Wings may not exactly enjoy the most outstanding reputation in musical history – ‘helped’ in no small part by a second hand joke that is in no way exasperatingly unfunny on its eighteen millionth use in response to someone saying they quite like Silly Love Songs – but whatever your opinion on the band that The Beatles apparently could have been, Band On The Run is one of the very best albums that Paul McCartney has ever been involved with and there’s a very good reason why. Well there are quite a few good reasons why, in fact, but one in particular seems to have given the album that extra edge that was admittedly missing from a good deal of Wings’ other output. Arriving in Lagos for the recording sessions, despite plenty of warnings that this sort of incident might well occur, Paul and Linda were robbed and in amongst the more understandably purloinable personal items, the assailants also made off with their demo tapes and lyric notebooks. Thus it was that with any other copies – if they had even existed – on the other side of the world and the studio time already paid for, Wings were reduced to rehearsing and recording the bulk of the songs intended for Band On The Run from memory.
As well as giving the nine resultant numbers and the glam-stomping non-album single Helen Wheels a sense of urgency and consistency that was – whether for the better or for the worse – seldom to be found whenever Macca was able to approach his album sessions at a more leisurely pace, the more intense working atmosphere also meant that little other unused material was left over from the sessions. This would pose something of a problem when it came to finding b-sides for the accompanying singles. While Helen Wheels opted for the distinctly un-glam-stompy Country Dreamer, a likeable but slight leftover from the Red Rose Speedway sessions that basically did what the title implied only less so, Jet simply used Band On The Run highlight Let Me Roll It, itself doubtless considered as a potential a-side before everyone had to admit that the presumably entirely coincidental proximity to Macca’s interest in the ancient art of folding paper with absolutely nothing untoward inside it whatsoever might slightly curtail its chances of radio play. As for Band On The Run itself, the epically disjointed heist movie soundtrack in miniature was, appropriately if almost certainly coincidentally, accompanied by Wings’ instrumental theme for a television series that had come and gone without anyone really noticing earlier in 1974 – The Zoo Gang.
Based on Paul Gallico’s 1971 novel of the same name – which actually featured five male characters – The Zoo Gang ran to six episodes on ITV between 5th April and 10th May 1974, and starred the none too shabby ensemble of John Mills, Brian Keith, Lilli Palmer and Barry Morse as a quartet of former wartime resistance fighters who reunite on the present day Riviera to exact vengeance on another agent who had betrayed that errant fifth member to the Gestapo, and subsequently elect to use their reinvigorated skills to steal from organised criminals and use the ill-gotten ill-gotten gains to fund charitable causes. With a quirkily different setup involving an older cast and a format calling for big names and international locations already in place, The Zoo Gang seems almost to have been tailor made for ITC. A commercial offshoot of the ITV regional broadcaster ATV specialising in big budget filmed action serials and headed by international distribution-obsessed wheeler dealer Lew Grade, ITC had been responsible for many of ITV’s biggest and most glamorous and adventurous hits of the fifties and sixties including Thunderbirds, Danger Man, Department S and The Saint; like many of the biggest names of the sixties, however – including the former Beatles – ITC never quite seemed to understand how to get to grips with the abrupt hangover of the decade that followed. After one last moment of audience-wowing ratings domination with The Persuaders! – a show that really did warrant that exclamation mark – they suddenly found themselves adrift in a world that was somehow becoming more gaudy and less colourful at the same time, clinging desperately to an already outdated notion that the Milk Tray man’s shark-outswimming helicopter-swinging antics would go unrewarded while any old sleazy fucker lounging around in platinum cufflinks and a suit made out of an old car seat would have classy women draped all over him at the merest gesture towards a casino chip.
Despite being launched with all the usual expected champagne-popping fanfare, as the seventies drew on their new shows seemed to be founded on a determination to value name-first casting, an increasingly alienating sense of jetsetting glamour and international funding-inviting location work over any trivial notions of originality, suspense or even coherency, slowly but surely losing their way while the viewers at home struggling to stop Hartley Hare from scoffing Patrick Mower’s Texan Bars during the latest power outage will have found the visions of purportedly aspirational lifestyles less relatable and more empty and even vaguely sleazy. From The Return Of The Saint and The Protectors to The Adventurer and Skiboy (which you can read much more about here), it is fair to say that some of them worked better than others. It is even fairer to say that Skiboy worked and The Adventurer did not. So, given its heavyweight cast, distinctive premise and apparent sufficient prestige to persuade one of the biggest rock stars in the universe to contribute a theme tune, where does The Zoo Gang fit into this ?
