The premise was devastatingly simple: a crime-fighting duo comprised of two bored playboys - American millionaire Danny Wilde and Brit toff Lord Brett Sinclair - who get into all kinds of scrapes and adventures just as long as there's a pretty girl at the end of it. And each show played out against a backdrop of sumptuous European landscapes and the glitzy world of the rich and famous.
Robert S Baker, the producer of The Saint, loved buddy movies and screwball comedies. These kind of films gave him the idea for The Persuaders!. He went to the television entrepreneur Lew Grade, who told him: "Go to America and get an actor." Rock Hudson wasn't interested, nor was Glenn Ford. Then Tony Curtis was mentioned. But his agent warned they'd never get him. Grade flew out to LA for a meeting that Curtis still remembers. "I said, 'Excuse me, sir. What am I to call you?' Lew said, 'If you do this series, you can call me anything you want.' So from that day on we had the best relationship. He enjoyed me a lot. I was a maverick. I didn't do things according to plan. And he liked that."
Landing Curtis was the least of Grade's problems. He faced the bigger challenge of snaring Moore, who had vowed to leave television after seven years on The Saint. "I got a call from Lew to come into his office," says Moore. "When I arrived, he said, 'Right, we're going to do The Persuaders!.' I said, 'But Lew, I don't want to do any more television.' He said, 'Listen, the country needs the money. The Queen, think of your Queen, she needs the money.' It was very difficult to say no to Lew because if you started arguing he shoved a cigar in your mouth."
Moore first met his co-star at Curtis's Hollywood home. He'd been told not to smoke (Curtis was a spokesman for the US anti-smoking lobby). "I smoked cigarettes like an idiot in those days," says Moore. "After an hour, I said, 'Do you mind if I smoke?' Tony opened every window in the room, switched on a fan and slapped a heavy book on the horrors of lung cancer in my lap. I stopped smoking two days after."
Ironically, when Curtis arrived in England, he was caught with marijuana, which resulted in a media circus and Bob Hope cracking jokes back home along the lines of "Tony Curtis was still flying around London airport three months after he was supposed to land." "I cut the clippings out and put them into a scrapbook," says Moore. "I gave it to Tony and the book was engraved 'How to sneak into a country without anybody knowing you're there'."
This playful rivalry continued throughout the making of the series and permeated the characters. Much has been written about Curtis and Moore's relationship on The Persuaders!, the consensus being that they couldn't stand each other. But Curtis is quick to squash that. "We got along famously. What you saw on the screen is what we were like. The wonderful thing about working with Roger was that there was no ego involved. For me, his demeanour and his attitude were excellent. He's the best, man. Nobody better than Roger."
Both stars were never going to become bosom buddies, so different were they: Moore easygoing and laid-back, Curtis volatile and temperamental. "They weren't great buddies," says George Baker, who appeared as a guest star in the series. "They were poles apart. Tony often came into my local pub in Lower Belgrave Street to spend an hour chatting. Then off he'd go to his parties. But he was a very nice man, and a wonderful actor."
This aspect of Curtis's life may have rankled with the traditionalist streak in Moore's nature and sometimes it even impinged on the work itself, as Robert S Baker reveals. "Tony could be prickly. He'd come in in the morning, black thunder, everyone kept clear of him. Then he'd come down from his dressing room half an hour later and kiss everybody after he'd smoked a couple of joints. As long as Tony was on the joints, he was pleasant. But when he wasn't, he could be very difficult. You always had to handle him with kid gloves."
Despite their contrasting personalities, Moore and Curtis were irresistible as a screen pairing. Often they'd ad lib scenes, heightening the comedy that Curtis, in particular, felt was important. "The show needed a comedic touch, so I would invent jokes. Sinclair came out once wearing a velvet robe and a crown, he's going to the Lords, and my line was: 'Where are you going?' I didn't do that. I said, 'Will you marry me?' It was that kind of thing I threw in there, and they all worked."
The marvellous tongue-in-cheek quality that has made The Persuaders! such a popular show down the years was always the producer Baker's intention. This was never going to be a hard-boiled, edgy thriller," he says. "In the first episode, you have these two guys fighting over how many olives you have in a drink. You're not going to take it seriously from that point onwards."
Much of the appeal of The Persuaders! also comes from the fine hotels and restaurants on view. And, of course, those supercars. "There's one guy in an Aston Martin and the other guy in a Ferrari," says Curtis. " It's better than being in a Volkswagen bus!" Then there are the wide lapels, frilly shirts and loud neckerchiefs. Moore even designed his own costumes himself. "I'd discuss with my tailor various things, basically classic, but trying to bring in an early Seventies look. I think it worked. I took a screen credit because we were going to possibly develop it commercially, but I'm so lazy I never did anything with it. I might have been Beckham before Beckham."
The Persuaders! strove to distance itself from any hint of homosexual attraction between its leads by loading the screen with female guest stars. These included Joan Collins and Susan George, who served as little more than helpless victims to be rescued. After all, with Curtis and Moore, you had two of the biggest sex symbols of the age. "We shared all the women we met," quips Curtis. "There was a trade-off at the end of the week. We had a good time."
At £2.5m, The Persuaders! was the most expensive British series up to that time. "The budget was very large," confirms Baker. "Mainly because we had two stars in it. You could make a series out of their salaries alone. So it had to work." Each episode took around 12 days to make and there was always a fun atmosphere on the set. "It couldn't have been made any other way," says Curtis. "But there was pressure to make them quicker and cheaper. We made 24, 50-minute movies in 18 months. And I loved London. I got to become a real Anglophile and made fabulous friends there like Paul McCartney. He'd arrange for us to go to some rock concert. I had the best times."
When The Persuaders! began in 1971, it flopped in the crucial US market. "It just didn't happen," says Moore. "But it did in the rest of the world, particularly Europe. They would always say to me in Germany, 'My God, we made that series so funny.' I'd say, 'What do you mean, you made it funny? It was funny.' 'Oh no,' they'd say. 'The way we dubbed it, we made it funny.' I said, 'It was funny.'"
So badly was the show received in the US that only 20 out of the 24 episodes were ever shown. Curtis believes this was because it was not shown at primetime. "They put it on at 9pm or 10pm. They were embarrassed by it, those idiots at ABC, they thought they knew everything. They were full of shit."
But there was no question of the series being shelved. According to Curtis, Grade wanted to make more episodes but on a lower budget, which meant dumping the glamorous locations. "Roger and I talked and thought it wasn't viable because you weren't going to bring the same savoir-faire to the series. We wanted to go to exotic places like Hong Kong and South America and to introduce beautiful girls from around the world. And you know every country's got beautiful girls. But they kiboshed that idea. They made a big mistake. So we respectfully walked."
Baker remembers things a little differently. "Lew wanted to make more Persuaders!, but Roger didn't. By that time, Roger had the offer to play Bond." Grade toyed with replacing Moore, but they decided to leave it as it was. "Otherwise, we'd have made much more," reveals Baker. "It could have gone on for years."
Since its cancellation, The Persuaders! has become one of the most fondly remembered of all television shows, its popularity undimmed after more than three decades. Rumours have persisted about bringing The Persuaders! back to television, of a big-screen remake, even of having Jamie Lee Curtis team up with Moore's daughter, Deborah. "They had a number of ideas," says Curtis. "They were going to split up Roger and me, let me work with a younger man, and let Roger work with a younger Danny Wilde. But I'm glad the show ended like it did. It makes it different than anything anybody's ever seen. And I like that."
'The Persuaders! Special Edition Box Set' is released on DVD on 11 September by NetworkReuse content