1 9 5 8 (UK)
39 x 25 minute episodes
The Adventures of William Tell was another of ITV’s all-action productions which, although aimed primarily at young audiences, built up an adult following too.
It starred Conrad Phillips in the title role – loosely based on Johann Von Schiller’s tale about William Tell, an Alpine hero from the Swiss settlement of Berglan, who fought at the side of the oppressed people of Altdorf against the occupying Austrians in the early 14th century.
The first episode saw Tell challenged by the evil Landburgher Gessler (the hated Austrian leader) to display his crossbow marksmanship by shooting an apple off the head of his own son, Walter. This Tell duly did, but with a second arrow tucked away for Gessler in case his attempt failed.
Discovering this subterfuge, the tyrant attempted to arrest Tell, who fled to the mountains with Walter and his resourceful wife, Hedda (Jennifer Jayne).
Surely named after an alpine restaurant, the blustering, outsize tyrant Landburgher Gessler (a superbly hammy Willoughby Goddard) spent all 39 episodes eating.
He only came up for breath when interrupted by his adversary, whereupon he would splutter through his drumstick at his brainless guards: “Get Tell”.
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.
Although Tell didn’t have 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.
The series featured a theme song sung by David Whitfield and was punctuated by the appearance of numerous aspiring actors. One episode featured Michael Caine as a prisoner, complete with ball and chain. Any hopes the future film star had of an exotic location were dashed when he found that his scenes were to be shot at a quarry near Watford.
Not that the locations were that grand anyway – all the mountain scenes were filmed in Snowdonia.
With these limitations, it is not entirely surprising to discover that the famous splitting of the apple on the head of William Tell’s son Walter was achieved by trick photography.
Conrad Phillips – who once played Tell from a wheelchair after breaking his ankle in a fall – revealed: “We used a very fine taut wire through the apple and lined it up with the shot of the bolt speeding towards him. If we had tried it for real, I think we would have got through a lot of boys . . . ”
Conrad Phillips resurfaced later as estate manager Christopher Meadows in Emmerdale Farm.
An Anglo-French remake of the Tell saga, Crossbow, was produced in 1989 with Will Lyman as Tell and Jeremy Clyde as Gessler. Conrad Phillips appeared as a guest star, playing the hero’s avuncular, aged mentor.
Fertog (‘The Bear’)
The Emperor’s Hat | The Hostages | The Secret Death | The Gauntlet of Sir Gerhardt | The Prisoner | Voice in the Night | The Assassins | The Baroness | The Elixir | The Suspect | The Cuckoo | The Bear | The Magic Powder | The Golden Wheel | The Bride | Boy Slaves | The Young Widow | Landslide | The Trap | The Shrew | Manhunt | The Killer | The Surgeon | The Ensign | The Unwelcome Stranger | The Avenger | The Bandit | Gessler’s Daughter | The General’s Daughter | The Raid | Castle of Fear | The Black Brothers | The Lost Letter | The Secret Weapon | The Master Spy | The Traitor | The Spider | The Mountain People | Undercover