In the late 1970s, one of the coolest British TV shows around was “Return of the Saint”.
I recently caught up with Ian Ogilvy, the show’s star, in Eastbourne where he was directing his own play, “Swap”.
JB– Firstly, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I’d like to start by asking about your long collaboration with Michael Reeves, which I believe started with “Carrion” in 1958.
IO– Well, this was a short student film that we did. Michael and I were friends. I was 15 and wanted to be an actor, he wanted to be a director. He had this 8mm camera so we made a film. It is now lost and only a few frames remain. The next year he had a 16mm camera and he asked me to do another film. We’d had fun doing the previous one, so I agreed. In the end I was ill, his mother took care of me during filming, so I ended up only being in it very briefly.
JB– During the sixties you collaborated quite a lot with Michael. On films like “The She Devils”, “The Sorcerers” and of course “The Witchfinder General”.
IO- We’d been friends for a long time. Michael wanted to be a director, but didn’t really know what an actor did – so from an actor’s point of view he was very good to work with, as you were able to develop your own performance. The only time he really needed to tell somebody what to do was with Vincent Price, and that was more a case of telling him not to do things.
JB- I believe you have worked with most of the horror Greats?
IO- Yeah. I’ve worked with Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, I worked with him twice. The only one I didn’t work with was Christopher Lee.
JB- Now in 1966 you did a BBC play called “The Connoisseur”.
IO- Hmm, I remember that. It was directed by Warris Husain. Yeah that was good, with Richard O’Sullivan.
JB- I believe you were playing the school bully in this…
IO- I sort of was, I was an unpleasant character, a nasty guy in that.
JB- A role you later parodied in “Ripping Yarns”…
IO- I don’t really remember “The Connoisseur” apart from Richard, with whom I got on very well. He made me go to a football match with him. I was always sneering at him because he was very passionate about football. He used to say things like, “the only reason I’m an actor is so that I can go anywhere in the world and watch football”. I’d never been to a football match in my life, he made me go once, to a Chelsea Fulham match I think it was. I stood there in the cold and it all took place and it just looked like a lot of men looking for their car keys, all miles away. And he said afterwards, “Wasn’t that marvellous!” and I said it was a bore from start to finish. He never really forgave me for that. But I don’t really remember much about “The Connoisseur”, but I do remember a lot about “Ripping Yarns” because that was a lot of fun. Of course that was later in the seventies. We had a lot of laughs on that. Nothing nicer than working with Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Really lovely people, nice guys.
JB- Throughout the sixties you guested on many things including “The Avengers”. How did elements in “The Avengers”, such as space-age plots, set design, and fashion reflect what was going on in the culture during the 1960s? What kind of world was it and how did it shape the style and attitude of the series?
IO- (chuckles) Well, I was 21 or 22 and I didn’t think about things like that, I just thought did I look nice with my blond hair and decided I didn’t really. Of course, “The Avengers” is one of those shows which was so stylized. You know, there was no attempt at realism. I suppose they had an influence to a certain extent, but I would have thought frankly it was the other way round – television doesn’t often create, it often follows style, rather than create it.
JB- That was the thing that I personally felt about “The Avengers”, if you look at earlier episodes, say 65, 66, it was actually leading the style and the fashion and those shows don’t look dated, whereas by 68, 69 they were trying to copy and follow the fashion and those shows do look dated.
IO- Yeah maybe, I don’t remember much about it. I remember I had a sword fight in it with an incompetent, really dangerous stunt man whose idea of sword fighting was just to waggle the sword and the coordinator actually went “Stop! Stop! Somebody else do it.” And I remember driving this big car, that’s about all I remember about it, I don’t know what the story or anything was anything. I’ve not watched these again, I don’t watch myself, I’d rather not. I’ve got boxed sets of “Return of the Saint” and I haven’t even opened the set or taken the cellophane off. I don’t really want to see myself.
