Reasonable attempt at recreating "The Professionals"
Produced by ITV's regional broadcaster London Weekend Television, 1977's action adventure series "The Professionals" attracted huge worldwide popularity (that continues in repeats and DVD releases to this day). After the cancellation of the programme in 1981, the remainder of the decade witnessed a number of attempts to recreate its magic, notably LWT's own "Dempsey and Makepeace" and Television South's (TVS) "CATS Eyes"
In 1988 ITV's new Midlands-based broadcaster Central Television launched "Saracen" and arguably came artistically closest to reviving "The Professionals". However the series remains largely forgotten, a problem exacerbated by a curious lack of repeat screenings (at least in the UK). Does it deserve its obscurity?
The series was created by Chris Kelly, best known to viewers as the presenter of Granada Television's 1970s film review series "Clapperboard". He teamed up with Ted Childs, producer on the classic 1970s cop show "The Sweeney". Opening with a 90-minute pilot feature entitled 'The Zero Option', the action concentrated on SAS Major David Barber (played by Stephen Hattersley) who resigns his commission after being forced to undertake a badly-planned hostage rescue. Headhunted by private security company Saracen Systems he is partnered with Australian ex-Army sergeant Jack Carne (John Walton). Barber's first mission for his new employer is to recover diamonds which were stolen during a fake aircraft siege. Assisted by fellow Saracen employees, intelligence officer Alice Kavanagh (Joanna Phillips-Lane), technical expert Eric Nugent (David Moss) and company founder Colonel Patrick Ansell (Eric Flynn), the combination of tension, action and humour promised much
It isn't clear what Central Television's intention was when the pilot was followed up by a regular series of 50-minute episodes. The entire main cast had been ditched - with one exception all the lead characters remained but now played by different actors. In stepped Chistian Burgess as Barber, Ingrid Lacey as Alice, John Bennett as Nugent and Michael Byrne as Ansell. The character of Carne was replaced completely by that of Tom Duffy, an American ex-Delta Force commando, played by the little-known Patrick James Clarke. Also gone was Barber's wife, who had died off-screen, although no explanation was ever given. One assumes this was a move to allow Barber to become romantically involved with various guest characters aka "dead girlfriend of the week". Another notable change was the budget: there would be no money for the large-scale action set pieces seen in 'The Zero Option'. (In one episode Alice's car was crashed into from front and rear by the villains, yet none of the cars appeared to suffer any damage!)
Involving some of British television's top genre writers and directors, the series was well-scripted with likable characters and solid acting but lacked any real "Unique Selling Point" and generally came across as an utterly average offering. The absence of high-octane thrills and rousing musical themes (Barrington Pheloung providing the utterly forgettable score) didn't help. Some episodes involved genuine overseas locations but this did nothing to heighten the series' appeal.
On the plus side Patrick James Clarke made the most of his role and is essentially the programme's sole source of humour. (It's somewhat of a mystery as to why Clarke's acting career came to an end shortly afterwards).
Most episodes revolved around the bodyguard protection of a Saracen client or the rescue of a kidnapping victim. Indeed part of the problem for the show – a flaw in the programme's very concept – was that the range of situations that Saracen would tackle was very narrow, leaving writers to struggle to come up with new twists and spins in their plots. Too often Saracen's remit was exhausted and Ansell would have to order his team to hand over to the police. The better episodes were usually those which had a personal impact on our heroes
In 'Starcross' Barber gets unwittingly involved in a family with IRA connections who recognise him as the man who shot dead one of their own during an SAS raid in the 1970s.
In 'Next Year in Jerusalem' an ageing Nazi hunter, Frankel, finds a lead to the man who executed his wife and daughter during WW2. In a counter move, Frankel himself becomes the target and seeks protection from Saracen. However Barber and Duffy find the apparently frail old man is surprisingly sprightly, resourceful and cunning.
In 'Reaper' a psychotic mercenary kidnaps Barber's young son, offering to release him in exchange for access to a group of Arabs whom the hit-man has been hired to kill.
On the whole "Saracen" failed to live up to its pilot. Given the burgeoning obsession with ratings at the time – and the looming up of broadcasting license renewals - it's no too difficult to understand why Central did not commission further series. Yet had they poured more money into it in the first place, it may have had more success amongst viewers. Either way it's a shame because a second season would almost certainly have offered improvements.
Other than rare repeats on cable and satellite channels, "Saracen" slipped from people's memories. Fortunately the pilot and all thirteen regular episodes are now available on DVD. For fans of the genre it's worth picking up - as an interesting obscurity if nothing else although it's in danger of simply serving as a reminder of how superior "The Professionals" was!
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