The Protectors: Shadbolt

Caution: this blog post contains plot spoilers.
Who am I kidding, it basically blabs the whole plot, but I couldn't think of a way to blog about this show without doing so.

For some reason not entirely clear to myself I have never written about The Protectors here (I mean the ITC series, not the 1964 ABC series) before and that is an omission which should be corrected at once. I see that I have been a little sniffy about it before, and commented that it is a bit of a generic ITC international sophistication-type series. Take out Harry Rule and put in Jason King, and you would have much of the same thing, was really what I meant.

I still think that is basically true - but then I think that any show of the ITC formula *without* Jason King is automatically going to be a very different, and much more sensible, proposition. In fact The Protectors does seem to have a real following online, but for the rather extraneous details, such as 1970s fashions, shop fronts, even signage. You can literally approach old TV in so many ways! It is a series I do watch now and then and I luckily hit on a mention of Shadbolt because of its use of a quarry as a location.

In fact Shadbolt is frequently described as the odd one out of The Protectors. There is no mention of the agency that Harry Rule sometimes remembers he manages - in fact there are only three major characters. Harry Rule (Robert Vaughan), Shadbolt (Tom Bell), and a girl (who doesn't even get a name and is played by Georgina Hale) whose only purpose is for Shadbolt to set up an alibi for his assassination of Harry Rule.

Given that there are so few characters there really isn't a way to approach this that doesn't revolve around the characters and the actors who play them, and I'm going to have to say that Tom Bell knocks Robert Vaughan into a cocked hat. I don't think I've ever come across such a concentrated display of creepiness, sheer cunning and utter nastiness in my entire life. The Shadbolt character would be a very difficult character to portray but Bell does an excellent job.

I always feel like Tom Bell would definitely be what my mother would have called a 'sexy piece'  - although what I mean is that really good actors are able to emote a complex range of emotions and do it in a way which really makes them come across for you. A major aspect of this would be the aspects of emotion relating to sex and relationships - and I think a really good actor manages to portray sexiness in a way which my mother would definitely have disapproved of but which is nonetheless a real part of the actor's art because it is part of human life. An actor is, after all, a person who requires the adulation of the audience looking up at them and there's got to be a sexy element to that. The contemporary actor who can also do this is probably Tom Hardy. I think Daniel Radcliffe could do this if everyone wasn't automatically picturing having Harry Potter flirt with them.

So in the first part Shadbolt sets up his alibi by giving the girl on the train the most creepy train ride ever before apparently leaving the train at Retford but getting back on. He does this expertly, to the extent that when she commented that she didn't understand why but he made her feel uneasy, I was shouting at the screen that he was obviously a wrong 'un and she should run away quickly. He exactly portrays the sort of man who is kind of sexy but gives out enough red flags to make it worrying - memorable, that was Shadbolt's intended effect.

There is another way in who Bell stands out from the rest of the cast and makes Vaughn fady into the background - his wardrobe and hair. I am not in a position to tell you whether the clothes he's got on are intended to be the height of fashion at the time (although he has flares on) so I'm not sure of the impression they would have given at the time. He has fashionably long hair for the time (I have not idea if it was Bell's own hair or chosen style, but if it was his wife should have told him it didn't suit him) - I wonder whether the way his hair was so obviously wrong on him was deliberate. And so we come to the trousers. One of the things this show does really well, which stands out from the rest of The Protectors, is set us up to expect things and think things, and those trousers are part of it, along with the way they're portrayed. Let's just say that if Shadbolt was thinking of having children his GP would tell him to change over to looser ones. They're also of that style where the zip is visible, which is bound to attract the eye. The camera hovers over his crotch and his bum in a way which you'll understand I'm only pointing out in case anyone's missed it.

Basically, the show is setting us up to expect the girl to get raped or stalked, or some other sexual crime. This is accentuated by the fact he supposedly gets off the train at Retford, which sets up an expectation that he may have been a patient at the secure psychiatric hospital there (at least it does for me). What we're set up to expect is a psychopathic rapist type. We are not expecting him to then try to assassinate Harry Rule.

Which is where it doesn't go wrong, exactly. I've put some effort into stressing that Shadbolt is a larger than life character so that you know that when he is juxtaposed with Robert Vaughn looking pretty much like every character I've ever seen him play, Shadbolt is rather going to steal the show, which of course he does.

The point of the plot is that Shadbolt reveals his plan to Vaughn so that we are let in on the secret - on reflection this is essential given that we are never told why he does this or who he's working for - and we move straight from his creeping out the girl to creeping out Harry Rule. They then both get off the train and Shadbolt tries to kill Rule in a quarry but Rule overpowers him. This means that the final part of the show feels very different and moves much faster, with a complete contrast to what we were built up to expect in the first part. I kept thinking that this is some very fancy story-telling, because it never gets boring and this is genuinely a plot which would be very difficult to pull off with so few characters. Just when you put Harry Rule next to a fantastic creature like Shadbolt, one of them is bound to stand out.

There is one thing which may or may not be a criticism of this episode, although it's intended to be a feature. We know it's a feature because right at the end after Shadbolt has been arrested Rule comments that he has no idea who hired him to assassinate him or whether he'll be the last. We're intended to be left with an uneasy feeling of facing continual possible murder with Harry Rule: it communicates the naturally precarious existence of all secret agents ever, and does it very well. The problem with this technique here is that we are left with no idea whatsoever of who hired Shadbolt, whether they'll try again, or even what he's about beyond being a hired assassin (and very frightened of going to prison, which you would expect to be an occupational hazard). As a single episode of a TV show this could be seen as incredibly unsatisfying and it leaves the whole point of the episode unexplained. This is actually some very sophisticated story telling, and it's this sort of thing which makes Shadbolt be seen as an unusual episode for The Protectors, or indeed for the whole ITC stable.

An excellent, and unusual episode of The Protectors.

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