Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Jason Of Cool: The Peter Wyngarde Obituary

When it comes to the subject of yer actual cool, dear blog readers, there are some people that become cool. Some, on the other hand, achieve coolness and some have coolness extremely thrust upon them. And then, there are those who are simply born inherently, effortlessly, indisputably cool. The late Peter Wyngarde for one, almost term-defining, example.
The veteran actor, who died this week aged (approximately) ninety, played the flamboyant Jason King, a suave, womanising, champagne drinking, sixty-fags-a-day smoking bestselling crime novelist turned detective, in the cult ITV series Department S (1969 to 1970) and its spin-off, Jason King (1971 to 1972). In the process, he briefly became one of the most famous men on television, before his career was almost derailed, in part due to a conviction for cottaging.
The actor said that, when it came to his wardrobe, it was 'difficult to separate' him from his famously flamboyantly-dressed character, with his moustache, frilly shirts and wide-lapelled three-piece suits. Peter Wyngarde the man, as much as Jason King the character was a reported inspiration for Mike Myers' title character in the Austin Powers movies. Martin Clunes and Harry Enfield got the cue for their The Playboys sketches from Peter and Wyngarde also inspired Peter Richardson's role - Jason Queen - in the excellent 1988 Comic Strip Presents ... film Detectives On The Edge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Wyngarde, interviewed on BBC TV when the episode was transmitted, said that he was 'flattered' by the parody, but - fabulously - insisted that Jason King would never wear crushed velvet! Affectionate parodies from TV shows as diverse as The Two Ronnies and Top Gear were common-place. Jason King was that sort of character, with that sort of instant public recognition. Peter reportedly signed his contract for Department S on a napkin in a Chinese restaurant and went on to make the character a TV icon. Alongside his acting roles, Peter Wyngarde was known as the best-dressed man in Britain, a title which he won three years in a row. He once beat Cliff Richard and football star George Best to the award in 1970. He was a dashingly handsome man, with a deep, rather seductive voice which he used to great effect. Both Department S and Jason King represented a triumph for the suspension of disbelief, presenting the womanising King, with his dandified suits, bouffant hair and lush Zapata moustache, as a heterosexual sex-symbol. The character was summed up by one of the most famous lines of dialogue: 'It's a bit too early for coffee ... I think I'll have Scotch!' Peter, in his pomp, really enjoyed his heart-throb status. He liked to say that women sent pairs of their knickers from him to sign and that the aerial of his car was often 'festooned with random bras.'
But, he wasn't just a one-trick pony; he was a fine theatre actor and had numerous stage roles, as well as playing the gold-masked Klytus in the camp cult movie Flash Gordon. His agent and manager, Thomas Bowington, described him as 'one of the most unique, original and creative actors' he had known. 'As a man, there were few things in life he didn't know. I sometimes nicknamed him The King because he simply knew everything,' Bowington added. Peter started his career on-stage, in a production on Noel Cowards' Present Laughter in 1947 and later starred opposite Richard Burton in the big-screen adaptation of Alexander The Great, albeit much of his contribution to the movie ended up on the cutting room floor.
In 1959, he starred in the ITV play South - which some have claimed was the first explicitly gay drama broadcast on British television. Set during the US Civil War, it featured Peter as a Polish army lieutenant, Jan Wicziewsky, who must decide whom he loves: Miss Regina, a plantation owner's niece or a tall, rugged officer called Eric MacClure. Broadcast live at a time when homosexuality was still eight years away from being decriminalised in the UK, the drama received some scathing reviews in the contemporary press. 'I do not see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my living room,' noted some wretched homophobic shit of no importance at the Daily Sketch. Which shows, firstly what a very different world it was back then and, secondly, how much of it needed to be, viciously, satirised. Which, in fact, Peter Cook would later do: 'I don't want to see plays about rape, sodomy and drug addiction. I can get all that at home!'
Unbeknownst to the general public at the time, Peter Wyngarde was himself bisexual. 'I think you have to give Wyngarde a massive pat on the back in terms of the bravery in taking this role,' said BFI curator Simon McCallum when a copy of South was rediscovered five years ago. The brief furore over the programme did not affect the actor's career, however and he guest-starred in a large number of popular 1960s television shows including The Saint, The Prisoner, The Troubleshooters, I Spy, The Baron and, perhaps most memorably, in two episodes of The Avengers - including the unforgettable A Touch Of Brimstone - before debuting Jason King in Department S.
