Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Danger Man, AKA Secret Agent

Among my favourite TV shows of all time and one of my favourite spy series was Danger Man, also known as Secret Agent here in the States. The series debuted on September 11, 1960 on ITV in the United Kingdom and aired until February 26, 1967. It would become the first spy series to air on American network in the Sixties, as well as the first British series imported in the Sixties.

In its original, half hour format, Danger Man followed the exploits of John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), a security specialist working for NATO. He travelled around the world (primarily Europe) tackling cases of international concern. He had no partners and almost always worked alone. His superior was Hardy (Richard Waits).

In the mid-Fifties Parliament finally permitted the existence of commercial television in the United Kingdom. The newly created commercial television units naturally wanted to create programming that could compete not only with the BBC (Britain's public broadcasting company), but with American products as well. Initially the commercial companies concentrated on such high brow series as Armchair Theatre and mediaeval action-adventure series such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. By the late Fifties and early Sixties, however, British commercial television started to develop its own action-adventure shows set in modern times, similar to those seen on the American networks but with a distinctly British flavour.

One of the earliest such series was The Invisible Man, which was produced by ITC from 1958 to 1959. In The Invisible Man a young scientist was accidentally and permanently turned invisible during an experiment. Naturally he set to work trying to find a cure for his condition, though he also decided to put it to good use by offering his services to British intelligence. The Invisible Man proved fairly successful and even aired in America. The series' producer was Ralph Smart, a man who would see even greater success with his next action/adventure project--Danger Man.

Danger Man was an espionage series as had never been seen on either side of the Atlantic. It took its inspiration from the popular Hitchcock movies and Bond novels of the time, in which the opponents were portrayed as intelligent human beings and there was plenty of action and suspense to be found.

At the same time, however, John Drake stood apart from Bond and other spies before him as a distinctly original creation Though there were plenty of beautiful women to be seen in episodes of Danger Man, John Drake never once kissed one of them. Star Patrick McGoohan felt that if Drake kissed a girl, then he would be expected to do so every week. This he felt could teach British children that promiscuity was perfectly acceptable, so he decided that Drake would never kiss a woman in the course of his adventures. Similarly, John Drake almost never carried a gun. Again, Patrick McGoohan felt that this could teach children that violence, especially the use of lethal force, was an acceptable solution to almost any problem. Rather than risk sending the wrong message to British youth, then, McGoohan decided that Drake would almost never use firearms. The fact that Drake did not set about seducing women and that he did not use a gun set him apart from most of the other fictional spies of his times, particularly James Bond, who slept with at least one woman in nearly every novel and carried a licence to kill.

Even at a mere half hour, Danger Man featured stories that moved at a fairly rapid pace and boasted a good deal of character development. Drake's adventures also tended to be more realistic than those that would later appear on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Drake never faced a situation in which the entire free world ws threatened and gadgets very rarely appeared--when they did they were nearly always well within the means of 1960's technology. Similarly, Drake faced more realistic opponents than the would be world conquerors sometimes encountered by other spies. The end result was episodes that were exciting, but almost never melodramatic. In "The Lonely Chair" Drake's mission was simply to rescue an industrial designer's daughter whose kidnappers were demanding top secret blueprints for a government project in exchange for her release. In "The Prisoner (not to be confused with McGoohan's later TV series of the same name)," Drake must smuggle a United States citizen out of a Carribean nation which is demanding his arrest. In "The Contessa" Drake msut uncover a drug smuggling ring.

While most of Drake's adventures in the first series of Danger Man could realistically occur, that is not to say that he did not have his share of unusual adventures. In "Name, Date, and Place," John Drake faced an international ring of assassins--something similar to Muder Inc. but operating world wide. "The Relaxed Informer" found Drake investigating a security leak, only to find that the trail leads to an interpreter who has been hypnotized to reveal top secret information. In "The Leak" Drake investigates a North African nuclear power plant whose employees have been dying of radiation poisoning. "Dead Man Walks" may be the closest that Drake ever came to a Bondian situation in the first series of Danger Man. It featured a highly contagious new bacteria that could kill vegetation in a matter of hours.

