Flamboyant actor known for Jason King and Flash Gordon

Born: August 23, 1927;

Died: January 15, 2018

PETER Wyngarde, who has died, probably aged 90, lived a life as dramatic and mysterious as the plots in the hit television show Department S (1969-70), in which he played the outrageously flamboyant novelist and secret agent Jason King.

The mysteries begin with his arrival in the world, probably in Marseilles, anywhere between 1924 and 1933, according to various sources. He was in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded and spent much of the Second World War in an internment camp, an experience that scarred him both mentally and physically.

As Jason King, Wyngarde became a style icon, with his droopy moustache, hair that looked like a bearskin hat and a wardrobe of wide-lapelled, three-piece suits, cravats and open-necked shirts in colours so bright they might hurt sensitive eyes.

Wyngarde was a sex symbol, mobbed by women and idolised by the gay community. Although Wyngarde was married for a while, there were persistent rumours of gay relationships, including one with Alan Bates.

It has been suggested he had a showbusiness nickname of Petunia Winegum, though his appreciation society argued that the name was created for a Two Ronnies sketch. In 1975 he was convicted of “gross indecency” with a lorry driver in a public toilet and was fined £75.

Announcing the death, Wyngarde’s agent said he was 90, suggesting he was born in 1927. It seems his father was a diplomat, or according to Wyngarde, some sort of secret agent. “My father took me from my mother when I was a tiny child”, he said. “She was beautiful – a real Claudette Colbert lookalike and racing driver, who was chased all over the place by men.”

His mother was French and married a Russian called Henry Goldbert. JG Ballard, author of Empire of the Sun, said he remembered “the future Peter Wyngarde” in Shanghai as a boy called Cyril Goldbert.

Wyngarde said that in the internment camp the guards caught him taking messages between different blocks and broke both his feet, leaving him on crutches at the end of the war.

He claims he enrolled to study law at Oxford University after the war, but dropped out. He appeared on stage at the Glasgow Alhambra as early as 1946 in a play called Pick-up Girl. He established himself as a maverick and challenging actor, and recalls being sacked from a genteel drawing-room comedy for playing his role in the style of a moody Laurence Olivier.

He shared a London flat with Alan Bates. On rumours of a more intimate relationship, he later said: “All I’ll say on this occasion is that there’s been a lot of speculation and lies written about that time in my life. I certainly feel betrayed by a particular individual to whom I’d previously only ever shown the greatest respect and kindness.”

While working in repertory theatre Wyngarde married a young actress called Dorinda Stevens, but the marriage was short-lived.

He was Sydney Carton in a 1957 BBC adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities and in 1958 he appeared with Vivien Leigh in Duel of Angels in the West End and on a tour that included both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Leigh was married to Olivier at the time, but there seems little doubt that she and Wyngarde were soon in a relationship.

He played Peter Quint in the film The Innocents (1961), a psychology lecturer in the horror film Night of the Eagle (1962) and Number Two in an episode of the cult TV series The Prisoner (1967).

He had a couple of roles in The Avengers (1966-67), including a notable S&M episode in which he whips Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), and in The Saint (1966-67), in which he blacked up to play a Turkish villain.

Wyngarde was reluctant to take the role of Jason King in Department S, the name of an Interpol team that investigates baffling cases such as the disappearance of a plane in mid-air.

Producer Monty Berman was equally reluctant to approve him. It was director Cyril Frankel, who had worked with him before, who wanted him. Frankel said: “He was a very fine actor, but unfortunately a difficult person.”

Wyngarde was appearing in the West End and eventually wrote his acceptance on a napkin at dinner, on condition that each day he would be driven to the theatre after filming.

Jason King was envisaged as a tweedy Oxford don, but Wyngarde reinvented the character as the flamboyant hedonist, remarking on one occasion that it was “a bit too early for coffee... I think I'll have Scotch." King was essentially an extension of Wyngarde himself. Wyngarde admitted he was “a bit of a dandy”. He also struggled with alcoholism.

There were two series, first broadcast in 1969-70, but the character proved so popular that he got his own spin-off series Jason King (1971-72), and they found new audiences with video, DVDs and repeats. Mike Myers said King inspired his character Austin Powers.

Wyngarde’s status as a cult star was further enhanced by his appearance as the masked villain Klytus in Flash Gordon (1980). Although viewers could not see his face, the silky voice was recognisable and in context distinctly sinister.

“The one thing I remember most about shooting the film was the weight of the costume,” he said. “Another difficulty was being able to see the other characters, all of whom were wonderfully cast, with a mask over my face.”

Wyngarde went on working occasionally in film, television and theatre – appearing in the Doctor Who story Planet of Fire in 1984 and in Aladdin at His Majesty’s in Aberdeen in 1984-85, but his last credits on IMDB were over 20 years ago. He said his career was ruined by “small-minded people” after his 1975 arrest.

In an interview for his appreciation society just last year he said: “I’m getting letters from a lot of younger people… They tell me that they’ve seen me in Flash Gordon or Night of the Eagle, and then have discovered Jason King as a result.

“I had to phone the hospital a few days ago to rearrange an appointment, and when I gave the lady my name, she said: ‘Wyngarde – like the actor?’ I said, ‘Yes. I am the actor.’ She only sounded about 12.”