‘Secret Agent: The Complete Series’ Out-Bonds James Bond

Patrick McGoohan's John Drake, superhero for the Cold War era, just might be the coolest hero of all time -- yes, even more than James Bond.

Has there ever been a cooler customer than John Drake, Patrick McGoohan’s character on the British television series Secret Agent (a.k.a. Danger Man)? I can’t think of one, and Drake gets extra points because he also got there first. He first appeared on television screens in 1960, two years before Sean Connery’s James Bond graced the silver screen in Dr. No and almost 30 years before Chow Yun-Fat’s Ko Chun appeared in Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers.

John Drake is a product of the Cold War, appearing at a time when it was easy for audiences to believe that espionage was a force for good, keeping us safe from the predations of that mighty evil empire behind the Iron Curtain. Drake’s job description is a bit vague, but implies great importance, as is evident in this voice-over intro:

Every government has its secret service branch. America, CIA; France, Deuxième Bureau; England, MI5. NATO also has its own. A messy job? Well, that’s when they usually call on me or someone like me. Oh yes, my name is Drake, John Drake.

Drake is something of a proto-Bond, with respects to 007’s depiction in cinema; some believe his character is truer to Ian Fleming’s novels than is Sean Connery’s Bond, and not just in the inverted evocation of his name. Like Bond, Drake is blessed with good looks, almost infinite personal competence, and a variety of gadgets to help him on his way. (His flashy band of gadgets include an assortment of cleverly disguised miniature radios and cameras as well as weaponized cigars.) He uses his brains first, his fists second, and guns rarely.

Unlike Bond, however, Drake is not much of a man for the ladies. There are no “Drake girls” running around in bikinis or practicing their golf game clad only in one of the hero’s shirts. Reportedly this aspect of the character was due to the devoutly Catholic McGoohan’s insistence that he wanted Drake to remain within the bounds of his own personal morality. Plus, it’s not a bad choice dramatically, because if a character is already really cool, playing hard to get just makes him seem that much more desirable.

Drake’s missions are a varied lot, taking him all over the globe in the defense of truth, justice, and the NATO way. Sometimes he’s dispatched to real countries, but often he finds himself in places like “Borovia” (somewhere in Eastern Europe) or “San Pablo” (a small banana republic in Latin America), or in imprecise locations like “the Middle East”, all dodges presumably meant to avoid insulting real people in real countries. In one episode, Drake might be preventing an assassination in the Balkans; in the next, investigating reports of white slavery in an unnamed desert country; not long after, he’ll be infiltrating an IRA cell in Europe or investigating a plane crash in Southeast Asia. The production design team does a great job suggesting these varied locations, so you get a little imaginary travelogue each week along with your story of international intrigue. The pilot episode, “View from a Villa”, is a case study in how to suggest a foreign location without leaving home, using Portmeirion, Wales as a convincing stand-in for Italy. If the location sounds familiar, that’s because it would later serve as the Village in The Prisoner, also starring McGoohan.

The broadcasting history of Secret Agent is enough to make your head spin. The show aired in three series, all of which were created and originally broadcast in the U.K., with some episodes also aired in the U.S. and other countries, but not necessarily in production order and not necessarily under the same name. The first series, called Danger Man in both the U.S., and the U.K, consists of 39 episodes originally broadcast in the U.K. from 1960 to 1962. These episodes were a short half-hour each. The second series, called Danger Man in the U.K. and Secret Agent in the U.S., consists of 22 episodes aired in the U.K in 1964 and 1965; each were a short hour long. The third series, also a short hour each, consists of 23 episodes that aired in the U.K. in 1965 and 1966. The fourth series consists of two episodes first aired in the U.K. in 1967, before the series ended to make way for The Prisoner.

Got that? Fortunately, you don’t need to keep it all straight, because the episodes are self-contained and the many series are more alike than they are different. The first key distinction is between the half-hour and hour episodes. The former feel like spy-themed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where you admire the craft in delivering a twisty story in less than 30 minutes, while the latter are able to take their time and develop their stories a bit more. Drake’s home turf also changed in the gap between the first two series: in the half-hour episodes, he’s an American, while for the hour-long episodes he’s British. McGoohan’s transatlantic history (born in Queens, New York, he was raised in Ireland and England) and indeterminate accent makes him suited to either backstory. You can easily enjoy the episodes without dwelling on the switch.

Final distinction: the final two episodes are shot in color, and this is a rather jarring change, as Drake is a character who seems born to dwell in a world of blacks, whites, and grays.

I’m not sure anyone, even the most ardent McGoohan completist, would want to sit down and watch the contents of this DVD set straight through. First, your eyeballs would fall out. Second, there’s a lot of repetition in terms of plot, which is totally understandable in a multi-season television show. Third, Secret Agent preceded the current fad for binge-watching by about 50 years, and as a result it plays by the rules of old-fashioned episodic television: each episode introduces a premise, develops it, and resolves it neatly within the time allotted.

With this style of writing, you don’t get the complexity of character and situation or the leisurely story development that we’ve come to expect from long-form television. What you do get is a series of self-contained episodes that can be watched in any order without the fear that you’ve missed something important introduced earlier in the season or, god forbid, in an earlier season. This plot structure is sort of a relief, actually: here, one can just watch something that’s less than an hour long and is complete in itself, delivering predictable pleasures without too much complication. Modern life may be tough and the world full of evil, but John Drake always comes through for the good guys, and always looks great in the process.

The extras package for Secret Agent: The Complete Series is skimpy, particularly considering the massive nature of the box set (over 57 hours of programming). They are, in total, an interview with McGoohan’s daughter Catherine and audio commentaries on three episodes (“View from the Villa”, “An Affair of State”, and “The Nurse”) by Brian Clemens and Peter Graham Scott, the writer and director on the show, respectively. A featurette on the complicated history of the series and/or some liner notes would be a great addition to this collection.

RATING 7 / 10