Today it is almost unknown for British television shows to air on the American broadcast networks. What is more, this has been the case for nearly the past 45 years. That having been said, there was a time when the American broadcast networks regularly aired shows produced in the United Kingdom. During the Fifties several British shows aired on the American broadcast networks. The Sixties would be the height of British shows on American television network schedules. Not only would some of them achieve lasting popularity in the United States, but one of them would even receive Emmy nominations.
Starting with The Vise in 1954 several British shows aired on the American broadcast networks in the Fifties, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Calling Scotland Yard (under the title Adventure Theatre), The Buccanners, and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. For most of the Fifties the British shows aired on the American broadcast networks tended to be either crime dramas such as The Vise or swashbuckling adventures such as The Adventures in Robin Hood. It was in 1958 that a show debuted that would presage the sort of British shows that would air on the American broadcast networks in the Sixties. The Invisible Man was neither a crime drama nor a swashbuckling adventure, but instead a spy show with elements of science fiction. It would not be long until the American airwaves would be filled with similar British spy shows.
With the popularity of Alfred Hitchcock's espionage thrillers and Ian Fleming's "James Bond" novels, there should be little wonder that Ralph Smart conceived a show that would be centred around a secret agent. In fact, Ralph Smart even met with Ian Fleming to discuss the potential series. Ian Fleming would eventually drop out of the project, after which Ralph Smart turned to Ian Stuart Black, who had written episodes of The Invisible Man, to develop the show's format. Ultimately Ralph Smart and Ian Stuart Black developed the concept of an agent who worked for NATO. The agent was also very much in the James Bond mould, a man who was smooth, cool, and a lady killer. It was after Lord Lew Grade gave the go-ahead for the series that Irish American actor Patrick McGoohan was cast in the role of secret agent John Drake.
Before Patrick McGoohan would take the part, however, he wanted changes made to the character of John Drake. While Drake would remain smooth and cool like most spies of the era, Patrick McGoohan wanted him to be a man of honour who did not particularly care for violence. Mr. McGoohan did not want Drake to so much as kiss a woman, much less sleep with her. Ralph Smart complied with Patrick McGoohan's requests and as a result Danger Man would be very different from any other spy show, either in the United Kingdom or the United States. Quite simply, John Drake relied upon his wits rather than a gun or his fists, and he treated women as human beings rather than mere objects.
Danger Man debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV on September 11 1960. The show proved to be extremely successful in the United Kingdom, so much that it was one of the shows that sparked the spy craze of the Sixties in the United Kingdom. Danger Man debuted in the United States on CBS on April 5 1961 as a summer replacement for the Western Wanted: Dead or Alive. Despite the popularity of Danger Man around the world, it was decided to end the series after 39 half-hour episodes.
While Danger Man was gone, the show was hardly forgotten. It was only four months after the debut of Danger Man that another popular spy show, The Avengers, would debut in the United Kingdom. Danger Man and The Avengers would fuel a spy craze that would last for nearly the entirety of the Sixties in the United Kingdom and would eventually find its way to the United States. The spy craze ignited by Danger Man and The Avengers would lead to a plethora of spy dramas and similar adventure shows on British television, including Man of the World, The Saint, Adam Adamant Lives!, Callan, and Department S. The spy craze would also pave the way for the return of Danger Man only a few years after it had ended its initial run.
Before the onslaught of British spies on American television, however, one last swashbuckler would arrive on an American broadcast network. Coincidentally, the lead character's surname would also be "Drake". Sir Francis Drake (also known as The Adventures of Sir Francis Drake) was the last hurrah for the British swashbuckling shows that had proliferated in the mid to late Fifties. Sir Frances Drake was produced by Anthony Bushell, an actor who had worked with Lord Laurence Olivier and played Colonel James Breen in the classic mini-series Quatermass and the Pit. Ian Stuart Black, who had written episodes of The Invisible Man and Danger Man, served as the show's story editor.