Danger Man proved extremely successful, so successful that it and The Avengers (which debuted the following January), sparked a spy craze in Great Britain. Of course, this spy craze would lead to the Bond films, which would create a spy craze on American shores as well (ironically McGoohan was even offered the role of 007, but turned it down). Such success did not go unnoticed by the American networks, so that Danger Man was imported for a short run on CBS starting in April 1961. This made Danger Man the first spy drama to air on American television in the Sixties. And while it aired only for a short while on CBS, it would not be long before similar series would be filling the American airwaves.

The first series of Danger Man ended after 39 episodes in June, 1961. Ralph Smart would go on to another series (Man of the World<) in 1962, while McGoohan would assume othe roles. This did not mean that television viewers had seen the last of John Drake, however, as the series would return in an hour long format in October 1964. The hour long version of Danger Man debuted on ITV on October 13, 1964. It still followed the exploits of John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), although it would see some changes as well. As before, Drake was a highly skilled agent who usually worked alone. On the hour long version, however, Drake had become an agent for M9 (a fictional branch of Her Majesty's Secret Service). His superior was now Hobbs (Peter Madden). The cover utilized by M9 and its agents was usually that of World Travel, a travel agency which serviced a good number of destinations (some of which would definitely not welcome tourists).

Danger Man was one of the most popular TV series of its time in the United Kingdom. In fact, in the years since its original run, Britain's taste for similar such material had own grown that much greater. The Avengers, which had debuted a mere four months later, had become a phenomenon in its own right. Similar action adventure series, such as the anthology series Espionage and Man of the World (produced by Danger Man's Ralph Smart), had become rather common on British television. And putting aside all doubts that a spy craze had overtaken England were the Bond films--Dr. No and From Russia with Love had been top money makers in 1962 and 1963 respectively. The time then seemed right for the return of Danger Man.

The new series would eventually find its way to the United States just as the original had. In America, however, the series was renamed Secret Agent in hopes of capitalizing on the growing spy craze. It was also given a new theme song, "Secret Agent Man," sang by Johnny Rivers, and a new title sequence. Secret Agent debuted in America on CBS in April 1965 and ran much longer than the original series had in the States--it even made the network's 1965 fall schedule and ran until September 10, 1966. No doubt CBS had noticed the new series' success in Great Britain, all the while keeping an eye on the steadily increasing ratings of NBC's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The new Danger Man series saw Ralph Smart once again at the reins as executive producer. Initially Aida Young served as the line producer, though this function would later be filled by Sidney Cole, whose previous work included The Adventures of Robin Hood and Sword of Freedom, two mid Fifties mediaeval adventure series. And, of course, Patrick McGoohan remained as superspy John Drake.

The hour long version of Danger Man differed only slightly from the original half hour version. With the series expanded to an hour, this resulted in episodes with more complicated plots, more action, and more character development (none of which Danger Man had ever lacked anyhow). Other changes involved the character of John Drake himself. As pointed out above, he no longer worked for NATO, but instead for the fictional agency M9. Drake's personality was also softened so as to emphasize his wry sense of humour. The hour long version of Danger Man also saw Drake's sense of decency emphasized. As the new series progressed it would become more and more apparent that John Drake was a man of conscience, often unhappy with the violence which sometimes occurred in his line of work and even questioning the motives of his superiors. As in the original series, Drake never indulged in frivolous affairs with the fairer sex (not even so much as a kiss) and rarely, if ever carried a gun.

