I grew up in an era where pseudo-spying was a popular trend for kids, with Usborne’s handbooks giving parents a brief respite from our whines of being bored, to instead write invisible ink letters with lemon juice, disguise ourselves as an old man, or bone up on how to follow someone without being seen. These days, if you’re sneaking around in a big trenchcoat, local Facebook send up the warning flare that there’s a paed about. Despite preceding this fad by a good decade, the espionage of ATV game show Masterspy had a greatly similar vibe.


We’ll begin on Saturday evening of April 17th 1979. Animated titles have an extremely Usborne secret agent in coat and hat firing a gun at the lens, under an absolute banger of a funk soundtrack and blocky calculator font. The set design’s gorgeously analogue spy-tech; wall maps and radar; sliding panels revealing a mounted television screen; a grey console of buttons and switches, which is labelled, 60’s Batman style, as MASTERSPY COMPUTER. There’s a live audience, though they’re only heard and not seen, perhaps for their own safety against KGB assassins.

Our host is the Spymaster, William Franklyn, likely off the rep of previous role as Peter Dallas in sixties series Top Secret. Phenomenally posh, he’s got the dry quips and self-effacing “yes this show is good but also shit” manner of all men on 70’s telly, and is superb value. His secretary, lazily named Miss Moneypacker, is comedy veteran and former Hill’s Angel, Jenny Lee-Wright; falling over her dialogue with admirable consistency. This week, she’s got one arm in a sling, and the episode begins with an unseen hand shooting a photo of her which is pinned to a tree.


A little sketch with celebrity guests — more of whom later — introduces our players, whom I thought were all actors, until one awkward, stilted gentleman is repeatedly manhandled onto his mark. Their credit cards are fed into a beeping console, identifying the first as SPECIAL AGENT – BOND, which seems a bit copyrighty, but his name’s legitimately David Bond; a connection they incredibly make zero reference to. Agent two is PENFOLD (“Penfold, Jim Penfold)” while the final player is simply Trevor Wilkinson, with a haughty voice even Jacob Rees-Mogg would take the piss out of.

Agents are sent to Franklyn for ‘screening’, aka pre-game bants — “you have an unusual pastime which is sail-surfing?” Agent Bond hitch-hiked round the world at 17 (pre-Instagram, ergo pointless), while Penfold’s a wheelwright, “building wheels what goes on our caravans and our trollies… with old secrets, family secrets.” Penfold’s the episode’s most fascinating figure, fingers laden with gold signet rings, with a neckerchief and boot-polish coloured hair swept around a bald spot. “I see from your dossier you’re a Romany traveller?” says Franklyn, whom Penfold will only ever address as ‘Major’, never breaking Masterspy kayfabe.

First round is a riddle, having to ascertain where the commas should be in the sentence “Fritz where Franz had had had had had had had had had had been correct.” Nobody gets it, or even understands what they’re meant to do, but it’s just a fun warm-up. In-show storyline has Moneypacker fending off an assassination attempt, having her steering tampered with, and a hollowed-out book with a bomb inside delivered to her house. The agents’ mission is to find out who’s after her, and why. Franklyn’s desk and chair roll away on wheels by themselves, while three handguns wait disquietingly on a table.


Sadly not televised Russian roulette, we’re told the agents took an offscreen refresher course on weaponry, on which they’ll now be tested; i.e. gun Mastermind. Each are handed a different weapon to answer trivia on — its weight to the nearest oz; its calibre; does the chamber revolve clockwise or anti-clockwise? There’s something grimly humorous about these dour men casually handling lethal firearms during a tea-time quiz.

     Franklyn: “That is a Browning high power semi-automatic. Does it have double action?

     Agent Jim Penfold: “No, Sir.

A marksman section tests their capability to defend Moneypacker in a shoot-out, using an innovative early take on the light-gun, involving two revolving targets on a turntable, wired to a trigger which will ideally stop them at the point of overlap. Trevor Wilkinson accidentally fires the tiny gun too early, while like his namesake, Bond’s far more relaxed, one arm lazily extended like he’s seen Reservoir Dogs too many times. But it’s Penfold; who seems like he’s shot loads of people for real; that gets closest to the bull with a two-handed FBI approach. Big drama going into the break, as the sliding panels reveal the silhouette of a gun-toting assassin, Franklyn screaming “MONEYPACKER!” and bundling her out of frame as a shot rings out.