Sir Francis Drake was a particularly expensive show to produce, especially as some effort was made to recreate Elizabethan England. A replica of Sir Francis Drake's ship The Golden Hind was built for £25,000. Beatrice Dawson, who had worked on such films as The Pickwick Papers (1952) and A Tale of Cities (1958), designed many of the costumes for the series. Historical research for the show was conducted by E. Hayter Preston. Ultimately Sir Francis Drake would be a much more lavish production than many of its fellow swashbuckling shows.
Sir Francis Drake debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV on November 12 1961. NBC aired the show as a summer replacement for the sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?. It debuted in the United States on that network on June 24 1962. Sir Francis Drake ended its run after 26 episodes.
Even as Sir Francis Drake brought the cycle towards swashbucklers to a close, a cycle towards spy dramas and similar adventure series was already going strong in the United Kingdom. The success of Danger Man and The Avengers was followed by such shows as Man of the World, The Saint, and The Sentimental Agent. Some of these shows would eventually find their way to the United States. If the popularity of these shows had not been enough to add more fuel to the craze for spies and sophisticated adventurers in the United Kingdom, then the release of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, on October 5 1962, would be. Indeed, it would be the American premiere of Dr. No on May 8 1963 that would finally bring the spy craze to the United States.
Espionage is notable for featuring both British and American actors who were either already famous or soon would be. Among the actors who appeared on Espionage were Steven Hill, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Neal, Patrick Troughton (soon to become the Second Doctor on Doctor Who), Anthony Quayle, and Billie Whitelaw. Episodes of Espionage were also directed by one director of note. Michael Powell, the director of such classic films as Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and Peeping Tom (1960), directed three episodes of the show.
Espionage debuted in the United States on October 2 1963. If IMDB is to be believed, it debuted on British television the same day. Despite growing interest in spies on both sides of the Atlantic, Espionage would end its run after 24 episodes.
Fireball XL-5 centred on Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol, who commanded the spaceship of the title. His crew included medical officer Dr. Venus; scientist, engineer, and navigator Dr. Matt Mattic; and the ship's co-pilot Robert the Robot. The spaceship Fireball XL-5 patrolled Sector 25 of space in the year 2065. The show was pure space opera, with the crew of the Fireball XL-5 battling space pirates and facing hostile aliens.
Fireball XL-5 actually debuted in the United States before it did the United Kingdom. In the United States Fireball XL-5 debuted on October 5 1963. It would not debut on ITV until October 28 1963. On both sides of the Atlantic Fireball XL-5 proved popular. In the United Kingdom particularly there was a good deal of merchandising, everything from colouring books to model kits. While only one series of Fireball XL-5 was made, NBC would repeat the series on Saturday morning during the 1964-1965 season.
Fireball XL-5 would be Gerry Anderson's only Supermarionation series to air on an American broadcast network, although most of his subsequent Supermarionation shows would be syndicated in the United States. Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and Joe 90 all aired in syndication in the United States. Thunderbirds, in particular, would prove very popular in the U.S. Gerry Anderson's subsequent live action shows (UFO, The Protectors, and Space 1999) would also be syndicated in the United States.
Even as the anthology show Espionage had been cancelled by NBC, the spy craze that had begun in Britain with Danger Man and The Avengers was ready to overtake the United States. Even before the release of Dr. No an American television show was in development that would help start a cycle towards spy shows on the American broadcast networks. That show was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Debuting on NBC in September 1964, after a slow start the show became an outright phenomenon. At the same time the latest James Bond film, Goldfinger, proved to be the most successful film in the franchise so far. The United States was then swept up in the spy craze that had already existed to some degree in Britain since the early Sixties. With the spy craze sweeping both the United Kingdom and the United States, the time was then ripe for the return of Danger Man.
Danger Man would see some changes from when it had left the air in 1961. Originally only a half hour, Danger Man was now an hour long. In the first series John Drake had worked for NATO. In the new series he worked for a British agency known as M9. At the same time, however, the hour long Danger Man differed little from the original half hour version. It was still a serious spy show that eschewed the lighter touch of The Avengers or the James Bond movies. John Drake still avoided violence when he could and he still did not become entangled with women. One major development during the hour long Danger Man was the occurrence of episodes in which John Drake is clearly even more jaded about the business of espionage.
