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Spies in History & Literature ~
“A Saint I Ain’t” – Q&A with Ian Dickerson of the Saint Club

By Wesley Britton

For fans of Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar – AKA “The Saint” – the name Ian Dickerson has been well known for over two decades.

Remarkably, Dickerson became the Honorary Secretary of the long-established Saint Club, and a personal friend of Leslie Charteris, back when Ian was still a teenager. Since then, in his own words, the now 37-year-old Dickerson has become an “upright citizen with furled umbrella and secret buccaneering dreams”, spending his spare time “trying to figure out how to get the adventures of the Saint back onto everyone’s bookshelves and back on to the TV schedules.”

A few years back, I began corresponding with Ian while I was seeking sage advice for Spy Television, and Ian contributed much to my chapter on “The Saint.”

Last year, he provided some comments for my interview with Saint novelist Burl Barer (also posted at this website), and I thought it was now high time to let him speak out about himself, his relationship with The Saint, and insights into what The Saint Club is all about. I was delighted by Ian’s witty responses to my queries – I hope you enjoy them as well.

Ian has contributed numerous articles to such journals as Empire and Dreamwatch. His fiction has been published in, he says, “places that quite frankly should know better. If you know how to use Google properly you can find some of it.” In addition, Ian helped put together the documentaries for the Network DVD releases of Saint TV episodes in the UK.

Ian is currently writing an authorized biography of Leslie Charteris entitled “A Saint I Ain’t” which you’ll hear more about in the interview below.

Ian lives in Hampshire, England, with his wife and two young sons. “And,” he notes, “an awful lot of books by Leslie Charteris.”

At the end of this interview, you’ll find a list of Ian’s favorite Saint stories. If you have yet to dig into the adventures of “the Robin Hood of Modern Crime” and the stories dating back to 1928, well, Dickerson’s list is a perfect place to start.

Q – How did you get interested in Simon Templar? I’m guessing it was the books.

Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve been a voracious reader of books as well as something of a TV addict. As a nine year old lad I discovered Return of the Saint on TV and religiously watched every episode week after week. So when I discovered that one of my brothers had a couple of books about a character called Simon Templar it seemed only natural to read them.

I was quickly hooked and spent the next few years scouring flea markets and jumble sales for every Saint book I could lay my hands on. At one stage I had The Saint and Leslie Charteris by Bill Lofts out on almost permanent loan from our local library for almost a year. It became something of a Saintly Bible for me.

One of the most fun things I’ve done in the course of researching Leslie’s biography is discovering just how much of his life is in the books – you’ll be able to read more about that in the biography (when I finish it).

Q – What about the character and stories set him apart for you?

As a rule I read for entertainment. I love a good story, good characters and my particular favorite is to see a good guy (or girl) beat the bad guys (or girls!) and have some fun in the process. The Saint hits all those marks for me.

Also I love Charteris’ writing; simply reading the books I get the feeling he had such fun with the act of putting the words together. The sheer joy of seeing how he could twist and turn the language, combined with his natural abilities and a mischievous sense of humor, make the “Immortal Works” – as Charteris once flippantly referred to his writing – such great fun and so educational!

Q – How did you become Honorary Secretary of The Saint Club? For those who don't know about it, what does it do, what attracts members to it?

Having spent a couple of years collecting as many Saint books as possible I joined The Saint Club and spent a few years as a fairly passive member, happily getting my annual letter and ordering the occasional bits of merchandise. Then two things happened; Norman Turner, the chap who was running the Club, passed away, and ITV announced their plans for the Simon Dutton series.

I wrote to the chap who had taken over the Club – Alan Arnold – and suggested that with a new series on the horizon, the Club should issue a more meaty newsletter and basically initiate a publicity campaign. Unbeknownst to me, Alan passed my letter on to Leslie Charteris, who promptly rang me up one evening. Once I’d picked myself up off the floor, we had a good chat and he said that Alan didn’t want to run the Club anymore and asked me if I was interested in taking over. Needless to say, the answer was yes.

The Club was formed in 1936 by Leslie Charteris, who wanted a more constructive form of fan support for the Saint than your typical movie star fandom. Ever since then, we’ve raised money by selling subscriptions and merchandise to members. All profits that we make are donated to charity. For many years before the introduction of the NHS, the Club supported a “Saint” ward in a London hospital and then transferred its support to a Youth Centre in the East End of London.

The Youth Centre does a rather splendid job of standing on its own two feet, so now we make donations in keeping with our Saintly philosophy usually to causes suggested by our Saints-In-Chief – Leslie’s widow, Audrey, and daughter, Mrs. Patricia Charteris Higgins. They are very active and very interested in all aspects of the Saint’s career.