I do remember one day that Linda was quite perturbed about the number of young women and she considered prettier actresses coming on to the show as guest stars and complained to Patrick about it. Patrick said, “Oh Linda, come along, remember it’s Patrick Macnee and Linda Thorson in “The Avengers”. We are the stars of the show and if I got myself upset about every young, better looking actor than me that came on the show, I wouldn’t have lasted very long.” He said, “You have to not worry about that because you’re the star and that’s what you have to remember.” That calmed her down and made her happy again. It’s quite natural, you know, you defend your position in something like that. It’s a bit like being a Prince and then the King has another son, and you think “Oh, I don’t want him around.”
JB- Coming into the 1970’s and we had shows like “Upstairs, Downstairs”.
IO- My storyline was five episodes. I once explained my storyline to an American producer and he asked how long it lasted. When I told him 5 episodes, he said to me if that had been done over there it would have lasted 5 years.
JB- Throughout the seventies you continued to appear in such things as the classic British farce “No Sex Please We’re British”, then “I, Claudius” amongst other things.
IO- I played Derek Jacobi’s father in that one!
JB- That brings us up to the “Return of the Saint” – can you tell me how that came about.
IO- My agent called me to say that Bob Baker thought I’d be good to take over from Roger Moore in “The Saint”. It had been off the air for several years. I thought, “Oh, right, really.” It turned out his wife had seen me in “Upstairs, Downstairs” and it was odd really because the two characters of the Saint and the character I play in “Upstairs, Downstairs” could not have been more different. But the reason was, of course, that I looked a bit like Roger, there’s no denying it, and so it was on that basis, Then I didn’t hear anything at all, because Bob Baker said he hadn’t yet got the green light for it at all, he’d got to persuade his boss, Lew Grade, and it took him another six or seven years. Then all of a sudden my agent said you’ve been offered “The Saint”. I went, “Great!” and that’s how easy it was. I never did an audition, I never read for it, I just had a meeting with him one year, then all those years later the offer was there. Which is the best kind of work, isn’t it.
JB- Well, yes. I did read somewhere though that Lew Grade needed a lot of persuading and wanted a screen test for it.
IO- I don’t know about that. I do know he never came, I never met him. The man was paying my bills and I never met him. I only met his wife once and that was because she asked me to do a charity ‘MC’ job. I think he hated the show and I don’t think he liked me in it. He certainly disliked all the early clothes and ordered Bob Baker to completely redress me in tailored suits, which I was much happier with, because some of the stuff I was in originally was so relentlessly trendy that within about ten minutes we were looking dated. The other thing about Lew was, at the time he didn’t really want to be a TV producer, he wanted to be Louie B Mayer. He took all his money from his successful TV shows and poured them into deeply unsuccessful movies and thereby lost his company quite quickly. He was the one that said no to the second series and yet it was crazy, because we were in profit and we’d sold it to god knows how many countries. The accountants were delirious, but he just said no, I don’t want to do it anymore. It was very expensive. It was ridiculous really, all the crew and I, we never said goodbye, because we expected to see each other in about 3 or 4 months.
JB- On a little side note, I believe that just after it was announced that you were to play the Saint the Pope announced that a Jesuit priest of the 1600s named John Ogilvie was to get a sainthood.
IO- Hmm, I know, a bit bizarre wasn’t it!
JB- Do you feel this was a good omen?
IO- (laughs) Not being a church-going person myself, I just thought it was amusing. What a strange little coincidence that was. I don’t think they pulled much publicity out of it though. Quite frankly, they could have done, they got a bit out of it, but not a lot.
JB- I also believe you had a telegram from Roger when you took over?
IO- Yeah, well, it was sweet. He said, “Best of luck and remember in the words of the immortal Lee Marvin, say the marks and hit your lines”, which is the reverse of… Yeah it was lovely, it was nice.
I met him a few times, he came and we all got drunk together in Italy. Yeah, that was fun. He’s always been very nice. I’ve met him once or twice in Los Angeles as well, but I haven’t seen him in years. We’re not friends or anything, but we’re perfectly fine. We wave at each other across a room!
JB- How did the culture of the 1970s shape “The Return of the Saint”? Had the world changed since the 1960s regarding attitudes and style?