The character of King proved so popular that Wyngarde got a spin-off series of his own, which cemented his position as a household name in UK and also won him a fanbase in the US and, particularly, in Australia. He started his own fashion column in a daily tabloid and, after Australian women voted him the man they would most like to have an affair with, he was mobbed, Beatlemania-style, at Sydney airport during a publicity tour. 'It was one of the most terrifying experiences I can remember,' he later recalled with genuine horror. 'They got me to the ground, tore my clothes, debagged me. I was in hospital for three days!'
It is something of an irony, therefore, that for a man who was once one of the most instantly recognisable in Great Britain, very little is known - or, at least, is certain - about his background. Peter Wyngarde's date and place of birth, his birth name and his parent's nationalities and occupations are all disputed. According to his biography at the IMDb website, which is not supported by any primary sources but which is often used in other accounts of his life, he was born Peter Paul Wyngarde in August 1933 to a French mother and a British father at an aunt's house in Marseilles. Other evidence suggests that none of that is, actually, true. In September 2017 Peter gave a detailed - and, as usual, hugely entertaining - interview about his life to the website of his Appreciation Society, where he explained that his father worked for the British Diplomatic Service in various countries across Asia. Interviewed by Ray Connolly in 1973, Peter said: 'As a child, it was difficult to differentiate sometimes between fact and fantasy.'
Peter is often also claimed to be the nephew of the French actor-director Louis Jouvet though this, too, is not supported by any documentary evidence. Peter's year of birth has been the subject of much debate. His birthday is normally given as 23 August but different sources suggest a birth year anywhere between 1924 and 1933. In a 1993 interview with the Observer, Peter claimed that he was, in fact, uncertain about his own age. Reports of his death this week have claimed his age as ninety, which suggests 1927 as his birth year. However, in January 1950, the Essex Newsman-Herald wrote that Peter was then twenty five years old whilst the author JG Ballard, who claimed to have known Peter as a child in Shanghai, wrote in his autobiography Miracles Of Life that 'the future Peter Wyngarde was four years older than me.' As Ballard was born in November 1930, this would suggest that Peter was born around 1926.
Peter gave his place of birth as Singapore on a 1960 immigration application, although a 1956 Straits Times article about his mother does give Marseilles as his birthplace. Evidence suggests that Peter's original name was Cyril Goldbert and that he changed it after arriving in the UK in the mid-1940s. Ballard wrote in his memoir that he and his family knew Peter as Cyril Goldbert during World War II when they were both in the Lunghua internment camp in Shanghai, set up by the Japanese for European and American citizens living in the city. In interviews, however, Peter hotly denied ever knowing Ballard. We do know that Peter's mother was Marcheritta Ahin. The Ahins were a Eurasian family living in Singapore from the 1890s. Records indicate that she was, in fact, a Swiss national and that she re-married a man named Macauley in 1947 and then moved to Malaysia. That article in Singapore's Straits Times in 1956 included her photograph and an interview about her son's then fast-developing acting career in Britain. Peter also claimed, in that 1993 Observer interview, that his mother had been a racing driver.
After the war, Peter sailed to the United Kingdom on the Cunard White Star Line vessel the Arawa, arriving in Southampton at the age of eighteen. On his immigration papers, Cyril Goldbert's next-of-kin was listed as one H Goldbert, probably his mother's former husband, Henry Goldbert, who was living in Liverpool at this time. Henry was Russian but had become a naturalised British subject in 1919 after living in Singapore since childhood. Biographical statements issued by the official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society deny that Henry Goldbert was Peter's father and state that his father was a British diplomat named Wyngarde. After a diplomatic career in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and India, Wyngarde Senior is said to have become an importer-exporter in London and to have lived in the very exclusive Eaton Square area of the city. However, there appears to be no record of a Mister Wyngarde fitting these criteria in any publicly available records, nor in any travel and immigration information or UK electoral rolls. After briefly studying law he joined an advertising agency, in 1946 he won his first professional role in the theatre. An early success was in a production of Noël Coward's Present Laughter which opened in August 1947 at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham before transferring to the West End. Later accounts say that Peter was 'around thirteen years old' when he took these early stage roles, but Peter was listed as a registered voter - and, therefore, aged twenty one or over - in 1948. His first television appearance was a bit part in the 1949 BBC production of Dick Barton Strikes Back. He supported Alec Guinness's Hamlet at The New Theatre in London in 1951, then played Dunois to Siobhán McKenna's Saint Joan at The Arts in 1954. He appeared opposite Vivien Leigh in Duel Of Angels at The Apollo in 1958 and said that the highlight of his career, at the Bristol Old Vic in 1959, had been playing the title role in Cyrano De Bergerac. From the mid-1950s, Peter began to acquire roles in feature films, television plays and many recurring and guest roles in TV series. He appeared as Pausanias opposite Richard Burton in the film Alexander The Great (1956), played a lead role in the movie The Siege Of Sidney Street (1960) and appeared as Sir Roger Casement in an episode in the Granada Television's On Trial series produced by Peter Wildeblood. In Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), he had scenes as the leering Peter Quint with Deborah Kerr and Pamela Franklin. He followed this appearance as the lead in the patchy-but-fascinating 1962 occult thriller Night Of The Eagle (US title: Burn Witch Burn).
Peter became a household name in Britain through his starring role in Department S. Department S was a branch of Interpol concerned with the investigation of insoluble mysteries, a sort of provisional wing of Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World. As veteran scriptwriter Dennis Spooner envisaged them, they were the people who would investigate the Marie Celeste if she were found abandoned in the Thames in the 1960s. Each episode would start with a date and place caption, an index to the general level of realism that the show attempted to maintain. This was the heyday of ITC, Lew Grade's production company. They had already chalked-up big hits with The Saint, The BaronThe Champions and Man In A Suitcase and were experts at producing international settings on a back-lot at Borehamwood. There was a kind of repertory company of actors, directors and writers who gave an ITC flavour to whatever was being produced. Forever trying to crack the American market, there was usually a transatlantic air to most of the work. On two grounds, Department S was a different kettle of fish to most of its contemporaries. It certainly wasn't bland, the style of mysteries being deliberately outrageous. Secondly, it might have officially starred a straightforward American character, Stewart Sullivan (played by Joel Fabiani), but he was continually upstaged by somebody very British. Jason King was a product of the times, a slightly too-old Carnaby Street playboy who was - in the style of the day - 'a man of independent financial means' and was, basically, part of the Department because he enjoyed it and the opportunities that it gave him to meet lots of beautiful women. He wore incredible facial hair ('Get your 'air cut!' a workman shouts after him in The Trojan Tanker) and the most outrageous shirts on television. He was a crime novelist, whose Mark Caine books gave him a continual champagne fund and the ability to look at a mystery with an author's eye. No wonder the Department S writers gave him all the best lines. Jason once kept a bottle of champagne from Sullivan, saying, 'I would offer you a glass, but it is bad for you in small doses!' The third member of the team was Annabelle Hurst (the excellent Rosemary Nicols), who formed the other half of a rather Avengers-ish team with Jason, both quipping in their frilled shirts while Sullivan slugged it out with that week's guest villains in his crumpled suit.
The series ran for twenty eight episodes; some of them really very good indeed (The Man Who Got A New Face, The Shift That Never Was, A Cellar Full Of Silence, One Of Our Aircraft Is Empty, A Ticket To Nowhere) and is probably well-worth ITV4 digging it out for a long-overdue afternoon repeat run. Peter's performance as King was described as being 'in the manner of a cat walking on tiptoe, with an air of self-satisfaction.' By 1971 it was reported that 'more babies [had been] christened Jason during the last twelve months than ever before.'
After that series ended, Peter's character, was spun-off into another action adventure series. Lew Grade informed him that, whilst his own idea of a TV hero was Roger Moore, 'my wife likes you so we're going to do another series.' Jason King ran for twenty six episodes in which Peter's female guest-stars included Felicity Kendal, Michele Dotrice, Alexandra Bastedo, Juliet Harmer, Kate O'Mara and Stephanie Beacham. Although not as good as Department S, it had its moments; such as the sequence in which Jason is held at gunpoint by swarthy thugs and given a plane ticket with orders to leave the country: 'Thank you for your concern, but I never fly economy!'
Peter's CV also included appearances in Lucy In London, The Man In Room Thirteen, R3, Rupert Of Hentzau, Out Of This World, Armchair Theatre, One Step Beyond, Epilogue To Capricorn, The Adventures Of Ben Gunn (as John Silver), a BBC adaptation of A Tale Of Two Cities (as Sydney Carton), Sword Of Freedom and the 1956 production of Jesus Of Nazareth (as John The Baptist). A revival in October 1973 of The King & I, featuring Wyngarde with Sally Ann Howes, ran for two hundred and sixty performances at the Adelphi Theatre in London.
In 1970, Peter recorded an LP for RCA Victor entitled simply Peter Wyngarde, featuring a single, 'La Ronde De L'Amour'/'The Way I Cry Over You'. The LP was anextremely odd - and very of-the-era - collection of spoken-word and musical arrangements produced by Vic Smith (the future producer of Black Sabbath and The Jam, among others) and Hubert Thomas Valverde. It included such oddities as 'The Hippe & The Skinhead', 'Unknown Citizen' and, most notorious of all, a song called 'Rape'. A promo single (entitled 'Peter Wyngarde Commits Rape') was also issued in 1970, to predictable Sunday tabloid outcry.
