Tuesday, 1 June 2021

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. season 2 (1965-66)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was more than just a hit TV series. It was a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. But only for a short time. Meddling by the network resulted in the disastrous third season from which the series was unable to recover and it was cancelled midway through the fourth season. But the second season (which is what we’re concerned with at the moment) which was launched in late 1965 saw the series riding very high indeed in the ratings.

The second season was the first to be shot in colour. The formula was mostly the same as season one, with perhaps a slightly more light-hearted tone. It was not quite as good as season one but it was still very very good. The first two seasons featured often outlandish plots and outrageous villains but the series was not an out-and-out spoof. It was closer in tone to the 1960s Bond movies and to The Avengers. Most spy fans would probably agree that no spy series has ever been able to match the subtle surrealism, the sophisticated playfulness, the wit and the style that The Avengers achieved at its peak. That might be so but in its first two seasons The Man from U.N.C.L.E. goes very very close indeed to matching The Avengers in these areas. 1960s spy television doesn’t get much better than this.

One of the trademarks of the series in its first season was that a typical storyline would revolve around some poor innocent bystander caught up in the world of espionage and that device was used extensively in the second series as well.

With the success of the early Bond movies gadgets had become an essential feature of spy stories. The gadgets in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are remarkably clever in seeming to be suitably high-tech while involving almost nothing in the way of budgetary outlays.

Production values are high by the standards of the day and the sets are often quite inspired. In its early days at least the series had considerable cachet and had no trouble attracting some very fine guest stars. It all adds up to an aura of classiness and quality. The emphasis was on fun, but very well-crafted fun.

Like The Avengers this is a series that perfectly captures the spirit of a very brief moment in history. In 1965 the Swinging 60s were still swinging but hadn’t yet turned weird and crazy. Style and energy were everything. And The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had a great deal of style. By 1967 the Flower Children had arrived and style started to go out the window.

On the subject of style, it’s interesting to look at the two leads. Robert Vaughn plays Napoleon Solo very much as a sophisticated late 1950s American hero. Always impeccably groomed, with clothes that are sharp but conservative. It is impossible to imagine Napoleon Solo wearing jeans. Illya looks more like a 1960s hero, but very much an early 60s hero. His clothes are very 60s but he’s still very neat and well-groomed. Within a very few years both Napoleon and Illya would look decidedly retro. And Napoleon’s suave style with the ladies would seem very retro.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was one of the two great American spy series of the 60s, the other being of course Mission: Impossible. While the plots of Mission: Impossible were so outrageous as to challenge credibility it was played very straight. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was tongue-in-cheek from the start. But the two series do have a number of things in common, things which were characteristic of the best American television of the 60s - they were fast-moving, exciting, polished and very very stylish. And in their very different ways both series were exceptionally cool.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. inspired something of a merchandising bonanza with a wide assortment of toys and similar products. There were also a couple of dozen tie-in novels, which sold by the truckload. They were all original stories and some of them are pretty good. I reviewed The Dagger Affair here a while back. There were also Man from U.N.C.L.E. comics, several young adult novels and a series of novellas published in the Man from U.N.C.L.E. magazine. And of course there was a spin-off series, the ill-fated but somewhat underrated The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Episode Guide

Alexander the Greater Affair is a two-parter. A tycoon named Alexander sees himself as a modern Alexander the Great. He intends to achieve world domination and his theft of a new top-secret nerve gas that destroys the will to fight is part of his plan. Along the way he also intends to break all of the Ten Commandments. Having lost a game of chess to Napoleon Solo he is also out for revenge and he plans his destruction of our heroes like a chess game. It’s a story that uses lots of clichés from pulp fiction and old movie serials, with buried ancient tombs, secret passageways, fiendish booby traps and a nod to Edgar Allan Poe with a razor-sharp axe on a slowly lowering pendulum. The obligatory innocent bystander caught up in this adventure is Alexander's estranged wife Tracey (played with panache by Dorothy Provine) and she causes Mr Solo and Mr Kuryakin almost as much trouble as Alexander.

