Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Spy Shows of the Sixties Part Four

"I can't help but think, Mr. Solo, your days on this earth are numbered." (Mr. Waverly, from the episode "The Double Affair" of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.)

By 1967 the spy craze in the United States was coming to an end. Even the wildly successful Bond franchise suffered. Although still a box office smash, You Only Live Twice made $20 million less than the previous Bond movie, Thunderball. Other movies did not fare so well. Billion Dollar Brain (featuring Michael Caine as spy Harry Palmer), Casino Royale (a spy spoof very loosely based on the first Bond novel), Fathom, In Like Flint (featuring James Coburn as spy Derek Flint), and The President's Analyst all bombed at the box office. Television was affected as well, with not one spy series debuting on American network television in the fall of 1967. Worse yet, older spy series would be cancelled during the season. In fact, the 1967-1968 can safely be said to be the last season of the spy cycle.

The first spy series of the 1967-1968 season would not debut until January 1968. It Takes a Thief was created by writer Roland Kibbee (who had also created the Western The Deputy), drawing some of its inspiration from the Hitchcock movie To Catch a Thief. The series centred on cat burglar Alexander Mundy (played by Robert Wagner), who finds himself arrested and sent to San Jobel Prison. Fortunately for Mundy, he is visited by SIA (Secret Intelligence Agency) head Noah Bain (Malachi Thorne), who makes an interesting offer for him: steal for the SIA and he will receive a complete pardon. To this end the SIA provided him with the cover of an international playboy and an extravagant estate (which was equipped with a good deal of surveillance to keep an eye on Mundy). It Takes a Thief was more realistic than such series as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers, albeit with a similar light touch.

It Takes a Thief debuted on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) on January 9, 1968. The series started out quite well, with episodes written by Gene Coon (one time producer of Star Trek), Dean Hargrove (who had written several episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and would produce Columbo), and Stepehn Kandel (who had written for Star Trek, The Wild Wild West, and I Spy). As the series progressed, however, it declined considerably in quality. It is difficult to say where the blame for this decline in quality rests, although it could possibly be at the feet of Glen A. Larson (who would go onto create such shows as Battlestar Galactica and Knight Rider), who was an associate producer and then producer on the series. Larson was writing the bulk of the episodes by the series' third season, generally considered the worst of the show's run. It Takes a Thief ran from January 9, 1968 to March 24, 1970, only a little over two years.

That It Takes a Thief only ran a little over two years may not have been so much due to a decline in script quality as it simply debuted at the wrong time. It was only the following week after It Takes a Thief debuted, on January 15, 1968, that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. aired its last episode. There can be little doubt that the turn towards camp which the series took in its third season probably drove viewers away from the show. Ranked 13th in the top twenty shows for the 1965-1967 season, it had dropped to number 46 for the 1966-1967. It is for that reason that the production team decided to return The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to a more serious direction. The show was even provided with new sets, complete with a row of computer banks placed in U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. Unfortunately this effort to revitalise the show would not save it. Quite simply, events would unfold that would result not only in the cancellation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but other shows as well.

It was during the 1966-1967 season that CBS programming executives decided to cancel the twelve year old western Gunsmoke. In the past few seasons the series had seriously dropped in the ratings. Despite this, its cancellation resulted in angry phone calls and letters to the network. Worse yet, it drew the ire of chief executive officer and CBS founder William S. Paley. Gunsmoke was the favourite show of Paley's wife and he liked it quite a bit as well. To this end Paley demanded the return of Gunsmoke to the network's schedule. Fearing for their jobs, the network executives found themselves having to revise the fall schedule after it had already been set. They solved the problem by cancelling the still highly rated series Gilligan's Island (a show Paley actively hated) and the unaired, new sitcom Doc (a show which CBS's affiliates did not care for) and placing Gunsmoke in the 8:30-9:30 Eastern Time slot. In the new time slot Gunsmoke made an amazing recovery, shooting to the top of the Nielsen ratings. For the 1967-1968 season it was the fourth highest rated show.

