Few actors epitomised the gaudy stylishness of the 1960s and early 1970s better than the charismatic Peter Wyngarde, who passed away on January 15th after a short illness at the age of 90.
Although he kept his true age – and, indeed, much of his own personal biographical history (he spent time as a child during the Second World War at an internment camp for children near Shanghai) – shrouded in mystery, Peter Wyngarde (his birth name, at least, is accepted as Cyril Goldbert) was a regular on many of the classic ITV adventure series of the 1960s including The Saint and The Avengers and he appeared as No 2 in ‘Checkmate’, an episode of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner in 1967. But he became an “overnight sensation” in 1969 when he was cast as flamboyant thriller author/investigator Jason King on ITC’s Department S (think X Files without the torches…or monsters or alien invasion conspiracies) alongside Rosemary Nicholls and Joel Fabiani. TV had never seen a hero quite like King, with his extravagant champagne-quaffing lifestyle, extraordinary fashion sense and luxurious handlebar moustache - although he was nearly an entirely different character, as he told Hellfire Club (named after his appearance in the legendary ‘A Touch of Brimstone’ episode of The Avengers in 1966), the Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society, just last year. “When Department S was being planned, I was told that I was going to be an Oxford professor sitting at his desk solving problems for two Americans. I thought it was a bit dull. Then I had the bright idea of basing him on Ian Fleming. The clothes were sort of an extension of me. I was a bit of a peacock then. I loved clothes, but I didn’t much like the kind of fashions that were about for guys in those days. Then I saw a picture of an Edwardian riding jacket and I thought it had real style, so I did some drawings and had a similar coat made.” King was an instant hit, a worldwide sex symbol, and the character was resurrected in a less-successful and more mundane series (Jason King) in 1971.
Wyngarde more or less disappeared from TV screens during the rest of the decade but his career flourished on stage and he had little time for critics who insisted that his career had become derailed. “That’s because they haven’t the intellect to notice that there are mediums other than television,” he told Hellfire Club. “If you’re not on the box every week they think you’ve disappeared! My first love was always the stage, and after Jason King ended, I couldn’t wait to return to the theatre. I feel that if some journalists had a brain, they’d be dangerous!”
Notable screen roles followed though. In 1980 he played Klytus in Flash Gordon and appeared in the 1984 Doctor Who serial ‘Planet of Fire’ alongside Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor. “I’d been asked to appear in the series in the 1970’s, but it was due to be filmed entirely on a soundstage, which I’d have hated, so I turned it down. When ‘Planet of Fire’ came about, I was told that we’d be filming almost exclusively on location (the serial was filmed in Lanzarote), so I jumped at the chance. It gave me the opportunity to do a lot of sunbathing between my scenes, which I love.” In 1994 he appeared as Langdale Pike in Granada’s acclaimed Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett as the Great Detective. He left a stage production in 1995 after contracting a throat infection and much of his subsequent work involved providing voiceovers and narrations and attending fan events celebrating the ‘golden age’ of classic and cult television.
A vibrant, outspoken and outrageous talent - “He was one of the most unique, original and creative actors that I have ever seen,” said his agent/manager Thomas Bowington - Peter Wyngarde might not have scaled the professional heights of some of his contemporaries and Jason King might not have been the work he’d have preferred to have been remembered for but in both Department S and his own series he created a character and an image which in many ways helped define both a generation and a decade.