The Foxes and Hounds Affair utilises one of the standard tropes of the first season - the innocent bystander who gets hopelessly entangled in a case. A stage magician has invented a mind-reading machine. U.N.C.L.E. wants it and naturally so does THRUSH. U.N.C.L.E. has it at the moment but they have to get it back to their New York headquarters. Mr Waverley decides that a decoy would be useful. That’s where magician’s assistant Mimi Doolittle comes in. She’s the decoy although she doesn’t know it. Napoleon Solo doesn’t know what’s going on either. That’s Mr Waverley’s idea also - if Mr Solo is in danger of having his mind read it’s best if he has no idea what is going on.

The real fun in this episode is the rivalry between local THRUSH chiefs, the suave Victor Marton (Vincent Price) and the glamorous but ruthless Lucia Belmont (Patricia Medina). They’re both trying to sabotage each other in order to gain a promotion. There’s some wonderful witty dialogue in this episode. There are no spectacular sets or fancy gadgets. With Vincent Price and Patricia Medina in such sparkling form such distractions are not needed. A very very fine episode.

In The Arabian Affair Ilya does a Lawrence of Arabia thing and leads an Arab revolt against THRUSH. THRUSH are using their desert base to develop a vaporizer - a disintegrator ray type of thing. Quite a fun episode.

The Deadly Toys Affair is a bit of a romp. There’s one particularly brilliant pupil at an exclusive private school that U.N.C.L.E. are worried about. THRUSH has plans to groom the youngster for a career of evil with them. Angela Lansbury gets to do some splendid overacting as the outrageous Elfie van Donck. A silly but very enjoyable episode.

The Cherry Blossom Affair takes Mr Solo and Mr Kuryakin to Japan where they have to investigate repots that THUSH have developed a way to control the power volcanoes. An excellent episode that strikes just the right balance.

The Children’s Day Affair involves a THRUSH school for young assassins. A very good episode, with good use of the settings (supposedly Switzerland) and with just the right amount of outrageousness. Great performances by the supporting cast in this one, with Warren Stevens subtly unhinged as the school’s headmaster and Jeanne Cooper totally and delightfully perverse as Mother Fear (whose henchmen are very loyal because if they aren’t she gives them a dose of the strap). Susan Silo is fun as a ditzy Italian social worker. Everything works in this one.

In The Indian Affairs Affair THRUSH is working on a thermonuclear bomb at their base concealed on an Indian reservation. THRUSH is putting pressure on the chief through his daughter, an exotic dancer in New York. U.N.C.L.E. are also trying to use the daughter to influence the chief. An OK episode.

The Birds and the Bees Affair is rather fun, wth THRUSH employing swarms of killer bees to wipe out its enemies. There’s also a deadly sound machine, a crooked roulette wheel and a well-meaning but crazy scientist. Mr Kuryakin learns to dance, which he enjoys very much. That might have something to do with the very pretty dance instructress. He has to get to know her in the line of duty. Sometimes doing one’s duty can be remarkably pleasant. The premise is outlandish but clever. It’s classic Man from U.N.C.L.E. stuff.

Where would 1960s action/adventure television be without Nazis? They’re the ultimate reliable standby. In The Re-Collectors Affair a shadowy organisation is hunting down and killing ex-Nazis to retrieve stolen paintings. The paintings are restored to their rightful owners. Sometimes. And at a price. A high price. There is one very puzzling aspect to this case, which of course turns out to be the key. This is typical early Man from U.N.C.L.E. - the camp factor is pretty much non-existent. It’s a fairly neat story done in a reasonably straightforward spy thriller manner and it works very well.

The Deadly Goddess Affair takes Napoleon and Ilya to the Island of Circe in the Mediterranean, to intercept a THRUSH radio-controlled aircraft carrying secret plans and money. They get drawn into various local dramas. Mia Corragio wants to marry but she cannot do so until her older sister Angela gets married - it is the local custom. But no-one will marry Angela without a dowry. Except maybe a rich American might do so. And that nice Mr Solo is obviously a rich American. The two U.N.C.L.E. agents also get drawn into the plans of the Corragio girls’ impoverished father’s plans to sell antiquities to visiting rich Americans. It all becomes outrageously farcical, and a great deal of fun. The ludicrously sinister THRUSH agent Colonel Hubris adds even more enjoyment to the mix. A delightfully entertaining episode.

