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William Tell (1958-59)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of William Tell (1958-59)
39 x 30 minute episodes, black & white
Directors includePeter Maxwell
 Terry Bishop
 Ernest Morris
ProducersRalph Smart
 Leslie Arliss

Cast: Conrad Phillips (William Tell); Jennifer Jayne (Hedda Tell); Richard Rogers (Walter Tell); Willoughby Goddard (Gessler); Nigel Green (The Bear)

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The legendary hero's escapades in 14th Century Switzerland, as he resists brutal Austrian rule and upholds the rights of peasants against the villainous Landburgher Gessler.

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For this medieval period adventure series - with each episode heralded by the insistent 'Come away, come away with William Tell...' title song - we are transported to early 14th century Switzerland, a land suffering under the brutal military occupation of Austria, and the bold efforts of its legendary hero William Tell in resisting the tyranny.

As a bygone boys' adventure weekly, the series may be considered a success. In its close narrative association with the earlier The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITV, 1955-59) - a man is forced outside the law to avenge a personal wrong and ultimately realises that he has a greater duty to society - William Tell moved at such a breathless rate that many of its improbabilities went unremarked. The action was sustained with furious chases, acrobatic leaps in the Fairbanks manner and some vigorous swordplay.

The characters, however, were entirely stereotypical, with star Conrad Phillips cast as a dashing saviour of the Swiss peasants who depend on his expertise with a crossbow and superhumanly quick thinking to outwit the Austrians. Jennifer Jayne, with startlingly blonde hair, played his resourceful wife Hedda, while young Richard Rogers hovered around as their bemused son Walter. Although Tell didn't muster any regular companions, he did earn the loyal friendship of a colourful local robber known as 'The Bear', expertly portrayed with booming zeal by Nigel Greene.

On the opposing side, as the blustering, outsize tyrant Landburgher Gessler, Willoughby Goddard attacked his role with tremendous relish, charging about in bewildered panic or in a savage fury when not thinking of ways to kill the hero. Goddard's full-blown characterisation provided the necessary dimension and colour seemingly lacking in the other characters.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this juvenile-market series was the chilling analogy made between the Austrian domination of Switzerland during the Middle Ages and the Nazi subjugation of Europe during the Second World War.

The sadistic Hapsburg landburgher was clearly modelled on a Hitler-era Gauleiter, or military governor. The writers extended the narrative beyond the all-too-familiar shooting-the-apple-off-the-head fable to parallel Gessler's methods of extracting taxes from the citizens, and his suppression of the flare-ups of rebellion, with the Nazi barbarism of more modern history.

While The Adventures of Robin Hood served up its own mythology with a daring socialist sub-text, William Tell drew on the more disturbing elements of modern history to evoke the purpose of its defender of the underdog.

Tise Vahimagi

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Video Clips
1. Fantastic invention (3:17)
2. In the wrong hands (2:53)
3. Escape (0:58)
4. A sacrifice (2:36)
Complete episode: 'The Magic Powder' (25:09)
Swashbuckling TV