Spies and Spinets

by wjw on November 28, 2018

One of the oldies channels has been running back-to-back episodes of The Avengers (the British one, with Patrick Macnee), and Danger Man, with Patrick McGoohan, both Patricks playing men named John.  I remember watching the two Patricks as a youngster, and being enthusiastic fans of both.  (Danger Man seems to have been the first British series ever shown on US television, with its name changed to Secret Agent and a new theme song by rockabilly star Johnny Horton, which probably would have sounded as weird to British ears as one of his other hits, “The Battle of New Orleans,” about a British military disaster in a war that few Britons even knew about.)

When I first noticed the Sixties spies had returned to television, I tuned into the Avengers to find them beginning the arch-campy Season Six, with Linda Thorson.  These are less popular among aficionados, I think, for their over-the-top silliness and resentment over Thorson not being Diana Ring.  Part of the problem, I think, was that the producers had no idea what to do with Thorson, an inexperienced actress who had been foisted on them, but who also was a big girl, with hips and everything, that literally stood in opposition to the ectomorphic feminine Sixties ideal.  She ended up being held prisoner a lot, which forced Steed to rescue her.  (Emma Peel would have rescued herself.)

After the season finale, in which Steed and King were literally fired into space on a rocket, the station recycled back to the beginning— not Season One starring Ian Hendry as Dr. Keel, with John Steed as the sidekick, because nearly all those episodes were destroyed; but Season Two, featuring Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale.  These were never shown on an American network, because British videotape was incompatible with the American system, so I’ve seen very few of these over the years.

Watching these, and comparing them with Season Six, I had to wonder. This turned into this other thing?

The Avengers was then a quite serious spy drama, with few of the humorous and camp elements that came later.  Our heroes were fighting Bolsheviks and protecting Britain’s secrets.  Some of the enemy spies were a little bizarre, like the fellow who used voodoo, so it might be a stretch to call it “realistic,” especially as the hero was a counterintelligence professional who kept putting his amateur sidekicks in deadly danger week after week.

I also noticed that Season Six recycled ideas from Season Two, and parodied them.  They really were out of ideas at the end.

Cathy Gale, TV’s first superwoman, became so huge that people forget that John Steed had two other sidekicks in Season Two: Julie Stevens as nightclub singer Venus Smith, and John Rollason as Dr. King, who existed only to make use of some leftover scripts written for Hendry’s Dr. Keel.

A mere nightclub singer could not compete with a polymath anthropologist, crack shot, and jujutsu expert garbed in leather-fetish gear, so Venus Smith was dropped for Season Three.

Supposedly part of Honor Blackman’s affect was that she, too, was using scripts written for Ian Hendry, and a woman in a leather suit who talked like a bloke was a revelation.  (As for the jujutsu, I know some of the techniques she used, and they’re perfectly genuine, if inexpertly performed.)  The series’ stunt coordinator tended to overuse sumi gaeshi, the technique where you fall on your back and throw your enemy over your head, but then it looks spectacular when performed on TV.

Apparently the term “kinky boots” was first used to describe Cathy Gale’s footwear, and resulted in Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman recording a novelty song.  You’re welcome.

Steed evolved over the course of the Honor Blackman years.  At the start he hadn’t got his bowler hat or umbrella— in fact he wore a trilby, a style he shared with Danger Man’s John Drake.  But gradually the bowler and brolly took over, along with the elaborate waistcoats, impeccable tailoring, and vintage automobiles.  He carried a gun less and less as the series progressed, though of course he always had Mrs. Gale to shoot the baddies with her little chrome pistol.

His relationship with Mrs. Gale seemed adversarial, particularly at the start, where she was skeptical of both his ideas and the man himself.  Maybe that’s an artifact of the Ian Hendry scripts, or maybe it’s a result of his asking her to drop by his flat and do the housework.  (He really was different.)

One of the enjoyable aspects of both series is enjoying the revelation of the Sixties’ advanced technology, which seems implausibly crude now.  A computer housed in a building the size of a factory?  There’s a reference to a range-finder using optically enhanced light— I’m guessing the term L.A.S.E.R. hadn’t yet been coined.  Microdots are so common they probably fall like snow.

Danger Man strove to be a realistic spy series, assuming that a spy series that puts its protagonist in deadly danger every week for eight years can be described as realistic.  It’s very much set in the Cold War, where having a volume of Karl Marx on your bookshelf can get you on a suspect list, and McGoohan’s John Drake is clearly out to save the West’s secrets from the cruel, ruthless Commies and their treacherous fellow travelers.  (Both series taken together, it seems that most of the population of Britain were working for the Russians.)

