More Cloak, Less Dagger
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, James Bond’s massive ego comes honestly. Following the explosive popularity of the Bond films, beginning with 1961’s Dr. No and taking off with Goldfinger (1963), the rest of the decade saw American and British movie theaters and television screens overrun with spy capers. These came in three flavors, depending on which aspects of the Bond franchise makers chose to emulate. For fans of the gadgets and girls, there was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or the cheerfully anachronistic Wild Wild West. If the whole indestructible spy thing seemed just too ridiculous, there was The Avengers, presented with tongue firmly in cheek, or James Coburn’s unflappable spy Derek Flint (his bastard offspring being the increasingly execrable Austin Powers). And if one really got off on the intrigue, Mission: Impossible rarely disappointed.
The best series of the ‘60s spy boom, however, is a rarely syndicated little number from the UK called Danger Man, distributed in the US as Secret Agent (and whose theme song by Johnny Rivers remains the third coolest TV theme ever, after Peter Gunn and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Premiering in 1960, Danger Man actually predates the Bond films, and its star, Patrick McGoohan (perhaps best known to latter-day audiences as King Edward the Longshanks in Braveheart), turned down the role of Bond before it went to Sean Connery. Good thing, too—the series’ hero, John Drake, is about as unlike Bond as it’s possible to be, the kind of agent who actually paid attention in spy school while his more flamboyant colleagues were hanging coat hangers on their dorm room doorknobs.
In its original run of 30-minute, action-oriented episodes, Drake was an idealistic agent of no particular nationality—McGoohan is Irish-American, having spent his childhood in both countries and split his accent between them—working for NATO, traveling to global hotspots and ferreting out subversive elements single-handedly. The first series folded after a season but was revived in 1964 in the form with which most fans are familiar, with hour-long episodes, more involved plots than the original, and a decidedly more British Drake now working for Queen and country. The expanded format allowed the writers and star latitude to explore the character of Drake, a cerebral and cynical spy who prefers to outwit his adversaries rather than shoot it out.
It is McGoohan’s fully realized vision of John Drake that makes the series so special. As initially constructed by the show’s producers, Drake would have been a trigger-happy, bed-hopping lothario in the mold of Ian Fleming’s hero, but McGoohan, a staunch Catholic moralist who had once aspired to the priesthood, would have none of it. His Drake is a man of high ideals in love and war, one who fights according to Queensbury rules and would never subject a woman to the pain of a relationship with a globetrotting spy. Thus Drake rarely carries a gun (though ex-boxer McGoohan delivers a mean right hook) and is never seen, as Johnny Rivers would have it, “kissing persuasive lips.”
The concept is high-minded and the execution is superb. McGoohan brings a sharp delivery and a grim wit to his portrayal, whether Drake is discoursing on wine in flawless French, posing as a soft-spoken heavy to lean on a welshing gambler, or doing patter in the guise of a DJ on a pirate radio station. The actor manages the nigh-impossible feat of being breezy and intense at the same time, all the while punctuating his performances with a ready steely gaze or a wry twist of the mouth. Though an accomplished film and stage actor, McGoohan found Danger Man to be exhausting work, and it’s not surprising. Working in a genre not exactly known for subtlety or texture, McGoohan brings the full force of his craft to the role, and it shows.
Equal to McGoohan’s performance are the show’s production values. Unlike The Avengers, which confined its escapades to English environs, Danger Man maintained a global focus which seems at odds with the notoriously tight budgets of British television. Every episode required Drake to work in a different locale, from a chateau on the Loire to the slums of Baghdad to downtown Tokyo, which meant extensive set dressing and loads of stock exterior footage, but rarely do the seams show.
The show’s only real weakness in maintaining verisimilitude is in the casting, where the primarily English actors often fail to wash as characters of other ethnicities. One good example is the series’ final two episodes, set in Japan, wherein Drake watches a Kabuki performance by a clearly all-Caucasian troupe. Still, it’s hard to quibble over such details when the program has so much else going for it.
The aforementioned Japanese episodes were the only ones in color, the opener of an all-color fourth season which ended prematurely when McGoohan, feeling stuck in a rut, wrangled a deal with Danger Man‘s producers to stop production and embark on a new venture called The Prisoner. The result was one of television’s most highly acclaimed, if often surreal and confusing, shows, the story of an unnamed secret agent trapped in a picturesque village that he can never leave because he “knows too much.” The final fate of John Drake? Did they, to again quote Rivers, give him a number and take away his name? Such is never stated explicitly, but it makes sense, and thus we see the rare case of a TV spin-off as good as the original, if not better. But then fans of Danger Man and Patrick McGoohan have no reason to expect any less.