IO- Well, I think the main thing different between mine and Roger’s show was that Roger’s stayed firmly at Elstree studios and went on the backlot occasionally, but by the time we did “The Saint” Bob Baker realised that we had to spend money actually on real locations. When the car was driving along it had to be a real car driving along a real road. I mean Roger had a bush which was revolving! So styles of television had changed. As to whether or not fashion had, I wouldn’t know that. I was again relentlessly trendy at the beginning, we went to this shop in Jermyn Street. Oh I hated most of these clothes! The one good thing I think Lew Grade did do was to say, “No, come on, suits, plain classic suits.” That was good. But other than that, I think the style of what was expected by a television audience had changed, so they expected more glamorous locations, real locations, not just a studio backlot and sets, which is what Roger did.
JB- Filming around Elstree and Borehamwood offered so many unique locations for the various adventure programs. Are there special qualities to that area that were important to the vibe of those shows?
IO- No, none whatsoever! The importance of those areas was because that’s where the studio was. You know, I mean you could easily go out and find a bit of woodland. I remember in another programme I was filming, I was sent to Virginia Water with Marianne Faithful and we were supposedly in Malaya. So we were at Virginia Water and they stuck a rubber plant close to the camera and there we were in the tropics! No, the placement of the studios, I think it’s a random thing and since most of our stuff was not in the studio at all, we did very little at Elstree. Our base was at Elstree, but we were so much on location. We did build a few sets, but mostly not. It’s just whatever was convenient.
JB- I understand actually that you’re quite a sports man?
IO- Anything that doesn’t require a ball, because I’m short-sighted and have worn glasses since I was seven years old, but anything with a ball I’m useless at. I mean ask Simon Williams about my cricketing thing, I’m hopeless. Anything that doesn’t require a ball I quite like yeah, but the thing is anything that doesn’t require a ball is usually quite expensive, that’s another problem.
JB- Did any of that prove useful during your time as the Saint?
IO- Yes, I learnt Scuba diving on “The Saint” actually. I was taught that, but horse riding I’d done since I was a little boy. We did a skiing episode and they said to me, “You are absolutely not allowed to move on the insistence of the insurance company, you just have to stand there.” But after a while I got bored and said to the assistant director, “How long are you going to be on the set up for the next shot?” He said an hour, so I said how about if I just went off quietly, if I promise to be back in half an hour, and he said, “I didn’t hear you say that Ian, bye”. And I started skiing again, but very very quietly as I shouldn’t have been doing it. Little things like that. And riding horses that’s true. You know it’s always amused me about the Saint that he could drive any car, he could ride a motorcycle … I put the motorcycle in by the way. I said to Bob, “You’ve got to have a motorbike in this.” I suggested it to him and he went, “Yeah alright.” But he didn’t really approve. Silver BMW, I put that in, in fact I still have a motorcycle in California; I ride it sometimes, enormous great thing, my toy.
JB- And how did you feel about taking on the mantle that Roger Moore had made so famous?
IO- The nice thing was, there was a gap of several years between it, but I knew there’d be comparisons between us and I recognised it as being what we called a personality job, you know, it’s like Bond, it’s whatever you make it.
JB- I shall touch on Bond in a minute because I know you were touted as a possible Bond.
IO- Very briefly I was, but I don’t know, I just thought the Saint was a straightforward hero character I was playing, I must try and inject some humour into it a bit if I can. But what Roger had done worked really well and while I didn’t imitate Roger I thought it worked for him, and also the scripts were all written by the same people. A lot of them were rehashed, he did sort of not quite Nazi spies, we did the same scripts but with the Red September gang.
JB- The other thing about you and Roger, you both exuded an effortless suave charm to the role.
IO- I think that was part of the job really.
JB- Unlike a couple of actors who played it later, who just came across as smug or smarmy.
IO- I have to say that I never saw Simon Dutton in the role. I do like Adam Rayner, have you seen the Adam Rayner one? He’s done a pilot which I was involved with.
JB- Now I was going to ask about that, because I understand that both you and Roger have been involved with this.
