The reason it’s so interesting is that almost everything about this series is slightly ambiguous. The first layer of ambiguity of course is the matter of whether it’s actually the same series as the 1960 version and whether the hero is the same man. As with almost everything to do with Danger Man the ambiguities can never be entirely resolved. In the 1960 incarnation John Drake is an agent for an unnamed (and mythical) NATO intelligence agency. In the 1964 version he works for an equally mythical British intelligence agency (M9). It is of course quite possible that he always was a British agent but that he had formerly been seconded to NATO.
The second layer of ambiguity is John Drake’s nationality. In the 1960 version his nationality is never explicitly stated but he seems most likely to be American. In the 1964 version he must presumably be a British subject since he’s working for British intelligence. Again this does not necessarily mean he’s not the same man. He could easily be an Englishman who lived for many years in America, or he could be American-born but with British citizenship. The ambiguity is enhanced by Patrick McGoohan’s own ambiguous nationality - he was an American-born Irishman who was raised mostly in Ireland but spent his early career in Britain and he had a genuine transatlantic accent which he could tweak slightly to sound vaguely English, vaguely American or vaguely Irish.
There’s also a certain class ambiguity. John Drake is educated and cultured but somehow he is not quite a gentleman. There is a suggestion that he is a bit of a class outsider. His superiors (in the 1964 Danger Man) are mostly upper-class Englishmen but we get a definite sense that neither they nor Drake himself consider him to be a gentleman. On the other hand he is clearly not working class.
Callan and the very underrated Man in a Suitcase. It has touches of humour (for all its many virtues there are no laughs in Callan) and even on occasion touches of whimsy. The storylines are mostly of the realist type but occasionally the series ventures into more fantastic plots. Overall it’s a serious spy drama but it avoids wallowing in existential despair or bleakness.
While there are plenty of Cold War-themed episodes the Cold War is not the sole focus (perhaps not even the main focus). M9 seems to be equally concerned with trying to preserve the tattered remnants of British prestige and influence. In fact this is the dominant theme in a great deal of postwar British spy fiction, especially le Carre and Ian Fleming’s Bond novels - an attempt to deal with the appalling shock of realisation that Britain was no longer a major power. Many of Drake’s missions are attempts to keep pro-British regimes in power in the Third World or to protect Britain’s rapidly declining economic influence, or to prevent the process of abandoning the empire from degenerating into a complete shambles. Mostly it’s not the fate of the Free World that is at stake.
So how does the 1964 reinvention of Danger Man stack up against the 1960 original? There are the slight differences alluded to earlier but on the whole both the formula and the feel remain unchanged. The hour-long format offered writers more scope but on the other hand the half-hour format tended to produce fast-paced punchy television. Production values are high in both series. McGoohan’s performance is pretty much identical in both series. Both versions have their virtues and I personally wouldn’t care to express a preference for one over the other.
The whole season is extremely good but there are a few definite highlights.
In The Hunting Party Drake goes undercover as a butler. It’s another possible security leak but this one is almost inexplicable. The only clue is that a wealthy English couple living in France, Basil and Claudia Jordan, seem to be a common factor in a number of leaks. It’s a clever if slightly far-fetched plot of a type that was very popular at the time but the main attractions is the deadly battle of wits between Basil (played with great style by Denholm Elliott) and Drake. And it’s the sort of scenario that McGoohan really relished as an actor. The toy car race is a superb touch.
Two Birds with One Bullet is a good but not a great episode but it’s notable for the murkiness of the politics, with British Intelligence trying to save the leader of a moderate revolutionary party because the party’s existence provides a useful outlet for opposition that might otherwise be directed in more dangerous directions.
In The Paper Chase the First Secretary at the British Embassy in Rome has had some papers stolen from his car. Since the papers were top-secret and he was not even supposed to take them out of the Embassy he’s going to be in big trouble. So he asks his old friend John Drake for help. It’s Saturday. Drake’s task is to retrieve those papers and he has to do it before Monday morning. Unfortunately the chase for those papers turns out to be remarkably complicated since they have already changed hands several times. It’s a tense and moody episode and then right at the end - well let’s just say the ending is somewhat bizarre and unexpected. An enjoyable episode just the same.
Pirate radio stations were a big thing in the 60s and in Not So Jolly Roger Drake goes undercover as a DJ on Radio Jolly Roger, broadcasting from what looks like an oil rig just outside the three-mile limit. In fact it’s apparently some kind of wartime maritime fort - in any case it’s a fantastic location. He’s taking over from the previous DJ who met with a very unfortunate accident. It seems that Radio Jolly Roger isn’t just broadcasting the lates pop hits, it’s also broadcasting signals to enemy submarines. The setting gives this highly entertaining and stylish story a slight hint of the surreal.
At the time it seemed like a bold move for Patrick McGoohan to leave Danger Man to make his ground-breaking very ambitious very experimental series The Prisoner. In retrospect The Prisoner has not dated all that well. It’s still interesting but its flaws (particularly its self-indulgence) are all too evident. Danger Man by contrast now seems like much the more successful series.
Danger Man is one of the great TV spy series. Very highly recommended.