Saturday 11 July 2015

Danger Man AKA Secret Agent, first season (1964)

The original Danger Man series comprised thirty-nine half-hour episodes broadcast in 1960 and 1961. The series was a success but for various reasons it ceased production until it was revived in 1964. The new series (which retained the Danger Man title in Britain but was known as Secret Agent in the US) would differ from the earlier version in a number of important ways. The switch was made to hour-long episodes, which allowed more complex stories but more importantly allowed more emphasis on the characters. The nature of the hero changed slightly as well. The original John Drake was a NATO secret agent of indeterminate nationality - possibly British, possibly American, possibly neither. The new John Drake was a British secret agent working for a British intelligence outfit. 

One thing that did not change was the willingness to take a fairly realistic and sometimes unglamorous look at the world of espionage and international intrigue. It’s a world with a certain amount of moral ambiguity. Sometimes the good guys have to do unpleasant things and sometimes the results of trying to do the right thing can be messy and unsatisfactory.

That’s not to suggest that Danger Man (in either of its incarnations) ever succumbed to the nihilism and cynicism that marred so many later British spy series. There is no suggestion that both sides are just as bad as each other and that both are morally bankrupt. John Drake is one of the good guys, and in this series the good guys mostly win. What makes the series so interesting is that the victories are not always clear-cut and not always wholly satisfactory. Sometimes Drake has to accept that a partial victory is better than nothing, and sometimes victory comes at a price. And sometimes the price is paid by someone who doesn’t really deserve theor fate.

The episode Yesterday’s Enemies is a good example. An ageing disgraced British spy (Howard Marion Crawford) wants to get back in the game, but whose side is he actually on? A very dark story, with definite hints of the moral ambiguity of later British spy series such as Callan.

In The Professionals Drake is sent to Prague where a British spy has gone missing. Has he gone over to the other side? Possibly yes, possibly no.

Colony Three is a particularly interesting episode. Drake finds himself in a typical English village full of typical English people, except that this village is behind the Iron Curtain. It is a training school for Soviet spies. Colony Three has hints of the surrealism that would blossom in McGoohan’s next series, The Prisoner. The village is staffed by British communists who have defected to the Soviet Union, but they quickly discover that life in the Workers’ Paradise is a lot less fun than they expected. In fact it’s no fun at all. They also discover that rather than being welcomed as heroes for defecting they are treated as mere cogs in the machine deserving of no particular respect. They are after all traitors, and nobody trusts a traitor. It’s an ambitious story with a slightly downbeat ending. It’s all rather bold for television in 1964.

Episodes like Fish on the Hook are more conventional but still quite complex - Drake has to extract a British spy whose cover is about to be blown from an eastern country but nobody (not even the agent’s British employers) know the agent’s identity. This episode in fact has quite a lot of fun with the question of identity. The Battle of the Cameras seems to have been an attempt at James Bond-style glamour and sophistication, interesting given that McGoohan had turned down the role of Bond. This episode demonstrates convincingly that he could have handled the role pretty well.

That's Two of Us Sorry is an interesting echo of one of the best episodes of the earlier half-hour series, with a different but equally effective twist at the end. A Man to Be Trusted throws in an amazing number of plot twists that’s keeps us (and John Drake) guessing until the end. Don't Nail Him Yet is an absorbing (and for Drake incredibly frustrating) cat-and-mouse game with a Russian spy.

One of the most intriguing things about the three spy series Patrick McGoohan made in the 60s is the identity of the hero. In the half-hour Danger Man series John Drake works for an unnamed international agency. He is a secret agent of indeterminate nationality. This was easy enough since McGoohan was born in the United States, raised in Ireland and lived in England and therefore had a conveniently indeterminate accent. In the revived hour-long Danger Man series he again plays a secret agent named John Drake but now he is clearly British and works for a British intelligence agency. So is he in fact the same man? And there has always been speculation that the unnamed character he played in The Prisoner was actually John Drake. So did he play three different spies, or two, or only one?

The longer format gives Patrick McGoohan more opportunities to stretch his acting abilities and it allows for a much greater focus on psychology. John Drake becomes a more interesting and rounded character.

McGoohan directed two of the hour-long Danger Man episodes (he had already directed one of the half-hour episodes). 

As was usual in this period the exotic settings rely on the judicious use of stock footage. 

The revamped 1964 series is even better than the extremely good 1960 half-hour Danger Man series benefitting from more complex plots, deeper characterisations and more perplexing moral dilemmas.

This is a top-notch spy series. Highly recommended.


  1. I've always wondered if Mr. Smith from ICE STATION ZEBRA is also John Drake.

  2. Having only ever seen one episode before, I finally got the Network box set of the hour-long episodes (I didn't actually realise that the 30-minute episodes weren't on it).

    And I'm ... struggling. McGoohan is great - his acting is out of most of his rivals league - and they have superb supporting casts. But I've watched three episodes in a row with bleak endings, and if I wanted nihilistic endings I'd just watch Callan again (which is a great show, and at least has the humour to lift it up a bit). Might be down to Network, with their usual "Random Episode Order" approach to box sets.

    If I didn't trust your recommendations so much, I'd give up - but I'll keep slogging on; maybe it's just a bad patch.

    1. But I've watched three episodes in a row with bleak endings, and if I wanted nihilistic endings I'd just watch Callan again

      The hour-long Danger Man series really is in its own way every bit as cynical as Callan. It's amazing that both series were bleak, and also incredibly popular.

      It's really fascinating to compare those British series to a contemporary US series like Mission: Impossible. In Mission: Impossible the IMF's methods are every bit as ruthless, unethical and contrary to International law as anything that Drake or Callan are forced to do but the viewer is never invited to question those actions. In Danger Man the viewer is always expected to ask whether this espionage business is worth the moral and human price that has to be paid.

    2. That's a very good point. I've been thinking about Mission: Impossible a bit, because I noticed that, in the early seasons especially, there are so many episodes where the Russians are planning or even attempting mass murder in the US with chemical or biological weapons. If a Soviet show had the CIA trying that on a regular basis, we'd have called it propaganda - but when we did it, it was entertainment lol

      An example of what we'll accept if it's well-written, well-made and with lashings of style!

      The Danger Man episode I watched last night was the one about the African state about to hold a general election - in some ways it was as cynical as the others, but it had a cleverer ending IMO

    3. In fact, thinking about it, it may be a cultural thing between the UK and the US - in UK culture, a Mission Impossible team setup would usually be the villains. As I think I've mentioned before, the last B&W episode of Callan sees him fall victim to a Russian version of the IMF team - and you could argue that the people running the Village in The Prisoner are acting like the IMF team, at least in some episodes: certainly in the pilot.