Wednesday, 15 February 2012

On the Magnificence of Peter Wyngarde

To begin, for my first ever picture on the blog.  Do have a proper look at this exhibition of early 70’s utter cool (a famous promo pic from the time).  And note – who else can carry off leather pants in this way, and a moustache, and still be astonishingly intelligent and a slightly louche action hero also?

Now, I don’t mean for a moment to be merely dribbling over one of the most gorgeous actors still alive, in a horrible sexist way.  I would sincerely love to meet Peter Wyngarde and have, umm, a croissant and some orange juice (was thinking he’s rather older now, and may not fancy champagne or coffee, he’s in his 80’s now) with him.  I would love to chat and hear stories, and just listen to the marvellous George Sanders-esque voice .  I truly think the man is one of the best actors we had, before some people got hot under the collar that despite always being a ladies man on TV, he got arrested for some business in a toilet in Gloucester with a truck driver in 1975.  (The fact that his acting colleagues often called him – we hear, here and there – ‘Petunia Winegum’ as a nickname, testifies to the fact that being gay wasn’t a secret amongst people that knew him.)  Since some people weren’t ready to handle the fact that the leather trousers were active in a way they hadn’t expected, his career suffered and got halted, really.  What a total bloody shame!  After all those sudden 1965-67ish appearances in staples like The Avengers, The Saint, Armchair Theatre and The Prisoner, he drifted away.  Just when it was all getting going.

Now, I haven’t looked into his career in any great detail (I tend to get obsessed in that way with female iconic figures – and Christopher Lee, as a notable exception), but if he’s in something I will watch it and keep it, as he never disappoints.  Such presence, such confidence.  I think this used to be called brio, as in – full of energy, life and enthusiasm.  And class!

My earliest Peter Wyngarde memory is a masked Peter Wyngarde, as seen in Flash Gordon.  Which is one of the most perfect films ever made and I wouldn’t change a hair on its head whatsoever.  (This will be elaborated on in that other post I threatened about my 5 favourite films ever, to come).  How many people dislike this film so strongly is completely beyond me?  What does it matter that the actor playing Flash Gordon apparently wasn’t acting very well?  I thought he did fine, they didn’t paint him as a great brain – more as a character that had heart and energy; Sam Jones did fine with that brief, I reckon.  What is there to dislike about the intense, insane over colourisation:  all that GOLD, and green, and red, and orange, and shininess everywhere??  Every time I watch it I am cheered up even if the sound is down!  And if the sound is up, I get to hear Ornella Muti (who Alias Octa always described as ‘born to fuck’, in a true teenage boy way) purring and sulking, Melody Anderson cheerleading and offering Suzanne Danielle the elixir that will make a night with the Emperor Ming doable (his sexual weirdness is hinted at several times, in a rather titillating way).  And then there’s Emperor Ming himself, Max von Sydow, who despite his marvellous face makeup and great costuming, still manages attract my attention by doing more evil hand rubbing acting than anyone I have since seen in a film; more pregnant pauses before evil sneering.  And of course, Brian Blessed yelling ‘DIVE!’ (which I have recently taken to yelling at Fluffhead in the living room as we have a mattress on the floor at the moment – at my command, in badly executed Blessed-eze, Fluffhead will run full steam at the mattress and propel himself headfirst onto it bellowing with joy, and holding his Josie Jump toy from ‘Ballamory’ – as she jumps too…).  And the Queen soundtrack…the Love Capsule music is always overlooked and so sensually splendid I bought the whole soundtrack just for that, those few seconds…

And then, there’s the voice that I didn’t really identify properly until about 3 years ago.  I have watched this wonderful soul edifying frothy film of excellence about a thousand times (I never get bored of it, and it’s repeated on TV still so often, that if I catch it, it stays on), and yet, oddly, I had never really connected the cast list.  I think I forgot George Sanders was dead (RIP another great, he became bored of the ‘sweet cesspit’ of here so his suicide note said), and imagined the voice of Klytus, Ming’s state torturer, was him, somehow (freshly escaped from the Jungle Book where he was so excellent during Fry’s video childhood, as the bad Shere Khan tiger).  Then one day, I really listened (apropos of nothing the way you suddenly sometimes do), and realised that (a) George Sanders had indeed been dead since 1972, I had recently read it, and Flash Gordon was a 1980 film, and that (b) that voice didn’t really sound like George Sanders at all – it was too deep and way more nuanced.  So the fact I had been dribbling (yes, sigh, its very demeaning to me[1] to admit that I actually salivate – really – when I hear that voice, its just so delicious in tone, so fluid and suggestive of night time things) all this time over a masked person I had only just realised starred in one of my other favourite films was …well, I have a quiet life, I was very excited.  Stop laughing at me!

