Danger Man aka Secret Agent

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Is Danger Man one TV series or two? It has two entries on the IMDb. There’s this one, for the original series, which ran 1960-1962, and this one for its second coming, 1964-1967, when the show in some places (the USA for example) went by the name Secret Agent and had a snappier theme tune (High Wire, played on a muscular harpsichord). In its native UK it was always Danger Man.

There is an argument for treating them as different entitities but in essence they are the same thing, united by the presence of Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, dry spy extraordinaire – no guns, no girls, no gadgets, initially at least. Along with McGoohan and showrunner Ralph Smart, Ian Fleming helped work on the character’s development so there is the temptation to see Drake as an anti-007, though “Drake, John Drake”, as he announces himself in the opening titles narration, was on screen before Bond, James Bond.

The company behind Danger Man was Lew Grade’s ITC outfit. ITC tended to shoot all its shows on film, for export (ie US) purposes. It’s one of the reasons why shows like this, Space 1999, The Prisoner and Thunderbirds continue to be shown on television into the 21st century – they’re glam and glossy and production values are high.

Similarities to one side, there are obvious differences between the two iterations. Season 1 consists of 29 episodes shot entirely in black and white, all of them 26 tightly packed minutes long. Drake is an American and works for a shadowy branch of NATO.

The other three seasons, in the 1964-67 show, all run 49 minutes long. Drake has been retconned and is now British and working for spy agency M9. Two concluding episodes – numbers one and two of season 3 of the 64-67 show – were shot in colour and are sometimes shown bolted together as a standalone movie.

It helps that McGoohan himself was something of an Atlantic criss-crosser. Having been born in New York, he was then raised in Ireland and England. The accent meanders too, into the Atlantic and then switching about alchemically – Irish, American, English, you’re never quite sure which.

Never less than a compelling presence, McGoohan is a coiled spring throughout and is the reason to watch. If you’re looking to dip in rather than watch the lot, here are a few episodes featuring the quirky, ingenious secret agent that are worth having a look at, for different reasons.

View from the Villa is the first episode of series one and wastes no time in establishing what this is all about – McGoohan speaks quickly, is sharp and sarcastic, in a story all about missing gold bullion that’s set in Rome but filmed in the quaint latinate folly of Portmeirion in Wales, which would later be repurposed as the location for The Prisoner, the show McGoohan made after Danger Man. Brian Clemens and Ralph Smart wrote the fast-moving, quippy script, it’s noticeably more about fists than guns and the second unit stuff was handled by John Schlesinger, who got fired for being no good. He’d later go on to direct Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man, so he had the last laugh.

Still from the last episode of the final season
And now, the end is near: John Drake’s final curtain

Danger Man is combed obsessively by fans of The Prisoner – most cultish TV show of the 1960s in a to-the-death fight with The Avengers – and so an episode called The Prisoner (episode 13 of season 1) is obviously worth a look. It’s a “doubles” plot (The Prisoner wasn’t averse to that idea either – see The Schizoid Man), in which Drake is trying to spirit a famous concert pianist out of a hostile country by substituting him with A.N. Other (both roles played by William Sylvester). It’s a head-scratching plot and deliberately confuses the audience as to which character Sylvester is actually playing in any given scene. Nicely lit, it’s fluidly directed by Terry Bishop, who’d done a similarly stand-up job on View from the Villa.

For direct The Prisoner read-across the episode to turn to is Colony Three (episode 3 in season 1 of the 64-67 Danger Man). This is all set in a replica of an English village (rule number one: don’t leave the village) where Iron Curtain agents are trained to pass for native Brits, with John Drake there undercover posing as a kind of high-end tutor teaching the enemy all about British etiquette. “We must absorb your curious customs: drive on the left, politics on the right; animals in the home, children safely in boarding school; hate privilege, suck up to the privileged; love money, despise the rich,” says one of Drake’s students at one point, which is pretty good as a summation of life in Britain, then and now. Class politics figure large. There’s a communist called Randall (Glyn Owen) who gives the entire episode a bit of a rasp. Friction! And Drake has gadgets – 007 has arrived, which is ironic because McGoohan turned down the role twice.

By the time of The Man on the Beach (episode 12 in season 2 of the 64-67 Danger Man) budget has also arrived – Drake flies a plane, there’s a suggestion of sex in a teasing relationship between the spy and a pretty young woman called Cleo (Barbara Steele) he meets on a beach in the Caribbean. Peter Yates, later of Bullitt, directs and there’s plenty of action, more fights, well handled by Yates, as you might expect.

Not So Jolly Roger is the last episode of Season 2 of the 64-67 Danger Man and bears a prominent screen credit as script consultant for George Markstein. Markstein is a key member of the team McGoohan would take off with him to The Prisoner the following year and he’s clearly been got in to punch up a story set on an offshore sea fort where a pirate radio station operates. John Drake is undercover as a DJ (“a JD, in fact,” he quips). It’s full of salty characters and there’s a particularly good over-ripe turn by Wilfrid Lawson as the radio station’s drunken old cook.

Here endeth the series, to all intents and purposes, since McGoohan departed after only two episodes of season 3 (of the 64-67 Danger Man) had been shot, to start work on The Prisoner, his passion project. Whether the ex secret agent Number 6 in The Prisoner is really John Drake is one of those questions which even McGoohan left up in the air, but he’s a very similar character and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that McGoohan was being coy about Number 6’s origins to avoid having to pay Ralph Smart for originating the character.

The two completed episodes, Koroshi and Shinda Shima, were both shot in colour, were both set in Japan (stock footage, British studios), were both written by Carry On writer Norman Hudis and were directed by Peter Yates. They’re often shown bolted together and were distributed in “some territories” (says the IMDb mysteriously) as a standalone film, but don’t work that way at all. ITC’s decision to make Drake more like Bond is working against them now – TV production values can’t hold a candle to the cinematic 007 – and the second episode’s similarities with Dr No really emphasises the gulf. One standout – Peter Yates’s direction, which is bright and tight.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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