The Man from U.N.C.L.E. began its run on NBC in 1964 and was cancelled in 1968, midway through the fourth season. I have very fond memories of this series and it’s proving to be just as much fun as I’d remembered it. I’ve been working my way through Season 1 (it’s a long season of no less than 29 episodes).
The pilot episode was interesting, showing how there was originally going to be just one Man from U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo. The pilot also demonstrates just how much the original concept owed to James Bond creator Ian Fleming. The original idea actually came from Fleming and it was Fleming who came up with the name Napoleon Solo. At a very early stage he realised that with the Bond movies proving to be so successful he was competing against himself and dropped out. Fleming’s actual contribution to the series was minor but there’s no question that without James Bond there would have been no Man from U.N.C.L.E. From the outset it was planned as James Bond for American television.
The tone of the series changed a little after the first season. In season one the series is not really an outright spy spoof as such. The aim seemed to be to capture the flavour of the early Bond movies (not surprising given Ian Fleming’s part in devising the series). The tone is semi-serious. There’s a definite tongue-in-cheek element and an engaging wittiness but it’s mostly not played for pure comedy (although some episodes are definitely heading in that direction). The humour is generally used as a seasoning but without overwhelming the main course which is secret agent action-adventure. It’s witty and sometimes outrageous but it doesn’t descend into mere silliness. It’s almost precisely the formula that would prove so successful for The Avengers at its peak.
One key feature of the series was producer Norman Felton’s insistence that wherever possible each episode would feature a hapless civilian bystander who gets accidentally caught up in the world of espionage and intrigue. Felton’s idea was that the heroes being highly trained professional super-spies it was essential to include guest characters that the audience could relate to - perfectly ordinary people who understand little of what is really going on but who do their best to help out. It was a sound idea and it works well.
The Finny Foot Affair, involving a secret formula that speeds up the ageing process, is also particularly good. The Shark Affair, which seems to be about modern pirates but turns out to be much crazier than that, is even better. The Project Strigas Affair features guest starring performances by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (appearing together for the first time).
The Fiddlesticks Affair sees Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin trying to break into an ultra-secure vault beneath a casino. The vault houses $55 million dollars belonging to THRUSH. They engage the help of a treacherous but skillful thief and an enthusiastic young woman named Susan, a good girl who is desperate to prove herself a glamorous deadly femme fatale.
The Yellow Scarf Affair takes Napoleon Solo to India, in search of a piece of top-secret equipment stolen by THRUSH. He finds that the cult of Thuggee, suppressed by the British in the 19th century, is not so dead after all.
The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair is the series at its best - an intricate and outlandish combination of conspiracies plus a touch of the surreal (and as the title suggests some Alice in Wonderland references). It compares very favourably to the best episodes of the Avengers. The Bow-Wow Affair involves gypsies and killer dogs and features some of the season’s best action scenes. Episodes like this are enormous fun and fine examples of the strength of the writing in season one. Even better is The Never-Never Affair, a delightfully crazy episode with delicious performances by guest stars Barbara Feldon and Cesar Romero. This one is well and truly in spy spoof territory but it’s done with a wonderful lightness of touch.
An impressive aspect of the series is the way they give the impression of lots of gadgetry while in fact spending almost nothing on the gadgets. On a television budget (and with television shooting schedules) they could not possibly compete with the Bond movies. Instead they had to rely on getting a high-tech flavour on the cheap and generally speaking this is done effectively.
The first season was a definite hit. The latter part of the second season would see the series moving further into out-and-out spy spoof territory, not always successfully.
The U.N.C.L.E. initials might suggest that Solo and Kuryakin are working for a United Nations agency but in fact they stand for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Making one of the lead characters a Russian was rather bold for 1964 and was an attempt to avoid straightforward Cold War themes. As in the later James Bond books the main enemy is an international criminal organisation, rather than the Soviet Union. It also throws in assorted diabolical criminal masterminds and mad scientists. The avoidance of Cold War themes has had the advantage of making the series seem now less dated than it might have been. It’s interesting that the most successful British spy series of the same era, The Avengers, also adopted a generally similar approach.
The fine performances by the two leads, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, obviously contributed a great deal to the success of the series. Both actors have the ability to strike the right balance, not too serious but not too silly. David McCallum’s role was originally intended to be quite minor but once the first few episodes went to air it became obvious that he was going to be immensely popular. As a result there was a quick rethink and Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin became equal partners with McCallum sharing top billing.
Compared to the exactly contemporaneous British spy series Danger Man it’s clear that Danger Man is more concerned with character and with moral dilemmas. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more interested in style and action. The comparisons are perhaps a little unfair. Danger Man belongs more to the gritty realist style of spy thriller while The Man from U.N.C.L.E., even in its first season, was definitely uninterested in anything approaching gritty realism. Both series are excellent in their very different ways.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was successful enough to spawn a spin-off series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. That came somewhat later when the parent series was moving further and further into out-and-out spoof territory. The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. has its moments but it was probably stretching a good idea rather too thinly.
This first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains one of the true classics of 1960s television. It really is a delight.