IO– Well, that was such an odd thing because there I am living in California and I know an actress named Nicollette Sheridan, you might know she was in “Desperate Housewives”, I’ve known her mother for many years. Nicollette rang me up one day out of the blue, I hadn’t spoken to her in years, and she said “I’ve just had this meeting with a guy called Brad, he’s a producer, and I’m going to be doing something with him, but right now he’s here and he’s doing this pilot for a new Saint series and I said to him but you’ve got to use Ian Ogilvy”, and Brad said, “He lives here?” And she said yes. He said, “Oh my god!” They’d already started shooting, so what he did was wrote me this little, tiny part and literally kind of shoe horned me into the plot, and it was a bit of an ill fit quite frankly. The plot was already done. I had a couple of very happy days on that, where they treated me wonderfully. And that was the gimmick, and I thought Adam was so cool and so good, perfect for a modern 2015 Saint.
JB- I’ve sadly not yet seen this.
IO- It’s terrific, and then I think it was last year or the year before, I got a call from an agent who wanted to reshoot all my stuff and give me a much bigger part. The whole thing had never been seen, it had just faded from view, so I went to Romania for a week, where I filmed, they expanded my role and made me more of a bad guy. And that was very nice, but nobody’s seen it, it’s just one of those things, it will probably just quietly disappear.
JB- It’s listed on the IMDB as being up for showing this year.
IO- Don’t hold your breath. It was fun to go back and do something. The odd thing was when I had to do the first one, it was like two little scenes and I’m on the phone almost all the time, there was nothing else I could really be doing, and I didn’t know anything about it. So I was playing it with the usual Saintly type of charm. The director was very nice, a well known director whose name I can’t remember, Simon I think, anyway he said, “Ian, could you be a bit more sinister?” I said, “Oh, am I a bad guy?” He went, “Oh yeah.” I just wish somebody had told me beforehand, I can do bad guy acting just fine.
JB- I’ve often been told it’s more fun to play the baddie, what are your thoughts on this?
IO– I think it depends on what you’re in, but yeah quite often it is. I was always the bad guy in all the “Murder She Wrotes” and things like that.
JB- You moved to the States in the eighties.
JB- How different do you find it working over there compared to the UK?
IO- The main difference really is that it’s a machine over there. They do not understand how “Fawlty Towers” or “Absolutely Fabulous” could have been cancelled when at the height of their success. They go, “What the hell is that about?” I explain to them that in the UK you have the creator and that creator writes it. In America there can be 30 writers, and if 3 leave it doesn’t matter. It’s like “Friends”, for instance, it went on for years. The first show was as good as the last show, they were all wonderful shows. The Americans find us a bit amateurish when it comes to that kind of thing, they go “You have a wonderful success there, why the hell?” Of course, I say, “Well, you have writers like John Cleese and Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, and they guard it very carefully. It’s their show, they don’t want other writers. They say, “Well, that’s fine, but wouldn’t they like it without any effort from them? Wouldn’t they like it to go on ten years?” And yes, the answer is of course they would, but they don’t want to trust it to other writers, that’s the thing. That’s the main thing, it’s very efficient, it’s a sort of pounding machine over there. More so than Europe.
JB- Now looking at the future here, I believe you have a couple of films in post-production? “We Still Steal The Old Way”.
IO– I did “We Still Kill The Old Way” two years ago and last year we did the sequel “We Still Steal The Old Way”.
JB– Can you tell me a bit about this?
IO- Well, that was extraordinary. I have an English agent still and every now and again she calls me up and this time she says, “I don’t suppose you’re interested in this?” and it turned out to be this script, which was really kind of fun and it was the lead role. I haven’t played the lead in years for heaven’s sake and it was the lead, an elderly retired gangster living in Spain and his brother played by Steven Berkoff. Slightly unlikely brothers, but there we go! Him for me and me for him. He gets killed in England by some feral youths and I get pissed off by this. I come back from Spain and I reform the old gang and we’re all old men. We go after the gang and, of course, we win. That’s that plot. Then they made a sequel called “We Still Steal The Old Way”, which is the same gang and the same idea but this time we’re all trying to break into prison to get a friend out, but the whole idea is we’re all old, you know and retired, yeah.
JB- The other film coming up is “Mistrust” with Jane Seymour.
IO- That was an odd thing. I don’t know what that was about. My American agent who was 104 years old, he’s sweet, we hardly ever bother each other, he’s one of those agents. He rang me up and he said there’s this film and they wanted me for the lead. “Ah,” I said, “great, I’ll read the script.” I read the script and there were bed scenes, sex scenes, and I rang the agent and I said, “I’m 72. I don’t do bed scenes, I won’t even kiss a woman on screen, not at my age, it’s disgusting.” So he said, “Well the director really really wants you.” I said, “Well look, it’s a big fat no!” I wouldn’t do it, be in bed with Jane Seymour, please. And he persisted. Eventually he asked me would I play a really small part one day, a little cameo role and I said, “Does it involve getting into bed with Jane Seymour?” He said, “Well no.” I said, “Does it involve taking my clothes off?” He said, “No.” So I said fine and I did one day on it. That’s the story about that, but I really don’t know what it’s all about.
JB- OK, we’ll wait and see that with interest!
IO- I really did it because they were so sweet. The very fact that they wanted me so badly, it would be ridiculous to refuse it, but look at my age … those days are long gone. I can imagine my step-children, my own children going, “Urrgh! Dad!!” Something horrible, creepy about it.
JB- Now we’ve already touched on you being a possible Bond contender, I understand that you did do a couple of the audio books of Bond.
IO- I did three, a long long time ago. Other people have done them since but I did do them back then. It was shortly after “The Saint”, when they were playing with the name. I didn’t like it very much, I don’t like reading books, it’s terribly hard work. You wouldn’t believe it, and you get worse at it as the day progresses and your voice gets more tired and the concentration goes, you don’t get better you get worse. It’s very tiring. I’ve done several and I don’t want to do any more. In fact one of my own children’s books came out and they asked me to do it and I said I didn’t want to do it. I’d rather have another actor do it. Nicholas Grace did it in the end. I actually wrote him a fan letter, as he did it wonderfully, far better than I could have done it.
JB- If you had played Bond, how do you feel you would have portrayed him.
IO– Well, I’ll be honest with you, I think I would have been a disastrous Bond. I didn’t have the heft for it. Roger’s six inches taller than I am and broad. Tim Dalton I saw again after many years in Hollywood, he’s again a big man and I’ve always thought, you know, I was kind of light weight. I was only just six foot and never big built I think Bond should be a big man period, if not a supremely fit man. I was neither, so to be honest, I know people don’t believe this, but I actually felt a huge relief. Saint yes OK, fine, but Bond no. I don’t think it would work. I don’t think people would have accepted me either, as when I was younger I was a pretty boy and I don’t think that works for Bond.
JB- Yeah, OK, there is supposed to be the ruggedness …
IO– I was never rugged, I was the chap who stood at the mantelpiece with a cigarette and a martini, that’s what I did. I wasn’t frightening, I wasn’t believable in fight scenes particularly. I don’t think anyway.
JB- I’d like to turn now to your writing, you’ve already mentioned your highly successful series of “Measle” children’s books, but I believe there are also a couple of novels.
IO- Yeah, I wrote “Loose Chippings” and “The Polkerton Giant”, which are sort of rural English comedies which nobody bought, I think my mum bought most of the copies. But they were published and then I had a lovely letter from a lady in Wales who said what a lovely read, but I think they’ve sunk without trace. And then the children’s books, they were purely accidental. I wrote the first one thinking it’s the kind of book I would have liked to have read and I sent it off initially to a literary agent and she went mad for it and sent it out to auction, which means it gets publishers more interested in the book and it also went to auction in America as well, which was very nice, and then it sold in something like twenty or thirty countries around the world. I’ve done quite well with that. Then there have been two movie options taken on it. One by Warner Brothers and one by an animation company called Piranha and I had an enquiry only yesterday from a guy who wants to option it. And, yeah, well option money, one can live on option money, it’s not bad.
JB- And they have it for so long and then it reverts back?
IO- Yeah, well they have it for normally about 18 months. Then they have to renew it and, of course, to them option money is kind of like the fluff at the bottom of their pocket and to me it does nice things to my bank account. So it’s very nice. It would be lovely to have the movie made, but I think maybe we’re past our sell by date, we’re off the boil now I think, it’s a pity but I’ve done pretty well out of them anyhow. Now I’ve just got to write something else.