It’s revealed the assassin’s gun was nicked from the drawer of Lt. Collins, head of base security, of which only three man have access, including David Jason and Tony Adams from Crossroads. CCTV footage is prelude to an observation round — “was his security tag on the right or left lapel?” — and with the lowest score, Bond’s eliminated. For his troubles, he wins a “rather superb” four-band radio, and Moneypacker goes to shake his hand, but as her right arm’s in a sling, they just awkwardly clasp each other like someone consoling the widow at a funeral. Intrigue builds, with links to brainwashing in Albania, escape tunnels for terrorists, and Del Boy’s mysterious holiday to Yugoslavia, set up by Dr. Tony Adams from Crossroads. In a frenetic build to the final act, Franklyn tells remaining contestants to follow him, in an attempt at one of those energetic modern transitions, walking into the camera, and filling the lens with his tie.


Like Whodunnit, contestants interrogate in-character suspects, while filling out LA Noire style ‘truthful/lying/evasive’ multiple choice cards. Adams improvises about a travel agents called “would you believe it, Travel-a-Lot?” while Del spends the time showing off holiday snaps, but can’t account for a suspicious couple of minutes “when I went to the loo.” When Franklyn’s marking the cards, Agent Penfold takes the opportunity to pull an enormous handkerchief out of his pocket, first wiping his nose/mouth, and then very thoroughly his entire hands.

Trevor Wilkinson’s eyebrows go right up when he’s judged to be the Masterspy, having correctly pegged Del was brainwashed by the Doctor after photographing something he shouldn’t have in Yugoslavia, and Lt Collins (Norman Bowler off Emmerdale and Wizbit) presents Penfold the runner up quartz watch. For his victory, Trevor takes home all sixteen inches of “this rather beautiful colour television set.” An episode entitled The Dastardly Double Agent appears to be from a later series, now with four contestants, from which the winner “will have fulfilled his mission to become Masterspy.” Note that despite the pronoun, one of them’s a woman, and this seventies notion of gender roles will become a huge theme.


Players aiming to root out a double agent are David Flynn (“32, single”), the mutton-chopped, phenomenally-named Graham Fitness, Keith Miller (“33, electrical engineer”) and Jean Huddleston (“20, married”). David’s bleeped when describing Manchester’s weather as “bloody awful,” and when asked where such an unusual name comes from, Graham Fitness replies “my father, sir.” They’re each given a hypothetical mission, to explain how they’d prepare for six months undercover as, say, a monk or librarian, or in Jean’s case, a football manager’s secretary.

     Jean: “First I’d buy myself a football outfit… have a couple of runs round the pitch.”

     Franklyn: “And she has a football bath with the boys?

     Jean: “Oh yes, definitely.”

Game proper begins with a clock-face riddle, and taking coded messages over the phone while pretending to idly chat with their bank manager, babysitter, or mechanic — “I see, yes, ball joints” — and it’s great fun watching an accountant’s assistant suddenly forced into nervous improv. “It’s such a pity you can’t make it, I was looking forwards to a night out with the wife, we’ve not been out for three years. [to strict-sounding German man on the other end] Goodnight, Judy.


As Franklyn tells Moneypacker she’s looking “very appetising, if I may say so,” our contestants must root out a sleeper agent, and as practise, one’s secretly briefed, in perhaps competitive television’s first usage of a mole. But there’s often trouble formulating games around these concepts, and they simply swivel their chairs to examine each other’s faces for signs of duplicity. “Eyes can tell lies,” says Moneypacker, although each contestant gets a single nomination. In a confusing code section, the mole’s meant to be bluffing, but nobody understands what’s happening — not viewers, not players — reducing the game to guesswork, until mole Keith is eliminated. A memory game involving a locked briefcase leaves three people silently fiddling with metal rods while exciting spy music plays, before it’s bye-bye to a visibly disappointed Jean Huddleston. Franklyn commiserates with “well, I think it’s bad luck that a gal should get a mechanical device so early on in her mission,” and she wins a radio and cassette recorder — “and we hope it brings you much luck.” Thankfully, she’s got a husband to show her how to switch it on.

After adverts for banks and hot custard, an undercover agent who looks like Richard Stilgoe’s interrogated in a What’s My Line? section. It takes ten seconds of yes/no questions to peg him as motorcycle racer John Surtees in a false beard, doling advice on how to drive a bike really fast. After the light-gun, it’s now a full-on racing sim, with an actual motorbike mounted in front of a huge screen, back-projecting POV footage of a road, which speeds up accordingly when the accelerator’s twisted. As it’s pre-taped, there’s no way to crash or veer off course, but still the audience gasp and shriek with giddy thrill as the bikes pick up speed, with perilous lane changes and swerves around oncoming traffic, riders leaning into corners, and a strong Benny Hill feel from the obviously sped-up footage.