The other favourite film was Night of the Eagle (1962).  I can’t recommend this film highly enough.  You must have gathered by now, that I have a (debatedly healthy or not) strong interest in all things inexplicable currently, and labelled ‘supernatural’.  So any film, with a hint of this, and there I am, to have a look and a think about it.  Remember long ago when BBC2 late at night used to have those truly excellent summer horror film seasons on Saturdays, I’m sure I’ve mentioned them before?  With one old ish thing first, like I Walked With A Zombie, or Cat People, and then a more ‘modern’ one after – anything from a Christopher Lee Dracula, to a Legend of Hell House?  That’s where I first saw Night of the Eagle.  Spoiler alert!!  About a scientific and sceptical professor who is doing very well in his rising career at a small university, but is unaware this is because his wife is working protective voodoo on his behalf; as she is actually battling the forces of greedy and voracious bad magic, summoned up by the Head Teacher, Margaret Johnston.  At the end she summons a huge thoughtform eagle to get rid of Wyngarde’s character, but a wonderful contrivance with an old eight track player sends it against her instead, hence the title. End of Spoiler.  This is the face of Peter Wyngarde I had been very familiar with for years – 

 Which doesn’t look at all like the first picture, does it?  I had no idea it was the same person.  It’s a genuinely scary film, with some good jumpy moments.  I think you should all buy it, and it is available (under a fiver on Amazon UK); but for the skint amongst us, go and feast your eyes on the acting talent that is this man, on YouTube – the whole film is up there at the moment.  For years, this film was sought after by me, until Alias Alan got me a copy for Xmas a few moons back.

Another thing I had been wanting for ages (I had it when first released but then sold it, as I do tend to do when needing money; and then of course it went out of circulation and now goes for silly money on ebay) was the Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense (1984).  I had been remembering my favourite episode of this (about a haunting that turns out to have been from the future not the past – ahhhhhhhh, clever!) for a while, and had a yen to see it again.  Stanley went to trouble and found the lot for me online.  I started to watch them in the day, while Fluffhead and I read ‘Spot at Home’ and ‘Pip the Puppy’ and I tried repeatedly to teach him how to draw a flower with a pencil, since he loves curvy shapes at the moment.  I was dazzled by the brilliance of the episode ‘Check Mate’, good old Susan George, and I usually hate espionage things (its all very Traditional Boy-Aimed Crud in my opinion, excepting Day of the Jackal, which I find amazing), and then an episode came on with That Voice!  Putting down my toast and honey (my other current obsession, honey), I see that Peter Wyngarde is there, complete with wonderful moustache, and robed as a devil worshipping priest.  I think it's slightly likely that he was a little bored by this acting assignment, as I have rarely seen him loucher in something; then again, it’s a very slight story (which I won’t bother to relate).  There’s a funny scene near the end of the episode (‘And the Wall Came Tumbling Down’) where Wyngarde’s character is supposed to be dead on the floor.  The scene’s focus is away from him, to the actors still alive, upright and talking, gesturing.  Of course, I was just staring at Peter Wyngarde on the floor, loving those cheekbones and eyebrows.  I don’t know how long the scene may have taken to film, but he gets bored being on the floor and makes a face, licking his lips and the tip of his moustache very obviously.  It made me laugh out loud.

In speaking of his TV and film stuffs (just a tiny selection by the way, very partisan of me), I am leaving out his notorious record, recently re-released on CD – When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head.  I’m not even going to attempt to tell you about this – you have to go and listen to it!  It’s a concept album, its very funny, full of social commentary, and…(well, if you’ve ever heard the spoken albums of William Shatner…?  Its nothing like those, though I adore those too, they’re marvellous, but its somehow related, in the sense of it’s being oddly unclassifiable?!)  There’s rap, to country music – imagine! There’s much talking – its got ATMOSPHERE fizzing to the tip of the champagne glass he offers you at the start…It was removed shortly after its initial re;ease, for offending loads of people with the song 'Rape'.  Listening to it as the BlackberryJuniper feminist I am...I think its not meant to be taken literally at all, and there was alot going on in there about attitudes of the times, being mocked, quite harshly.  Go and find it, and stop listening to me describing it very poorly!