The hour long version of Danger Man debuted in the United Kingdom on October 13 1964. It proved to be phenomenally popular in the United Kingdom, It was easily ITC's most successful show, even surpassing The Saint in popularity. With the show's success Patrick McGoohan became the highest paid actor in British television.
Secret Agent debuted on April 3 1965 on CBS as a summer replacement series. Secret Agent performed well enough that it returned to the CBS schedule in December 1965. Unfortunately, in its second season on CBS Secret Agent found itself scheduled against the high rated spy spoof Get Smart on NBC. While Secret Agent received overwhelmingly positive reviews from American critics and developed a fiercely loyal following, it did not do particularly well in the Nielsen ratings. Ultimately CBS cancelled Secret Agent. According to then President of CBS Michael Dann in an interview he gave in February 1967, "It was the ratings. They were really much too low to justify the expenditures." Without money coming in from CBS, Danger Man effectively ended its run.
Two more episodes of Danger Man would be shot in colour ("Koroshi" and "Shinda Shima"), but they were never shown on CBS. The two episodes were eventually edited together into the feature film Koroshi. Koroshi was shown in cinemas in Europe and aired on NBC in 1968. As to Patrick McGoohan, he would not be absent from television screens on either side of the Atlantic for long. Even as Danger Man was coming to an end, he was conceiving his next series: The Prisoner.
While the British shows that aired in syndication in the United States in the Sixties is beyond the scope of this article, it must be noted that many did so. The British swashbuckling shows of the mid-Fifties had given way to such adventure shows and crime dramas as The Four Just Men, The Third Man, and Dial 999 (all from 1959). By the Sixties the British shows syndicated in the United States had shifted towards the new wave of espionage and sophisticated adventure shows sparked by Danger Man and The Avengers, with a few exceptions. ATV's adventure series Man of the World, ATV's adventure series The Beachcomber, ABC Weekend Television's psychiatric drama The Human Jungle (starring Herbert Lom), and ATV's police drama Gideon's Way (under the title Gideon CID) were all syndicated in the United States. When it came to British shows perhaps the biggest hit in American syndication was The Saint starring Roger Moore as Simon Templar. Entering syndication in 1963, it proved to be a phenomenal success in the United States.
With British shows seeing success in syndication and the spy craze well under way in the United States, it should be little wonder that the 1965-1966 season would see the debut of yet more British shows on the American broadcast networks. What is more, one of them would become the most popular British show to air in the United States in the Sixties. That having been said, all of them would either debut as mid-season or summer replacements. The first of the these was The Baron, which debuted on ABC in January 1966.
The American market would also have another impact on the television show The Baron. With the American broadcast networks increasingly wanting only series shot in colour, Lord Lew Grade of the Independent Television Company (ITC) decided that The Baron would be shot in colour. This made The Baron the first British hour long, live action show to be filmed in colour. Previously only the last fourteen episodes of the half hour adventure series The Adventures of Lancelot and Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation shows Stingray and Thunderbirds had been shot in colour. It was largely because the series was shot in colour that it was picked up by the ABC network in the United States.
The Baron actually debuted in the United States before it did the United Kingdom. The Baron debuted in the United States on ABC on January 20 1966. It would not debut on ITV in the United Kingdom until April 29 1966. Of course, much of the reason for the debut of The Baron at midseason in the United States was the fact that the fall 1965-1966 season had proven to be a disastrous one for ABC. It was then in January that ABC cancelled many of its shows, debuted many new shows, and moved others to new time slots. In fact, the network replaced more shows at mid-season than any network had done before. ABC advertised this reshuffling as the "Second Season".
Unfortunately, The Baron would not prove to be a success in the United States. Scheduled against the hit Dean Martin Show on NBC and The CBS Thursday Night Movie on CBS, it ratings were less than spectacular. ABC then cancelled The Baron. Although The Baron proved somewhat popular in the United Kingdom, its cancellation by ABC would insure that there would not be a second series.