Essentially, it’s that viral clip of a dad putting his toddler inside a linen basket and waving it about in front of a rollercoaster video. Though it seems like some mad game show invention, this was an adaptation of a driver training system in use at the time — the IDT Link Simulator — which acquainted nervous learners with cars before letting them behind the wheel for real, viewed through the windscreen like a grounded flight simulator. Thank God Jean never had a go; she’d have ploughed straight into the audience! Final task has them searching for stolen documents in a cheap police station set which wobbles any time it’s breathed on, where once again, nobody’s got the foggiest.

     “Would you like to talk to us, tell us what you’re doing?

     “I’m trying to locate the security room.

     “You’re actually in it.”

     “I’m in the security room, am I?

After apologising for being dyslexic, Fitness eventually finds a briefcase as a Bond-ish action soundtrack plays over a man with mutton chops dressed as a policeman slowly unscrewing some metal rods. By various means, the double agent is caught, with runner up Fitness getting “a home entertainment set” — a blocky box with radio receiver and two-inch television — how ludicrous! [glances back to Dune which I’m watching on my phone] Winner Flynn gets the same, except with a cassette player built in too, and looks heavier than a skipful of dark matter.


My final episode is The Nautical Novelties Rangefinder Run-In, which sounds like a Round The Horne, and opens with film footage of “a typically English high-street filled with typically English people… or was it?” We freeze-frame on the pair of Frank and Laura Cookson, believed to be two of the most dangerous spies on the payroll of Anarchy International. Trying to stop them are David Jones (“although he was born in Wales, he now lives in Leamington Spa”), George Philpott, Julie Wassmer (a female lady, former girl, and now woman), and Rabi Martins. Julie comes out with hands in pockets, and the audience piss themselves at the reveal of her home-brewing beer and lifting weights.

But the star here is the Goanese Rabi, a tiny man in a chequered jacket who greets Franklyn with a hands-clasped prayer gesture, and corrects the description of him as “a Goanese.” “Firstly, it’s Goan,” he admonishes, in a surprisingly high voice, before a tremendously weird origin story of being the smallest boy in school and deciding he’d thus have to choose his friends carefully. As the only way to judge someone’s character is to study their handwriting, he became a graphologist. Whenever he’s onscreen, it feels like Kayvan Novak doing a bit.

In the opening warm-up, David thinks ‘Eastern Bloc’ means Japan, Julia offers an anecdote about living next to a jazz musician, and if caught with a foreign agent in the boot of his car, Rabi would explain “that’s my wife, she gets travel sickness.” A game where they have to use a typewriter showcases people from the 70’s unfamiliarity with keyboard layouts, everyone typing about one word a minute, which is highlighted again when a contestant fails to recognise the significance of the code QWERTY.


The anarchist Cooksons from the opening are suspected of running a spy-ring under the cover of a navel antiquities firm in East Finchley. Tasked with catching them in the act, agents are given cover stories as naval historians, plus the previous three weeks to memorise sea battles and shit, for a quiz. There’s a smutty laugh from the audience at boat-related answer “she had armour plating, 5 inches thick, around her vital parts,” and Jones is eliminated, taking home a pocket calculator. Flickering surveillance footage shot from across the street zooms into the Cooksons’ living room window — or as they’re actually known, Frank and Lotta Gordinski. A mysterious exchange, poisoned sherry, a microdot containing a secret formula on its way to Anarchy International; it’s all going on.

The stuff that’s not straight quizzing has the whiff of Crystal Maze about it, like having to disarm a security system, which confuses everyone with a long-winded explanation, but simply requires an embarrassed man in a suit to bend right over and poke a floppy balloon through a slot, so he can inflate it and lift the lid clear. Too befuddled to participate, Rabi’s gone, winning a pair of binoculars, and “they really are quite magnificent,” and I am delighted to inform you, these days, he’s a elected Lib Dem councillor for Watford Borough.


For the finale, they’re off to Laura Cookson’s office to poke around her desk. “A very formidable woman,” says Franklyn, “let’s hope our operatives have their wits about them.” What ‘formidable woman’ means in 1970’s speak is she’s wearing glasses and is over thirty. “Good afternoon, we’re naval historians…” After she leaves, they’ve three minutes to search for the microdot, which is hidden in Nelson’s eye. Agent Philpott is judged the Masterspy, earning a multi-wave global radio receiver — “it will put you within earshot of the four corners of the earth” — while runner-up Julia wins a binoculars/camera hybrid, i.e. the tree-dwelling pervert’s choice. The show gives it its damned, dashed best at fitting tasks around the theme, but never really succeeds, however Masterspy is well worth watching, for the abundance of brilliant-looking 70’s men (and the occasional woman), all looking very perplexed.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as £1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on August 8, 2022.

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