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Saints Alive! Britain's Simon Templar from The Saint—And the Man Who Made Him 

The enduring legacy of Leslie Charteris.

black and white photo of Roger Moore as Simon Templar from The Saint TV show in 1969
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  • Roger Moore as Simon Templar (left) from The Saint TV show in 1969. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To those who lived through the 1960s, the charcoal stick figure with the white halo is as familiar as any corporate logo.

This simple drawing decorates the calling card of Simon Templar aka The Saint, one of the longest-running and coolest characters in all of crime fiction

From 1962 to 1969 the British TV series The Saint starring Roger Moore was amongst the most successful on the planet. It was broadcast in the US on NBC and in sixty other countries across the globe.

The adventure serial’s central character, Simon Templar, wore immaculate sixties clothes, drove a stylish Volvo P1800 sports car (reputedly British firm Jaguar refused to loan the production company an E-type), and emerged from every fistfight looking like he’d just come out of the barbershop after a shave and facial. 

The Saint was as debonair as Cary Grant, a flirt and a tease. He had a way with risqué one-liners. To this day his catchphrase, “As the actress said to the bishop” remains a comment British people make after delivering a double entendre.  

The Saint lives the life of a wealthy playboy, but his day job is fighting crime. He is part vigilante, part secret agent; a cross between James Bond and Batman.

Pledged to right wrongs and protect the weak and vulnerable from the powerful and the unscrupulous by whatever means necessary (even murder), Templar is a direct descendant of Robin Hood, the godfather of The Equaliser and The A-Team. 

Though in the public imagination, The Saint is associated with the days of Swinging London, he actually made his debut back in the Jazz Age.

His creator, Leslie Charteris, was almost as intriguing a figure as Templar himself. Charteris’ real name was Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin.

Born in Singapore in 1907, he was the child of a Chinese doctor and an Englishwoman. Regarded with suspicion by both English and Chinese schoolmates, the young Charteris sought escape in the swashbuckling adventure yarns that filled British comic books such as Chums and The Boy’s Own Paper.  

The young author’s designated role as an outsider would continue when his parents divorced and his mother brought him back to England. The British boarding school he attended was a rough place for a mixed-race child.

Charteris retreated into fiction devouring stories about gallant and mysterious heroes such as Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel.  

In his first year at Cambridge University, Charteris wrote a thriller, X Esquire about a supervillain menacing Britain with poisoned cigarettes (imagine!). When it was accepted for publication he dropped out, determined to pursue a career as a writer and gentleman adventurer.

Over the next few years, he’d work as a sailor, gold prospector, tin miner, pearl fisherman, barkeep, bus driver, and tour with a traveling carnival.

And all the while he was writing.  

In 1928 he’d pen Meet the Tiger, the thriller that introduced The Saint to the world. It’s an undistinguished debut and Charteris—he’d changed his name legally in 1926, apparently picking his new surname from a telephone directory—more or less disowned it.

“It was only the third novel I’d written,” he’d later joke, “and the best I can say about it is that the first two were even worse.” As far as Charteris was concerned, Simon Templar arrived with the much better 1930 novel Enter the Saint

By the time Enter the Saint came out Charteris had made a name for himself in Hollywood, where he became a screenplay writer at Paramount while also penning radio scripts and comic strips.

His attempts to make a permanent home in California were thwarted by the Chinese Exclusion Act which prevented people who were 50 percent or more Chinese from settling in the US. Passed in 1888, the act would not be repealed until 1943.  

It was the sort of injustice that would have pricked the interest of Simon “The Saint” Templar (his nickname comes from his initials ST). Right from his first appearance The Saint was a man with a powerful sense of right and wrong, if little respect for the law. 

Over the course of half a century, Templar would tackle every kind of miscreant, rubbing out evil Nazi scientists and enemy agents, thwarting drug smugglers, avenging the victims of con men, ripping off artists and corrupt cops, and humiliating greedy bosses who exploited their workers.

Whether he did it by straight detection, brute force, or by setting up his own elaborate counter scam, the outcome was always the same—good triumphed, damsels were saved, and villains dispatched.

“I am mad enough to believe in romance,” Charteris would declare. 

When he recovered cash or valuables, The Saint kept 10 percent of it as “tax” and distributed the rest amongst those who had suffered. It was the “tax” that provided The Saint with his living, and a good living it was too.

The Saint drinks fine wine, stays in luxurious hotels, and drives a fancy car—in the books a fictional 8-cylinder Hirondel that cost him the then staggering sum of £5000.  

While Templar was definitely British, like his creator there was an international quality to him. He was a rootless wanderer. Charteris flitted from England to Spain, Florida to the Bahamas, Canada to the Canary Islands and the Saint does much the same.  

Like Charteris, Templar is an outsider and a self-made man who enjoys the finer things in life—a “buccaneer in Savile Row suits”. 

While rarely forging close or lasting relationships (Charteris was married four times), The Saint had a loyal team of helpers that ranged from the perpetually sozzled Bronx thug, Hoppy Uniatz to his ex-military valet Orace via Templar’s tall and slender on-off girlfriend Patricia Holm.

The witty blonde would disappear from the novels in 1948 never to be heard from again.  

The Saint was a major hit right from the start. By the 1950s the publishers could rightly boast on covers featuring the familiar stick figure that “Everyone knows The Saint!”

In the US the character—played by Vincent Price—had his own radio show.  

The Saint’s appeal was international. He was most popular in France and the Netherlands where publishers seeking to satisfy an insatiable desire for books about him produced novelizations of the radio scripts.

To this day there are 50 more Simon Templar novels in French and Dutch than there are in English.  

Templar was also the central figure in comic books and in a series of RKO movies produced from 1938 to 1943, the best of them starring the suave George Sanders. 

It was the debonair Roger Moore who came to be the screen embodiment of The Saint, however. By the time the TV series first aired, the now-wealthy Charteris was winding down.

He’d finally settled into domestic life with his fourth wife, actress Audrey Long who’d appeared alongside John Wayne in the 1944 western Tall in the Saddle. The couple had made a more or less permanent home in England.  

He’d write his fourteenth and final thriller featuring Templar in 1963. After that, they were written by others (including US Sci-Fi author Harry Harrison) with Charteris editing, revising, and approving them.

In total there’d be 21 novels, 48 novellas, and around 95 short stories produced before Charteris finally retired in 1983.

By then The Saint had been fighting crime for 55 years, exactly the same length of time as that other eccentric outsider, Hercule Poirot

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons