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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Small screen spies

The 1950's were a period of growth for television as the new technology expanded and replaced radio as the entertainment medium of the masses. During the following decade westerns, variety shows and sitcoms dominated the airwaves and by the 1970's the westerns were replaced by cop shows and TV movies sat were the variety shows had once been. The 1980's was the era of the glitzy soap operas and the Nineties saw reality TV start to dominate. One genre that has all but vanished from TV screens is the espionage series, those secret agent series that used to be so entertaining.

The 1960's, with all its colour and noise, was a true golden age for the secret agent - on the cinema screen James Bond was at the height of his popularity and TV reflected with spy craze with several fondly remembered and now cult classic shows. It was the era of the cold war mentality, a time when the CIA were still perceived as the good guys - Watergate was still to come with its laying out of the distasteful dealings of the various intelligence services and Britsh intelligence had not yet been revealed as being full of KGB moles - the secret agent was an heroic figure, looking over us, protecting us. Shit even President Kennedy was a James Bond fan.

In April of 1961, CBS aired for the first time a spy show called Dangerman which starred Patrick McGoohan (a man who would turn down the role of James Bond) however the show was not an instant stateside success and would take some time to build up its audience. NBC tried a spy series with Espionage with was an anthology series which featured a different World War II story each week. It was not until The Man from Uncle that spy shows really hit it big on the small screen. The show first aired in September 1964 and was a huge hit. The character of Napolean Solo was an American James Bond and Ian Fleming had even named the character. The Bond author had been involved in the early planning of the series. There was also a short lived spin off, The Girl from Uncle.

CBS noticed the success of Uncle and relaunched Dangerman only this time calling it Secret Agent and transferring the star to British Intelligence - the show was a smash hit and ran until 1966. Over in the UK  a bizarre little spy show called, The Avengers was doing well and NBC bought the show and brought it to American TV screens in 1966 and these days The Avengers and all its subsequent incarnations are regarded as highly as, The Man from Uncle. By the mid Sixties spy TV was huge both in the UK and the US and each of the big American networks were showing spy shows. 1966 would see Mission Impossible which ran longer than any other spy series and the show continued until 1973 when the frenzy of the spy craze had cooled somewhat.

The period is notable as one of the few times when Brit TV dominated the US screens and several UK shows were rating winners for the American networks - The Saint, The Champions and Jason King were all huge hits.

Perhaps the most innovative show of the entire spy boom was, The Prisoner in which Patrick Macgoohan appeared to be playing his character from Secret Agent who now find himself imprisoned in a strange village after leaving the intelligence service. Although the character was never named in The Prisoner early publicity material named the character as the John Drake from Dangerman and Secret Agent. The show stands tall even today - it is wildly surreal and often abstract and we watch as the lead character is treated with various brainwashing techniques with the use of drugs heavily implied. And all this was before the CIA experimenting with LSD became public knowledge.

Hints were dropped throughout the run to suggest that the character of Number 6 was indeed John Drake - in the sixth episode the character was briefly referred to as Drake. Another hint comes in the epsode, Living in Harmony in which Number 6 find himself the sheriff in a Wild West town and he decides not to carry a gun - John Drake never carried a gun.

Man in a Suitcase was made in the same year as The Prisoner, is yet another series that has withstood the test of time. Possible the least well known classic of the the shows of the sixties, starring Richard Bradford as ex CIA agent McGill. (His first name is never revealed) Thrown out of the CIA for something he did not do, he now works in London as a private investigator who will take care of your problems as long as the price is right. The show was a lot more straight forward then The Prisoner or The Avengers, relying simply on good stories and an action/ adventure format. Several episodes were directed by future James Bond director, John Glen.
And so the days of the TV spy has largely vanished but the old shows are still popular on DVD and several shows such as The Avengers and Mission Impossible have sprung out onto the big screen. None other than Quentin Tarantino has been linked with a big screen version of The Man from Uncle and the Prisoner was recently remade and then forgotten. 

Today we live in a world where the government are not to be trusted and any spies that do make the small screen are usually sinister figures working for the man - a far cry from the fun filled adventures of the Sixties.


Davieboy said...

Great article, as was The Monkees one! Did you know that Mike Nesmith's mum invented Tippex?!

Not small screen but let's not forget Matt Helm and Derek Flint!

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Davy - funny enough saw the liquid paper thing in an interview with Nesmith the other day. And I love the Derek Flint movies