Peter Wyngarde – A Life Amongst Strangers (Book Review)

Peter Wyngarde. The actor who effectively created 1970s pop culture with the character of Jason King, the suave thriller writer-turned-action hero who, at the height of his powers, made millions of women go weak at the knees. Mention his name now, however, and you may be met with some initially blank looks or indeed a murmuring inquiry along the lines of ‘wasn’t there some controversy or other?’

Now, almost two years after his passing at the grand age of ninety, his close companion for over thirty years, Tina Wyngarde-Hopkins, has written the definitive biography – Peter Wyngarde: A Life Amongst Strangers – which attempts to bring Wyngarde back to his rightful place in the popular culture and consciousness, but also dispel a good deal of the myths and untruths that had surrounded him for so long.

I can’t quite recall when I first came across Peter Wyngarde. It was in the 1990s when I was on the cusp of adolescence, an introduction that came from one of the many nostalgia fests for the ’60s and ’70s that dominated our TV schedules at that time; perhaps it was the BBC’s One Day in the Sixties, which saw a day’s schedule given over completely to entertainment from that swinging decade, including an episode of Department S, the ITC serial that first introduced Wyngarde’s most famous creation, Jason King. Or maybe it was one of Frank Muir’s ascensions to TV Heaven, cherry-picking some of the best television of the ’60s and ’70s for Channel 4. What I do know is that, wherever and whenever I first saw Wyngarde, I was instantly struck by a remarkable screen presence, a dapper, foppish look and a voice like velvet.

I came across The Hellfire Club: The Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society, not long after. As a fan of Doctor Who, I regularly subscribed to Doctor Who Magazine throughout the 1990s and there, in the classifieds beyond the letters page, I spotted a familiar address in my home town of St Helens that announced itself as the fan club for the star, run by Tina Bate (aka Ms Wyngarde-Hopkins, the author of this book). I think that I was struck by the notion that someone else in my relatively small, northern industrial town appreciated the ‘cult TV’ of yesteryear and, although I never joined the society, its presence nonetheless made me feel less alone. In many ways, this insight into the existence of a world of like minds out there, one that could even by on your doorstep, has made me the ‘geek’ that I am.

The formation and running of The Hellfire Club (the title is a reference to ‘A Touch of Brimstone’, an episode of The Avengers that Wyngarde guest-starred in and one of the most fondly remembered by fans and TV viewers alike) brought Tina into close contact with her subject and a great, lasting relationship developed between the pair. As Wyngarde himself said in just one of the 2,000 examples of correspondence he made to the author which has used to produce this extensive work; “What we have is above everything that either of us have ever experienced, or will ever experience in our lives; higher than love, closer than marriage, more enduring than the universe. No other relationship ever compares. You are, and ever shall be, the deepest of all my loves” 

Just as Wyngarde was not a conventional actor, so too is Peter Wyngarde – A Life Amongst Strangers not a conventional biography. It is effectively neatly divided into two distinct halves. The first recounts the story of Wyngarde’s birth and his life, from his time as a boy POW in the Lunghua internment camp to the great highs of the 1960s and ’70s, through to the late 1980s, when the author came into his orbit. From there, the memoir becomes more personal, as Tina recounts their relationship with both a remarkable candour and a true and genuine love that one would be blind not to see.  The author herself reveals that Wyngarde cared little for the memoirs of thespians, believing that an air of mystery and enigma was integral to the make-up of a performer, but in many ways, this aloofness could be said to have unfortunately allowed a great many falsehoods and myths to gather around Wyngarde. As a result, this memoir serves – just as Tina herself has done for three decades now – a staunch defender of his name and reputation. The controversy I alluded to at the top of this review is, of course, the incident in 1974 in which Wyngarde was arrested for gross indecency in a gents lavatory in Gloucester as part of a police ‘sting’ operation and subsequently fined £75. Though Wyngarde always protested his innocence, many attest that this scandal, whose flames were fanned by a News of the World ‘exclusive’ with a disgruntled former employee of the star, effectively and prematurely curtailed Wyngarde’s television and film career.

