IT'S not every day I meet a secret agent. Our rendezvous was a pub in Drury Lane. What I wasn't prepared for was the opening line. With an apologetic grin, Michael Jayston (code name Quiller) explained he had come out without his wallet and could he borrow a fiver! What could I say? I handed over the money.
Michael has been bringing Elleston Trevor's shadowy secret agent to life in the BBC TV series, Quiller It's no easy task as Quiller is the ultimate in enigmas.
"It's easier to play Hamlet than a secret agent," Michael says with a sigh, "because by his nature he shouldn't stand out in a crowd. Quiller is a loner, he's ruthless, and very patriotic. He doesn't respect authority although he knows he has got to go along with it."
So how do you play a character who is not supposed to exist? "Well, he has a certain style and he differs from all the personality parts I have played before," says Michael, whose roles have ranged from Tsar Nicholas of Russia on the big screen, to Lady Wilder's lover in The Power Game on the small screen.
'There is something that is not me about Quiller- a certain steeliness. He's cynical about what happens in the world he is in, and he doesn't trust anybody. His maxim is that you can trust a man nine times out of ten, but it's the tenth time when you will end up in the gutter.
"Personally, I don't go-along with that. If you don't trust people, then there is no hope."
Alongside his contempt for rules and regu√ ≠lations, Quiller also has a streak of obstinacy about him. The quickest way to get him to take on an unpalatable mission is to tell him he can't do it, and "sheer bloody-mindedness" will do the rest!
Michael got a directive early in the filming that Quiller never smiles, an idea so alien to his cheery self that it's unlikely to survive. "I know black humour and cynicism is part of the success of the American cop series," he says, "but you've got to have some humour because it's the only thing that differentiates us from the animals- smiles and tears!"
Another element that has changed since the original conception of the series is that instead of falling in love with co-star Sinead Cusack throughout, Quiller now has a different girl every week. He's a bit doleful about that because he says it's good to have the continuity of a girl around to lighten the load when you are filming such a tough series. Still, with Prunella Gee and Moira Foot among the ladies he meets, he's not complaining too strenuously!
Economies at the BBC curtailed the far-flung locations planned for the series (Clacton has to make do for the Caribbean and Green ≠wich doubles for Munich!), but Michael did get to Morocco for a week. "I spent most of the time running around," he recalls with a rueful grin. "I reckon I ran about three miles in bursts of 100 yards at a time, sprinting like mad to get away from this huge explosion we were filming. Falling down sand dunes too. I'd been out late the night before, and I really thought I was going to die . . ."
Back in London, Michael is finding that real-life events are catching up with some of those depicted in the series There's a 'Jackal' type killer in one episode filmed well before a comparable story broke in the newspapers recently. Quiller also gets involved in plots to overthrow governments, a coup in Saudi-Arabia, and even some murky goings-on con ≠cerning voodoo!
"Now we have done a number of episodes, we have more of an idea what Quiller is," Michael says. "He's not unpredictable, but he's an action man. He could never be a controller because he would get bored.
"Personally, I think it is nonsense to say that a man without a gun can beat one with. The mistake villains make is in advancing on the hero and saying I am going to kill you, then getting within arm's length and pow, they are disarmed!"
On the other hand, Michael points out, you shouldn't go delving into Quiller like Chekov. What is required for the nine months arduous filming is a sense of humour from cast and crew. "You go through peaks and troughs on a series like this," he explains. "We have vari√ ≠ous writers and directors, but there is a conti ≠nuity about it. Someone like Brian Clemens tends to go towards the cynical kind of comedy aspect, whereas other writers accen√ ≠tuate the ruthlessness. Sometimes I wonder if it will be successful- but we have good people in the cast, Richard Johnson, T. P McKenna, Christopher Neame and Hans Meyer from Colditz."
Quiller is not about to become another James Bond, but in a way that's a relief because it evades the problem of typecasting. Michael has already had a taste of that with The Power Game which was the start of a lot of things for him. "I was doing four - and - a -half hours of Laertes in the National Theatre's 'Hamlet' at the time," he recalls. "It was so long that I used to go off and watch football matches in between my scenes'! I had two weeks off for holidays and did one episode of The Power Game. Six months later I was doing a full series. I was geared to working so much longer that I couldn't believe it was so easy- fifty minutes and it was over."
After Quiller, if he's given half a chance, Michael wants to do a TV comedy. "I always wanted to be a comedian in the Buster Keaton mould," he says, settling his features into a deadpan expression. "You see, I feel I have a blank face . . ."
With a quiet chuckle, Michael, who is hap≠pily married with three children, finishes his beer and sets off back towards Quiller country-Two days later, I receive a cheque for the borrowed fiver- plus 5p for inflation! Our Quiller is a man of style! END