Film & TV

An International Man of Mystery

Peter Wyngarde in Department S (via YouTube)
Peter Wyngarde was a late-1960s, early-1970s sensation with a self-parodic style.

A few weeks ago, a British actor died at the grand old age of 90 (probably). Peter Wyngarde’s death was accompanied by wryly affectionate obituaries and, among Brits of a certain age, a certain sadness: For a brief iridescent moment, one of the zanier icons of their youth had shone. Now he was gone.

According to an early-1970s survey, 40,000 Australian women chose Wyngarde as the man to whom they would have liked to lose their virginity. He was voted Britain’s best-dressed male personality, admittedly no great feat, in 1970 and then again in 1971. Mobbed by tens of thousands of women — how many virgins is unknown — on his arrival in Sydney, he took three days in hospital to recover.

Despite an “amorous” crowd, held back by 50 policemen, there was a gentler conclusion to Wyngarde’s opening of a menswear store in Plymouth, a city in the more sedate southwest of England. A writer for the website Hellfire Hall, “part of the official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society,” recalled that Wyngarde, “wearing a grey speckled suit with a mauve shirt and matching tie, tried on several garments#…#before settling for a black leather jacket and an aubergine-colored suit.” (Aubergine is British English for eggplant.)

This might be the moment to mention that Wyngarde, or rather Jason King, the character and self-caricature (“a romantic extension,” he explained) he played on television as the Sixties seeped into the Seventies, was the inspiration for Austin Powers. An old episode, or even a still, is all it takes to understand why.

Wyngarde reached this peak after appearances on the stage, in a film or two, and, increasingly, in television drama. The Sixties being the Sixties, he gravitated towards roles in telly-time treats designed for a Britain beguiled by James Bond. He showed up in The Prisoner, The Saint, and (most notably as the Hellfire Club’s John Cleverly Cartney) The Avengers. The latter two were part of a stable of not-always-so-serious action and adventure shows produced by ITC, a company run by a wily British TV mogul with an eye on the American market.

ITC enlisted Wyngarde (he signed his contract on a napkin over a meal) in Department S, a new series about three agents working for a crack Interpol unit. There was a former G-man and a female computer expert, and then there was King, best-selling crime writer, ladies’ man, charismatic, eccentric, flamboyant, witty, ingenious. His moustache was dramatic. His tailoring was epic. His fights didn’t always work out too well, but his shrewd, knowing performance stole the show, and in Jason King he was given his own.

For 26 gloriously ludicrous episodes in 1971–72, King spent a great deal of time peacocking across what was, to poorly traveled Britons held back by low incomes, high taxes, and tough currency controls, an impossibly glamorous Europe. A tax exile (of course), King lived in Paris (of course) and sauntered through capers involving typical caper casts, including double agents, a Bulgarian master criminal, Soviets, exotic aristocrats, and shifty British intelligence operators. There were casinos. There was skiing. More light-hearted than Department S, Jason King parodied a genre that was already close to parody. It was an exercise in absurdist high camp, winking at an audience unaware of how far the joke really went.

King drove a Bentley S2 Continental coupe. He smoked Sobranie Imperials, a brand far longer than its stubby proletarian equivalents, and enjoyed Champagne and strawberries for breakfast, as, apparently, did Wyngarde. Then again, it might be “a bit too early for coffee.#…#I think I’ll have Scotch.”

King’s gait was a self-satisfied prance. His hair was bouffant, with a cascade behind, a waterfall over the ears, and an exclave on his regularly exposed chest. Sideburns erupted off an angular face, and Zapata lived on in his moustache. And the clothes! The suits, Wyngarde advised, were inspired by an 18th-century riding jacket, lapels so broad they waved hello to his shoulders, the ends of their sleeves concealed by the cuffs of his shirts, folded back with artful nonchalance, a trademark.

He smoked Sobranie Imperials, a brand far longer than its stubby proletarian equivalents, and enjoyed Champagne and strawberries for breakfast.

King’s big-knotted wide ties were often — just as on that day in Plymouth — the same color as his shirts, another trademark. His boots were snakeskin, his dressing gowns silk, his foulards silk, his cravats silk, his voice silk. His coats were sweeping, his caftans evoked decadence in Tangier rather than a grubby pilgrimage along the hippie trail, and his tight leather outfit was worn with obvious and unashamed delight.

Wyngarde fell short of the matinee-idol standard (ITC’s boss grumbled about his failure to look like The Saint’s Roger Moore), but women, sometimes in hot pants, sometimes in less, sometimes in more, didn’t seem to mind as they succumbed, not always one by one, to King’s louche charms. A medallion swung and so did King, a Lothario, but despite the occasional appalling comment (a habit he shared, like so many others, with Wyngarde), no Weinstein.

Nearly a decade after Jason King had ended its run, readers of the X-Men comic books discovered that the original name of the villainous mutant Mastermind, a member of another Hellfire Club who looked — how can I put it — somewhat familiar, was Jason Wyngarde, evidence — as if any were needed — of how tricky it was to work out where Wyngarde ended and King began. To judge by some unflattering comments from one or two of his colleagues, Wyngarde may have not found it too easy to do so himself. He even “lent” King his clothes, and with them, much of his style: “I was inclined to be a bit of a dandy, I used to go to the tailor with my designs,” he confessed later, surprising nobody.

On the show itself, King’s adventures were interwoven with those of Mark Caine, his fictional creation and alter ego: In its first episode, King, the author, pitches a Mark Caine adventure to an American TV producer. The fictional Caine is played by the fictional King and the fictional King by the real — that adjective will have to do for now — Wyngarde playing Wyngarde as Wyngarde wanted Peter Wyngarde to be seen by his fans.

The X-Men’s Mastermind had the ability to project illusions, to make people see what he wanted them to see.

In 1970, capitalizing on the success of Department S, Wyngarde released an LP, modestly called Peter Wyngarde. RCA had told him he could do what he liked. Fools! What the record company got was what Wyngarde’s obituarist in the London Times describes as a “revoltingly seedy album,” a bizarre and pretentious collection of songs, more spoken than sung, and, in its saner moments, designed (we must hope) as a not entirely serious showpiece of what a Jason King (who gets a shout-out at its nadir) might relax to or seduce to:

Do go in
No, the lights haven’t fused – it’s candlelight.
Now what would you like to drink — I’ve started on Champagne.
That is a beautiful dress! Do sit down
No, not over there – it’s too far away.
Come over here, it’s closer to everything.

Other tracks veered onto far more dangerous ground, most notoriously the supposedly jokey, undeniably very creepy “Rape,” about which the less said the better. RCA pulled the album after its first pressing. Decades later it was reissued by an independent label under the title “When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head.”

By then, sex had done rather more than that: In 1975, Wyngarde was found guilty of committing an act of “gross indecency” with a truck driver in a provincial British bus station. This followed an official warning for something similar the previous year. Wyngarde blamed a “mental aberration” (the first incident had been a “misunderstanding”). He received a token fine, but the spell was broken. His career never recovered. Prejudice played its part, but the scandal had shattered an image inextricably connected to that of King’s globe-trotting Casanova. Making matters worse, within a year or so, the bleakness of late-1970s Britain, and the fashions that came with it, had reduced King to an embarrassing memory too recent for nostalgia to rescue. Wyngarde’s mannered style of acting only reinforced the impression that time had passed him by. A battle with alcohol and a reputation for being “difficult” won’t have helped either. His best-known role after his fall was in Flash Gordon, where he played the sinister General Klytus, face hidden behind a golden mask.

The bleakness of late-1970s Britain, and the fashions that came with it, had reduced King to an embarrassing memory too recent for nostalgia to rescue.

But Wyngarde’s mask was subtler, a flickering, layered creation. Sometimes it wasn’t even there at all. If he hid, this King’s Road magnifico, known (some say; along with so much else in Wyngarde’s biography, there is a debate about this) in some showbiz circles as “Petunia Winegum,” hid in a way still possible before the Internet’s panopticon gaze, not quite in plain sight, but not far from it either. There are hints in Department S and Jason King that all was not as it seemed (and even more so in that infamous LP), although the reality may have been less clear-cut than newspaper headlines and men’s-room walls after Wyngarde’s conviction liked to suggest. We will never know for sure: Thus there was a marriage in the 1950s, and something seems to have happened with Vivien Leigh, Scarlett O’Hara no less. Years later, when there was no longer any need to pretend, there was still a touch of King in the way Wyngarde described past encounters with the opposite sex, perhaps even with an approximation of accuracy. Who’s to say? The mask was allowed to slip only so far. It had, after all, been the work of a lifetime, a product of necessity, fantasy, and ambition.

The early sections of Wyngarde’s Wikipedia entry (at least as I write) are evidence of a wild reimagination at work: “Peter Wyngarde’s date and place of birth, his birth name, and his parents’ nationalities and occupations are all disputed.” Well, yes. He was born between 1924 and 1933 in either Marseilles or Singapore (probably in Singapore in 1927, although Wyngarde preferred to cite Marseilles in 1933). His father was not a diplomat named Wyngarde, but Henry Goldbert, a naturalized Brit from Ukraine, who seems to have been a merchant seaman, at least for a while. His mother was either a French or a Swiss national and may have been Eurasian. Wyngarde said she looked like Claudette Colbert and was a racing driver. Then again, Wyngarde also claimed that he was a nephew of the French actor Louis Jouvet (he wasn’t), that he’d studied for a few months at Oxford (he hadn’t), and that Peter Wyngarde was the name he was born with (Cyril Goldbert just wouldn’t do).

It is true that he was interned by the Japanese during the later stages of the Second World War in a camp near Shanghai. The British writer J. G. Ballard, a rather more highly regarded teller of tales, was also there (an experience that inspired his Empire of the Sun) and remembered him (as Goldbert) from those years. For his part, Wyngarde said that he had no memory of Ballard. Maybe it was too awkward to admit to the connection: Ballard had known him while the mask was first being assembled. Goldbert, unlike Ballard (who was interned with his parents), was alone. It was there that he turned to acting and not, I suspect, only in the camp’s makeshift theater. His performances included a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which he played every part.

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