The Protectors ran for 52 episodes first broadcast across two seasons between 1972 and 1974, and was a decidedly atypical production from the Andersons and Group Three Productions. This contemporary detective series starred Robert Vaughn as Harry Rule, Nyree Dawn Porter as the Contessa di Contini, and Tony Anholt as Paul Buchet, all agents of Harry Rule’s network of ‘Protectors’; an international detective agency with operatives in every major city on the planet.
Although popular at the time and still enjoying repeats and DVD releases to this day, many Anderson fans tend to unfairly overlook the show – but here are our picks for this underappreciated show’s top five best episodes!
5 – The Big Hit
By its second season The Protectors seemed to have forgotten that Harry Rule was supposed to be the head of a group of international operatives (as opposed to just himself, the Contessa and Paul), perhaps because the first season had never established that as well as it might have either. The Big Hit however does work towards fixing that, as an all-out attack against the entire network of Protectors agents does establish for the first time the international scope of Harry’s agency – and that their success rate is so high the criminal underworld has decided they must finally be dealt with once and for all. With several Protectors agents already dead, and Harry in the clutches of the mastermind behind the scheme, it falls to the Contessa and Paul to get to the bottom of the mystery – while also surviving further attacks on themselves!
The Big Hit offers an enjoyable mix of mystery and action, and the sight of our heroes on the defensive from persons unknown helps increase both the tension and the stakes. With Harry side-lined for much of the episode it also provides a welcome opportunity for Nyree Dawn Porter and Tony Anholt to take the lead, proving for the first time that all three of the show’s lead actors were equally capable of carrying its stories.
4 – Zeke’s Blues
The first of two episodes on this list to guest star former Supermarionation voice artists, Zeke’s Blues was written by Shane Rimmer and originally intended to feature Tony Curtis in the role of Harry’s old friend Zeke. Despite having agreed to play the part, other work forced Curtis to drop out shortly before the episode entered production – and Shane was asked to take on the character instead!
Shane’s performance of his own material is of course one of the most interesting aspects of this episode, incorporating elements of Tony Curtis’ acting style that he had observed as a result of having recently worked with Tony on The Persuaders! episode Element of Risk. However, Shane’s performance feels more grounded and perhaps slightly more real than Curtis’ might have been, which only serves to heighten the tragedy of the character. Blackmailed into assisting the episode’s villains, Zeke finds himself forced to betray his old friend – and with so much of the story spent with Zeke the viewer really gets to feel his genuine pain at that betrayal. An enjoyable and believable chemistry between Shane Rimmer and Robert Vaughn also helps the story enormously, and makes one of many downbeat endings of the show’s second season feel (for once) entirely earned.
3 – Shadbolt
An assassin sent to kill Harry Rule and hired by persons unknown, Shadbolt is perhaps the most interesting villain ever seen in The Protectors. Superbly brought to life by Tom Bell, Shadbolt is a cultured and intelligent killer whose ability is exceeded only by his own arrogance, which is ultimately the cause of his downfall. Catching the same Edinburgh to London train as Harry, Shadbolt spends the first leg of the journey in the company of a meek female librarian (played by Georgina Hale) on whom he proceeds to “make a very good impression”; at first charming and even romantic, and soon deeply scathing only so as to provide an alibi should it later be needed. He then joins Harry in his compartment to wait for the perfect moment to strike – but not without first explaining his motives in detail to his would-be victim, and thus providing Harry ample opportunity to escape!
The final ten minutes of the episode then offers action at a breakneck pace as both characters leap from the train and engage in a tense game of cat and mouse on a building site, but it really is the dialogue scenes on the train between Shadbolt and the librarian and Shadbolt and Harry that are the highlights of the episode. It’s a cliché to have the villain explain to the hero why he plans to kill them, but both Vaughn and Bell bring Tony Barwick’s dialogue to life in a fresh way during these scenes that feels very unusual for The Protectors, helped also by the strong direction of John Hough.
2 – Balance of Terror
A Russian scientist named Schelpin (Laurence Naismith) determined to awaken the world to the horrors of chemical warfare is on the loose in London with a vial of toxin that could wipe out the city’s entire population should it be released into the water supply. The Protectors, along with the sympathetic K.G.B. Colonel Krassinkov (Nigel Green), must race against time to find out where Schelpin is planning to release the toxin – not an easy task considering his timing appears to be very specific!
Perhaps the definitive example of The Protectors as pure action-adventure series, Balance of Terror is a simple story well told that perfectly suits the show’s brisk twenty-five minute episode length. The stakes could not be higher, and the final confrontation as Harry and Krassinkov close in on Schelpin at the Hamdon reservoir leads to an almost unbearably tense conclusion. Despite its relentless pace, the episode also finds time to examine the motivations of its two Russian guest characters and allows the viewer to sympathise with both, as well as examine the true differences between East and West in the relationship between Harry Rule and Colonel Krassinkov. Although the ‘killer virus on the loose’ storyline had previously been seen in Captain Scarlet (and would later be revisited in New Captain Scarlet) as well as many other non-Anderson shows, Balance of Terror is one of the strongest examples of the trope.
1 – The First Circle
Largely by accident rather than design The Protectors was a series whose format was loose enough that it could essentially fit any story a writer wanted to tell, and nowhere is the benefit of that more evident than in The First Circle. Ed Bishop excels as Colonel John Hunter, a disturbed war veteran who believes that an abandoned airfield in England is the same U.S. base he commanded in Vietnam – a belief that leads him to fatally shoot a security guard. Called in by Hunter’s wife to bring her husband home safely Harry Rule finds himself cast in Hunter’s delusion as a fellow soldier, and his attempts to break through Hunter’s trauma and bring him back to reality only seem to be making the situation worse.
Although heavy on action Tony Barwick’s script also offers plenty of moments which allow us to sympathise with the tormented Hunter, whose traumas are recounted so superbly by Ed Bishop. PTSD is a topic no other Anderson episode went even remotely near, and for The Protectors to have explored this harrowing subject (especially at a time when the Vietnam war itself was still several years away from its end) showed remarkable bravery and maturity that was wisely extended to all aspects of this quite exceptional production. It’s not only one of Ed Bishop’s greatest contributions to the Anderson legacy, but one of the greatest pieces of drama produced under that banner.
Ten runners up; Vocal, Petard, Brother Hood, Disappearing Trick, Thinkback, WAM parts 1 and 2, Sugar and Spice, A Pocketful of Posies, The Insider.
Protectors fans; do you agree with our list of the show’s greatest episodes? If we’ve missed one of your faves, or praised an episode you despise, please let us know in the comments below!