Monday, January 12, 2015

He Did Quite a Good Job: The Late Great Brian Clemens

It was on a rainy Sunday afternoon when I was five or six years old that I discovered a television show that was new to me. The show featured a dapper Englishman, who wore a bowler hat and carried an umbrella, and a beautiful woman skilled in the martial arts. The two of them battled diabolical masterminds and criminal conspiracies, often of a fantastic nature. That show was The Avengers and it became my favourite show on television. It has remained so ever since.

I am not sure which rerun of The Avengers I saw that afternoon, but I am thinking that it was probably "The House That Jack Built". That episode, like many others, was written by the show's associate producer Brian Clemens. Although The Avengers originated with legendary producer Sydney Newman, it was largely Brian Clemens who shaped the show as we now know it. He was with the show at its beginning, writing some of its earliest episodes before becoming its associate producer in 1965 and later a full fledged producer in 1967.

Sadly, Brian Clemens died this past Saturday, 10 January 2015 at the age of 83. According to his son, Samuel Clemens, the very last thing Brian Clemens did was watch an episode of The Avengers. His last words were, " I did quite a good job." And there is no denying that Mr. Clemens did do quite a good job. Short of Doctor Who, The Avengers may well be the most popular British show of all time. In addition to The Avengers, he also produced The New Avengers and The Professionals, and wrote episodes of everything from Danger Man to Remington Steele. He also wrote the classic Hammer films Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) and Kronos (1974).

Brian Clemens OBE was born on 30 July 1931 in Croydon, Surrey. It was when he was only five years old that he decided he wanted to be a writer. He was ten years old when his father bought him a typewriter, and he sold his first short story when he was only 12. It would seem that writing runs in the Clemens family, as Brian Clemens was related to Mark Twain himself, Samuel Clemens.

Brian Clemens left school at age 14. He fulfilled his National Service as a weapons training instructor in the British Army, stationed at Aldershot, Hampshire. Afterwards he went to work as a messenger boy for the J Walter Thompson advertising agency, where he eventually worked his way up to the position of copywriter. It was while he was a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson that he submitted a play to the BBC, "Valid for Single Journey Only" (1955). The play brought Brian Clemens to the attention of Edward J. Danziger and Harry Lee Danziger, the two brothers best known for producing low budget films. Over the next few years Brian Clemens wrote such films as The Betrayal (1957),  Operation Murder (1957), The Depraved (1957), Three Crooked Men (1958), .A Woman Possessed (1958),  Great Van Robbery (1959), The Tell-Tale Heart (1960), and others for the Danzigers. He also wrote several episodes of their TV series The Vise, White Hunter, and Man from Interpol. In the Fifties Mr. Clemens also wrote other material beyond the films and TV shows he wrote for the Danzigers. He wrote three episodes of The New Adventures of Martin Kane, six episodes of Dial 999, and two episodes of The Invisible Man.

While Brian Clemens continued as a staff writer for the Danzigers into the early Sixties. his big break came when he wrote the first episode of the legendary spy show Danger Man, "View from the Villa", which aired in 1960. He wrote several more episodes of Danger Man in its first series. He also wrote episodes of such shows as Top Secret, The CheatersSir Francis Drake, and Man of the World.

He also co-wrote the teleplay for the first episode The Avengers, "Hot Snow",with Ray Rigby (it was based on a story by Patrick Brawn). At this point the show centred on Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry), a police surgeon swept into a world of intrigue by the mysterious John Steed (Patrick Macnee). Ian Hendry left The Avengers after its first series and was replaced by Honor Blackman as Mrs. Cathy Gale and Venus Smith (Julie Stevens). The latter only lasted for one series. While Mr. Clemens wrote only one more episode during The Avengers' first two series, he became a regular contributor to the show with its third series (the last to feature Cathy Gale). It was during the third series of The Avengers that Brian Clemens and the other writers further refined the show as it would come to be known--a blend of tongue in cheek humour with witty dialogue and often fantastic plots.

It was with the fourth series of The Avengers (the first to feature Dame Diana Rigg as Emma Peel) that Brian Clemens became an associate producer on the show. As the show's associate producer Brian Clemens further refined the show until it was the perfect blend of British upper class wit, sex appeal, diabolical masterminds, and fantastic plots. It was with the show's fifth series (the last with Emma Peel) that Mr. Clemens became a full-fledged producer on the show, a position he maintained except for a brief period between the fifth and sixth series when he and fellow producer Albert Fennel were replaced by John Bryce. In his time with The Avengers Brian Clemens wrote some of the show's most iconic episodes, including "Build a Better Mousetrap", "A Touch of Brimstone", "How to Succeed.... at Murder", and "Epic".

While working on The Avengers Brian Clemens continued to write for other shows as well, including The Protectors, ITV Sunday Night Drama, Love Story, Intrigue, Adam Adamant Lives!, The Baron, and The Champions. In addition to his work for the Danzigers, he also wrote the films Station Six-Sahara (1963), Curse of the Voodoo (1965), The Corrupt Ones (1967), and And Soon the Darkness (1970).