The second British show to debut on an American broadcast network in the 1965-1966 season would ultimately prove to be the most popular British show in the United States of the Sixties. By the time The Avengers reached the United States it was hardly a new show; in fact it was already five years old. Despite this it would prove to be a success in the United States and grow even more in popularity in the United Kingdom.
The Avengers actually grew out of an earlier show produced by ABC Weekend Television, Police Surgeon, which starred Ian Hendry as the title character. While Police Surgeon prove to be a failure, audiences liked its star. Sydney Newman, then Head of Drama at Associated British Corporation (the "ABC" in "ABC Weekend Television") then developed a new vehicle for Ian Hendry. In the new series Mr. Hendry would play a similar character, a surgeon named Dr. David Keel. It was when Dr. Keel was investigating the murder of his fiancée that he encountered a mysterious figure named Steed (played by Patrick Macnee), who may or not have connections to British Intelligence. Together the two of them became partners and continued to fight criminals, foreign agents, and other threats to Britain.
The first series of The Avengers differed from the show as it would come to be known later. At the beginning of the series, John Steed dressed in a trench coat, just as David Keel did. It was later during the first series that Steed started to dress in his familiar bowler, suit, and umbrella. While Keel and Steed were partners, Ian Hendry also received top billing. Despite this, as the show progressed, however, John Steed began to play a larger and larger role until he was actually featured in episodes without Dr. Keel. Most of the first series of The Avengers was also much more grounded in reality, although Keel and Steed did face such outré threats as a fascist organisation seeking to revive a Nazi war criminal in cryogenic suspension (the episode "Dead of Winter") and germ warfare in the episode "The Deadly Air".
The Avengers proved extremely popular, so that there was no question of a second series; however, a strike by the actor's union Equity would put any plans for a second series on hold. It was during the strike that Ian Hendry decided he wanted to leave The Avengers to pursue a career in film. John Steed then became the main character on The Avengers and he was given two new partners who would rotate episodes. One was nightclub singer Venus Smith (played by Julie Stevens), who would not remain with the show for long. The other was anthropologist and judo expert Mrs. Catherine Gale (played by Honor Blackman). Cathy Gale was like no female character to have ever appeared on British television. Quite simply, she was the first female action hero in the history of either British or American television. Cathy Gale proved to be the more popular of Steed's two new partners, and when time came to make the third series of The Avengers, she would be his only partner.
It was with the show's second series that The Avengers evolved into the show that we know today. While the episodes featuring Venus Smith were generally standard espionage and crime thrillers, episodes featuring Cathy Gale could often be downright bizarre. "Warlock" involved a new formula for fuel and a group practising black magic. "The Golden Eggs" featured egg shaped containers which held a deadly virus. The third series would see episodes featuring even stranger plots. "November Five" involved a group intent on re-enacting the Gunpowder Plot, only this time with a nuclear device. "The Grandeur of Rome" involved a group intent on reviving the Roman Empire.
It was with the second and third series of The Avengers that the show went from being merely a popular television programme to an outright phenomenon in the United Kingdom. The British press was often filled with news on The Avengers. Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman were the celebrities of the day. Both the second and third series of The Avengers would be aired in Canada and Australia, where the show was also extremely popular. Ultimately The Avengers phenomenon was so huge in the United Kingdom that it even attracted attention in the United States. On December 15 1963 The New York Times published a story on the show. An American television network even expressed interest in bringing The Avengers to the United States
Unfortunately it was not long after the end of the third series that Honor Blackman announced that she would be leaving The Avengers for a career in film. With a deal with an American broadcast network a possibility, it was decided to revamp the show as a filmed series (previously it had been shot on videotape) and to find a new partner for John Steed. John Steed's new partner would be Mrs. Emma Peel, a young widow skilled in chemistry, the martial arts, and fencing. Initially British actress Elizabeth Shepherd was cast as Mrs. Peel, but after watching the rushes for the episode "Town of No Return" it was decided that she was not suited for the part. She was replaced by Diana Rigg.
