Race, Masculinity, Class: Re-evaluating 1960s British ActionAdventure Television.

Published: 2019/12/10 Number of words: 3112


Between 1955 and 1982 the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) was responsible for some of the most financially successful and popular television programmes of the period. ITC was set up in 1954 by the media proprietor, Lew Grade. Grade’s intention was ‘to bid for one of the new British commercial television franchises’ (Bould, 2005, p.93). Grade’s company produced a variety of different television series including historical dramas like The Adventures of Robin Hood (ATV: 1955-59) and Sir Francis Drake (ITC: 1961-62) as well as crime dramas like Danger Man (ITC: 1960-67) and The Saint (ITC: 1962-69). All were packaged for distribution across the independent television network (Falk & Prince, 1987, p.25). The success of these programmes was due to the financial acumen of Grade who credited himself with having changed ‘the whole complexion of television’, and declaring, ‘I am not here to educate the public, I am here to entertain them’ (Osgerby, 2001, pp.18–19). However, these types of programmes came under fire from sources such as the 1962 Pilkington Report on broadcasting, which accused companies like ITC of ‘trivialisation, of sacrificing quality and variety in [its] quest for ratings and revenue’ [and] ‘the “Americanisation” of British TV’ (Cooke, 2003, p.55).

Nevertheless the ‘Americanisation’ led to ITC programmes accessing the ‘potentially lucrative’ (Johnson, 2005, p.43) American market. The international success of these programmes led to the criticism that they were failing to adequately reflect British national identity and as a result, ‘compromised their British values by imitating the style of American television’ (Chapman, 2002, p.11). Osgerby argued that these programmes were recognisably part of a repackaging of an American aesthetic and that ‘these genres had been appropriated, re-interpreted and synthesized with cultural elements drawn from both Britain and Continental Europe’ (p.20).

This essay will analyse the British actionadventure television series Department S (ITC: 1969-70) and will examine how this series incorporated significant changes occurring in British society during the 1960s. I would argue that Department S not only complicates representations of masculinity and race, but also offers a different perspective from other contemporary actionadventure series. This is a result of the mass media requirement to be ‘commercially organized to attract audiences for profit [and that] popularity will be more important to media producers than a commitment to any specific ideology’ (Croteau & Hoynes, 2000, p.161). Moreover, the actionadventure series still offer a space where questions of representation and ideologies can be explored and critiqued (ibid.). In addition, fantasy texts are capable of re-examining ‘culturally constructed notions of reality [and] offer new (and potentially subversive) perspectives on society’ (Johnson, p.8).

Race and Masculinity in Department S

Department S introduces a different interpretation of the British male within the actionadventure genre, and creates a black character that is fundamentally different from other black representation in popular television at the time. Department S is characterised by its quirky pre-title sequence and witty characterisation. For example, in The Man from ‘X’, a man is found dead, having been suffocated, in the middle of a London street wearing an astronaut’s spacesuit. In Last Train to Redbridge, when an underground train stops at the end of the line, all its occupants are dead. Nevertheless, the fantastical premise of the initial setup usually had a mundane explanation. Department S was located in the Paris headquarters of Interpol and the team would take on cases other international departments like the FBI or CID were unable to solve. The chief of Department S is Sir Curtis Seretse, (Dennis Alaba Peters); the primary crime-fighting members of the organisation are Stewart Sullivan, played by the American actor Joel Fabiani, a computer expert, Annabelle Hurst, played by the English actress Rosemary Nicols, and the ‘dandy crime-writer cum reluctant crime-fighter’ (Bould, p.95) Jason King, played by Peter Wyngarde.

Discussion and analysis of Department S invariably concentrate on the character of Jason King and rarely examine the role played by the other protagonists. James Chapman’s critique represents an example of this bias:

American Joel Fabiani was cast as Stewart Sullivan, a square-jawed action man, while English Rosemary Nicols played computer analyst Annabelle Hurst. Neither role is especially memorable: Sullivan has so little personality that he is indistinguishable from the mill of sixties adventure heroes, while Annabelle is virtually a clone of Linda Thorson’s Tara King in The Avengers (p.191).

Although King was undoubtedly popular and eventually given his own series, Jason King (ITC: 1971-72), Chapman fails to acknowledge how integral the other characters are to the masculine construction of King. Only by examining King’s relationship with Sullivan and Hurst can we begin to unpack the layers contributing to this complex character who is ‘not so much a person as a conglomeration of signs’ (Medhurst, 2001, p.169). Furthermore, King’s relationship with Sullivan is important in understanding the radical reinterpretation of masculinity and heterosexuality in the series.

