Tuesday 2 February 2016

Man in a Suitcase (1967-68)

Man in a Suitcase was an ITC series that screened on British television from 1967 to 1968 and on ABC in the US in 1968. It marked a bit of an interesting departure from the standard pattern of ITC’s action adventure series, having a decidedly hardboiled flavour to it.

It was created by Richard Harris and Dennis Spooner but once the series started production they played no further part in proceedings.

The central character is McGill, a disgraced ex-CIA agent who now earns his living as a freelance private enquiry agent. The first episode to be filmed (although for some curious reason it was not the first to go to air), Man from the Dead, gives us McGill’s backstory. He was a high-ranking CIA operative who had been forced to resign under suspicion of treason. He had always claimed that he was set up. This opening episode is a little contrived and thanks to one unfortunate casting choice it stretches credibility a little, but it explains why an ex-CIA man is working as a private eye, and it does fulfill the necessary function of explaining why he’s a somewhat embittered loner with a chip on his shoulder. It also sets a pattern for the rest of the series - the script is routine but the execution is exceptionally interesting and the tone is intriguingly dark and edgy.

While the original idea (and it’s by no means a bad one) was to have a hardboiled cynical American private eye based in London it’s clear from the interview with him included in Network’s DVD boxed set that the star of the series, Richard Bradford, had more grandiose ambitions for the series. He hoped it would be something quite ground-breaking - something much tougher and very much more realistic than any previous secret agent/private eye series. In particular Bradford had very definite ideas on how the violence in the series should be handled. McGill is after all a trained spy - he’s a very tough guy. And the people he comes up against are hard men as well. When those sorts of people fight it’s a serious matter. It’s a big deal. You don’t just pick yourself up and dust yourself off afterwards. You’re lucky if you can walk at all. That’s the kind of thing Bradford wanted to bring to the series - that violence has consequences. People get badly hurt.

This was all very well but Bradford was also a Method actor. Not just a Method actor, but a young, slightly cocky Method actor who liked to bring all the moody intensity of Method acting to his performances. This was bound to raise some eyebrows among British television people accustomed to a very different approach to acting. Added to this, as Bradford admits, being young at the time he tended to be somewhat more abrasive than was really necessary. Not surprisingly he earned the reputation of being temperamental and difficult to work with. He also earned a reputation for excessive enthusiasm when it came to doing fight scenes, to the point where stuntmen disliked working with him. To cap it all off he clashed with the producers over various issues, particularly the quality of the scripts.

In retrospect this was unfortunate because the interview also makes it clear that Bradford was genuinely excited by the series and approached it with a considerable degree of passion and commitment. His criticisms of the uneven nature of the scripts were interestingly enough echoed a few years later by another American actor working on an ITC series, Tony Curtis (in The Persuaders!) and it has to be admitted that both Bradford and Curtis had a point. ITC did have a tendency to let scripts go by that really should have had more work done on them and they also had a habit of recycling scripts (which particularly irritated Bradford).

Bradford’s Method acting also, inevitably, antagonised some British critics, especially those who already disapproved of ITC’s practice of hiring American actors.

Despite these problems Man in a Suitcase really is in its own way rather ground-breaking, just as its star had hoped. The tough, gritty and cynical tone and the realistic approach to violence anticipated the very approach that British television would start to adopt in the late 60s and early 70s, in landmark series such as Callan. The visual style of Man in a Suitcase also marks it as a transitional series - there’s the usual extensive use of stock footage but there’s also slightly more location shooting than you might expect (and in Man from the Dead the location shooting is extremely effective). There’s also at times a definite hint of a film noir visual style. There’s even actual night shooting, rather than just the usual day-for-night shooting.

The episodes alternate between straightforward private eye and espionage-themed plots (McGill might not be in the CIA any longer but it’s the kind of past that tends to catch up to a man). Brainwash is a particularly strong example of the espionage stories and it’s characterised by a bold and effective visual style that builds up the paranoia very nicely. Somebody Loses, Somebody... Wins? is another fine spy story with all the obligatory double-crosses and betrayals. The Girl Who Never Was isn’t very original but it’s enlivened by a fine performance by Bernard Lee cast against type as a seedy sleazy broken-down ex-soldier who thinks he’s finally going to make it big when he tracks down a hitherto lost Botticelli. 

The Boston Square is another espionage-themed episode, involving oceanographers, undersea farming in the Adriatic and defence secrets. In Web with Four Spiders McGill has to protect a high-profile American lawyer from blackmail, with the future of outer space at stake.

Why They Killed Nolan is on the other hand standard private eye fare but the double-chase them (the hero hunts the bad guy while the police hunt the hero) is handled well. Sweet Sue is amusing for its look at the excesses of youth culture and young people with too much money for their own good, plus it has the always-excellent Judy Geeson in fine form as a rather lost spoilt rich brat. Essay in Evil is a fine exploration of the consequences of blackmail with Peter Vaughn being suitably sinister, something he always did well. The Sitting Pigeon sees McGill employed by Scotland Yard to protect a cowardly gangland boss (played with panache by George Sewell) about to testify against his brothers.

Who’s Mad Now? isn’t a very original idea (a woman thinks her husband is trying to drive her insane) but it’s nicely executed and the use of mirrors is very effective.

Mention should also be made on Ron Grainer’s splendid jazz-influenced theme tune.

Network have released the complete series (of 30 episodes) on DVD. The only real extra is the exceptionally interesting interview with Richard Bradford. 

Man in a Suitcase could have been a fairly routine private eye/espionage series but it’s slightly gritty feel, its blending of American hardboiled style with an otherwise very English feel, and most of all Richard Bradford’s offbeat but very effective acting style are enough to make it stand out as something special. Highly recommended. 


  1. I got this for Christmas - looking for to seeing it!

  2. Really love this series. R.I.P Richard Bradford. <3

    1. R.I.P Richard Bradford.

      I hadn't realised that he'd passed away. Very sad. He should have been a bigger star.