The point of this discursion into accent is that it is a very obvious indicator oh who is who at the beginning of this series of Freewheelers. I have the Series 6 DVDs, which are the only ones 'officially' released, although the other remaining series are available on the the internet at great expense. This series begins with two escapees from prison (Ryan and Burke, played by Richard Shaw and Michael Ripper). They are marked by their very obviously working class and ruffian accents. On the other hand, our heroes (here Sue and Mike, without Steve - Wendy Padbury, Adrian Wright, and Leonard Gregory respectively) are marked by their Received Pronunciation accents. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the marked distinction immediately puts us into Famous Five territory. Come to think of it, beyond the Famous Five's secure world of Our Sort of People, I would go even further and say that Freewheelers may even take us into a parody of the world of the Famous Five. I mean the sort of thing The Comic Strip did so well in Five Go Mad in Dorset.
From the world of the Famous Five, Freewheelers then catapults us rather abruptly into the world of The Avengers. Ryan and Burke are taken on by a man called Professor Nero (played by Jerome Willis), who definitely speaks Received Pronunciation and fits straight into the Avengers mould of the baddie who is Our Sort of Person gone wrong/rot in the Establishment. In The Avengers, of course, there is always the undercurrent of security given by the fact that the world of The Avengers is not real. Freewheelers adroitly moves that world into the real world, using scenes of country life, seaside, and seagoing. In my humble opinion this 'realisation' of the unreal world of The Avengers is not complete because another major character is Colonel Buchan (played by Ronald Leigh-Hunt), who is the caricature seadog to the end of his fingertips. Of course he turns out not to be real, but the intrusion of such an obviously unreal character seems a little stranger.
I have gone into such excruciating detail about who is who because firstly I need to get them straight in my head. The reason for that of course, is that I have missed out on the five series which preceded this one, and to say the least am coming in in the middle of the show! In fact I have been so over-generous with my own first impressions because I like this show but do think that if you look online for information about it, you can be easily misled (Grant Goggans's posts about this show being an exception). The show changed dramatically in plot and character over its run, and while the Wikipedia page doesn't intend to be misleading by its references to Nazis as the baddies, sales of the show to West Germany had meant that that plot strand was eliminated as the show went on and the baddies were a succession of dabolical masterminds. I am delighted to see that the Avengers influence was a conscious one, though. The dabolical mastermind here is set on exporting gold cast into the shape of frying pans - I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
As the series goes on, I feel that the Avengers influence develops, while the Famous Five setting comes and goes. Professor Nero sets up in a lighthouse on a desert island - what setting could possibly be more Famous Five than that? While he is obviously a great scientist who has gone wrong, and this is a very Famous Five theme, the idea of the misuse of science and its power to create havoc, is one reappearing repeatedly in the television of this age, including in The Avengers. Perhaps this theme is such a part of the spirit of the age that it is impossible to tease out its origins.
There is one thing at which Freewheelers succeeds wonderfully. It is very definitely a children's programme, and doesn't have any of the sexual undertones which I criticised in The Owl Service. Where this success as a children's programme which isn't trying to be anything else could go wrong, is that the 'kids' are very definitely grown adults. In fact, in the final series Wendy Padbury's developing pregnancy had to hidden by some very cunning camera angles! Yet Freewheelers manages to excel as a children's programme with adults as the main characters, by making the kids of a type with the pesky kids in Scooby Doo. These kids are old enough to drive, and what have you, but don't yet have adult responsibilities. This is a stroke of genius, because it places the main characters in a position where younger children would make heroes or crushes of them - almost guaranteeing a continually-renewing and devoted audience. It also cleverly avoids the Famous Five route of making them perpetually children who strangely have adult freedoms to go off on their own and do what they like - this could only ever make the characters other kids to be envied or grown out of very quickly. Another stroke of genius was to name the villains in this one Ryan and Burke, creating echoes of the famous graverobbers Burke and Hare. In true Famous Five style, there is something safe about these villains, in that they are actually fairly hopeless and we know they'll end up in prison again sooner or later.
In true 1970s TV style, the show's location shooting frequently takes place in a mixture of normal settings and some of the more privileged settings of the time - for example many of the scenes take place at sea. Aeroplanes and the opera are also settings used in this series. The car driven by the goodies is very much a 1970s design classic (although I don't know what it is - can anyone help?), and all of these luxurious settings and props underline that this series very cleverly plays on the adolescent tendency to dream and develop crushes.
Production values are very much of the time - naturally this is neither a criticism or a compliment. Interior scenes are very obviously done in a set. Restoration is well done, with no disturbances to the picture or the sound. The locations, while visibly using artifical light, very definitely show characteristic British Isles lighting and weather in contrast to Murder She Wrote! The downside of this authenticity is that the scenes involving being care-chested and/or wet in sea water, must have been incredibly cold...it was a bit of a relief to see that the actors visibly dried out impossibly quickly from their soakings. The incidental music was done by Laurie Johnson, making the Avengers simlarity complete, although in my own opinion the music makes this show feel a bit like Dick Barton Special Agent. Regular readers will know my own dislike for familiar faces - those actors who appear in everything and end up being recognisable for themselves rather than anything else. Of course Ronald Leigh-Hunt is the classic example, of this, being familiar from several series I have written about here. Robert Shaw is probbaly more familiar from his film work and to me Michael Ripper is most recognisable as the liftman in the St Trinian's films. The fact that these are not TV roles doesn't change my essential point - that their familiarity bugged me so that I had to look them up and work out where I had seen them.
My verdict on Freewheelers is that it is not just any old children's TV show - its background in the popularity of 1960s ITC TV shows ensures that it is more out of that stable than in broadcasting intended for children. If you like ITC you will like this. You will also like it is you like adventure stories, cliffhangers, and any Boys' Own-type adventures. Oh - and you may even like the extrapolation of the world of The Avengers into the world outside!