The Avengers debuted in the United States on March 28 1966 as a summer replacement series on ABC. As American audiences were unfamiliar with the idea behind The Avengers, a prologue was added to the opening of the show with John Steed, Emma Peel, and a murder victim on a chessboard. The prologue explained precisely who John Steed ("top professional") and Emma Peel ("talented amateur") were and what they did. Due to differences in what was considered acceptable on television between the United States and United Kingdom, The Avengers occasionally ran afoul of ABC's censors. In fact, ABC found the episode "A Touch of Brimstone" so objectionable that they refused to air it (it would later air in American syndication). Of course, here it must be noted that "A Touch of Brimstone" also ran into trouble with ABC Weekend Television in Britain as well.
While it was not exactly a smash hit in the ratings, The Avengers received largely positive reviews from critics and developed a loyal cult following. The show received a good deal of coverage in the American press, with articles on the series in Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and other publications. The Avengers would also grace the cover of TV Guide, and the magazine would devote articles to the series during its run. The Avengers was also nominated for Emmy Awards during both the 1965-1966 and 1966-1967 seasons: the Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic Series and Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series for Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. After its initial run in the United States, The Avengers left ABC for a short time to return to the network in January 1967. This time it would be in colour. While the show was still not a smash hit in the ratings in the United States, it maintained a cult following and received a good deal of critical acclaim.
Unfortunately, Diana Rigg decided to leave The Avengers during her second series (and the show's first in colour). This meant that once more a new partner for Steed would have to be found. Ultimately she was replaced by Linda Thorson as Tara King. Unlike Cathy Gale and Emma Peel, Tara King was not a "talented amateur", but instead a full fledged secret agent, although one with little experience. While Tara King was never as popular as either Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, The Avengers remained popular in both the United Kingdom and Europe. This would not be the case in the United States.
For the first time in its history of being broadcast in the United States The Avengers would have a place on ABC's fall schedule. Unfortunately it was scheduled in possibly the worst time slot of the 1968-1969 season. The Avengers aired opposite two top rated shows: Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In on NBC (the no. 1 show for the season) and Gunsmoke on CBS (the no. 6 show for the season). As a result ratings for The Avengers plummeted and ABC cancelled it in February 1969. Without the funding from ABC in the United States, Thames Television (the new company that emerged from the merger of ABC Weekend Television and Rediffusion) simply could not afford to continue with The Avengers. The show then ended its original run in 1969. It was the longest running spy show on either side of the Atlantic.
The third British show to debut in the 1965-1966 season was Court Martial. Court Martial was in many respects a Transatlantic production. It was produced by ITC in the United Kingdom in conjunction with the American company Roncom Films, a company that had produced the American shows Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, Kraft Suspense Theatre, and Run for Your Life. Two of its stars (Bradford Dillman and Peter Graves) were American. It even had its origins in a two part episode that aired on an American anthology show. "The Case Against Paul Ryker" had aired on Kraft Suspense Theatre on October 10 1963 and October 17 1963 on NBC. Despite this, in addition to being produced by ITC, Court Martial was shot at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire and utilised a largely British crew. Its guest stars also included both American and British actors.
Court Martial debuted in the United Kingdom on ITV on September 12 1965. It debuted in the United States on ABC on April 8 1966 as a summer replacement for The Jimmy Dean Show. Court Martial received positive reviews from critics on both sides of the Pond. In the United Kingdom it even won the BAFTA TV award for Best Dramatic Series. In the United States writer Gerry Day was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award for Episodic Drama for the episode "Judge Them Gently". Unfortunately the acclaim for Court Martial would not be enough to save it in the United States. It was scheduled against the television phenomenon The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on NBC, which ranked #13 for the season in the Nielsen ratings. ABC then cancelled Court Martial and it ended production.
The 1965-1966 season marked the peak for British shows airing on the American broadcast networks in the Sixties. Secret Agent (or Danger Man, if you prefer), The Baron, The Avengers, and Court Martial all aired during the season. While only The Avengers would survive the season, this hardly meant the end of British shows on American television. In fact, the late Sixties would see some of the most popular British shows to air in the United States make their American debuts on the broadcast networks.