Countless actors – professional and amateur – have played William Tell over the past 200 years.
Yet the man millions of people around the world knew as the Swiss hero was actually British. At the invitation of swissinfo, Conrad Phillips has just paid his first visit to Switzerland.
The 79-year-old actor says he is still getting fan mail even though it has been nearly 50 years since he played the starring role in the British television series, “The Adventures of William Tell” (see video and audio).
What he could not have realised when he took aim at the apple on his son’s head was that his shot would be seen round the world, thanks to rebroadcasting deals with television stations in many different countries.
“Even behind the Iron Curtain,” Phillips states proudly as he catches his first glimpse of the alpine scenery in central Switzerland, the setting for the Tell legend.
The actor says he would have liked some of the scenes to have been shot on location, but the producer at the time “thought a rock was a rock”, so to save money the mountains of Snowdonia in northern Wales stood in for the Swiss Alps.
The Adventures of William Tell was a children’s show, and it had a cast of larger-than-life characters, led by Tell and the evil Austrian governor, Gessler.
Gessler is an overweight arch villain - a comic fool with a mean streak and the forerunner of the “bad guy” type found in many later action series and films.
Now, nearly 50 years later, Phillips finds himself confronted with an equally eccentric cast of characters - on location in Switzerland.
Convinced they alone know the truth about Tell, these guardians of the legend at times use outlandish gestures and admonishing tones to get their point across.
“There must have been a William Tell!” insists Thomas Christen of the Tell museum in Bürglen, the village said to be the birthplace of the crossbow-toting avenger.
“This is where Tell ambushed Gessler!” shouts Hans Grossrieder, the secretary of the strip of forest known as the Hohle Gasse.
Phillips, still the consummate actor, grants them the undivided attention they feel they and the story deserve.
He is, however, rather surprised by the mild manners of Thomas Gisler - the amateur actor who is playing Tell this summer at the Tell playhouse in Altdorf, the town where the Schiller production was first performed in 1895.
As Phillips learns, Gisler is a rare breed, refusing to lavish the usual praise on the legendary figure.
“When you read Schiller,” Gisler says. “You discover that Tell is a loner, almost an egoist, and that’s how we are presenting him on stage.”
“He acts to defend his family and not for any political reasons.”
Phillips admits that Gisler may have a point since the Altdorf production is a more faithful adaptation of the Schiller work than was his TV show.
Still, Phillips says, “we tried in our television show to put over simple truths of honesty, integrity and loyalty, all personified in William Tell.
“[Being here] I feel slightly humbled by the weight of history, the weight of the legend and the fact that one contributed in a small way in keeping the idea alive, even in an entertainment form,” he reflects.
“I felt some value in that because it kept alive the whole concept of what Tell was about, and what Switzerland was about.”
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Altdorf
The 39-part series, The Adventures of William Tell, first aired on British television in 1958 and 1959.
The key scenes from the Tell legend are shown in the very first episode.
After William Tell, Conrad Phillips went on to perform in numerous TV, stage and film productions.
In the 1980s he had a supporting role in “Crossbow”, a French production loosely based on the Tell legend.
Phillips travelled to Switzerland for the first time at the invitation of swissinfo, to visit the places where the Tell legend unfolded.
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