September 5, 2012


Beloved actor Peter Wyngarde, celebrated among Spy Vibers for his roles in The Prisoner, The Avengers, Department S, and Jason King, is the subject of a new career-spanning biography. The book was written by Roger Langley, author of the Patrick McGoohan biography, as well as one of the organizers of Six of One Prisoner Appreciation Society- and a contributing agent for Spy Vibe (see Roger's edition of For Your Shelf Only). Roger and I recently had a virtual chat about Peter Wyngarde and the new book.

On screen, I feel that Peter radiates so much charisma, intelligence, playfulness, but also a vulnerability. I wonder if you can describe the essence of the man you have come to know through interviews and writing the biography?

Peter certainly radiates charisma, intelligence, playfulness, but also at times a degree of vulnerability. In his big screen part, in the movie "Night of the Eagle" (aka "Burn, Witch, Burn!") he conveyed well the desperation of an intelligent man, a teacher, having to confront the possibility that his wife is not only practising voodoo but that there is some real power behind it. In the end, he is forced to employ the same sort of methods in an attempt to save her life. Also, in his TV plays, Peter portrayed characters with a great deal of sensitivity, and when required, injecting humour as well. In contrast there is his portrayal of the very realistic essence of evil which was depicted in the film "The Innocents". Although he had no dialogue, his appearance as the figure whose spirit possesses the mind of a young boy was extremely scary. He told me that as his demonic face appears at a window it was created by a simple stage effect. He was on roller skates and was given a push so that he glided gently up to the window. If I had known this at the time I saw the movie on its first release I would not have found it so frightening!

Peter is a very well-read and intelligent man who has over several decades remained unjustly typecast as the flamboyant character Jason King from the TV series of that name and the earlier "Department S". He has a wonderfully distinctive voice and it is no surprise that he was chosen as the voice behind some famous British TV commercials for a box of chocolates, carried by a stunt man through dangerous settings and left secretly with an anonymous calling card. Peter smoothly delivered the sexy line "And all because the lady loves Milk Tray". He is also very artistic and inventive and has not only directed plays but has produced his own album of spoken 'music' tracks as well as contributing to other audio projects. When interviewed on TV chat shows he presents as a very personable figure and all of these things I have said about him show the sum of the parts which make up the actor's appeal and personal magnetism.

To what degree did Peter participate in the biography project?

I spoke with Peter at times over several years and also corresponded with him but he did not directly participate this year in the biography project. However, I immediately sent him a copy of the book and he is delighted with it, describing it as "a true labour of love" and thanking me for "a magnificent effort". He told me he was speechless when he first received it and thanked me for putting his career in print in this way. So I suppose the book is retrospectively ‘official’!

How is the book structured? Does it follow Peter's life, project by project in chronological order?

The bio is completely chronological, starting with Peter’s origins, birth background and his early years confined in a Far Eastern internment camp during the second world war. The story continues with his return to Britain, education and initial work assignments, before turning to his first acting engagement. From then, in the 1940s, through to this decade, the biography covers his acting career in film, television, theatre and his public life. There are appendices listing all of his work on screen and on stage and other projects are covered, with around 100 pictures. There is an introduction, eight main chapters and a closing ‘finale’.

To what extent does it cover Peter's personal life?

I included aspects of Peter’s own life; contemporary with the work he was doing at various times as an actor or star. I have presented the entirety of his career and public life, with his personal background details, but not his private life. I adopted the same approach with my Patrick McGoohan biography, which found favour with him and also his many fans. I am gratified that Peter has endorsed the book and is delighted with the content.

What are some things you learned about him that you found inspiring or surprising?

I think the aspect which I find most inspiring about Peter is his ability to overcome difficult times in his life. Whether these concerned relationships, financial situations, personal problems or health etc., he always bounced back, ready to give his best and to take on any new project. He was extremely popular in Australia at the height of his TV stardom and went there twice, being mobbed by thousands of fans. As for what is so distinctive about Peter, I would say that perhaps not many people are aware of his great ability to play comedy parts. He took the role of Gary Essendine in Noel Coward's "Present Laughter" a few times, both on stage and on TV. The play is available on the DVD "A Choice of Coward" and Peter's performance almost leaves you breathless given the speed of it, the amount of dialogue, the long takes and his unique facial expressions.

