Peter Wyngarde, who has died at the presumed age of 90, took the role of Jason King in the ITV series Department S (1969-70) because he relished its spirit of adventure. His own life was certainly far from dull and there are often conflicting versions of its key events in circulation. Debates rage about his parentage and date of birth, and whether the renowned French actor Louis Jouvet was his uncle.
But, wherever the truth lies, Wyngarde seemingly caught the acting bug while being interned by the Japanese in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre near Shanghai, where he played all the characters in his own variation on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Whether or not he quit law studies at Oxford or abandoned classmates Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole at RADA (“if you learn too much, you become aware of it; it can become tedious”), Wyngarde’s career almost ended with his debut after he was fired from a 1947 production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter. Yet, by the time Vivien Leigh gave him a second chance to make good on the stage in Duel of Angels (1958), he had palled up with Richard Burton in Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great (1956) and become a heartthrob as Sydney Carton in a seven-part BBC serialisation of A Tale of Two Cities (1957).
Although he would seethe anarchist fury as Peter the Painter in Robert S. Barker and Monte Berman’s The Siege of Sidney Street (1960) and prove a hauntingly menacing presence as Peter Quint in Jack Clayton’s masterly Henry James adaptation, The Innocents (1961), Wyngarde found his métier on television rather than the big screen. Having impressed as Sir Roger Casement in On Trial (1960), he guested in a number of cult shows. As John Cleverly Catney, he led a latter-day incarnation of the Hellfire Club in the 1966 Avengers episode, ‘A Touch of Brimstone’, and, later the same year, crossed swords with Roger Moore as The Saint in ‘The Man Who Liked Lions’.
In 1967, Wyngarde’s Number Two tormented Patrick McGoohan during an human chess game in the ‘Checkmate’ instalment of The Prisoner. He would also crop up in The Baron, I Spy, The Troubleshooters and The Champions before he was placed in charge of the Interpol unit charged with cracking cases that had left others baffled, in Department S. Modelling novelist-turned-sleuth Jason King on James Bond creator Ian Fleming, Wyngarde proved so suave and magnetic that he was invited to reprise the character in a 1971 spin-off series.
After one 26-show season, however, he tired of playing this “blasé idiot” who looked “like a Mexican expatriate” and spoke with an “awful English accent”. Yet it would remain Wyngarde’s most iconic role, even though he battled black magic in Sidney Hayers’s Night of the Eagle (1962), revelled in malevolence as secret police chief Klytus in Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980) and reeked of hypocrisy as a government grandee in James Marcus’s Tank Malling (1989).
He even confronted Peter Davison as the elder of a parched world in the 1984 Doctor Who storyline ‘Planet of Fire’, and enjoyed a degree of notoriety in 1998 when the press latched on to ‘Rape’, a track from a 1970 speak-sing album that had been reissued as When Sex Leers Its Inquisitive Head.
To the end, however, Wyngarde lived up to his definition of sophistication: “To be, but not seem to be.”