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A sneak review of the great cloak-and-dagger series of the 60s and 70s
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but what happens when the imitation is better than the original?
Spies are in vogue again. The original cinema spy, James Bond, recently resurfaced in Never Say Never Again and Octopussy and has also appeared successfully on video tape and disc (1967's You Only Live Twice is one of the most popular '60s vintage tapes available).
Yet on TV, secret agents have never left. Local broadcast stations throughout the country constantly screen such vintage series as I Spy, Mission: Impossible, and The Avengers, and now cable programmers and cassette/disc makers are expanding interest in these old-but-good programs even further.
What is the appeal of spies – and '60s spy series in particular? "It is healthy fantasizing and myth-making," noted Dr. Joseph Fletcher, author of Situation Ethics, in 1966.
More significant, perhaps, was the arrival of spies at a time when America's real life hero, President Kennedy, had just been killed. "The Kennedy era extolled the virtues of the erudite class; it no less celebrated the vitality of youth, remarked one critic. "The Cold War was yet an obsession with the American masses in the early
1960s: what then if one could capture both the obsession and the vitality into a singleart form?"
Sixties spy series are now as much fodder for nostalgia as sixties presidents. Yet many of the series have an interest beyondmemories of the good old days. Although all capitalized on the success of the James Bond series – employing wit, women, suspense, and gadgets – some also developed idiosyncratic personalities and built up cult followings of their own. The best were British offerings, The Avengers and Secret Agent, but America was not far behind with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy.
Tweed and Leather
The Avengers was the most unusual of the lot. It was a black comedy involving the exploits of John Steed, "top professional, and his partner Mrs. Emma Peel, "talented amateur." In the course of 52 episodes Steed and Mrs. Peel investigated a slew of bizarre murders and mysteries that usually endangered the entire free world (or at least parts of England).
Steed was the proper English gentleman, a modem-day Scarlet Pimpernel with three-piece suits, steel-plated bowler, and rolled-up umbrella concealing a sword. Played by 43-year-old Patrick Macnee, the agent had a ready smile and quick quip for anything. He was rarely fazed by dangers or the unexpected, good with his fists, and hardly ever used a gun, "I'm satirizing my own class,” said Macnee in 1963, "hunting, fishing, shooting, and Eton."
Mrs. Peel, portrayed by 27-year-old Diana Rigg, was also good with her hands. An expert in judo, Mrs. Peel dressed in slinky leather outfits and one-piece jumpsuits (known as her Emma Peelers) which emphasized her feline qualities. Mrs. Peel and her predecessor Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) struck a mighty blow for feminism. She was no shrinking violet “I'm a first for television,” Blackman noted when she joined the series in 1962, "the first feminist to come into a television serial, the first woman to fight back." More important, little was made of this with either Mrs. Gale or Mrs. Peel; it was taken for granted that a woman could be an equal partner with a man.
Although the series made inroads for women – just as U.N.C.L.E., by having a Russian and American working together, and I Spy, with a black man and white man as heroes, made points for coexistence and cooperation – it's best known for its bizarre and nightmarish view of life. In The Avengers, the world is strangely warped and unreal. As producer/writer Brian Clemens explained when the series was first brought to America: "We admit to only one class ... and that is the upper. Because we are a fantasy. we will not show a uniformed policeman or a colored man. And you will not see anything so common as blood in The Avengers. If we did introduce a colored man or a policeman, we would have a yardstick of social reality and that would make the whole thing quite ridiculous. Alongside a bus queue of ordinary men-in-the-street, Steed would become a caricature… There may be hundreds of bodies littered about, but we don't dwell or linger on them. We don't regard ourselves as a violent show."
And as Avengers historian Dave Rogers has pointed out in a book on the series: "Clemens quickly realized that the way to break into the American market (and thus ensure a profit) was to create something with which the Americans themselves could not compete. So the formula was to British ...a lift is a lift, never an elevator. It is this Britishness that fits the fantasy world so appealing to the Americans."
This stylization extended to every aspect of the show, which routinely opened with a strange mini-adventure that would set the stage for the rest of the program. In one opening, for instance, the camera shows the viewer a quaint British village. Bucolic music is heard and two men are seen sitting outside a small house-relaxed, lazy. "Nice day, Hubert," says one. Suddenly, an older man comes flying through a nearby doorway, landing at the feet of Hubert and his friend. Another man appears carrying a gun. With two quick muffled shots he kills the prone man and walks off. The body lies still. "Nice day, Hubert," repeats the seated villager, looking at the corpse, "but it looks like rain." The word "Murdersville" appears on the screen.
