A saintly writer

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The Independent Culture
Starring ex-policeman Roger Moore in the post-Ivanhoe, pre-Persuaders phase of his television career, the Sixties series of The Saint, which ran for 78 episodes and six years, still occupies a fond niche in the hearts of many British viewers of a certain age. For us, the cheesy theme- music and opening graphics are the Proustian cue for a journey into a world where it is always Saturday or Sunday tea-time, where the villains have foreign accents and where our Rog's Greater-London charm and fit frame are sufficient to win the day. We can even covet the classic-car status of his once daringly new Volvo sports car. Satisfyingly, the current series of repeats on BBC2 on Saturdays - the return orchestrated by the release of the new movie - has been scheduled at an appropriately Saint- ish time so that we might hunker down with tea and scones to relive our childhood.

But given the consoling, backwards-looking world of The Saint, where the doughty pluck and stiff-upper lip of traditional British heroes was given a meritocratic spin by Moore's lower-middle passing as posh persona, it comes as something of a shock to learn that Leslie Charteris, the Saint's creator, was actually a Chinaman. Charteris was born Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin in Singapore in 1907, the son of a prosperous surgeon with a practice in Raffles Place, and he learned to speak Malay and Chinese before English. The disguises of his hero begin to seem more interesting when one knows that Yin changed his name to Charteris in 1926 just before his third novel, Meet the Tiger, introduced the fictional character who was to make his fortune.

Educated in England, at Purley and the Rossall School in Fleetwood, Lancashire, Yin sold his first story to a magazine when he was 16. He was variously an art student in Paris, an undergraduate at King's, Cambridge for one year, a bartender, professional bridge-player, and a General Strike-breaking bus driver and auxiliary policeman before he created The Saint in 1928. Following a formula established by Hornung's Raffles, the Saint was a gentleman crook, 6ft 2in, 27 years of age with black hair brushed straight back and living in Devon in a converted pill-box with his faithful servant 'Orace. Although conceived as a one-off, Charteris resuscitated his hero for a story in Thriller magazine and thereafter he took off, with a new Saint story appearing in Empire News each week at a fee of 810 guineas.

When Charteris moved to the United States in 1932, his fees went up to between $400-1000 a story, while in the UK the novels were published for over 30 years by Hodder and Stoughton. After Charteris began writing scenarios for Paramount in Hollywood, a series of Saint movies went into production, with Louis Hayward as the star, followed by George Sanders, and there was also a radio serial starring Vincent Price. Charteris became an American citizen in 1946, living in Florida and Palm Springs before his death in 1993.

The television series began in 1962 and its success led to the merchandising of a Saint annual, a jigsaw puzzle and a Corgi model of the Volvo. Charteris's reaction to Moore as his hero was defiantly old-school. "All I saw was a mild young chap who needed a haircut," he said. The new film dares to tell the tale of how Simon Templar became the Saint, something that Charteris managed to avoid, and also imagines his character's beginnings in a Far Eastern orphanage. For director Philip Noyce, who read the stories as a boy in Australia in the Fifties, "the character evolved as Charteris's preoccupations changed, and even as history changed. He came into being before the depression and in the Second World War, Charteris worked as a secret service agent for the American government. The Simon Templar of the film owes far more to my first introduction to him through the novels than it does to anything from the television series. I grew up loving the Saint because the culture I grew up in elevated an Irish bush ranger called Ned Kelly into a a national hero, and I always loved Simon Templar because he stole from the rich, redistributed the money to the poor but unlike Robin Hood kept some for himself, and I thought this was great."

Intriguingly, Mel Gibson was the original choice for the role, and then Ralph Fiennes, but both turned to other projects instead. Hugh Grant is also credited as turning it down, though Noyce claims to have no memory of this. As an update of Roger Moore, expressive eyebrow movements and all, Grant may have been the perfect solid-wood replacement for Rog, but Val Kilmer makes the role his own, though for many teatime aficionados he may prove to be just too good to be true.