Understandably there’s a lot to untangle here, and the author does her very best. With regards to his subsequent career, Tina is at great pains to point to his many stage productions, guest appearances on television shows ranging from Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and even The Lenny Henry Show, and his role in the 1980 film Flash Gordon (a real scene-stealing performance as the suavely villainous Klytus, despite being hidden behind a £5,000 6″x9″ fibreglass face mask!) as an indicator that his career – whilst never reaching the heights of his Department S/Jason King days – was still in rude health (though I note that, whilst she takes understandable umbrage at Peter Davison’s rather dismissive attitude towards Wyngarde in his own autobiography which – she attests incorrectly – cites that he had not worked much prior to appearing alongside him in the 1984 Doctor Who serial Planet of Fire, she does not rebut Flash Gordon co-star Brian Blessed’s claim that Wyngarde had “been out of the business for a time over that fucking ‘gay’ thing”). What she does untangle admirably is the myth that this was not Wyngarde’s first offence. A rumour still circulates the internet that, prior to his arrest in Gloucester, Wyngarde had been cautioned for ‘cottaging’ in Birmingham, an incident many claim was widely reported at the time. In an example of the author’s extensive research, she has contacted both the West Midland Police and the archive offices of the local newspapers, and found nothing to support such a claim. As an author, Tina always seems to be able to detach herself from the personal enough to approach these claims with an admirable open-mind, challenging them with reasoned argument and clear evidence. Nonetheless, the ‘damage’ of these allegations has been done and, even now, one can look online and find rumours regarding Wyngarde’s sexuality with dubious blogs claiming all manner of evidence to his proclivities for rent boys; myths built upon myths often given the Wikipedia seal of approval. As for Wyngarde himself, he always believed that he was framed, having incurred the wrath of the well-connected local foxhunt whose barbarism he had little time for and been seen as a target by the tabloids who perhaps believed it was their ‘duty’ to knock him down after building him up.

However, whilst the author does not believe that Wyngarde was homosexual (and with the extent of their relationship, one would have to say that she should know) she does share an interesting conversation between them both regarding a documentary on the SMSM  (straight men who have sex with other men) scene they had watched together in later years. “A lot of actors view their sexuality as fluid, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with gender,” Wyngarde is quoted as saying. “It’s just base, sexual pleasure. Genuine sexual desire is really a combination of a physical and emotional attraction, which is how I asses my interest in women; it must include both of these elements. In contrast, a transitory encounter with another man, would be purely sexual; neither romantic or emotional, it just is” Or, as he goes on to succinctly put it; “Labels are attached to us by other people,so why the fuck should it be our responsibility to live up to them? If a person who identifies as being a meat eater makes cheese on toast once in a while, is he really a closet vegetarian? The answer is would irrevocably be no!” 

Wyngarde’s agent in later years, Thomas Bowington puts it well when he claims that the acceptance of metrosexuality (and I would go one further and add gender fluidity) in today’s society was one that Wyngarde’s persona had championed decades earlier. “Peter was a man before his time and society is really only know beginning to catch up with him. In the meantime the mob that continues to deride him is beginning to look increasingly ignorant and out of touch” Certainly from the more enlightened position we have achieved today it’s almost impossible to conceive the damage of the incident of 1974. Who the hell would care now if he even was gay? Why should we? It’s just terribly sad that society at that time, and bigoted elements on the fringes of the net today, would use it as a stick to beat him with.

If I had one complaint about this exhaustive and honest memoir it would be that it can be sometimes a little wearing to read rebuttal after rebuttal of so many falsehoods and fallacies that cling to Wyngarde’s name (not just the sexuality question, but also claims that he was unprofessional, walking out of a failing theatre production of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in Liverpool in the 1990s) but not as wearing as having to live with them for decades I am quite sure. Tina’s book is an exhaustive, open and honest tome, one which does not shield from the flaws of her subject either, for it is perhaps fair to say that the perfectionist Wyngarde could engage in ‘diva’ like tantrums and behaviour often lashing out at those closest to him such as Tina herself or Thomas.

This is not only an astonishing, comprehensive and impeccably researched book, it is also an engaging, heartfelt and touching read too, with the descriptions of his final days in hospital being particularly affecting to read. It comes with a foreword by Wyngarde’s co-star on Flash Gordon, Sam J. Jones and an afterword by his good friend, Steven Berkoff, both attest to Tina doing Peter Wyngarde proud, and I am inclined to agree. More, I believe she will continue to do Wyngarde proud, for she was, as he is quoted in the introduction to the book his“Joan of Orleans”. For anyone with even the slightest interest in the man and the times, I recommend picking up a copy. It is available in all formats and from the usual suppliers such as Amazon, Waterstones and WH Smith, as well as from the publishers Austin-Macaulay themselves.

Click image to buy direct from the Publishers, Austin-Macaulay

Mark Cunliffe

Mark's first experience at the cinema was watching the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue. Despite this ignoble start, he has nurtured a love of film and television ever since. He is a critical essayist for Arrow Films and his work appears in the DVD/Blu-ray releases of Stormy Monday, Day of the Jackal, Jake Speed, Children of Men and the Alec Guinness movie The Prisoner. He has also appeared on the Talking Pictures podcast and is currently contributing to a book about 1980s TV, film and pop culture.

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