books monthly october 2017

This month Jerry Dowlen looks at Sir Roger Moore as Ivanhoe

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Roger Moore as Ivanhoe


The actor Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017): His early television role as Ivanhoe, based on the epic 12th century adventure stories by Sir Walter Scott.


Ivanhoe – The Saint – James Bond: What a splendid literary trio of dashing adventurers, heroes and rescuers! And what literary giants their inventors were! Sir Walter Scott – Leslie Charteris – Ian Fleming. Each of them sold millions of books and gained mass fame and popularity.


There is of course one very famous and popular English actor that links all three authors and their three fictional adventurers. In May 2017, the death of Sir Roger Moore at age 89 was mourned by a generation of fans that loved his suave charm and his polished good looks.


Fans would instantly nominate The Saint and James Bond as the stand-out roles in Roger Moore’s superstar career. Less readily remembered now is Ivanhoe, the television series that ran on ITV in 1958. Moore was an unknown young actor when he was handed the lead role, but Sir Walter Scott’s epic novel of 12th century adventure proved to be the launch pad that would propel him to further and greater stardom.


Sir Walter Scott: Ivanhoe


A visit to the city of Edinburgh will quickly inform you that Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) is a foremost Scottish national treasure. The main railway station in Edinburgh is named after his famous Waverley novels. Emerge on to Princes Street and your eye is drawn to the imposing Scott memorial, a giant 200-foot Victorian Gothic edifice erected in Scott’s honour in 1844. Scott wrote many books that came to be regarded as classics: for example Rob Roy, Heart of Midlothian; various tales of the Crusades; stories set in France, Malta and Spain.


Ivanhoe (published in 1819) was the tenth of the Waverley novels and was often singled out for mention as a particular favourite with readers of every age. Scott set the story in the year 1194 and essayed a long (three volume) series of adventures that embraced the military and social history of northern England in that medieval era: the divide between Saxons and Normans; the persecution of Jews; the protection of land, castles and dowrys.


ITV follows Hollywood …


The ITV television series Ivanhoe was pitched as children’s entertainment. Clad in helmet, armour and lance, astride a white charger, the tall, handsome young Roger Moore was a stereotype Boy’s Own hero, while no doubt simultaneously capturing the admiration of a young female audience as he bravely jousted and fought with villainous opponents and he rescued damsels in distress. It was all in keeping with late 1950s and early 1960s expectations that children’s television drama could successfully adapt stories of legendary heroes in history. Similar series on ITV in the late 1950s featured the adventures of Robin Hood and William Tell, respectively starring the actors Richard Greene and Conrad Phillips.


It had nevertheless been rather bold for ITV to risk putting on the Ivanhoe series in 1958, for Scott’s knightly story had received the full Hollywood treatment just five years earlier, in MGM’s swaggering colour production of 1953. The young and then unknown Roger Moore on the small screen in black & white  was following in some dauntingly famous footsteps, for the big film had starred Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders.

Sir Walter Scott briefly mentioned Robin Hood in his Ivanhoe novel of 1820. The folk-hero of Sherwood Forest is sufficiently famous in English history that Scott would have expected that his readers knew the legend. Scholars have looked long for authentication of a real Robin Hood. Some have concluded that he may have hailed from Yorkshire. Was he contemporaneous with King John who reigned from 1199 to 1216? Or – if Robin Hood existed at all – was he even earlier than this, or later? Whatever the truth, Robin Hood in Lincoln green and Ivanhoe in shining armour are real enough in public imagination to be paired as handsome heroes!


Sir Walter Scott: better enjoyed on screen than via the printed page?


‘It is true that many readers today, especially among younger people, find a lot of the pages of Scott’s novels tiresome to read. So often the vigorous action is held up by long descriptions of scenery or of customs of the countryside of which he writes.’


That comment on Sir Walter Scott was printed in 1950 [by coincidence, in an encyclopaedia published by The Waverley Book Company!] The writer mooted that a television fan of Ivanhoe encountering Scott’s book of the story might soon learn to skip the long interludes between the exciting bits:


‘… For a “skipped” Scott is far better than no Scott at all, if you are wise enough to wish to share the grand adventures of characters that are as warm-hearted as they are warm-blooded’.


For mass audiences under the spell of the exciting new entertainment medium of television in the 1950s Ivanhoe was easy and enjoyable fodder as packaged by ITV in 25-minute action-packed weekly episodes ‘drawn loosely from Scott’s novel’.  


Roger Moore offered only two short paragraphs on Ivanhoe in his 270-page autobiography Tales from Tinseltown (Michael O’Mara Books, 2014) – and then only a weak anecdote about the hairdresser in the make-up department! But thanks to Ivanhoe one knight in effect helped another: Sir Walter Scott (knighted in 1818) gave Sir Roger Moore (knighted in 2003) a big early step in a showbiz career that would eventually see the London-born actor become a household name as Simon Templar on television from 1962 to 1969 and then seven big screen cinema appearances from 1973 to 1985 as James Bond Agent 007 ‘Licenced to Kill’.


Jerry Dowlen

September 2017


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


  Future Rock: Music and Politics in the 1970s

   The New Love Poetry and London's 1967 Unforgettable Summer of Love

   Stan Barstow

   The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

  The novelist R.F. Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.

  How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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