First broadcast 3rd May 1974, The Counterfeit Trap – the fifth episode of The Zoo Gang – is often held up as the best example of the short-lived series, not least on account of it boasting an equally impressive guest cast including the modishly Hammer Films-aligned pairing of Peter Cushing and Jacqueline Pearce. It also more unfortunately features what is possibly the definitive example of that none more seventies of visual media afflictions – a sequence captured on film stock so manky that it is now entirely beyond restoration; readers are invited to draw their own conclusions about how closely this may or may not mirror ITC’s correspondingly deteriorating sense of care and attention towards their own output. It has to be said that the opening titles are not a massively good sign; having spent all of that money on getting Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington himself do a theme tune, the visuals singularly fail demand the audience’s attention with a muted assembly of tinted archive footage and stills of the cast juxtaposed with artistic renditions of the wild animals they share their codenames with. All of this ultimately hinges around a shot of a not even that old bottle of wine that is supposed to represent the sum total of all of the accompanying glamour in and of itself, but really only acts as a barrier to an audience who at that point might well have considered a bottle of Cream Soda from the Alpine lorry beyond their wildest aspirations. Put it this way, it’s hardly Marty Hopkirk phasing through a closed door or The Champions posing in front of the Jet d’Eau, and will probably only have distracted the average viewer long enough to allow Hartley to make a start on Patrick Mower’s box of Week End chocolates too.
Opening with some smugglers on a yacht helpfully advising a diver to “be careful – that’s gold, not lead!”, The Counterfeit Trap has the dubious distinction of being built around a plot that comes across as a good deal more straightforward and simplistic than it actually is. Having been handed over to the sound of some cheap and nasty funk verging on a twanging spring to two seventies as it gets Denim Men – albeit in the sense of looking like a denim-festooned member of one of those sickly soft-rock bands that have you musing that it’s no wonder punk happened when they turn up on the Top Of The Pops repeats rather than the manly torso bloke flogging Denim aftershave by being caressed by a female hand to the sound of a Bill Mitchell voiceover and some epically scuzzy guitar – the non-leaden gold is being driven to a rendezvous point while The Elephant – John Mills – is intently watching another building altogether through a telescope. This is where some money forgers are plying their literally lucrative trade, and The Tiger and The Fox – Barry Morse and Brian Keith – are getting into position under the guise of television aerial repairmen while The Leopard – Lilli Palmer – attaches a small incendiary device to the forgers’ car and makes an anonymous call to the police. As they dash outside to check on their mildly smouldering motor, The Tiger and The Fox drop in through the skylight and abscond with the photocopied millions, with the four of them making their escape and whistling aimlessly in the aerial repairman’s van while the coppers show up and catch the franc-fakers burnt ochre-handed. As entertaining as all this may be, you cannot help but notice that it has been eight minutes without any sign of anything in the way of meaningful dialogue.
Fortunately, that all changes when the quartet arrive at The Leopard’s cafe Les Pecheurs – ‘The Fishmermen’ – and outline their plan to use les faux billets to pay for l’or de contrebande, joking that ‘we ought to be ashamed of ourselves’. Meanwhile the two denim blokes are being tailed by a police motorcyclist who they seem to know about already, and elect to casually throw him off course with a bike-incapacitating warning shot in a sequence that, fittingly, has all the drama of Sherbet doing Howzat on Top Of The Pops. At a small gathering that local magistrate Judge Gautier – Peter Cushing – is hosting to toast his wife Brigitte – Jacqueline Pearce – Lieutenant Georges Roget who handily happens to also be The Leopard’s son is informed of this turn of events and announces he has to leave the function early, occasioning a suspicious glance from one of the mysteriously also present smugglers. Over at the drop-off point, the denims are unexpectedly met by The Tiger, who spends a conspicuously episode-filling length of time weighing the gold before they ask him ‘bit long in the tooth for all this, grandad?’, at which point you cannot help but notice that there is still disconcertingly little in the way of actual consequential dialogue.
Thankfully, there is a little more in the way of cross-character chat once The Tiger returns to the gang’s headquarters with the gold, explaining to The Fox’s consternation that he got out of there without cleaning up behind him due to the denims apparently seeming untrustworthy even for henchmen ferrying smuggled gold under armed guard, intending to return and remove his prints once the coast was clear. After another lengthy and largely wordless scene in which they stow the gold behind a false wall behind a false chair, he takes an equally lengthy drive back to the scene of the not quite crime only to find that the denims are now slumped assassinated on the sofa. This, bafflingly, is then followed by some protracted over-the-phone exposition explaining that he had gone back to clean up and then found them murdered, presumably for the benefit of any viewers who had been deliberately refusing to pay attention, and he promptly leaves only to find himself followed by the police and arrested after what could scarcely be described as a car chase.
Under interrogation- and doubtless thinking back to somewhat hairier wartime encounters – The Tiger cunningly attempts to prove his non-involvement by carefully stating selected facts, replying with confounding honesty that he didn’t know the denims and that he just likes to keep the place clean; meanwhile the others are plotting to secure his release by fair means or foul, and this is where the episode really takes off. To a background of newsstands decrying the discovery of a counterfeiting ring, The Leopard arrives at the police station in a cursory disguise in an attempt to persuade her son to help her secure his release by subterfuge. When she can’t provide a convincing explanation for why he was at the villa posing as an American tourist, Lieutenant Roget risks being sent to bed before Trente Millions d’Amis by suggesting she should try talking Judge Gautier into allowing her to visit the suspect instead. Over at his not particularly humble residence, The Leopard effortlessly charms Brigitte while waiting for his worship to return and agree to The Tiger’s release without charge, before spotting a forged franc and growing suspicious. She’s not the only one – the smugglers have seen the hysterical headlines and realised that they’ve been duped, and acting on a well-placed insider tipoff, they manage to track down The Fox and hold him hostage. Realising that the game is at least partway up, The Leopard offers Gautier an uneasy bargain – in exchange for the safe return of her grumpy colleague, she will allow the couple to make off with the gold and a guaranteed twenty four hour head start. Seemingly placated, he agrees to this and suggests that the exchange should take place at his villa at eight o’clock that night. Belief beggaringly assuming that he can double-cross four veterans who drove the actual literal Nazis out of Europe, Gautier inevitably turns up with the armed smugglers and without The Fox – but back at the yacht, the celebrants-too-soon find The Fox untied and The Elephant and The Tiger lying in wait. He won’t be requiring that twenty four hours head start then.
Assembling at Les Pecheurs the following morning, the gang are joined by Brigitte who listens to their plans to use the safely spirited away gold to fund a new orthopedic wing for the local hospital, and then announces her own plan to use her now discredited husband’s remaining social standing to forge a new life adventure for herself… and that’s basically it. There are none of Skiboy’s deliciously dreadful one-liners, Number Six’s terse warnings about the erosion of personal liberty or even Brett and Danny’s whistlingly admiring glances at some passing woman in a moderately tight dress. The Zoo Gang just sort of… ends, much like the series itself would barely a week later.
From this distance, it is not difficult to see why The Zoo Gang didn’t catch on. As entertaining and enjoyable as it is, and as refreshingly different as the off-the-wall setup and the presence of an older cast are especially in the context of the early seventies, something about it just doesn’t quite come together. One particular major issue is that there is not really enough actual character to the individual characters, seemingly relying entirely on the admittedly powerful charisma of the legendary lead players themselves, which poses serious problems when it comes to getting any variety of decent interaction, witty dialogue and plot ingenuity together. It feels like everything in what is in reality a fairly complicated plot ends up just sort of happening in an unexcitingly sequential manner, and very little intrigue finds its way into their con-outconning cons, while the overall reliance on dialogue-free action scenes – presumably intended as a way of maximising overseas sales at the same time as minimising dubbing costs – would have had more than a few viewers looking at their Casiotron 01 and wondering what time Look, Stranger was on. The cast all do way more than their best with what little on paper they are actually given to do, but even that isn’t quite enough. The Zoo Gang is hugely watchable once you actually know who all of the characters are – not altogether easy when they hardly ever bloody say anything – and an immensely likeable series all round, but somehow it just isn’t really quite what you might hope that it might be. Still, at least something actually happens in it at some point, which immediately makes it incalculably superior to The Adventurer.
There is one enduringly brilliant aspect to The Zoo Gang, though, and it’s one that does a good deal entirely on its own to hold the various other elements that don’t quite work together. Much as he did with Live And Let Die around the same time, Paul McCartney very clearly asked for a few key words to describe the series, then went off on his own ridiculous excursion into some sort of narrative variant of them he’d made up in his own head, combining rolling café accordion with dirty funk guitar riffing and squealing elastic twangs of Moog, apparently all done with such casual disregard that it wasn’t even released until over a month after the series itself had actually finished. In all honesty, if you were looking for a hint of glamour and excitement in the early seventies, then a bottle of wine probably wasn’t the right place. You’d get much more out of a former Beatle who was up to so many peculiar artistic detours at any given moment that he appeared to forget that he’d actually done this. Well, excitement, at any rate. The glamour is another question. But The Zoo Gang is the theme tune Imagine could have been.
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If you’ve enjoyed this, then you’ll also enjoy Not On Your Telly, a collection of columns and features with an emphasis on ‘lost’ television. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. I mean, honestly, it would have looked more impressive if they’d ordered a big massive macchiato in the opening titles.
TV’s Newest Series is a look at the strange story of The Zoo Gang’s close associate Skiboy, and why he failed to make the jump to television stardom; you can find it here.
The Zoo Gang would probably have found plenty that resonated with them in The Prisoner, especially the election-themed episode Free For All, which you can hear me talking about on The Zeitgeist Tapes – the podcast where politics meets pop culture – here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.