The Round Table Affair concerns a tiny European principality with curiously has no extradition treaties with any other countries. Which is why a collection of assorted gangsters plans to take over. Arranging a suitably advantageous (advantageous for the gangsters) marriage for the Grand Duchess is part of the plan. U.N.C.L.E. must prevent this. Much medieval-flavoured silliness ensues and it’s rather good fun.

You can’t really go wrong with a spy thriller set on board a train so The Adriatic Express Affair has that going for it for starters. Solo and Kuryakin are trying to get their hands on  a virus culture which THRUSH can use as the ultimate weapon - it destroys the human urge to reproduce. It’s in the hands of Madame Olga Nemirovitch, the ageing but glamorous owner of a cosmetics empire. She also claims to have been the founder of THRUSH. In typical Man from U.N.C.L.E. style there is an innocent caught in the middle - a young assistant named Eva from one of Madame’s beauty salons. Madame convinces her that Napoleon is a dangerous THRUSH agent who must be stopped at all costs. This one throws in every thriller-on-a-train trope in existence. There’s even a fight scene on the roof of a carriage. Jessie Royce Landis overacts outrageously as Madame while Juliet Mills is delightful as the naïve Eva. This story offers non-stop fast-paced fun with just enough outlandishness to provide superb entertainment value.

If you were a secret criminal organisation like THRUSH and you had something (like the ultimate computer) that you wanted to protect in a kind of fortress with lots of guns and guards then what better place to choose than a prison, which is already a kind of fortress with lots of guns and guards. That’s the idea behind The Ultimate Computer Affair. In order to get into this prison (in South America) Illya gets himself arrested and Napoleon poses as the English upper-class twit husband of a prison inspector. It’s a fun fast-paced romp.

The Waverly Ring Affair is a relatively straightforward spy thriller story. There’s a traitor within U.N.C.L.E. and the situation is so serious that Mr Waverly has issued Mr Solo with a Waverly Ring, which ensures instant unquestioning obedience from any U.N.C.L.E. agent. But it seems that someone else has a Waverly Ring. And an U.N.C.L.E. has to be de-trained, a process that erases all memories of his employment with the organisation. It’s a very extreme step. Solo and Kuryakin have to find the traitor but they’re not if they can trust anyone at all. This one is played fairly straight with only a few tongue-in-cheek touches. A good episode.

The Bat Cave Affair is quite goofy, with Martin Landau overacting outrageously as a Transylvanian count with a plan to disrupt international air traffic with bats. Vampire bats of course. Illya had enough to deal with getting away from the bull. U.N.C.L.E. gets some help from a hillbilly girl with clairvoyant powers. It’s silly but it’s fun.

In The Discotheque Affair Napoleon, injured during an investigation, finds himself on light duties keeping an eye on some property owned by U.N.C.L.E., the property being next door to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. One of the tenants, a ditzy blonde actress, is causing problems. The building also includes a discotheque which is actually a front for THRUSH. As is so many of the early season episodes we have an innocent bystander (the ditzy blonde actress) caught up in the middle of a case. This episode features go-go dancing and as far as I’m concerned any movie or TV show that includes groovy 60s chicks go-go dancing (especially cage dancing) is A-OK. And overall it’s a fun episode.

In The Dippy Blonde Affair the innocent bystander drawn into the world of espionage is not quite so innocent as most. JoJo has been a bit of a bad girl. She has a very long and colourful police record. She’s the girlfriend of a senior THRUSH official. But she is willing to help U.N.C.L.E. so that’s something. And the local THRUSH chief (her boyfriend’s superior) is madly in love with her. The THRUSH headquarters in the graveyard is a highlight. Napoleon and Ilya manage to get themselves captured over and over again. It’s a non-stop thoroughly enjoyable romp and JoJo is a delight.

