RUNNING BLIND. BBC Scotland, 1979. Stuart Wilson, Ragenheidur Stendor, George Sewell, Vladek Sheybal. Teleplay by Jack Gerson, based on the novel by Desmond Bagley. Directed by William Brayne.

   This co-produced British and Icelandic television adaptation of Desmond Bagley’s thriller Running Blind, was originally released as a mini-series and re-released as a feature that appeared on PBS, and that is just about the last time anyone saw it until recently. To say it has been elusive is an understatement.

   It’s now available on YouTube.

   Alan Stewart (Stuart Wilson) a retired British (or as he insists, Scottish, he even carries a skean dubh, a Scottish dagger) agent for an unnamed department is approached by his old boss Slade (George Sewell) who once had Stewart execute a old friend turned suspected traitor. Stewart naturally wants nothing to do with Slade and the Department, but the job in question is in Iceland where Stewart’s girlfriend Elin (Ragenheidur Stendor) lives and is as simple as delivering a small package for a lot of money.

   Slade also dangles that he might be more inclined to protect Stewart and Elin from the Russian masterspy Kennikin (Vladek Sheybal) who was emasculated by a missed shot Stewart made in attempting to kill him.

   A little added incentive.

   As you might imagine, nothing is that simple. Almost from the moment he sets foot on Icelandic soil, it becomes clear that the Russians are onto Stewart and that his own side is less than forthcoming.

   Contacting Elin, who doesn’t suspect who or what Stewart is, he uses her to misdirect the men following him and finds he is on the run from both the Russians, the British, and soon the CIA.

   Just what is he carrying, and who is on whose side?

   Running Blind was one of Bagley’s best novels, and that’s quite a compliment for the South African actor turned thriller writer whose work includes High Citadel, The Vivero Letter, Freedom Trap (filmed as John Huston’s The MacIntosh Man), Tightrope Man, The Spoilers, Snow Tiger, and more.

   Bagley would become a bestselling thriller writer whose work bridged the gap between the earlier generation of British thriller writers like Geoffrey Household, Hammond Innes, and Victor Canning, and the newer breed represented by Alistair MacLean, Gavin Lyall, and Duncan Kyle. He had Innes’ eye for detail, Household’s grasp of rough country, Lyall’s uncanny research skills, Canning’s cynical view of the Security Services and MacLean’s gift for twisting plot and hard action.

   Unlike most writers of his era he almost never repeats himself, and his protagonists are distinct and easy to identify,

   Action is the by-word of the print version of Running Blind, and it is perhaps only natural that the mini-series format is a poor one to convey that. Though the structure of the film is close to the book, the first third seems mostly Stewart looking over his shoulder against the rather bleak Icelandic volcanic landscape, and the lack of directorial style and a good score means everything depends on the actors and the scenery, and both are almost good enough to carry it, particularly Wilson.

   About a third of the way through things pick up considerably, and if you will keep tuned in until the point when Stewart and Elin are stalked by an assassin with a high powered rifle while camped out, you will probably stay for the entire story which falls in the category of films that seem much better in retrospect than while you are trying to get into them.

   That change is notable. The scenery becomes more dramatic, the action comes faster, the suspense is greater, and the twists come more frequently.

   Running Blind is not a completely successful translation of Bagley’s fast paced hard pounding novel, but it is entertaining if you stick through a slow first third. Valdek Sheybal (From Russia With Love, Billion Dollar Brain, The Wind and the Lion, and on television in mini series like QB VII and Shogun) picks things up considerably playing the KGB spy master Kenniken with a mix of suave professionalism and barely disguised fury at Stewart. That tension between the complete professional and the angry man gives the quiet scenes between him and Stewart real (and much needed) power.

   Most of the cast is unfamiliar, or at best faces you have seen but don’t really connect a name with. Lead Stuart Wilson is much more familiar now than his younger face in films like The Mask of Zorro, Hot Fuzz, Lethal Weapon 3, and Enemy of the State and on television in Dinotopia, MI-5, and Prime Suspect. More often than not today he plays a bearded villain not unlike Sheybal in this.

   Running Blind is mostly a curiosity. If you have read or enjoyed Bagley’s fine novels this is a bit more, but I admit it isn’t fully successful and it’s a book that deserves a big action movie done right and not a small half-hearted mini-series.

   I can see where they saw the minimal sets and Icelandic setting and thought they could get away with it, they just don’t quite pull it off, though I like it more than it probably deserves. The chance you might too makes it worth investigating.