JB- Which brings me to “Swap”. Which you’ve both written and are directing at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne. I believe you’re going, or rather the show’s going out on tour around the UK?
IO- The show’s going out on tour, I’m not going with it, I’m going back to California
JB– What can you tell us about it?
IO- Well, I started writing plays because they’re a damn sight easier to write than books and they’re much quicker. This is not my first play, I have another play which is published by Samuel French called “A Slight Hangover”, and that was done years ago, back in the nineties on tour with Frank Findlay, and that did quite well, but it’s not done very often as its two leading characters are men in their seventies, preferably early eighties, and so not easy to cast, but it has been done a few times. Then this play, I had the idea for this because my wife and I tried that home swapping thing and we swapped our house in California for a fabulous house in East Mosely. It was a Henry VIII hunting lodge. It was the most beautiful house, great gardens and it was a great success, but It did occur to me what would happen if it had gone wrong and this play is about a swap going horribly wrong in Spain. They’re actually in the house of a nasty local English gangster, and on the first page a body with a knife in its chest just falls out of a cupboard. Then the bodies start piling up and up and up and there are a ludicrous numbers of deaths occurring in this play. It’s very silly and I hope it’s funny. I’ve written one or two others since then, but I always write broad comedies. I don’t write anything of social significance at all. I always write light hearted things because I enjoy writing them, I’m not interested in heavy stuff.
JB- And it’s probably normally more commercially successful.
IO– Yes, now if I could write a murder mystery, those are the really popular things, but they are not easy things to write. It’s just coming up with the idea, you have to come up with a twist these days, a twist that takes people by surprise. I’m not able to do that, I don’t have that type of mind.
JB– Looking at twists in a tale takes us back to your stage career and I think it was in the West End that you were in the classic play for twists, “Sleuth”.
IO- Yes I’ve done that three times actually, when I was a young actor I played the younger character. It’s a two hander, and later I played the older man twice – one was in California at the Pasadena Play House, then I took over from Peter Bowles in the West End for a three month run, which was lovely because by then I really knew the play. It’s bloody hard work, just the two of you on stage, but at least by then I knew it, and I knew what I was doing.
JB- Finally, can you tell us about your impressions of each of these characters: Emma Peel.
IO- I have no opinion.
JB– Tara King.
IO– That was Linda wasn’t it? Again, they were all very much like Bond or the Saint, they were what the actresses made of them, you know entirely personality jobs. They didn’t have characters. Now, if you look at Dickens and read all his heroes like David Copperfield and Pip in “Great Expectations”, these people have no characters at all, it’s all the people who surround them that have characters. It’s exactly the same with Bond. Bond is who he’s surrounded by. Same with these girls, Linda was Linda, Honor Blackman was Honor Blackman, likewise Diana, they were all themselves and brought their own personalities, so what you have to do when asked a question like that is to think, well, what’s the actress like in personality… and that’s what you get.
JB- McGoohan’s John Drake, Number 6 from The Prisoner,
IO– I know nothing about him apart from he wouldn’t kiss women.
JB- Jason King?
IO- Jason King was always rather odd. I watched it, we all did because it was so funny and camp, but he was an extremely unbelievable character. I mean played beautifully by Wyngarde. I thought he did a great job, but he was one of those characters where you go, “Really?!”
JB– Yes, he was a somewhat flamboyant character.
IO- Yeah, a dandy.
JB- Thank you very much for your time and I wish you every success with the show’s tour.
“Swap”, written and directed by Ian Ogilvy, is now touring the UK and can be seen at the following venues:
Buxton (Opera House) 9 May to 10 May.
Basingstoke (Haymarket) 11 May to 14 May.
Swansea (Grand Theatre) 18 May to 21 May.
Horsham (Capitol Theatre) 30 May to 2 June.
Wolverhampton (Grand Theatre) 28 June to 2 July.
Chipping Norton (The Theatre) 8 July to 9 July
Blackpool (Grand Theatre) 19 July to 23 July.
Bromley (Churchill Theatre) 16 August to 20 August.
While Ian’s autobiography “Once A Saint: An Actor’s Memoir” is published on the 5th May 2016.