Department S is on the surface a generic adventure series; however the interaction between King and Sullivan contain signifiers that raise questions regarding the heterosexuality of the characters. As Andy Medhurst points out, ‘homosexual codings in popular culture were only just beginning to become decipherable’ (p.178). Medhurst, like Chapman, concentrates on the Jason King series; however Medhurst’s queer reading can also be applied to Department S, specifically by the King/Sullivan relationship. It is worth remembering that homosexual acts were not legalised until 1967, and as late as 1970 the three directors of the underground magazine IT’s publishing company were charged with ‘conspiracy to corrupt public morals’ (Green, 1998, p.352) for reproducing gay contact advertisements. Therefore, homosexuality in Britain had still not established a sufficient public voice to be acceptable within mainstream popular entertainment, either domestically or internationally.

King and Sullivan, throughout the series, involve themselves with significant levels of banter and overt displays of heterosexuality. Banter, as Anthony Easthope has argued, has a dual function. When outwardly aggressive, banter is ‘a form in which the masculine ego asserts itself’ (Easthope, 1992, p.88), but banter also ‘depends on a close, intimate and personal understanding of the person who is the butt of the attack’ (ibid.). The banter and wordplay between King and Sullivan is continuous and frequently excludes Annabelle. I would argue that in this case, the banter is there to ‘protect the male bond – sublimated homosexual desire – and exclude women’ (Easthope, p.92). Further, King’s attacks on Annabelle are frequently personal. He refers to Annabelle as ‘dull’ and frequently dismisses her investigative work as well as her reliance on facts and evidence. The more overtly masculine Sullivan’s displays of affection are limited to kissing her on the forehead in Who Plays the Dummy, or casually accepting the back of her hand rubbing against his in The Mysterious Man in the Flying Machine but failing to reciprocate any desire for her.

Cary Nelson’s semiotic analysis of terms used to identify gender difference in our society can be usefully applied to Department S, as well as examine how relationships between the masculine and feminine roles in the series challenge traditional cultural representations. Nelson identifies as masculine the following traits: organised, intellect, logical, head. The feminine equivalents are: scattered, imagination, illogical, heart (quoted in Fiske, 1987, p.203). In the case of Department S, Annabelle assumes the masculine role; for example, she spends most of her time examining the data produced by her computer. Annabelle is also rational and logical whereas King is irrational and illogical, and Sullivan is emotional and often thinks with his heart not his head.

King and Sullivan’s characters are defined by culturally constructed feminine characteristics. Traditional action series would have seen the men play an active, physical part in the action; however, during the course of the series King and Sullivan are beaten up, gassed, hypnotised or drugged, and several times need to rely on Annabelle to rescue them. King and Sullivan are also frequently shown in each other’s company. They both have a penchant for three-piece suits – although King usually wears a more flamboyant shirt than Sullivan, they mirror and complement each other. In The Perfect Operation, after checking his temperature, King cries out to Sullivan that he believes he is suffering from something incurable. Sullivan checks the thermometer and jokingly informs King that the instrument is upside down and he has misread the figures. The two men giggle together as Annabelle, in the background and ignored by the other two, begins her investigation of the crime scene.

At times there are more explicit allusions to King and Sullivan’s sexuality. In Death on Reflection, King is on the beach playing a game of chess with young female twins. When the twins win the game, King looks at them, his lip curling in disgust. King then gazes out towards the beach and remarks, ‘Perhaps I would have more luck on a surfboard’. The shot cuts to two bronzed, muscled men riding the surf and then back to King who has a smile on his face. Sullivan and King often share a room when they are abroad on missions and in one extraordinary shot, Sullivan is lying on a bed, his shirt is open to the waist and his chest bare while Sullivan is discussing the latest case with Annabelle over the telephone. The camera pulls back and we see King next to him, wrapped only in a purple dressing gown calmly smoking a cigarette. This scene therefore contains relevant signifiers to support a homosexual decoding while maintaining a safe heterosexuality.