Another change in the new series from that of the old was the increasing number of gadgets in episodes, whether due to a larger budget, their popularity in the Bond films and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or both. During the first season such high tech gear appeared on a somewhat irregular basis; however, the second season would see gadgets increase at such a rate that at least one usually appeared in every episode. While gadgets had become more prevalent on the hour long version Danger Man, they were still a far cry from the highly advance devices which appeared in the 007 movies or on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Instead the gadgets were of the realistic sort that would later be seen on Mission Impossible--devices which could conceivably be built using mid Sixties technology. Among the most popular such gadgets on the series were miniaturized tape recorders (forerunners of a sort of our modern cassette tapes); for instance, "You're Not in Any Trouble, Are You?" featured one disguised as an electric razor. Another popular device were gas guns which emitted a harmless knockout gas. Such guns were used to great effect in "A Room in the Basement." Another episode, "English Lady Takes Lodgers," featured one disguised as a tobacco pipe. Electronic gadgets of various types appeared throughout the series. In various British government offices Drake could communicate with his superiors by a hidden television screen (a video phone of some type). "A Room in the Basement" featured miniaturized walkie talkies (about the size of today's cellular phones), while various other episodes featured electronic tracking devices and surveillance equipment. Much lower tech were the pocket telescopes which Drake sometimes carried. The presence of gadgets on Secret Agent was perhaps made most obvious in "The Hunting Party," where Drake opens a briefcase to reveal an entire arsenal of them--everything from wire clippers to a tape recorder!

Despite the greater frequency of gadgets in the series, Danger Man's episodes still continued to be more realistic than those seen on The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. In "Fair Exchange" Drake must find a way to stop a fellow agent (Lisa James, played by Lelia Goldoni) from killing the East German secret policeman who had tortured her years before. This episode even sheds a bit more light on Drake the man--Lisa, who obviously carries a torch for Drake, intimates that he is afraid of commitment! "Whatever Happened to George Foster?" as Drake investigating a plot to overthrow a Central American government which is being financed by a British lord. In "English Lady Takes Lodgers" Drake investigates the sale of stolen, top secret information. "Yesterday's Enemies" utilizes the time honoured device of a spy ring which our hero must infiltrate.

Other episodes of the hour long Danger Man are a bit more offbeat, foreshadowing The Prisoner. The first season episode "The Room in the Basement" could almost have been a prototype for the typical Mission: Impossible episode. In this episode a fellow agent is being held captive in an Eastern bloc embassy in Switzerland. Drake gathers together a group of highly skilled friends and together they execute a highly complex scheme to rescue him. "Colony Three" concerned a Russian village disguised as a typical English hamlet and its rather mysterious purpose. "Say It With Flowers" involved a Swiss clinic where agents are murdered and their secrets sold to various clients.

Danger Man proved extremely successful, but after playing John Drake through 39 episodes of Danger Man and 47 episodes of Secret Agent, he war ready to move onto other projects--namely, The Prisoner. Danger Man ended this second run on ITV on April 7 1966, which naturally meant it would air no longer on CBS. Following The Prisoner, however, there would be two more Danger Man episodes. Unlike the others, which had all been shot in black and white, "Koroshi" and "Shinda Shima" were shot in colour. The two episodes aired within a week of each other, the first on June 3, 1968 and the second on June 12, 1968. These episodes would also make it to the United States, though not as part of a television series. The two episodes were edited together and released theatrically in the United States under the title Koroshi.

After its initial run Danger Man (still under the title of Secret Agent) was released into American syndication. The 39 episodes of the half hour Danger Man were even retitled Secret Agent and given the new title sequence with the theme song "Secret Agent Man," so that they could be added to the package. Eventually, the final two episodes ("Koroshi" and "Shinda Shima") would be added to the package as well. Danger Man continues to be a cult series in the United States, often considered among fans to be the prequel to The Prisoner (although whether Number Six is John Drake continues to be matter of debate). Both the half hour and hour Danger Man series aired for quite a while on Encore's Mystery Channel on cable. Both the half hour and hour long series have been released on DVD.

Danger Man was both a revolutionary and influential spy series. Along with The Avengers it would spark a spy craze in the United Kingdom, which through the 007 movies, would spark a spy craze in America. It was also truly a classic, an intellectual action-adventure series for the thinkging man with three dimensional characters and quality stories. Along with The Avengers and The Prisoner, it may have been the best spy series ever produced.

1 comment:

Toby O'B said...

I've only seen a dozen or so episodes of 'Secret Agent' and none of 'Danger Man'. It's one of those shows on my to-do list for someday (like via Netflix).

Because of 'The Prisoner', McGoohan continues to hold the top spot in my list of favorite actors. So I want to say thanks for such an informative article, and one which I'll save for some of the trivia. That type of stuff - like M9 - always comes in handy with Toobworld!