than anyone – and knows that he isn't. Whatever shaped him made that hard core impenetrable. You can get up close, and Patricia Holm gets closer than anyone. But there's no way in. So she dates other guys and knows he has flings with other women. Sometimes she worries about him as a mother might. If she were in danger, Simon would move the earth to save her. And God help the person who did her any harm. She doesn't play a featured role in every story but she's a thread in Templar's life.

Whenever Simon has a run-in with the police they're usually represented in the figure of Inspector Teal, a dour and serious older man whom Simon delights in baiting. Teal endures the teasing with heroic stoicism. Though he's a comic creation, he's no fool and Simon knows it. They're natural opponents in a game with rules, and on rare occasions they can set aside the rules and work as allies when there's a powerful reason to do so. The bottom line, though, is that Templar's disregard for the letter of the law means that Teal wants to see him behind bars. He knows that Simon's personal code makes him capable of anything, including murder.

Others: If there's a need to introduce an American character, Charteris gives us one in the form of Hoppy Uniatz, a boneheaded and thickly-accented New York gangster who served as a London sidekick in the later stories. Frankly, I think he's too broad a caricature for the reboot. In the Saint's US-set adventures Inspector Teal has a counterpart in NYPD detective Inspector Henry Fernack. Fernack has little that's special about him that I can recall. Minor but memorable is Orace, a taciturn former military valet who's caretaker in a property that Simon owns and uses as a country hideaway.

Stories – I don't know if the option deal includes the rights to the Charteris stories and previous TV material. If it does then that's well over 100 springboards from the TV scripts alone, but the optimum would be the Casino Royale route – go to the written source material and apply contemporary re-imagination directly to that.

For a pilot, select a story with opportunities to touch all the bases above – the mews house, Patricia Holm, Teal, Orace, an American villain or victim, something that takes Templar to Paris, a denouement that reveals the ruthless core behind the charm, and a tag that leaves Patricia in wistful contemplation of their relationship before she walks away and leaves him for now. But... first we introduce the new Saint in a self-contained teaser, set somewhere with money, sunshine and bikinis, that plays like the action finale of a big story we just walked in at the end of.

(then a title sequence that evokes and updates the classic Chambers & Partners style, with a new David Arnold theme)

A current show that owes much to The Saint is USA's White Collar, though Matt Bomer's love-hurt jewel thief is a gelded version of Templar. You couldn't imagine Templar trapped into serving an FBI agent or submitting to an ankle tag. But Bomer himself would have made an excellent Saint; as, I suspect, would The Tudors' Henry Cavill, if the Superman people hadn't got to him first.
So there you go.