In terms of what we offer, well, we used to send all members a Christmas letter which would detail Saintly news and also the merchandise available. I must confess that due to the pressures of life, one or two of those have been missed in recent years but they are about to make a comeback. And we still offer members a unique range of our own merchandise such as stationery, Christmas cards, books, pin badges etc. alongside some interesting discounts on some more “official” merchandise, such as the recent Network DVD release of the color episodes from the Roger Moore series, which has a recommended retail price of £99.99 but is available to UK Club members for £64.99 including postage and packing.

We run a couple of web sites – Leslie Charteris Official Site and Ian Ogilvy Official Site – and until recently a splendid couple of chaps called Ian Golledge and Vince Dale kept the flag flying down under by running OzSaint, an Australian outpost of the Club. For various reasons, this has fallen by the wayside recently, but I’m hopeful we can pick it up and run with it again.

Q – How would you describe Leslie Charteris as a friend? Do you have any interesting anecdotes to tell?

Leslie was kind enough to ask me out to lunch shortly after that initial phone call, and fortunately for me something clicked between the naïve teenager and the best-selling author and his wife, which would result in subsequent numerous lunches and lengthy discussions, plus some very long phone conversations. Indeed I am privileged to consider both Leslie’s widow and his daughter some of my best friends to this day.

I vividly remember some post-prandial sessions in the study at his bungalow in Surrey, England where we would discuss the book we worked on together, or he would tell me dirty jokes, or even kindly answer some of my questions about his career.

Q – Tell us about your long awaited biography of Charteris – that is, what you’re willing to divulge.

For more years than I care to confess I have been working on the biography. Whilst I happily admit that work on it got diverted by such minor things as marriage and children, I have revisited it lately and have got it to a stage where I should probably try and submit it to a publisher. But I have a number of other Saintly books in the works as well, so we’ll see what happens.

I initially touted the biography as a real-life Saint adventure, which in some ways it is. But it’s also a study of the man, how his early life shaped him and the Saint, his character, his inspirations and motivations, plus of course lots of anecdotes from throughout his long life.

Q – What did you think of the Saint movies and radio shows that came about before the 1960s?

It’s a tough one, because apart from anything else you’re asking me what I thought of shows, some of which are more than 50 years old and I think all the incarnations of the Saint are a product of their time, consequently you’ll have to kick me quite hard if you want solid criticism of any of them.

George Sanders and Louis Hayward were very good in the role, Hugh Sinclair not quite so. As for radio Saints, I’ve only heard a few minutes of Edgar Barrier’s performance so it’d be unfair to comment. Brian Aherne was very dashing and very Saintly – I wish he’d done more in the role.

I’m not the fan of Vincent Price’s Saint that so many other commentators are. To my mind, he came across as a bit too blasé and full of himself. Barry Sullivan filled in for Price on a couple of episodes and got the humor perfectly – he conveyed such a sense of mischief in his voice that again, I wish he’d done more.

Personally I found Tom Conway’s Saint hard to distinguish from Tom Conway’s Falcon – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed listening to his Saint shows but they struck me as just another radio detective of the time, and not really the Saint. The script quality throughout the Saint’s career on American radio was variable – from Charteris writing and producing the first series, to the hired guns who helped kill Tom Conway’s stint as the Saint. Like any long-running show it had its good moments. And it had its bad.

As for the French Saints, Jean Marais and Felix Marten, well, I can’t really comment. Oh, I’ve got copies of the films, but I’m afraid my children may read this interview, and I’d rather they didn’t learn some parts of their vocabulary at such a tender age.

Curiously the little I’ve heard of Tom Meehan, one of the South African radio Saints, is pleasantly surprising. Although I’ve not heard enough to comment on the plots or characters, he certainly sounded right for the part.

Q – How does Roger Moore stand in your estimation as Simon Templar? Any anecdotes you can share about him?

I’m not sure I qualify as a fan of the Roger Moore series, granted I enjoy watching them but there are far more avid fans (and web sites) out there. I don’t even own a copy of all 118 episodes on DVD. Roger has been kind enough to respond to my e-mails and sign bits and pieces for the Club and for that alone, he has my utmost gratitude. Most people seem to consider his portrayal the definitive one and I guess any new Saint will automatically be compared to him. I think that’s a little unfair – Roger was the perfect Saint for the 1960s, but like all the other actors, he was a Saint of his time.

Q – Any thoughts about the other actors who’ve played the Saint on TV? I believe you got to know Ian Ogilvy and Simon Dutton. How did they fare in your opinion as the Saint?

Well, as you know by now, I grew up watching Ian as the Saint. His show, which really was a product of its time, was Saintly, but not really the Saint. The Saint for me will always be the Saint of the books, but that doesn’t preclude me from enjoying the various impersonations of him over the years.