In The Virtue Affair a M. Robespierre, a descendant of the infamous Robespierre, having run unsuccessfully for the presidency of France (on a platform of banning wine) now seems to be contemplating more direct method. He has been accumulating missile components, and missile scientists.

In The Project Deephole Affair THRUSH is trying to kidnap a geologist but they become convinced that Buzz Conway is that geologist. In fact Buzz Conway is a one-time used car salesman, encyclopaedia salesman and blackjack dealer, unemployed and trying to dodge debt collectors. So it’s another example of the innocent bystander caught up in a spy drama of which he understands nothing. Jack Weston is fun as Conway while Barbara Bouchet is delightful as the glamorous but hopelessly self-absorbed THRUSH superspy Narcissus Darling.

The Tigers Are Coming Affair takes Napoleon and Illya to India where Prince Panat is causing U.N.C.L.E. some concern. Missing villagers, that sort of thing. U.N.C.L.E. enlists the help of glamorous French botanist Suzanne de Serre (Jill Ireland). Napoleon and Illya join a tiger hunt, but are they the hunters or the hunted? A reasonably good episode.

In The Foreign Legion Affair Illya has to make quick escape from an aircraft, by parachute, over the desert. Now when you have to jump to save your life you obviously look for something you can grab quickly to take with you, something that will help you survive the cold nights of the desert. So naturally Illya grabs the pretty blonde stewardess. Having landed in the desert they find themselves prisoners of war of the French Foreign Legion, suspected of being spies. Illya tries to explain to the commandant, Captain Basil Calhoun that the Legion doesn’t exist any more but Captain Calhoun begs to differ. It soon becomes obvious to Illya and his little stewardess friend that Captain Calhoun is quite mad and getting to Marrakesh, where they need to go, may be a challenge. Napoleon meanwhile falls into the hands of THRUSH but luckily there’s a pretty girl in a cute harem outfit to make his captivity a little bit more bearable. Overall this episode is pretty slight but reasonably enjoyable.

The Very Important Zombie Affair takes Solo and Kuryakin to a small Caribbean nation where they have to rescue an opposition leader, a man named Delgado, from the evil president, El Supremo. The problem is that El Supremo has turned Delgado into a zombie. They’re going to have to find a voodoo priestess to solve that problem. Of course there’s a glamorous but ditzy female to help them, a manicurist from Louisiana. I just love anything with voodoo and zombies so I was always going to like this one, even if the surprise ending is not that much of a surprise.

The Minus-X Affair sees THRUSH getting hold of a drug called Plus-X which not only enhances the senses to an extraordinary degree but seems to enhance the intelligence as well. If you’re good at something and you take this drug suddenly you’re better at that something than anyone else in the world. THRUSH has found a use for Plus-X which could have disastrous consequences. There’s also a variant called Minus-X which has other interesting effects. There’s a brilliant scientist whose loyalties may be suspect and there’s a beautiful girl (the scientist’s daughter) whom THRUSH intends to use as a bargaining counter. It’s a very solid episode with plenty of classic Man from U.N.C.L.E. elements.

Final Thoughts

My review of the first season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. can be found here. The second season might not be quite as good but it’s very nearly so and it's still superb spy adventure television with all the right ingredients perfectly combined. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. You could really tell the swinging sixties were coming along when Ilya grew his hair slightly, and started wearing the turtlenecks instead of the shirt-and-tie favoured by Napoleon.

    One aspect of this show which gives a nostalgic rush is the way that in old TV shows, they just had to show a quick stock clip of an international location, with a caption "Istanbul" (or wherever the script required) and it was back to Hollywood backlot sets...and it was completely believable! One suspects today's viewers would not be quite so able to suspend their disbelief for the sake of an entertaining episode.

    I still have an old scrapbook put together by my older sister back in the mid-late 60s...full of nothing but photos and articles about Ilya/David McCallum torn from teen and pop magazines of the time...I suspect she wasn't the only one doing so :-)