I was surprised by the sophistication of the scripts, which were far more complex and grown-up than, say, James Bond’s shenanigans.  Not every script has a happy ending, and sometimes bad things happen to good people.  McGoohan thought that Bond was a slut and a bad example to spies everywhere, and he refused to let John Drake so much as kiss a woman, let alone tumble into bed with her.  Drake only rarely carried a gun, and when he did, hardly ever used it.  The writers couldn’t end every episode with a clinch or a shoot-out, which meant they had to use more imagination and wit to resolve their stories.  Nor could Drake use his sexual wiles to get secrets out of women, he had manage some other way.

In this Drake was clearly an anti-Bond, but there was at least one episode that was clearly a Bond parody, complete with a casino scene, a slinky femme fatale, and a villain with a serious physical deformity.

Given its budget, Danger Man is very good at simulating the exotic backgrounds where John Drake is sent to defend, and sometimes impose, democracy.  For a story set in Cuba or Latin America, characters drive Detroit chrome barges, and plausibly Latinesque actors speak actual Spanish (though very likely with a Leeds accent).  In episodes set in France, people look and speak French, and drive the legendary Citroen DS.  A story set in a newly-independent African republic features a number of distinguished black actors, including the American opera singer and Shakespearean William Marshall (better known as Blacula), who at 6’5″ towers over the puny humans in the cast.

For episodes set in Italy, the series was shot in the Italianate resort of Portmeirion, later the set for McGoohan’s The Prisoner.

Quite a number of episodes prefigure The Prisoner, especially the one where Drake infiltrates a quaint English village where no one is permitted to leave.  (The village is actually in Russia, and is used as a training center for spies intended for Britain.)

(The question has always arisen as to whether John Drake, having finally quit his job in disgust, is The Prisoner in The Prisoner.  The answer is a firm No, because if Number Six was in fact John Drake, McGoohan would have had to pay Danger Man’s creator, Ralph Smart, what I believe is properly known as a metric fuck-ton of money.  Next question.)

And here’s the next question: What the hell is it with the harpsichord?  Both series, especially Danger Man, features harpsichord on the sound track, and it seems that in Sixties Britain you couldn’t do a dramatic scene without a spinet chundering away in the background.  Where the hell did that come from?  Did harpsichord players have a powerful union or something?

I have been quite enjoying my return to the Cold War, and pleased to discover that both series still have the same pleasures they did back in the day.

Plus, y’know.  Kinky boots.  Gotta love those.

Privateiron November 28, 2018 at 10:53 am

I love Danger Man; it’s awesome.

I try to tell people that Cathy Gale was something like a real feminist icon and even better than Ms. Peel, but I get blank looks and crickets because no one has watched those episodes.

John Appel November 28, 2018 at 10:55 am

Oh wow – I remember being hooked on Avengers as a kid (along with the Robert Wagner TV version of It Takes a Thief). Which oldies channel is running it?

pixlaw November 28, 2018 at 1:47 pm

Wrong Johnny, WJ. Johnny Rivers sang Secret Agent Man, with that cool guitar riff. Of course, it was later covered by Devo. for what that’s worth.

pecooper November 28, 2018 at 3:27 pm

I remember, when I lived in Houston in the 90s, a new TV channel was licensed. Alvin Community College was given responsibility for providing the programming for the first 6 months. Evenings, they would do an episode of Secret Agent, followed by one of The Prisoner.

The Prisoner was obviously a product of its time and suffered for it but Secret Agent stood up surprisingly well.

Alas, the channel was eventually sold to Trinity Broadcasting System (TBS) and all the cool retro programming was replaced by the alleged word of God.

Jos'h November 29, 2018 at 12:43 am

One thing about the earliest Danger Man episodes — they were only a half hour long and they were written extremely tightly — no moment wasted, everything advanced the story.

In the later seasons, they got full hour time slots and I think sometimes it seems that they don’t know what to do with the boundless rolling fields of the extra twenty+ minutes. Still good stories though.

Strangely enough, while McGoohan may have been considered “moralistic” when these were made, his insistence on chastity keeps them watchable in modern age where a lot of contemporary shows are now cringefests. He also apparently insisted that every fight scene had to be different.

wjw November 29, 2018 at 1:34 am

John, it plays weekend nights on a channel called Charge!

Pix, you’re right that it’s Johnny Rivers. At least I didn’t get him confused with Johnny Ace or Johnny Cash.

John Appel November 29, 2018 at 2:53 pm

Aha! I do get Charge on my cable plan. Time to set the DVR…

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