“You’ve Got to Fight for What You Want”

TJ Worthington on The Flashing Blade

First published February 2008

It’s unusual for a television series to find popularity in two different decades, though some have managed it through judiciously-placed repeats. Finding popularity in two different genres, though, is an entirely different matter, and should be logistically impossible. Yet that’s exactly what happened to The Flashing Blade. So how did the swashbuckling exploits of a French swordsman have audiences on the edge of their seats one minute and falling about with laughter the next? It’s all down to the redubbing…

The Flashing Blade was originally known as Le Chevailer TempĂȘte, a children’s adventure serial filmed early in 1967 as a co-production between Pathe Cinema and the French television company ORTF, with international funding coming from Switzerland and Canada. Written by Andre-Paul Antoine and Pierre-Aristide Breal, and stylishly directed by Yannick Andrei, the storyline was set in 17th century France but, unusually for a serial of this nature, was not actually based on genuine historical events.

The action takes place in 1630, around the besieged Fort Casal on the Savoie Border between the warring France and Spain. The liberation of the castle is the key to the intended truce, and there are those within the opposing ranks – most notably the devious Don Alonso – who will do anything in their power to prevent the agreement from taking place. Unfortunately for them, the French have assigned this mission to dashing young spy Francois, Chevalier de Recci and his loyal servant Guillot, a wisecracking pair who seem to get as much of a thrill from corny jokes as they do swordsmanship.

Over the course of the serial they mount a number of plots to rescue the castle, adopt many disguises – including a lengthy spell hiding out with a troupe of travelling players – and stage near-constant daring escapes, whilst Francois becomes involved with a young local noblewoman, Isabelle de Sospel.

The popular costume drama actor Robert Etcheverry took the part of Francois, with Jacques Balutin as Guillot, Mario Pilar as Don Alonso, Genevieve Casile as Isabelle, Jean Martinelli as the Duke de Sospel and Denise Gray as the Comtesse. None of the cast were well known outside of France, despite a considerable list of starring roles on film and television between them – although in an amusing quirk of fate, Balutin later ended up redubbing Paul Michael Glasier’s dialogue for the French language transmissions of Starsky and Hutch.

Le Chevailer Tempete was shown by ORTF in four 75-minute episodes in October 1967. The series attracted acclaim for its stylish direction and colourful cinematography (noticeably similar to the style adopted by many historically-based European feature films of the day, including such British efforts as Masque of the Red Death and Witchfinder General), as well as for scripts that skillfully combined lengthy action set-pieces with comic interludes – the latter perhaps best exemplified by the dashing duo’s attempts to pose as actors. As was common practice at the time, the serial was subsequently offered for adaptation by overseas broadcasters, and the BBC bought the rights during 1968 for transmission in Spring 1969.

The four episodes were cut down by the Corporation into 12 x 25-minute instalments, with the adaptation and redubbing overseen by Peggy Miller, who performed similar duties on a number of imported series including Tales of the Riverbank and Tales from Europe. Indeed this was common practice for all foreign children’s serials, subjected to changes that went anywhere from re-editing, to entire rewrites, leading to the credit “BBC Presentation By …” becoming a familiar sight. While the closing titles of the BBC version also revealed the new soundtrack was recorded at the famous De Lane Lea studios, a venue incongruously favoured by the big progressive rock acts of the day, the identity of the actors performing the English language dialogue was not revealed and remains something of a mystery to this day.

Although the new version of the serial ran to a dozen episodes, most UK viewers have only ever seen 11 of them – the dubbed print of episode 12 suffered from a technical fault which caused a loss of vision partway through. The BBC attempted to show the episode on a couple of early runs of the series, and indeed once managed to air virtually the entire 25 minutes with only a slight interruption, but still ran into the same problems each time. As a result, and no doubt to the frustration of those who had followed the long serial over numerous weeks, the final edition was never properly shown, although in response to viewer requests, the conclusion was later featured in Ask Aspel.

Fortunately for the BBC, episode 11 acted as an acceptable ending in its own right, with the truce signed, the Castle liberated, and Francois finally seeing off Don Alonso in an epic sword fight. Apart from confirming the wounded Guillot survived the climactic battle, episode 12 had little to do with the story proper, largely set a year after the events of the previous instalment and recounting a very slow reunion between Francoise and Isabelle. As most later showings were simply truncated to 11, without much really being lost in the way of the storyline, it’s quite possible viewers never even noticed.

While Francois could stop a war virtually single-handed, it seems even the miracles of modern technology cannot resolve the same technical fault that first sent BBC1 haywire almost 40 years ago. On a recent DVD release of the complete English language version of The Flashing Blade, that problematic 12th episode has been replaced by an appropriate edit of the original French language version, complete with the original credits and theme music.

The Flashing Blade is as well remembered for its dramatic galloping theme song as the swashbuckling exploits of the Chevailer de Recci, or indeed technical breakdowns at the worst possible moment. Composed by Alex Masters, the theme was popular enough to be released as a single by Phillips, retitled Fight and credited to The Musketeers. Although it stopped some way short of the top 40, the single has subsequently become much sought-after by soundtrack collectors, and was recently featured on BBC 6Music’s The Freakzone after they received a large number of requests from listeners.

The adventures of Francois and Guillot would later find an altogether different notoriety when The Flashing Blade was cut up into five-minute segments and comically redubbed for the BBC1 Saturday morning show On the Waterfront in 1988. Written by producer Russell T Davies and voiced by the show’s cast with impressionist John Culshaw, the redubs were initially very funny and quickly won a cult following – Don Alonso’s grim examination of a local map, for example, was turned into a weather report, and each instalment ended with the assembled cast shouting, “Shut up!!” after the first couple of bars of the theme song.

Inevitably inspiration soon ran dry – one later instalment consisted of little more than Isabelle singing an interminable song about how “she likes to stitch and sew her clothes” – but all the same it is fondly remembered to this day. In fact, it’s not too great a leap of the imagination to suggest the arrival on BBC2 the following year of The Staggering Stories of Ferdinand De Bargos – which did much the same thing with genuine historical footage – owed more than a little to this idiosyncratic re-interpretation of The Flashing Blade.

The On the Waterfront inserts were sufficiently popular to warrant a full (well, apart from episode 12) re-run of The Flashing Blade in its proper form the following year, the last time to date it has been shown on terrestrial television. It’s interesting to ponder on the fact none of the things it is best remembered for – the theme song, the redubbed send-up and the notorious technical fault – were ever part of Le Chevalier Tempete, and while two of these may not have been quite in line with what Peggy Miller and company intended for the serial, it does show that there was a lot more to “BBC Presentation By …” than a simple vanity credit.

This and so many other series bought in during the 1960s and 1970s were to a large extent shaped into almost new programmes, often near unrecognisable from their original form. Then again, few could deny that the straightforward thrill of all those seemingly endless sword fights on staircases had a lot to do with the appeal of The Flashing Blade too.