“The Avengers thrives on the bizarre, notes Alan Saly, a former employee of CBS News who is working on a study of the series. "Death must be proper, sophisticated, unreal, and, bring to bear a chilling fascination. It presents a distorted view of the world which nonetheless is revealing of the stresses and strains in our society." The situations faced by Steed and Mrs. Peel included a killer pussycat ("The Hidden Tiger"), a department store which was actually a bomb ("Death at Bargain Prices"), a man-eating plant ("The ManEater of Surrey Green"), and a village which hired itself out to murderers as a discreet place for killing ("Murdersville"). The Avengers had the quality of a dream. A touch of recognizable realism drew in the viewers while the heroes' charm and resourcefulness kept them from running away.
The series always had a mystery as well.
In fact, it had all the best qualities of radio dramas and movie serials of the 1930s. There was usually a mysterious murder, followed by clues and eccentric witnesses, usually followed by more murders (usually
of the witnesses) to hide the clues.
"When you are dealing with a make-believe world populated by larger-than-life villains, " remarked producer/writer Clemens, "it is difficult not to get into bizarre situations .... My own technique, when I thought of an idea, was to draw up 12 good dramatic moments and lead in and out of them.' I needed 12 for a 50-minute script. If I'd only got six I was only halfway there."
Us and Them
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the closest American equivalent to The Avengers. It too featured stylish violence. Its villains and situations were also strange', but unlike The Avengers, U.N. C.L.E. attempted an appearance of reality. "U.N.C.L.E. was about a CIA-type organization (The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) headed by Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), who sends his top agents Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) on missions against THRUSH (Technological Hierarchy for the Repression of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). Besides the bizarre, U.N.C.L.E. employed the gadgetry that helped popularize James Bond. Solo had a communication device hidden in his pen and Kuryakin had a pistol which could turn into a rifle. Like Steed and Mrs. Peel, the two approached their missions with ready wit and tongue in cheek, making the violence more palatable.
U.N.C.L.E. also capitalized on the Saturday-morning serial style. Each episode would be divided into four acts, ending with a cliffhanger to be resolved after the commercial. A swishing camera pan would change scenes and title cards would announce new locations ("Somewhere in Venezuela" or Argentina, or wherever), It couldn’t be taken too seriously-after all, agents gained admission to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters through an ordinary tailor shop (“But is it ordinary?” queried a voiceover announcer) while the episodes would have titles such as "The My Friend the Gorilla Affair."
Despite this, and despite the series’ use of fantastic villains from pirates to vampires, the show emphasized reality. There was even a title card at the end of each episode thanking U.N.C.L.E. for its cooperation in producing the series. "U.N. C.L.E. is a probable show," David McCallum said in,1965. "I bought a Popular Electronics magazine not long ago. It featured a new gun. It is now the THRUSH gun."
Black and White
This emphasis on reality was carried even further by one of the '60s' most enjoyable espionage series, l Spy. A landmark for its use of a black man as a costar, the series featured Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson, an international tennis champion, and Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott, his trainer. The two men roamed the world playing tennis but were really agents on missions for the CIA.
Besides being a well-produced travelogue (shot on location), I Spy was fun for its characterizations. Robinson and Scott had amusing exchanges on everything from Scott's boyhood in Philadelphia to Robinson's feelings about life in the spy business; they had a nice camaraderie that was real. "Life is good," says Culp in one exchange. "It's better than that, man," replies Cosby. "On a day like today there's'a wonderfulness from the sky and the sea and the people that kisses you all over the neck and nose." Culp: "Name another day when such a report to the Pentagon was written by two fine American spies."
But the overall tone was serious. Humor was worked in between the cracks, with Robinson and Scott often defusing tense situations with jokes. Cosby's Scott was a Rhodes Scholar who-spoke many languages (one of the "realistic" touches of the series was having foreigners speaking their own languages to each other, not accented English as some series, did). Culp's Robinson was intelligent, athletic, and laid-back. Culp and Cosby played their roles with an insolent cool-dropped as soon as they had to whip into action. For Robinson and Scott, demeanor was a mask. Spying was necessary, but dangerous. The only way to do it was by keeping a humorous perspective, depending on their wits and their friendship.
And the series was a story of companionship, of the need for working together to solve unpleasant problems. "Kelly and Scott are equals," says Ed Goodgold in a study of the series. "If a silly question has to be asked or a silly mistake made, both are capable of making it. Neither member of the team is infallible."
"Prejudice is based on ignorance," Cosby said in 1967. "Many people have preconceived ideas about Negroes. On I Spy, they've seen I'm an everyman. The fact that I'm colored is as relevant to the role as being fat, tall, or pock-marked might be." Like The Avengers, I Spy helped break discriminatory barriers by ignoring them.