Naturally, if Gunsmoke was doing well in the ratings, it meant that other shows weren't. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. dropped to the very bottom of the Nielsen ratings, leading to its cancellation. And it was not the only show which Gunsmoke killed. The Monkees, also on NBC, was cancelled at the end of the season as a result. The new show on ABC, Cowboy in Africa, did not have a chance. Ironically, the show which had started the spy cycle of the Sixties (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) was killed by the show which had started the Western cycle of the Fifties.

It Takes a Thief was not the only spy series to have a debut at mid-season. In February 1968 The Saint returned to NBC, this time in colour. While the series would leave NBC's airwaves in the fall, it would return once more in April 1969. While The Saint returned to American television, February 1968 would bring sad news to fans of spy shows. As of February 1968 I Spy would not be on the fall 1968 schedule for NBC.

Strangely enough, while no new spy series debuted in the fall of 1967 and only one new show at mid-season, more spy series would serve as summer replacements in 1968 than had in 1967. Man in a Suitcase was another spy series produced by the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) belonging to Lord Lew Grade. It was created by writers Dennis Spooner (who had wrote for Thunderbirds, Doctor Who, and The Baron) and Richard Harris (who had wrote for The Saint, The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre, and Adam Adamant Lives). The series utilised many of the production crew had worked on Danger Man (which had ended when Patrick MacGoohan had decided to leave the series), including producer Sidney Cole. The series focused on former CIA agent McGill (his first name was never disclosed) who was forced to resign from the Company for something for he which was innocent. To make ends meet McGill worked in London as a bounty hunter and private eye. Several of the jobs he took involved espionage. The series dealt with espionage in a realistic fashion, and was even one of the most violent series produced by ITC at the time.

It was naturally ITC's desire to appeal to the American market that an American was cast in the role of McGill. Among the actors considered for the role was Jack Lord (soon to be cast in Hawaii Five-O), but the part finally went to Richard Bradford (who appeared in the 1966 movie The Chase). Casting an American lead worked out. Man in a Suitcase premiered in the United Kingdom on September 27, 1967. It debuted on ABC in the United States on May 3, 1968. Sadly, the series was not successful enough to make ABC's fall schedule, which might explained why the show did not return in the United Kingdom either.

While Man in a Suitcase was not successful, it is impossible to argue that the next spy show to debut in the summer of 1968 was not successful, even though it aired only 17 episodes. There were essentially two factors which led Patrick MacGoohan to create The Prisoner. The first was when Danger Man was filmed at the Hotel Portmeirion, later the setting for The Prisoner. McGoohan was amazed by the hotel's atmosphere and architecture, thinking it should be used in a series at some point. The second occurred when Patrick McGoohan expressed his growing frustration on Danger Man, feeling that the show was growing stale and becoming boring, to George Markstein, the script editor on Danger Man. Markstein recalled that during World War II individuals who "knew too much (and hence were a danger to national security)" would be imprisoned in special institutions. Markstein could have been referring to the rumours regarding Inverlair Lodge in Scotland, widely known to have been used as a base for the Special Operations Executive (the wartime organisation created by Winston Churchill to conduct espionage and sabotage in enemy areas). Rumours have persisted for years that Rudolf Hess was incarcerated there after fleeing to Scotland. This naturally led to the idea that a secret agent who resigned might find himself and sent to such a resort like prison. The Prisoner may have also owed something to the Danger Man episode "Colony Three," in which John Drake encounters a recreation of an English village in the Eastern Bloc being used to train Communist spies to appear totally British.

The Prisoner centred on a secret agent known only as Number Six (although many fans suspect he is John Drake himself, Patrick McGoohan has always denied this), who upon resigning is abducted and taken to a mysterious place simply called The Village (it was shot at the resort village Portmeirion in Wales). This began an ongoing battle of wits between Number Six and his unknown captors, led by whatever individual is acting as the Village's head administrator of the time, known only as "Number Two"--everyone in The Village was known only by a number. The episodes centred on Number Six's attempts to escape The Village, to resist his captors' attempts to interrogate him, or his attempts to simply oppose his captors. While the series was at its heart a spy drama, it also blended psychological drama, allegory, and even science fiction.

