Appellate Judge James A. Stewart thought about going into antiques, but he's not much of a brawler.
"What are you, Mister—Fifth Cavalry, U.S. Marines rolled into one?…Look, why don't you try and get a nice, easy job, like lion taming or walking on hot coals?"
Back in the '60s, it was getting so you couldn't turn on the TV without running into a Danger Man or a Saint or a Prisoner or an Avenger. The British Invasion wasn't just music. As James Bond captured America's attention, British adventure shows were popping up on American television. If you've heard of all the ones I've mentioned already, you've got to have guessed that there were a few that didn't make such a lasting impression.
Based on a John Creasey character, The Baron stars Steve Forrest (S.W.A.T.) as John Mannering, an antiques dealer known as "The Baron" who has a sideline in trouble. The Baron has a noble pedigree: it's from ITC, the British company behind The Saint and Danger Man; the script supervisor is Terry Nation, a prolific writer who contributed to Doctor Who, The Avengers, The Saint, and MacGyver, among others; and it features a well-to-do adventurer traveling Europe, a la The Saint (although Mannering seems to visit a lot of made-up countries). The Baron even gives Mannering a "BAR1" license plate on his sports car, a crown over his head in the intro (rather than a halo), and theme music by Edwin Astley. The first ITC hour in color, The Baron was calculated to please a global audience. Since the complete series is here, you kind of know how that turned out; the show ran only twelve episodes on ABC in the States.
Early episodes hew closely to The Saint's formula, but there's a change, starting with the ninth episode. Mannering's male assistant in the antique shop is replaced with Sue Lloyd (The Ipcress File) as Cordelia Winfield, a beauty with ties to British intelligence, most likely aiming for more of an Avengers vibe.
Facts of the Case
The Baron features 30 episodes, usually featuring some kind of antique or work of art as a MacGuffin, on eight discs:
• "Samurai West"
• "Red Horse, Red Rider"
• "The Legions of Ammak"
• "Epitaph for a Hero"
• "Farewell to Yesterday"
• "The Persuaders"
• "Enemy of the State"
• "There's Someone Close Behind You"
• "And Suddenly You're Dead"
• "Masquerade" (Part 1)
• "The Killing" (Part 2)
• "Long Ago and Far Away"
• "The Seven Eyes of Night"
• "The Long, Long Day"
• "The Edge of Fear"
• "So Dark the Night"
• "The Maze"
• "Night of the Hunter"
• "The Island" (Part 2)
• "The Man Outside"
If you've seen other British adventure shows from the same era—particularly The Saint—you already have a good idea of what The Baron delivers: an escapist world where the hero always saves the day with charm, principle, reckless behavior, and a brawl in the last act, with a few twists thrown in to honor the character's mystery novel origins. Heck, I even noticed Forrest trying a couple of those raised eyebrows that Roger Moore was famous for.
You're probably also familiar with the flaws: it's mostly studio-bound, with foreign locales represented by generic abandoned buildings, stock footage, and sets; it's done by English actors for an English-speaking audience, so heavy fake accents are used to distinguish nationality; "longshot" clues improbably help Mannering solve crimes; and heroes get conked on the head or taken hostage a lot. It appears that Mannering keeps returning to the temple ruins in "Night of the Hunter" simply because it's a neat set (but I'll admit that it is a neat set).
In a commentary, Sue Lloyd and production supervisor Johnny Goodman note that The Baron was more serious than The Saint. That seems to come from Steve Forrest's performance, which has a rough-and-tumble B-movie attitude. In the early episodes, it just makes for more of a straight-up action show, in which Mannering comes in charging with gun and fist. When Sue Lloyd turns up as a regular, she grabs viewers' attention very quickly. Lloyd plays Cordelia with a knowing humor and mischievousness that's a fun contrast to the straightlaced Baron. She's no Emma Peel, though; while she can inflict damage, Cordelia's nervousness is evident in any fight. The teaming of Forrest and Lloyd seems awkward at first—Lloyd mentions his initial nervousness in the commentary—but works better as the series goes on.
My favorite episodes were "The Long, Long Day," a Brian Clemens story which skipped the tongue-in-cheek stuff to put Forrest's tough style to best advantage in a Western-type standoff, and three with good guest turns: "Something for a Rainy Day," with a sneaky Lois Maxwell, and the two-parter, "Storm Warning" and "The Island," with Dudley Sutton seeking respect amid a crew of villains.
The picture is decent for a show that's more than forty years old, and it looks like some care was taken with it. Still, there are a few problems: muddy day-for-night scenes, occasional flecks, and even bad UHF-style lines through the picture. The sound is good for the most part, but I found dialogue tracks that didn't quite match up on one episode and one commentary track.
The package includes some fond commentaries done for an earlier Australian DVD release of The Baron. They offer glimpses into the filming of The Baron and, since the principals also worked on other ITC series, provide an insider look at the production techniques, philosophies, and work atmosphere on ITC's shows. Veteran "ITC girl" Sue Lloyd is featured on all three commentaries. She's teamed with production supervisor Johnny Goodman to discuss "Diplomatic Immunity," director Cyril Frankel on "Something for a Rainy Day," and Goodman and director Roy Ward Baker on "The Man Outside." There are fond reminiscences of life in ITC's rep company, along with laments that television isn't as good as it was then. Among the topics touched on were McCarthy blacklist actors working in England and the budget for The Baron—among Britain's highest at the time, believe it or not! Three episode introductions—by Peter Wyngarde, Brian Clemens, and Annette Andre—were way too brief. The best was Andre's, which had me looking for the spot where she ends up with splinters during an action scene. There's also a promo from the show's original run.
Be forewarned that watching a lot of these in a short time could lead to a fanboy crush on Sue Lloyd. She's beautiful, yes, but it's a goofy charm that makes her memorable. Lloyd gets maximum mileage out of small bits, like biting into a stale baguette while on a stakeout.
Speaking of crushes: Did Mannering and Cordelia have a romantic relationship, or was Cordelia carrying an unrequited torch for the Baron? I believe the typical romantic hints laced through The Baron were meant to indicate the former, but occasionally I was left with the latter impression, since Lloyd delivers them with more emphasis than Forrest does.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Why did The Baron fail in the States? It could be that American audiences quickly learned to consider the off-kilter performances of Roger Moore and Patrick Macnee as important to the adventure genre as foreign locales, romance, and fisticuffs, making the casting of a straightforward American in this genre a fatal mistake. The abrupt change in tone, while it made The Baron stronger, could also have hurt its prospects.
The Baron may be a minor entry in British TV history, having lasted only one season, but the DVD package treats it excellently, with commentaries adding background and context, not to mention fun anecdotes. If you're a hardcore fan of British adventure, '60s style—the sort who considers stock footage, process shots, and dubious sets a good sign—you'll want to add The Baron to your collection, especially with commentaries delving into the world of ITC. The Baron isn't essential viewing, but it's a solid ITC series that could grow on you.
If you think you're too young to get into this old-fashioned stuff, think again. In the middle of my marathon week of The Baron, I caught the season opener of Burn Notice, and it felt like one more ITC hour. Sure, the budget's larger, the pace is faster, there are more explosions, and there's Bruce Campbell, but the basic storyline could have worked for The Baron and many of his stories would fit into Michael Westen's caseload. Light escapist action shows haven't changed all that much over the years.
Not guilty, even taking the lack of Bruce Campbell into account.
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