With the long-promised big-budget A-Team movie finally hitting cinemas later this month we look at back at the original TV series – one of the true TV icons of the 1980’s.
It was back in 1983 when Stephen J Cannell first introduced audiences to The A-Team – four Vietnam vets three of whom were on the run for, as the opening voiceover reminded us each week, a crime they didn’t commit while the fourth was confined to a mental hospital presumably deeply affected by the horrors of the war he’d survived.
As with all the best groupings, the four collectively comprised a finely balanced team.
Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, played with immense relish by George Peppard, was the charismatic leader whose troops would follow him into any situation, no matter how crazy the plan or unlikely the odds of success.
Templeton ‘Faceman’ Peck (Dirk Benedict) was the charming, persuasive hustler who could con anything from anyone. Whatever the team needed, be it a fake police cruiser, a stock of dynamite or private jet, Face could always charm someone into parting with it.
‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch was the team’s psychologically scarred pilot. Constantly under watch by military police who believed (rightly) that he was in regular contact with the team, he was repeatedly ‘busted out’ of hospital to accompany Hannibal and the others on their latest mission where his flying skills and distracting, highly vocal manifestations of his latest trauma (more than a few of which appeared put on for the occasion) would inevitably come in useful.
B.A. Baracus, played by Mr T, was far more than the team’s muscle, capable of building almost anything from a pile of scrap, he often provided the means for the team’s escapes and victories. Surface-only belligerence and loud protests against Murdoch’s latest affliction never truly succeeded in masking his affection and respect for his team mates.
For the first four seasons the team took on a variety of hoodlums, gangsters and lowlifes who were blighting the lives of ordinary, hard working people.
Whether it was protection rackets threatening storekeepers, mafia bosses kidnapping daughters of judges or local gangsters pushing farmers into bankruptcy, the A-Team were dutifully on hand to stand up for those too scared to seek help from more conventional forces of law and order.
Along the way two female characters came (reportedly against he wishes of some of the male cast) and went and no fewer than three different senior Military Police officers – Colonels Lynch and Decker (Lance LeGault) and Gen. Fullbright – would find their hitherto successful careers blighted by an inability to capture the A-team. Or at least capture and hold them for long.
Though it’s fashionable to think of the team’s pursuers as bumbling, Keystone Kop types, within the series each was portrayed as a plausibly successful, intelligent career officer whose inability to bring Smith and his men to book was firmly down the team’s cunning and resourcefulness.
Even with the seemingly endless humiliations they endured at the team’s hands, it was always clear – as any successful hero requires – that the succession of pursuers held them, and Smith in particular, in high regard.
With audiences falling, the fifth and final series saw the introduction of two new regular characters in the shape of covert spook General Hunt Stockwell (Robert Vaughn) and Frankie Santana (Eddie Velez) as the show attempted one of the biggest format refreshes carried out by any TV series to date.
A fairly lavish three-part series opener transformed the A-Team from guns for hire to agents of the US Government after they’re finally caught and placed on trial. Sentenced to death by firing squad, the team escape but are forced to work for Stockwell in return for an eventual Presidential pardon.
Sadly the series was cancelled before that pardon ever came but in an episode entitled The Grey Team, apparently intended to be the final to air, the team discuss what they’ll do when it finally does – the consensus being that they’ll return to their modern-day Robin Hood ways.
It’s true that The A-Team was never the deepest of shows, like many mid-80’s series there’s not much in the way of character development and, until the final series, even less in the way of linked plot lines.
And yes, as world-weary, cynical adults it’s easy to chortle at the use of doubles who seldom resemble the main cast, increasingly outlandish escapes and the insanely low body count, but that’s to miss an important aspect of the show – it was relentlessly fun.
Though there are rare exceptions such as Hustle, which co-incidentally also stars Vaughn and, in Mickey Bricks has a character not that dissimilar to Face, modern TV often isn’t very good at capturing that same sense of fun.
Take for example the BBC’s recent Robin Hood series, a series which aired in much the same time slot as the A-Team did during its UK heyday, but placed far too much emphasis on a brooding, pouty hero who rarely appeared to relish his chosen existence.
In contrast the A-Team offered us four guys who (mostly) got along and did what they did for the sheer enjoyment of it, a sentiment nicely captured by the show’s famous catchphrases “on the jazz” and “I love it when a plan comes together”.
It also helped that they not only enjoyed their work but excelled at it. 80’s TV bad guys – used to only dealing with those unable to stand up for themselves – never had a chance once Hannibal and the guys arrived in town.
No wonder then, that when no-one else could help, and after a long and eventual search to find them, people hired The A-Team.