In 1998, the LP was reissued on CD by RPM Records, now titled When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head. According to Peter himself (quoted in the liner notes), prior to the RCA deal, EMI had also been interested in cashing in on his fame and suggested issuing an LP of him performing 'a selection of Sinatra songs.' However, RCA allowed him carte blanche, assuming that the record would be a failure but could be used by them as a tax loss! However, when the initial pressings quickly sold out and it showed a small profit, they declined to press any more. It is rather amusing to note, however, that for a short time at least, Peter was a label-mate of both Elvis Presley and David Bowie!
Peter's career suffered a setback in 1975 when he was pinched by the fuzz outside the lavatories at Gloucester Road Bus Station and later convicted of 'an act of gross indecency' involving a lorry driver. He was fined seventy five smackers by magistrates under the name Cyril Louis Goldbert. Peter subsequently said that the conviction upset him deeply, but did not affect his career. However, his days as a leading man were largely finished. He attributed his decline to a combination of type-casting by 'small-minded people,' though homophobia was quite probably a factor.
Jason King remained his best-known character, a globe-trotting playboy with an astonishing array of outfits. And it wasn't just his sartorial extravagance that inspired Mike Myers to create Austin Powers: Jason had even uttered the phrase 'groovy, baby' in one Department S episode albeit in a far more detached and ironic fashion than Myers subsequently made popular. 'I decided Jason King was going to be an extension of me,' Peter once said. 'I was inclined to be a bit of a dandy - I used to go to the tailor with my designs.' However, he took the character's lifestyle a bit too literally, battling alcoholism in the 1980s. He only quit drinking after cutting ties with a friend in a fight which he couldn't subsequently remember. 'Jason King had champagne and strawberries for breakfast, just as I did myself,' he told the Observer in 1993. 'I drank myself to a standstill. When I think about it now, I'm amazed I'm still here!'
'It would be very easy for me to cry in my Campari and say the court case was the reason that TV work has not been flooding in but I don't think it is true,' Peter reasoned in 1980. In another interview, he added: 'It was the lack of imagination of producers. And if you're a perfectionist producers don't like it, because they are so mediocre.' Despite what many obituaries of Peter have claimed this week, his career did continue after his court case although at one point he was declared bankrupt in 1982. Most notably, he appeared as the masked character Klytus in the film Flash Gordon (1980) and as Sir Robert Knight in the 1989 movie Tank Malling with Ray Winstone.
On TV, he appeared in The Two Ronnies 1984 Christmas episode as Sir Guy in The Ballad Of Snivelling & Grudge & A Film Story. Other memorable appearances during the 1980s included in Doctor Who (the 1984 four-part story Planet Of Fire opposite Peter Davison, in which he was very good), a particularly impressive episode of Hammer House Of Mystery & Suspense (also 1984), Bulman, Crown Court and, later, The Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes (1994).
In 1983, he acted in the thriller Underground with Raymond Burr at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto and, later, a revival at the Prince of Wales Theatre. After leaving a 1995 stage production of The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari due to a throat infection Peter mostly stopped acting but did occasional voice work. He appeared as a guest of Simon Dee in the Channel Four one-off revival of Dee Time in 2003. In 2007, Peter participated in recording extras for a box-set of The Prisoner, including a mock interview segment titled The Pink Prisoner. In January 2014, he narrated an episode of the BBC4 Timeshift documentary strand, How To Be Sherlock Holmes: The Many Faces Of A Master Detective. In the 2015 documentary series for Channel Four, It Was Alright In The 1960s, Peter expressed his unease at having to don blackface to play a Turkish man in an episode of The Saint, but said that he had done it only in the hope that a theatre director might pick him to play the lead in Othello!
In the early 1950s, Peter was married to the actress Dorinda Stevens for three years. In the 1960s, he shared a flat with fellow actor Alan Bates. According to some sources - most notably Donald Spoto's biography of Bates, Otherwise Engaged - this was a gay relationship which lasted a decade though Peter himself always stated that his friendship with Bates was purely platonic. Bob Stanley, the author and member of the pop group Saint Etienne, recalled a dinner quip which, he felt, summed up Wyngarde perfectly: 'I'm fifty per cent Vegetarian and one hundred per cent bisexual!' Peter died at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London after being reportedly unwell 'for a few months.' His agent said that, despite his age, the actor had roles and appearances lined up for the coming year.