King’s frequent appearances with a succession of beautiful women would traditionally be viewed as a signifier of heterosexuality. However, these women only exist to massage King’s ego and validate his narcissism. King is the author of a series of pulp thrillers featuring the fictional hero, Mark Caine. When a woman acknowledges she know who Mark Caine is, King slips into the personae of Caine and begins his seduction. If his potential female conquest fails to recognise Mark Caine, he treats her with disdain and disgust – memorably referring to one woman as a ‘plastic bag of acid’. King’s overt sexual interest in women is another example of a culturally constructed signifier of masculinity. Nonetheless, King’s attraction to woman is too extreme; he is a Don Juan, and like Don Juan he ‘makes love promiscuously because he hates his lovers’ (Easthope. p.154). Unlike King, Sullivan displays no explicit interest in the opposite sex and he lacks the cultural signifiers of masculinity that distinguish his American counterparts in more conventional actionadventure series. Sullivan often sides with King against Annabelle’s rationalism and displays wild outbursts of emotion. In The Perfect Operation this almost leads to tears of frustration. In Joke Hermes’ analysis of The Persuaders! (ITC: 1971-72), she recognises that the male buddy narrative strives ‘to distance itself from any hint of homosexual attraction between its lead characters by emphasizing […] their heterosexuality’ (p.160). This analysis can also be applied to the relationship shared between King and Sullivan. I would argue that King and Sullivan’s overt displays of heterosexuality disguise affection for each other, and this demonstration of ‘duplicitous masculinity’ (ibid.) challenges the formulaic conventions of the heterosexual relationship in the popular actionadventure genre.

The actor Dennis Alaba Peters plays Sir Curtis Seretse, the chief of Department S. Unusually for a black character of the period he has a distinct African accent. Chapman dismisses the importance played by the character: ‘Peters’ role in each episode is minimal, and the presence of one black actor playing a secondary character is hardly indicative of the sort of multiculturalist agenda that was a feature of contemporary American police series’ (p.192). However, Chapman fails to examine how radically different the representation of Sir Curtis Seretse was within the format of a popular British drama series during the 1960s. As Daniels has pointed out, from 1946 until the mid–50s ‘there was little representation of black settlers on British television’ (1994, p.65).

Black performers in the media were invariably confined to the following base-images: the dependable, loving, ‘slave-figure, the native or the clown or entertainer’ (Hall, 1990, pp.15–6). Examples of black performers appearing on British television in popular genres are not easy to find but a 1964 episode of the medical drama Emergency—Ward 10 (ATV: 1957-67) featured an inter-racial relationship between two doctors. However, plans ‘to televise British television’s first inter-racial kiss proved too controversial’ (Cooke, p.32) and was never filmed. Therefore, despite Seretse not sharing as much screen time as the other three, he deserves greater recognition and analysis then Chapman is willing to concede.

Seretse is unique in this type of popular drama series. For example, he is shown to be knowledgeable about wine – he takes Sullivan wine-tasting and it is the American who takes tips from Seretse; he easily beats King at croquet and claims that ‘I am in the Ambassador’s team against Asia’; he is knowledgeable about fine art and antiques; and he has enough political power to ask the British Prime Minister questions regarding a recent conversation with the American President. He is also the person the others turn to for guidance and help. Therefore, at a time when the ‘typical presentation of blacks was as “problems”’ (Tulloch, 1990, p.144), Seretse was portrayed as an important and different representation of a black man. It is also important to point out that Seretse emerges from an environment ‘not conducive to creative expression, nor to the emergence of imaginative roles for black actors and actresses’ (Pines, 1992, p.12), following the aftermath of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, and therefore holds an important role in the representation of black characters on television.

Department S is a series that was willing to embrace different representations of masculinity and race, at a time when popular television genres were content to portray stereotypical and conservative representations of masculinity and heterosexuality. Unlike similar ITC productions like The Saint and Danger Man, the series challenged roles of the action hero within the framework of the popular action series. Furthermore, it was willing to portray a positive representation of a black man at a time when the media were primarily preoccupied with ‘discussing the “problematic” aspects of the black presence in Britain’ (Ross, 1996, p.88).


In analysing Department S, the London of the 1960s, when ‘youth, pop music, fashion, celebrity, satire, crime, fine art, sexuality, scandal, theatre, cinema, drugs, media’ (Levy, 2002, p.6) all came together is noticeably absent. While London was ‘swinging’, the protagonists of Department S appear to have existed in a slightly different universe. Nevertheless, Department S posed questions that challenged traditional representations of heterosexuality and masculinity, and looked forward instead of backwards in its depiction of traditional cultural and social constructions. This radicalism was given further credence by the character of Sir Curtis Seretse, who is an intelligent, educated black man and who wields considerable power and influence within the white establishment.


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