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Thursday, May 26, 2022

BRIT SPY—THE RAT CATCHERS

BRIT SPY—THE RAT CATCHERS
 
With the ‘60s spy craze at its height with James Bond controlling the big screen and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ruling the small one, British TV channel ITV decided it needed to get in on the espionage fad with a series of it’s own. The result was The Rat Catchers, running for two seasons for a total of twenty-five, sixty minute, black and white, episodes between February 1966 and March 1967. Some of the stories arcs continued over two or three episodes utilizing cliff-hanger endings, but all are suffused with class issues and the dirty truths of the espionage game.

A precursor to two iconic and much better remembered British spy series—Callan, which premiered in 1967, and The Sandbaggers, which would come a decade later—The Rat Catchers focused on the missions carried out by a small, highly secret, British Intelligence Unit created to deal with the most dangerous of enemy menaces. The unit, nicknamed the Rat Catchers, is staffed by three determined and capable operatives—the flamboyant Peregrine Smith; the cold and logical Brigadier Davidson; and tough Scotland Yard detective Richard Hurst, all of whom are licensed to kill when expedient.

As with many of TV’s secret spy teams, the Rat Catchers don’t officially exist, being denied at the highest levels of government. Clearly expected to operate with the greatest of discretion, the Rat Catchers receive their orders direct from the Prime Minister. They are expected to follow these orders without question as they battle enemy spies, saboteurs, and others who threaten the security of Great Britain and the Western Alliance.

Peregrine Pascale Smith (Gerald Flood) is an Oxford University-educated managing director of the large Trans-World Electronics corporation. Brigadier General Davidson (Philip Stone) is the emotionless analytical brains behind the group. And Richard Hurst (Glyn Owen), is a Scotland Yard superintendent known for his by the book approach. Hurst inclusion in the unit is interesting in that, for all its secrecy, the unit still has enough pull among officialdom to request and get Scotland Yard’s top detective assigned to the team.

Brigadier General Davidson is a smallish man who very seldom smiles, though the edges of his mouth sometimes gives away a very subdued sense of humor. If he has a life outside his rather spartan offices on the fringes of Whitehall, he makes sure few know about it. A dour man, balding and bespectacled, he doesn’t appear to be someone who could order men to kill or die until you look into his eyes. Being a retired military man, his strict disciplinarian nature is always on display. Davidson has a sharp tongue and his biting retorts ensure the target of his ire will not be sitting down for a while.

Still, Davidson expects and demands independent thinking from his people, and for all his posturing, he will tolerate a modicum of insubordination as long as the agent is producing results—which is why he tolerates the antics of his oldest and most capable agent, Peregrine Smith.

From upper-class background, Smith is an Oxford schooled man who greatly enjoys the finer things in life and has the luck to be able to afford them. He goes for fast cars and pretty objects and appears to have few real worries. Smith likes everyone to think of him as a shallow raconteur, but when the situation calls for it, he can be incredibly cold-blooded.

The newest Rat Catcher, Richard Hurst appears to be an out of place anomaly in the unit. He is a tough copper with a contempt for crooks and cons. His life work has been to put villains in jail, but his reverence for the law and procedure trumps everything else. He is not a man to go off reservation. If a culprit is discovered trading secrets or causing sabotage, Hurst believes he should be arrested and tried, all according to rules of law. But, this is not how the Rat Catchers operate, which often leaves Hurst struggling with his ethics and morals. Practically forced into the Rat Catchers because they needed his investigative skills, he could demand to be returned to the Yard, but he refuses to back away from any job to which he has been assigned—no matter how repugnant it is to him.

The official cover for the activities of the Rat Catchers is the successful Trans-World Electronics. As the company's managing director, Smith has entry into many otherwise closed spots in officialdom due to TWE’s numerous government contracts. Hurst is on record as being the TWE Security Officer. The Brigadier, however, has no official capacity with the company, but he doesn’t appear to need it as he never leaves his office. Other Rat Catchers who have been killed in the performance of their duties are occasionally referenced.

In the first episode, Hurst, joins the team as their new recruit. He is, however, unsettled in this new assignment. Because of the secrecy surrounding the unit, how they operate, and their specific mandate, the ruler-straight Hurst is unable to fully grasp the shadowy world he has entered. In maintaining the unit’s distance from Whitehall, Hurst feels isolated and adrift in his position. In the early episodes, he isn't even sure who runs the unit. This 
situation is exacerbated by Brigadier Davidson—the actual team leader—who insists Hurst only know the bare minimum about the organization until he has proven himself.

Each time he finishes a mission briefing, the Brigadier uses the catch phrase, Say so, if you understand me, to ensure Smith and Hurst carry out his orders to the letter. Performed by pianist Johnny Pearson, the full-length recording of The Rat Catchers Theme opens with the line, Say Yes, if you understand me, somewhat mimicking the Brigadier's catch-phrase, before launching onto a full piano and strings-led theme.

The Rat Catchers
was far-removed from the glitzy and sexy world of James Bond and his ilk. Instead, the show operated in a bleak, uncompromising, ultimately sordid underground world of fetid alleys, betrayal, and the baser instincts of humanity. 

That said, The Rat Catchers cleverly offset its sleazy portrayal of the subject matter with a veneer of travel and adventure—jet airplanes, international hotels, foreign locations. On the Brigadier's orders, episodes of the show send Smith and Hurst to Greece, Ireland, Madrid, Lisbon, and Stockholm, as well as domestic locations in and around London and the UK. At that time, only the very wealthy got to enjoy such exotic locations, and for regular viewers, the show was as much travelogue as espionage thriller.

Nevertheless, despite this international flavor, production costs on the series were minimized wherever possible—common for British television at that time. This resulted in simple interior sets and outdoor footage largely consisting of cars sweeping down the street or people walking.

The production company Associated-Rediffusion were the franchise holders in London and the south east of England for ITV from 1955-1968. When the franchise was taken over by Thames Television in 1968 almost all the Rediffusion archives—which included The Rat Catchers—were black and white recordings. When the UK started broadcasting in color in September 1969, the majority of black and white telerecordings were deemed of no further value and destroyed.

As a result, the only episodes of
The Rat Catchers that appear to have survived the purge are the first and third episodes of series one
Ticket to Madrid and The Unwitting Courier—and some action sequences from episode twenty three (series two), The Heel of Achilles. But the quality of these episode is very poor, apparently surviving only because they originate from a VHS copy of a 16mm film print obtained at a film convention. The rest of the series is missing presumed wiped.

The Rat Catchers generated two tie-in novels written by David Ray—most likely a pseudonym. All in a Day's Work and The End of the Fourth Reich were released during the shows original run on ITV. Both are original tales and well constructed by the author, who manages to catch the flavor of the series within the books' fast moving action. Both are worth reading, especially the first as it contains one of the most chilling execution scenes ever carried out by a fictional hero.


Much thanks to Randall Masteller for letting me plunder and crib from the files of his
Spy Guys and Gals website. To visit his site CLICK HERE

A seven minute YouTube clip from
The Unwitting Courier can be found HERE

A recording of The Rat Catchers Theme on YouTube can be found HERE

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