The series' best qualities were encapsulated in "Home to Judgement," which found the agents returning home to Kelly's uncle and aunt's, seeking shelter from a nameless, faceless foe. The episode showed the serious, dangerous quality of the spy's life: humor was not a luxury, it was a defense. The world could be ugly.
This realism was emphasized by Fouad Said's inventive photography, which often had a handheld cinema-veritelook. Fights were violent and jarring, with close-ups, quick cutting, and often no music. Even the opening credits came on suddenly, without the normal 15-second pause between pre-credits sequence and titles. You were thrust into the story much as the spy was thrust into a mission. It gave the series a kinetic frenzied, realism from the beginning, counterpointed by the low-key Culp and Cosby.
Alienated and Alone
The epitome of this realistic style was Secret Agent, a British series which began life as Danger Man in 1961 and was reborn in '64 when the Bond films took off. Patrick McGoohan played John Drake, who traveled all over the world dealing with foreign agents, defectors, and missing secrets. The scripts were complex and witty-less '30s serial, more John Le Carre spy- "procedural." McGoohan, proud that Drake rarely used a gun or kissed a girl, reportedly turned down the Bond role because of its sex and violence. "Drake is all moral," he said in 1966.
"He's all business. Ladies might show an interest, for example, but he doesn't reciprocate. Bond is sort of cartoon-strip fantasy, with morals that I find questionable. Bond is a not-so-good guy. Drake is a really good guy. And that's why-if you can imagine it-Drake' would always' beat Bond in a fight."
As compared with Bond, or even Solo and Steed, Drake was something of an anti-hero, often questioning his superior's values and the stated "necessity" for what he was doing. He would call a spade a spade: wiretapping was wiretapping, assassination was murder, and we could see their effects on people. The show accurately reflected the growing distrust of government brought about by the Vietnam War. In one program, "Yesterday's Enemies," Drake makes a deal with a spy to gain ·Wormation. When this is obtaipea~ Drake's boss routinely has the man killed. We later see the effects on the spy's widow and the disgust of Drake, a moral person in an amoral business,
If was this emphasis on the real that made Secret Agent the best of the spy lot and one of the more instructive TV adventure series of the '60s. By showing the sordid side, McGoohan's character took the glamor out of the spy business-but not all the heroism. We could believe in him because he wasn't perfect or completely happy. Drake tried and could fail. But even in the face of that failure, he kept his wits and principles about him. He could feel compassion, but could also subjugate it for a higher ideal.
The bad guys were often charming and not all bad, and the good guys were often nasty and not all good. In one episode, "To Our Best Friend," an old companion and colleague of Drake’s is suspected of being a double agent: Drake's superior wants him to find out if he is or not. Drake initially refuses, not wanting to spy on a comrade – but eventually accepts, realizing that his colleague will receive justice only from his old friend.
Secret Agent gave us a microcosm of the world at large by presenting grey heroes and villains who tried to use their heads-and not their fists to get out of tight spots. And even when they succeeded, they weren't always sure of the value of their success. It is this uncertainty that makes Secret Agent so entertaining. It tried to teach us that the world was made up of complex problems which could not be solved with a joke and a gun. Sometimes there were no satisfying solutions.
Secret Agent was different from The Avengers, I Spy, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in another way: it depicted a loner, a manwho was clever but kept much to himself. "I have no character," McGoohan said once. "I assume one." As such, Drake-more than Steed, Mrs. Peel, Solo, Kuryakin, Robinson or Scott represented the modern man, alienated by society and dependent only on himself.
Cryptic and Art-Driven
The Prisoner was Patrick McGoohan's sequel to the Secret Agent series, combining elements of that show, The Avengers, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The first episode, "Arrival," introduces the hero: a former secret agent (McGoohan) who has quit his job and been abducted and imprisoned in a carnival-like seaside town known only as "The Village, " where everyone has a number instead of a name.
"A lot of people are curious about what lies behind your resignation, " says the Village leader, Number Two (Guy Doleman). "You had a brilliant career, your record is impeccable .... They want to know why you suddenly left." The main question for the hero (known only as Number Six) and the viewer is, who are "they"? Are they his own people testing him? Or are they a foreign power attempting to pry secret information from him? The answers are as unclear as Village loyalties, and beneath the carnival gaiety of the town fear and suspicion predominate.
The series, produced in 1967, sprang from Secret Agent (indeed, the theme from that series wailed, "They've given you a number and taken away your name"). "I've always been obsessed with the idea of prisons in a liberal democratic society," said McGoohan in 1968. "I believe in democracy,. but the inherent danger is that with an excess of freedom in all directions, we will eventually destroy ourselves."