The Prisoner debuted on September 5, 1967 on the CTV Television Network in Canada and on September 29, 1969 on Independent Television (ITV) in the United Kingdom. Patrick McGoohan originally wanted the series to run only seven episodes, but Lord Lew Grade argued against what he felt was a very short run for a series. McGoohan then agreed to two series of thirteen episodes each. The Prisoner proved to be a runaway hit, attracting approximately 11 million viewers a week. Despite the series' success, McGoohan insisted on ending The Prisoner after seventeen episodes, feeling that there were no more stories left for the show to tell. Typical of The Prisoner, its final episode, "Fall Out," was obscure and allegorical, leaving many viewers who wanted a more traditional ending outraged. Switchboards were jammed with calls from angry viewers. Many wrote angry letters to newspapers. Reportedly, others went to even further extremes, forcing Patrick McGoohan to go into hiding.

Regardless of British fans' reaction to the show's ending, the series would debut in the United States on CBS on June 1, 1968. It became a smash hit here just as it had in the United Kingdom. It was covered by such Time magazine and such newspapers as The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and The Christian Science Monitor. The Prisoner did well enough in the ratings that it was reran by CBS in the summer of 1969 starting on May 29 of that year. It has been reran ever since, everywhere from PBS to the Encore Mystery channel.

The last new spy series to debut in the 1967-1968 season--in fact the last new TV series to debut on American television in the Sixties--was a British import entitled The Champions. The Champions was created by Monty Berman (who helped bring The Baron to the small screen) and Dennis Spooner (co-creator of Man in a Suitcase). The series centred on three agents for the international law enforcement agency called Nemesis (Craig Stirling the cryptographer, played by Stuart Damon, Richard Barrett the pilot, played by William Gaunt, and Sharron Macready the doctor, played by Alexandra Bastedo), whose plane crashes in the Himalayas. The trio are rescued by a mysterious civilisation and given such abilities as superstrength, telepathy, and heightened senses. Their head at Nemesis, Tremayne (Anthony Nicholls) remained unaware of his agents' newfound abilities.

Lord Lew Grade obtained funding for the series from NBC in the United States. It is for that reason that Stuart Damon, who had guest starred on Naked City, Man in a Suitcase, and The Saint, was cast as Craig Stirling. Ian McShane tried out for the role of Richard Barrett, but the part ultimately went to William Gaunt, who had starred in the Victorian police drama Sgt. Cork. For the role of Sharron Macready several actresses were considered, including Ilona Rogers (who had guest starred on both Doctor Who and The Avengers) and Annette Andre (who guest starred on The Avengers and The Prisoner and would go onto to be a regular on Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). Alexandra Bastedo would be cast in the role after director and creative consultant Cyril Frankel found her in a European advertising campaign.

Strangely enough, The Champions debuted in the United States before it did the United Kingdom. It debuted on NBC on June 10, 1968 and ran through the summer. It would not debut in the United Kingdom until September 25, 1968 and then only in London. It would not air throughout Great Britain until November 1969. Sadly, The Champions did not perform well in the United States and was not picked up by NBC for its fall schedule. Since the series needed funding from the United States to survive, it ended after thirty episodes. The series proved much more popular in the United Kingdom than it had in the United States, and proved wildly successful around the world. In the end it was broadcast in over 60 countries.

The Champions was the last new spy series of the spy cycle of the Sixties. The spy craze which had seized the United States in 1964 had come to and end, and with it the spy cycle on American television. The spy cycle in the United Kingdom would hold out a bit longer, with such series as Callan (1967) and Department S debuting late in the decade. And a few spy series would persist on American television into the 1969-1970 season. Sadly, most of them would not last long...


Jim Marquis said...

I was fascinated by "The Prisoner" when I was a kid, especially the big ball that would chase you down when you tried to escape.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I remember watching it on the CBS Late Movie. The Rovers (the big ball like things) always creeped me out a bit as a kid.