Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Underrated TV on DVD #10: Danger Man aka Secret Agent

Un-Super-Spies Week continues!
Series: Danger Man aka Secret Agent
Years: 39 half hour episodes from 1960-61, then 47 hour-long episodes from 1964-68
Creators: Ralph Smart and Brian Clemens
Star: Patrick McGoohan

The Concept: Secret Agent John Drake travels the world doing the dirty work of espionage. He’s cocky and clever, but he never kisses a girl, he rarely holds a gun, and he often has to choke down moral qualms about what he’s doing.

How it Came to be Underrated: Eventually, McGoohan would embrace the rise of the counter-culture and transform this show into a sci-fi allegory for the cold war called “The Prisoner”. That show remains wildly popular today, and justifiably so, but most Prisoner fans just assume that that show was a rejection of what had come before. Rather than watch those 18 episodes over and over, they should check out the original show! It had all of the smarts and moral seriousness of its successor (though it was a lot less surreal).

Sample Episode: 1.17, Find and Return
Writer: Jo Eisinger
The Story: Drake travels to the middle east to retrieve a casual high-society spy who is about to flee. While there, he has to deal with a disgruntled deep cover agent (played by Donald Pleasence!) who complains endlessly about his unpaid expenses.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This show didn’t have a huge budget but it always looked like a million bucks thanks to clever cutting. They had access to thousands of hours of BBC travelogues and they skillfully intercut McGoohan with that footage.
  2. This show was much closer to LeCarre than Fleming. The scene where a Soviet agent pulls a gun on Drake is truly heartbreaking. The killer has the gun, but he’s pleading with his old friend from the other side: “Sonia went home to see her father. I begged her not to. She never came back. It’s just what they were waiting for. Now they have Sonia, and I must do what they say!” Drake knows that his heart isn’t in it and walks away, daring him to shoot. Not exactly “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”!
  3. And it becomes all the more shocking when Pleasence casually reveals two scenes later that he had the Soviet killed for no good reason! Drake is horrified, but what he can do? Well, he can quit, of course, but we all know where that would lead him…
  4. In these early episodes, they were trying to market the show to Americans, so they had Drake working for the UN and getting his orders in Washington. Nevertheless, those episodes didn’t make it on the air here. When they brought the show back after the Bond craze hit, it was unapologetically British. Ironically, only then did it sell to America, where it aired on CBS. McGoohan never had to change his enigmatic accent, because he was born in the U.S. but raised in Britain and Australia.

How Available Is It?: It’s available on a very nice set of DVDs from A&E, beautifully restored. They show the uncut British version, with its stiff-upper-lip opening credits, but you can watch the groovy American opening in the special features, which I always do, because I love Johnny Rivers…

But Don’t Take My Word For It: Unfortunately the original show is totally absent online! Rent it from Netflix. You won’t regret it!

2 comments:

Moor Larkin said...

I presume you deliberately used the shot showing the lawns of Portmeirion, from that episode of the 1960 series?.... ;-)

Matt Bird said...

Ha! No! I didn't recognize Portmerion (the resort where the Prisoner would later be shot). I thought it was stock footage! That's funny. There was later a whole episode of Danger Man entirely shot at Portmerion, which is what gave McGoohan the idea of going back to make the follow-up series there, but this isn't from that one, I don't think.