"I also wondered," added George Markstein, the script editor for the series, "what happened to a secret agent who is in possession of sensitive knowledge and wants to retire? Everyone thinks there's an ulterior motive-you're writing a hot memoir or selling out to the other side. Jf he wants to quit, certain things may happen. He may go into limbo." .
That became the concept for The Prisoner, which was seen in America in 1968. "It is television's first genuine work of art, .. said Toronto English Professor Stewart Niemeier, who subsequently used episodes from the series for a college course, Added critic Hank Stine in 1970: "The show is a Chinese puzzle box of shifting illusion, allusion, and reality. Nothing can be taken for granted."
With quick cuts, odd camera angles, and cryptic dialogue, the viewer is often put in the same disoriented position as the hero. "There are, within it, answers to every single question that can be posed, claimed McGoohan. "But one can't expect an answer on a plate saying, 'Here you are; you don't have to think; it's all yours; don't use your brain'."
For all that, the best episodes are the more conventionally constructed: "The Schizoid Man, " in which the Prisoner is faced with a double of himself and comes near to the breaking point in· a real-life identity crisis; "Free for All," parodying the empty promises of an election campaign; and "The Chimes of Big Ben, .a "great escape" story. All are well done, and any episode of the series is worth in investigating.
Now and Then
About the only disadvantage of reviewing and re-viewing these sons of Bond is that it takes a collector's passion to seek them out in video stores-and especially in cable listings and swap lists. But the connoisseur will find such logistical problems worth attempting to conquer when the alternative is to settle for the status quo of today's uninspired cops 'n' robbers fare. There are no more credible secret agents and men from U.N.C.L.E. in the offing for the near future, so we must seek them out where and when we can.
What’s Available (1983)
What's available? At your neighborhood store, not a whole lot, unfortunately. (See accompanying list for exact details.) A couple of black-andwhite Diana Rigg/Patrick MacneeAvengers episodes, including "Dial a Deadly Number" (1965), have been issued by Video Yesteryear. With luck, more will follow. "Number" is a fairly typical installment, involving death by telephone-answering device.
Until more becomes available on: tape, the spy fan will have to settle for home recording. A number of '60s spy series are rerun on broadcast and cable around the country, so there is a good selection. I Spy and The Avengers are shown often; Secret Agent less so, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E: not at all. The reason for U.N.C.L.E.'s
absence: in 1975, in a wave of television-violence protests by parents, U.N.C.L.E. was heavily criticized and subsequently removed from syndication. All that's available is a series of eight U.N.C.L.E. movies compiled from episodes of the series (The Spy with My Face, To Trap a Spy, One Spy Too Many) and a new TV-film, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. :The 15Years Later Affair, which reunites the original stars and adds Patrick Macnee in the late Leo G . Carroll's role and George Lazenby, a former James Bond, as a spy known only as JR
Other '60s spy series in syndication include Mission: Impossible, a stylish program that ran for seven years,
about an "impossible mission force," which would gleefully upset the governments of other countries, manipulate leaders, and break laws in the interest of world peace; Get Smart, a clever spoof of the Bond films, with Don Adams as Agent 86 of CONTROL in battle with KAOS (the series ran for five years and spawned a theatrical film in 1980, The Nude Bomb); The Saint, a mystery/spy-type series about a Bondian rover, featuring Roger Moore; and The Wild Wild West, a sort of Avengers-Bond out West, chronicling the adventures of two spies in 1860s America who used a trainload of gadgets to battle bizarre villains. –T.S.
B&W. 1965. British TV series episode "Dial a Deadly Number," with Diana Rigg, Patrick Macnee. 55 min. Beta. $39.95. VHS. $42.95. Yesteryear.
B&W. British TV series episode "The , House that Jack Built" with Diana Rigg, Patrick Macnee. Beta, VHS.
Mission Impossible # 1
B&W. 1966; U.S. TV series episode . "Odd Man Out" with Steven Hill, Mar- ; tin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Mor- , ris, Peter Lupus, Mary Ann Mobley, f Monte Markham, 100 min. Beta, VHS. Dimensions.
Mission Impossible #2
B&W. 1967. U.S. TV series episodes with Steven Hill, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, Eartha Kitt, Barry Sullivan. Includes "The Traitor" and "The Psychic." 100 min. Beta, VHS. Dimensions.
Mission Impossible #3 'V
B&W. 1966, 1967. U.S. TV series episodes with Martin Landau, Barbara \ Bain, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, Steven Hill, Peter Graves, William Windom. Includes "Ransom" and "The Widow." 100 min. Beta, VHS. Dimensions.
B&W. 1964. U.S. TV series episode "The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove," considered the inspiration for The Prisoner series. 60 min. Beta, VHS. Vintage.
from VIDEO MAGAZINE, 1983