But the true gem, of any length or consistency, that I have – that, as a nation, yay!, WE have, is his excellence in the ITC shows Department S, and then the spin-off Jason King, where Wyngarde is a novelist, international travelling playboy and sleuth, as only the early 70’s could dress and cast a man.  I mean, look…

 People make much of how kitsch these series are today; how camp, how unreal, how …silly.  Now.  You’re talking here, with someone who violently adores Flash Gordon, so are these things going to bother me in the slightest?  I really think not.  It is all silly, and light; and yet so disarming.  Fun.  Escapist.  Occasionally very clever in terms of story telling, and even thought provoking.  The ensemble of the team of the Department S series was great, and it’s quite shameful that it was only the one series.  Boo.  But then was Jason King, so at least my favourite character is still about.  

He would say things like ‘I abhor violence’, before gracefully launching himself across a room to box someone’s ears in that very theatrical and obviously unreal way they did in those TV days.  And his hair would not ruffle; his handkerchief would remain dandily in the pocket.  And you can’t see it, but his sleeve turnbacks would also remain blissful and unpeturbed.  I have no idea why this is so important to me; I think it ties in to my sense of screaming for order in a life of chaos!  The series’s weren’t just the usual formulaic ITC action-quirky international star of the week vehicles (well, that WAS the formula, but…).  Wyngarde’s portrayal of Jason King managed to make me actually want to BE him as this character.  As in, I added Jason King to my mental list of TV and film characters whose traits I really would do to acquire in life.   

He managed to be astonishingly arrogant, yet also vulnerable and emotional.  Intelligent, and strangely clueless at times.  And so stylish in terms of fabric and colour that I think it really did get burned into my brain forever and affect the way I see clothes even now (no, I don’t want to dress like George Sand as a result; but I really care if the colours go or not, and if the whole thing looks put together!)  (You wouldn’t know this at all from the way I dress since Fluffhead; but what can I say – there’s a raging mixed up vintage style in there, and it will explode out when I am free to be rufflier, later in life.)

I think what I saw there, in his portrayal of that character was an amazing ability to disregard the categorisations of other people, and sail through life as HIMSELF.  To not be afraid, to not be cowed, to speak out and say your piece and hold your head up whilst doing so.  And not be afraid to be clever.  (Yes, I read a lot into what I see; the brain just won’t go off.)

And then you see Peter Wyngarde’s actual life, and see that for the time he was in, he was too big to handle, too large for the life around him, for the narrow minded amongst us.  He did get cowed, in the sense that his career got stalled so badly he had to go and do theatre work abroad (grand, but what a shame we lost him HERE) and it never really recovered here when he got back.  He did loads, go and see on IMDB, or the defunct Hellfire fansite, or YouTube…I could’ve watched so much more of him.  Bloody tragic.  I’m sure I’m not alone in that.  I have friends on Facebook who have memories of him in pubs in Brighton in the 60’s: apparently he dressed just as wonderfully in real life, complete with the imported Sobraine cigarettes, cravats, and undisputed wit.  There’s a fan page for him on Facebook, where a picture of him was recently posted as he is now – in his 80’s the man still reeks of poise and confidence; it’s just in the bearing; and the leather trousers he is still wearing.  Ooooooooo – I envy that, I admire that!  

Long Live the Peter Wyngarde of the past, the present, and the imagination…King of Cool, and Much Under-rated Brilliant Actor.  May I take on those traits I see in him, and glide through life with the same casual insouciance and verve.  I wish I may.

[1] …not to Peter Wyngarde, who if he ever read this I am sure would just make a face of comic boredom, and think, ‘silly woman’, before reading something else.  I don’t think he would be anything other than mildly bored by the idea that a 40 year old mother of 2 has mouth incontinence on the subject and sound of him.  He’s too cool to be bothered, I’m convinced.


  1. Divillabiss!!Peter the Great!!

  2. Loved your charming and incisive appraisal. I can only agree with all my heart. Somewhere, I am sure, he is smiling...

  3. I was friendly with PWYS. As I met him. Briefly in 1967 at ABPC Studios Elstree ..then met up with him again in 1974 , when he stayed over at our little "Bistro Cafe in Birmingham" He was touring. Both Dracula and The King and I those yers and at the Wolverhampton Grand...I actualy interviewed him for hospital radio ( long vanished now!!) YOU CAN RED THAT PART OF LIFE from my perspective in my Biogrophy "Sorry Darling its Way Past Time " by Thomas Bunn " ( Bunny Thomas) Google it ..I have never seen him again since 1975 ! Its a memory I adore to recall as he bought flowers on departure and signed the "ButcherSApron " and the tradesmen bits before going in his old Bently Continental with his HoundJason!! Who slept on the floor beside him

  4. The Official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society

  5. I'm watching Night of the Eagle (Burn Witch Burn in the U.S., where movie titles must be lurid and obvious) right now, and Wyngarde's performance is a marvel. I read he got the part after originally cast Peter Cushing became ill. If so, our gain.