Peter Wyngarde as Jason King – the Bentley-driving international man of mystery

The inimitable style of Jason King extended to his cars, as well as his clothes - Scope Features
The inimitable style of Jason King extended to his cars, as well as his clothes - Scope Features

The place – Paris. The time – late 1960s. The look – generally groovy. For those cases that are “inexplicable, baffling and illogical” and involve international fiends who bring terror to the world (or at least Elstree Studio) only the skills of Department S will suffice.

The operation is masterminded by Sir Curtis Seretse (Dennis Alba Peters), assisted by the  ex-CIA agent Steward Sullivan (Joel Fabiani), the computer expert Annabelle Hurst (Rosemary Nichols) and, of course, the author and bon viveur Jason King, played by the late Peter Wyngarde

When Department S entered production in 1968 Wyngarde was a high-regarded leading character actor, whose sardonic wit and slightly menacing demeanour had enlivened many a TV production. The series was much in the tradition of ITC’s “International Men of Mystery” shows (stock footage of foreign locations, “border crossings” apparently made of cardboard and that footage of a white Jaguar Mk1 descending a cliff) but it was gleefully subverted by its star.

Wyngarde “decided Jason King was going to be an extension of me” and so our hero drove a Bentley S2 Continental Sports Saloon with James Young coachwork and dressed in a manner best described as uber-decadent. Whether confronted with a mad scientist played by a very young Anthony Hopkins (A Small War of Nerves) or a remote-controlled Jaguar Mk2 (Who Plays The Dummy?), King was always equal to the occasion.

'The Baron' - 'The Legions of Ammak' - Peter Wyngarde GTV ARCHIVE - Credit: ITV/REX/Shutterstock 
A man like this didn't need a car to look cool Credit: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

And if King uttering such lines as “I’d offer you a glass of champagne but it is very bad for you in small doses” was not enough, Department S featured any number of splendid cars.

The official motor pool included a Vauxhall FD Ventora, a Lancia Fulvia Coupé and a Rolls-Royce Phantom V, and every week you might see a Fiat 2300S Coupé, a Mercedes-Benz 230SL, an early Ford Capri or a Lotus Elan Plus 2. Being an ITC series, the continuity was sometimes so absent as to be positively surreal and as Department S was shot back to back with Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) both series would sometimes feature the same vehicles.

In 1971 the character of King was spun off into his own series although Wyngarde was informed by ITC’s managing director Lew Grade that “You, with your funny dark hair, moustache and terrible clothes are not my idea of a hero at all, but my wife loves you, so you have to do another series”. There was a new theme tune, a change of Bentley Continental – a silver S2 with an H.J. Mulliner body – and Wyngarde now sported an even more outré hairstyle.

'Jason King' TV - 1971 - Peter Wyngarde GTV ARCHIVE - Credit: ITV/REX/Shutterstock 
The attire of the day. Credit: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Unlike its predecessor, Jason King did feature a small amount of genuine overseas location footage although the budget still dictated that most adventures remained very much UK-based. The results were often bizarre; a Vauxhall Viva HC in the Hong Kong-set Every Picture Tells A Story also appears as transport for a Turkish police chief in Uneasy Lies The Head. Then To Russia with... Panache has the KGB using a UK-market Ford Zodiac MkIV when on duty in Moscow and throughout Jason King the roads of “abroad” often abound with right-hand-drive vehicles. 

Still, an Opel Rekord C would have appeared vaguely exotic to the average viewer, many of who were already too distracted by Wyngarde’s sartorial tastes to notice any gaping holes in the plot.

Of the two shows, Department S is probably the most entertaining; Jason King does have more opportunities for enthusiasts of Peugeot 404s, Citroen Dyanes and other fine Continental vehicles, but as it was shot on grainy 16mm film it lacks the polish of his earlier adventures. 

Peter Wyngarde passed away on January 15 and despite a career ranging from The Innocents, one of the finest ever British horror films, to appearing with Benny Hill in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he will forever be remembered as Jason King; a character much parodied but never equalled.

Cue Edwin Astley’s music.