Simon Dutton suffered from what I can only describe as a painful production. It was rushed, and there was no script editor in place to ensure script continuity. Some parts of his show I thoroughly enjoyed – such as the chase scene in the Aussie episode – and the music was excellent, but the overall production let him down.

It may surprise folk when I say that Andrew Clarke – an Australian who starred as the Saint in a one off late 80s TV pilot that’s never been broadcast in the UK – wasn’t as awful as perhaps he might have been. He certainly had a Saintly twinkle in his eye that promised all sorts of mischief, sadly – like Simon Dutton – he was let down by an atrocious script and some dire production values.

Q – You’ve had a long friendship with producer Robert Baker. Can you share what he’s contributed to the story of the Saint?

Without Bob I think it's fair to say the Saint’s career would probably have finished in the 1960s. Bob was, of course, the driving force behind the Roger Moore series but since then has remained a consultant on all subsequent Saint adventures, despite on the latter ones his views being ignored in favor of Producers who of course Know Better.

Bob, as Saint scriptwriter John Goldsmith says, is one of the last true gentlemen left in the industry. Despite his 89 years, he’s been good enough to come up to Pinewood Studios for me to record DVD commentaries and put up with me interviewing him for the documentary on the making of the show (available as extras on the Network DVD sets).

He is a lovely chap and I will always be grateful to him for his help and encouragement. It frustrates me that I’ve not been able to persuade him to sit down and talk more about his early career – he and Monty Berman (his production partner) made nearly 50 films before they met the Saint.

Bob has a terrific understanding of what makes a good story, and what makes a good Saint story in particular. His advice is invaluable, his stories superb and his patience and generosity amazing.

Q – What did you think of the non-Charteris Saint stories written by Harry Harrison and others? (Note 1)

A mixed bag really. I really love stories such as The Saint and the Templar Treasure and The Saint and the Hapsburg Necklace, and indeed even Salvage for the Saint, which stands up very well as a literary Saint adventure. But other books, such as The Saint Returns read like fairly average TV novelisations.

Burl [Barer] will probably shoot me for saying this but whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Capture the Saint – and would certainly rank it above some of the other titles I’ve mentioned – it was a little too brash for my liking. There needs to be an element of subtlety in the construction of a Saint story and Capture read, in places, like Burl was just trying a little bit too hard. (Note 2)

Q – How did your work on the British DVD sets come about? Can viewers see you in the documentaries?

I approached Network about working on their release of Return of the Saint. For whatever reason – probably my warped sense of humor – we hit it off and once they’d re-arranged their schedules, they asked me to work on The Saint.

And no, I’m not in the documentary. I absolutely hate having my photo taken and quite frankly I saw no point in putting me on camera – it’s a documentary about the making of the show. I didn’t work on it, and indeed the show finished the year I was born.

Q – We’ve not seen much Saintly since the Val Kilmer movie beyond Burl Barer’s novels and his history of the Saint. Do you think the character has become antiquated or are there still new ways to explore and develop the character? Do you know of any Saint projects in the pipeline?

Oh, I think the Saint’s career is far from over. I would dearly love to see a series of Saint TV movies set in 1930s London. It was such a productive time for both the Saint and Leslie Charteris, and so rich in character and atmosphere that I think it would work a treat. But period pieces aren’t the thing on TV at the moment, and they’re expensive to make, so I guess I’ll have to be patient.

Alongside that, I do think there is definitely a place in the 21st century for someone with the Saint’s philosophies and attitudes. In fact I’d go so far as to say we desperately need someone like that – take a look at the news and you’ll see what I mean, stories of murder, corporate fraud, swindles and other nasty crimes litter the media nowadays. There’s plenty of fodder for a 21st Century Saint.

But re-inventing the Saint has been done to death, so why not take Leslie’s idea of a Saintly offspring and let Simon Jr. have some of the fun? Then, whilst Roger’s still up for it, you can have some fun conflict between the “old” Saint and the “new” Saint.

As for new projects in the pipeline, well yes, but out of respect to all involved I can’t spill the beans yet, I’m afraid. But do clear some space on your bookshelves, do make room for some more DVDs and do keep an eye on the TV schedules, for you’ve not seen the last of the Saint. He will return.

Ian’s Reading List ~

One of the questions I asked Ian was – what are your favorite Saint stories? He began his answer saying, “Picking favorites is tough – I love the pre-War Saint but the Sixties Saint is kinda fun as well and in between the two, the Saint has his moments as well.”

Then he provided a lengthy critique of the books and short stories he loves most. So, for those less familiar with the literary Saint, here are some recommendations for your bookshelf from Ian Dickerson ~

The Last Hero
I think this is one of Charteris’ classic novels – a cracking good period adventure, with Charteris’ obvious love of language and imagery coming to its peak. The plot twists plus excellent action and adventure make it fun to read and re-read.