The Seventies saw Brian Clemens write two movies for Hammer films now regarded as cult classics: Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971) and Kronos (1974). He also wrote the films Blind Terror (1971), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973),  and The Watcher in the Woods (1980). On television he served as the producer on the sequel to The Avengers, The New Avengers. He also wrote several of the show's episodes. Mr. Clemens created the sitcom My Wife Next Door and wrote several of its episodes. He also created and produced the action/adventure series The Professionals and wrote many of its episodes. Although sometimes criticised for its violence and sexism, The Professionals proved to be successful both in the United Kingdom and internationally. It ran for five series. He also wrote the majority of the British TV series  Thriller, as well as the failed American pilot Escapade (a proposed series loosely inspired by The Avengers).  He wrote episodes of the TV shows The Persuaders, The Adventurer, Suspicion, The Wide World of Mystery, Quiller,and The Expert.

In the Eighties Brian Clemens continued work on The Professionals. He also wrote episodes of Darkroom, Begerac, Fox Mystery Theatre, Remington Steele, The Secret Servant, Worlds Beyond, the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Blaues Blut.

In the Nineties Brian Clemens wrote the story for the film Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) as well as the screenplay for the feature film Justine: A Private Affair (1995). On television he created and served as executive producer of The Professionals reboot CI5: The New Professionals and wrote several of its episodes. He co-created the TV series Bugs with Brian Eastman and Stuart Doughty. He also wrote episodes of the shows Father Dowling Mysteries, Highlander, and The Wrong Side of the Rainbow, as well as writing several of the "Perry Mason" TV movies. In the Naughts he wrote the TV movie McBride: Fallen Idol and the story for the TV movie Jane Doe: How to Fire Your Boss. He was most recently working with his sons George and Samuel Clemens on the film The Still.

In addition to producing TV shows and writing both TV shows and feature films, Brian Clemens also directed the film Kronos. He wrote several plays as well, including a stage version of The Avengers in 1971 (with Terence Feeley), Shock! (1971), Edge of Darkness (1975), All About Murder (1982), Inside Job (1993), and  Murder Hunt (2008).

It is quite possible that Brian Clemens had more impact on me than any other television writer. The Avengers was one of the first shows of which I can say I was aware and the first British show I ever watched with any regularity. Along with The Beatles, The Who, and knowing that I was English in descent from an early age, The Avengers is largely responsible for the fact that I am an incurable Anglophile. The Avengers also had an impact on my tastes in television shows. Not only do I tend to prefer British shows to American shows, but I tend to like action shows with tongue in cheek humour and a skewed sense of reality best. It should be little wonder that Brian Clemens, along with Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry, was one of the first television actors of which I was aware and he was the first of which I can say I was truly a fan. Indeed, it is quite possible that if it was not for The Avengers and Brian Clemens, I might not even be a writer.

As to what made Brian Clemens such a great television writer (not to mention as to why he had such an impact on me), I would say it was a number of factors. He had a knack for creating memorable characters. John Steed and Emma Peel from The Avengers, as well as Cowley, Doyle, and Bodie from The Professionals, have achieved iconic status for a reason. He also had a knack for creating very original plots, whether it was a modern day version of the Hellfire Club in the Avengers episode "A Touch of Brimstone" or a bet made by a man that he can vanish from the face of the earth in the Protectors episode "Disappearing Trick" Mr. Clemens could create plots that quite unlike those typically seen on television shows. Of course, if Brian Clemens had a talent for creating original plots, much of it was perhaps due to the fact that he had a talent for taking concepts and turning them on their heads. With the movie Kronos he created a vampire movie that takes place almost entirely in daylight and plays out like a spaghetti Western. With Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde he came up with the revolutionary idea of making Hyde a beautiful woman. Perhaps more than any other television writer of his time, Brian Clemens could take ideas and entirely turn them inside out.

The sheer quality of most of Brian Clemens's work is even more amazing when one considers how prolific he was. He wrote around thirty episodes of The Avengers alone. He also wrote several episodes of several other shows, as well as many plays and feature films. Working for the Danzigers, it was not unusual for him to produce as many as five movies a year. That most of his TV show episodes and feature films turned out extremely well, then, is a testament to his talent as a writer.

Given the fact that he produced The Avengers and The Professionals, not to mention that he wrote for several other shows, it should come as no surprise that Brian Clemens was very influential.  Mark Gatiss, who co-created Sherlock with Steven Moffat, has cited Mr. Clemens as an influence. Not only did The Avengers (along with Danger Man) lead to such further adventure shows in the Sixties as Man in a Suitcase, Adam Adamant Lives!, The Champions, and Department S, but more recent shows as far afield as Scarecrow and Mrs. KingXena: Warrior Princess, Alias, and many others. Beyond The Avengers, it seems likely that the entire "monster hunter" genre so popular today--from Constantine to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Supernatural--can be traced back to Kronos in 1974. Ultimately, Brian Clemens may have had so much influence on pop culture in the Anglosphere that it would be impossible to list every single TV show, movie, book, or comic book that felt the impact of his work. When Brian Clemens said, "I did quite a good job", he may have made an major understatement.

1 comment:

Larry said...

My favorite British show of all. Brian created a classic and will be remembered for it.