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First Lord Timothy Belvoir St Nash (pronounced "Beaversnatch") is a scheming baddie bent on world domination who wears a cravat. He has come into his control-room to lord it over the captured Craig Sturdy, a secret agent for the international trouble-shooting organisation known as The Preventers. "It will give me great pleasure to kill you, Mr Sturdy," he cackles. "But first I'll tell you about my masterplan to give your friends a chance to escape and rescue you."

Will Sturdy wriggle out of his chains in time to save the world? Will his trusty cohorts Penelope Gold and Mike Stallion break out of their prison-cell before it fills up with water (although it always seems to hover inexplicably around the level of their chins)? Will viewers take to this wicked parody of 1960s spy capers such as The Champions, The Protectors, The Persuaders and Man in a Suitcase?

The Preventers is the brainchild of three friends from the Cambridge Footlights: Morwenna Banks (who plays Gold), Robert Harley (Sturdy) and Chris England (Stallion). The pilot, developed from a Radio 4 show and broadcast on ITV next Monday, has more black polo-necks and cat-suits than a retro-chic night-club. The vernacular - bad karate, and back-projected scenery - is equally spot-on.

Filming at Pinewood gave the production an added sense of accuracy. The film version of The Saint was even being shot on the next-door sound-stage. "Pinewood is where a lot of the original shows were made," recalls Harley, "so our backgrounds are authentic. And of course it was the home of the Bond films. For example, Lord Belvoir St Nash's garden in The Preventers was the grounds of SMERSH headquarters in From Russia with Love."

With trendies reliving the 1960s, there was never going to be a problem with The Preventers' frame of reference. "Almost all of those 1960s series are being repeated at the moment," England observes. "Now people who weren't even born in 1969 have seen The Champions. Added to this, there's a resurgence of interest in the genre, with films like Mission: Impossible."

An evident warmth towards the originals shines through. You couldn't spend so much time spoofing a genre if you didn't have a sneaking affection for it in the first place. There is something daffily likeable about a Preventer spotting that the baddies are Germans before adding: "But they're speaking English. What a bit of luck!" In the radio version, a man who has been hypnotised by villains intones: "I'm going to let all the brake fluid out of my car, then drive down that really twisty road that leads to the quarry."

"We all loved those programmes," Banks affirms. "When I was young, Diana Rigg was special. I hoped adulthood would mean a catsuit and a Lotus Elan."

But aren't we in danger of choking on an endless diet of self-referential TV parody? Banks doesn't think so. "It doesn't matter as long as it's funny. Look at Alan Partridge and Mrs Merton, they work. People do have an appetite for them. They understand the format and how it's being subverted. Television is going back and using old genres, but people enjoy that. I worry more about the proliferation of panel games - that's just cheap TV."

Banks is adamant that The Preventers is no mere elongated sketch of the type she used to specialise in on Channel 4's Absolutely. "It will sustain over six episodes," she argues. "The plots are always the same. There is an evil villain and we prevent him - just as in The Avengers, there is an evil villain and they avenge him. And The Preventers are always going to win - certainly through no skill of our own, but by default. But it's the relationship between the three of us that's interesting. Like Friends or Seinfeld, it's a sitcom about characters. We're sophisticated fools: Dumb, Dumber and Dumber than That."

`The Preventers', Mon 10.40pm ITV




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