Enter the Saint
As a young lad and not knowing any better I fell into the trap of thinking this was the first Saint book, so in some ways it was this book that helped hook me. I think what gets me back to this book time and again is the Saint’s exuberance for life. As a young and very impressionable child, I learnt a lot from reading the Saint; one of those things was that maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have to grow up into the rather dull office life that my teachers were trying to shoehorn us all into. Perhaps I too could find adventure out there.

The Holy Terror
One of the things I love about the Saint is that Charteris kept one foot in reality whilst indulging in a hefty degree of wish fulfillment. Having your hero pay his tax bill, and more to the point, creating a wonderful little adventure around your hero paying his taxes, takes courage and great writing.

Another classic novel. Action, adventure and Charterisian enthusiasm for life and language. I vividly remember my eldest brother reading this book for the first time and reading out loud the following passage; it made me laugh then and it makes me laugh now. The Saint’s adventures weren’t constructed around some deep psychological meaning or meant to be subject to deep analysis, they were Fun and Entertainment.

After all, he had done nothing desperately exciting for a long time. About twenty-one days. His subconscious was just ripe for the caressing touch of a few seductive stimuli. And then and there, when his resistance was at its lowest ebb, he heard and felt the juicy plonk of his fist sinking home into a nose.

The savour of that fruity squash wormed itself wheedlingly down into the very cockles of his heart. He liked it. It stirred the deepest chords of his being. And it dawned persuasively upon him that at that moment he desired nothing more of life than an immediate repetition of that feeling. And, seeing the nose once more conveniently poised in front of him, he hit it again.

He had not been mistaken. His subconscious knew its stuff. With the feel of that second biff a pleasant kind of glow centered itself in the pit of his stomach and tingled electrically outwards along his limbs, and the remainder of his doubts melted away before its spreading warmth. He was punching the nose of an ugly man, and he was liking it. Life had no more to offer.

Sounds good to me!

The Brighter Buccaneer
I’ve lost track of how many times I read this when I was younger. Short Saint adventures with neat plot twists that I could dip into and out of as life necessitated. Even more amazing when you realize that Charteris wrote these short stories on a weekly basis.

The Misfortunes of Mr. Teal
For me, one element of classic Charteris stories must involve the Saint and Mr. Teal, so I’m a sucker for stories that involve Simon, Claude Eustace and any of the gang.

More short stories. See The Brighter Buccaneer!

The Saint in New York
Quite simply a classic adventure; strong coherent plot with enough twists and challenges to take both the reader and the Saint on the ride of their life.

Prelude for War
What makes this book for me is the contrast of typically flippant Saint against the grim background of the forthcoming war. Another classic adventure with Charteris’ plotting and writing at its prime.

The Happy Highwayman
Even more short stories. See Boodle. Or The Brighter Buccaneer. Or any number of the books I’ve listed!

The Saint in Miami
William Vivian Butler’s book The Durable Desperadoes provides some splendid analysis of the Saint over the course of his career and highlights how he has evolved. In some ways this book is a last hurrah for the old gang, before the Saint moves on to become a slightly cynical world-weary traveler. This is a classic thriller which sees the Saint slay some almighty dragons and Charteris’ writing still at its very best.

Thanks to the Saint
Saint adventures are a product of their time. As is obvious by now, I love Charteris’ short stories and novellas. Combine that with the elements of reality that Charteris imbued his stories with – and I’m thinking particularly of his encounters with the TV industry as it was then – and you get some cracking stories.

The Saint in the Sun
Charteris was a superb short story writer and this book shows that he hadn’t lost his touch.

The Saint and the People Importers
This started off as an original story by Charteris collaborator Fleming Lee, with the intention of him writing it for the TV show. But the story got bastardized by Harry Junkin and others, so Charteris encouraged Fleming Lee to go back to his original idea for the novel. The Saint tackles a problem that is still highly relevant today, encounters some thoroughly memorable characters and enjoys a good curry.

The Saint and the Hapsburg Necklace
Again, as an impressionable youngster I had to double-check that this wasn’t a Charteris original when I first discovered it. Still it holds up extremely well as a period adventure for the Saint, perhaps a little too much like a comic book in places, the characters and action are excellent.

The Saint and the Templar Treasure
The Saint was always about entertainment, adventurous entertainment and none more so than this novel. It reads like it was entirely by Charteris and is quite simply great fun.

Notes ~

Note 1 – For more about author Harry Harrison and his Saint projects, see “Espionage Around the Galaxy – The Spy-Fi of Harry Harrison”, originally posted at Leslie Charteris and linked in the Spies in History & Literature section of this website.

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Note 2 – To learn much more about Burl Barer’s Saint books, see “‘The Saint’ in Fact and Fiction – An Interview with Historian and Novelist Burl Barer” posted at this site in the Spies in History & Literature section of this website.

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