Peter was one of the actors who played #2 in The Prisoner. What thoughts does he share about the concept and politics of the show?

Peter extolled the merits of Patrick McGoohan's cult TV series “The Prisoner” on several occasions. He described the show as always a conundrum and a surprise. His part as No. 2 arose because McGoohan actually requested him to take the role. Peter felt that his character as leader of the Village, compared to the show's other sinister and sadistic officials, was more persuasive and also deceptively friendly and sympathetic. This I feel was perhaps more of Peter's own character being put into the part and not a case of him being strictly required to follow the script and direction. He even used karate in one scene in “The Prisoner” which I believe was probably his own idea. He was proud of the scene and said that his manual strike to break a block of wood was totally authentic. He insisted that he had practised for an hour each morning and later expanded the martial arts theme for the “Department S” show. He described how McGoohan loved authenticity. The star told Peter to play the part "as yourself" and this horrified Peter as he felt it was quite difficult to be just oneself and much easier to be acting.

Of the star, Peter thought McGoohan was a fruitcake although he trusted his judgment even though the star was very secretive about the project. I was surprised to hear Peter say that he was friends with McGoohan for years, long before “The Prisoner”. Later, when Peter was sent many repetitive scripts for new shows, he always compared them with the striking originality of “The Prisoner” and would turn down scripts which did not come up to that standard of originality. I felt that there were parallels between McGoohan and Wyngarde, as neither of them completed formal dramatic training, they both became almost typecast by their characters Number 6 and Jason King respectively, and yet both of them pursued roles they wanted to take, even turning down scripts and maintaining their artistic integrity. At the time of McGoohan’s passing, Peter said, “He was a private man, a formidable actor, and a free spirit. His body of work... probably will be accepted as the most imaginative of all television series, in time to come."

Peter also played Jason King and appeared in “The Avengers” and other shows - always with outstanding flair. What does Peter have to say about the playful or colorful nature of the Swinging London era?

Peter’s many and varied TV roles were always delivered with great flair and, when required, flamboyance. His portrayal of the whip-wielding rogue in the “Avengers” story about the Hellfire Club "A Touch of Brimstone" was remarkable and his other “Avengers” multi-roles in the episode "Epic" gave him a real opportunity to show off his wide-ranging acting talents. He injected comedy into his roles in “The Saint” and played also a variety of crooks and characters in other TV shows, including often foreign characters, once or twice even wearing dark make-up to present a Middle-Eastern look. The TV shows of the sixties did not really propel Peter into the showbusiness limelight but his role at the end of the decade in the 1969 "Department S" and the follow up "Jason King" shows brought him international stardom. He received hundreds of fan letters every week and made many public appearances. He enjoyed this time of huge popularity and gave many interviews to magazines and was always filmed with a glamourous actress or model on his arm. However, there was always the private side of Peter and as I have put in my biography, he once said "I prefer to be a man without a past, and my entire philosophy is based on that. Each phase of my life has been lived and is dead."

I think, in summary, Peter has never been happier than when he is totally immersed in some new part. When he was doing film, he longed to do TV plays, when he was appearing on TV he wanted to get back to the stage to appear live in plays. I have been able to source rare and unseen photos of him in Shakespearean and other productions which show the great diversity of roles he took over many years. In fact, his first film appearance was in the late 1940s and his stage debut was as a young lad. The fact that his career has spanned over half a century, during which time he has had many leading and major roles, makes it seem strange that he is remembered mostly for the part which made him internationally well known, that of Jason King. At least he had a great time in that role as he told me that he injected so much of himself into it, he never knew each day when he woke up whether he was Peter Wyngarde or Jason King! More information can be found at the official book website.

Check out our recent posts, including Neil Armstrong: One Last StepCelebrating 450,000 visitorsInterview with Playboy Bunny Deana, and our series, For Your Shelf Only, where guests share stories about collecting and show us some of their treasures. Series links: Jon GilbertRaymond BensonJeremy DunsPeter LorenzDavid FosterRob MallowsRoger LangleyCraig ArthurFleming ShortMatt Sherman. Check out my books Counting Sheep and Mort Walker Conversations