A Noncommital Grunt for Queen and Country
As I write this, President Bush has finally gotten around to appointing a blue-ribbon committee to investigate the tangled web of intelligence blunders that were supposedly behind his decision to declare war on Iraq. Now a cynical person, which I certainly am not, might suggest that as far as Messrs. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld are concerned, all the facts necessary for said decision were crystal clear: Iraq is the second-largest oil producer in the world, Halliburton and Bechtel contributed heavily to the last Bush campaign, and bombing Afghanistan wasn’t nearly as much fun as they’d hoped.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has formed his own similar investigative body to check out such pre-war missteps as how a forged document about uranium sales to Iraq, bearing the signature of a Nigerian official who’d been out of office for years, managed to pass the smell test of highly trained operatives of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The answer to that question is even simpler: John Drake is no longer with MI-6.
Drake (Patrick McGoohan) is the hero of, arguably, the best TV show about spies ever made, Danger Man (released in the U.S. as Secret Agent, with Johnny Rivers’ #3 hit “Secret Ayy-gent May-un” over the credits). Although the airwaves of the 1960s were crawling with covert operatives in the wake of the wildcat popularity of the James Bond films—The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Wild Wild West, The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, and so on—Danger Man was distinctive in its cerebral approach, in the complexity of its plots, and in the uniformly excellent craft of McGoohan.
A roving troubleshooter for the British government, Drake travels undercover to global hotspots, usually to investigate the deaths and failures of other agents and clean up the situation. Unlike his contemporaries, however (including one Commander Bond who still hasn’t learned that a license to kill is a privilege, not a right), Drake is a thinking man’s spy. He rarely uses a gun, and even then it’s usually someone else’s gun, relies only on gadgetry that was in actual use in covert circles at the time, and he never gets the girl. That’s not to say Drake is milquetoast. Ex-boxer McGoohan choreographed his own fight scenes and there is at least one per episode, including a remarkable fistfight in a wine cellar, throughout which Drake keeps a lit cigarette between his lips.
The result is a decidedly less glamorous brand of spy, more John Le Carre and less Ian Fleming in demeanor, and all the more interesting for it. Thank McGoohan for that. Rejecting the initial premise of the show’s producers that Drake be a gun-slinging womanizer (in fact, McGoohan was offered the role of James Bond twice and turned it down because of his dislike for the character), McGoohan took complete ownership of the character. John Drake is cagey rather than clever, more prepared than lucky, and succeeds by being smarter and more honest than everyone else around him. Although very little of his background is ever revealed in the series—each episode begins with Drake on the job and ends without denouement—McGoohan’s Drake is an intensely moral character, but never sanctimonious, a diehard cynic who nonetheless believes in what he does.
Danger Man falls into the “wandering hero” subgenre of television drama, typified by such shows as The Fugitive, Kung Fu, and the underrated Quantum Leap, which throw a central character in a wide variety of situations without the burden of an ensemble cast or episodic continuity. For a versatile actor, such a series is a dream gig, and McGoohan demonstrates both impressive chops and vast range in the various guises employed by John Drake. Every episode carried Drake to a different city on the globe, which comes off nicely through inventive set design and unusually (for ‘60s TV) seamless stock footage, and had him operate under a variety of different identities.
In the Loire Valley, he poses as a butler with a flawless command of French and wine; in Morocco he is a bohemian painter obsessed with an assassin’s irlfriend; at a pirate radio station on an oil platform in the North Sea he is pattering DJ Johnny D; and so on. In every episode, McGoohan juggles the dual roles of Drake and Drake’s alias du jour expertly, with surprising restraint. McGoohan is one of those very rare television stars (and he certainly was that, the highest paid British actor of the 1960s, in fact) who shone brightest when underplaying a role. While occasionally prone to flares of anger, Drake is more often a slow-burning creature, speaking volumes with a twitch of the eyebrow, a flare of the nostrils, or, best, a dismissive subvocal grunt. Nobody delivers an “unh” like Patrick McGoohan.
Underplayed or not, however, the role of John Drake was a demanding and exhausting one for McGoohan, and in 1967, the year in which Danger Man went color, he successfully begged off the show after two episodes, proposing in its place a new project called The Prisoner, ultimately one of the most acclaimed shows in television history. The new show, about an unnamed government operative who quits and is abducted to a strange enclave for “people who know too much,” has never been definitively called a sequel to Danger Man, but the suggestion is too strong to ignore, and it makes sense given McGoohan’s attachment to his hero. Thus A&E’s Danger Man and The Prisoner boxed sets should be purchased together and watched back-to-back and, given our real-life government’s recent propensity for “disappearing” people it doesn’t like, the sooner the better.