In celebration of Spy Week over at io9, I'd like to engage in one of my favorite pastimes: trying to convince people to watch something I love. It should be easy in this case, as I have a wealth of reasons why Danger Man (known in the States as Secret Agent Man, yes, as in the song), starring Patrick McGoohan, is essential viewing for fans of spy fiction.
A Land Before Bond
Danger Man's initial TV run lasted from 1960 to 1962, consisting of 39 half-hour episodes. While Fleming's Bond novels and their radio adaptations were already a hit in the UK, the Bond we commonly know from the film series was still a ways away, not officially kicking off until 1962's Dr. No starring Sean Connery.* As such, Danger Man had very little precedent to follow when it came to spy stories, and its early episodes remained gleefully free of the genre's later trappings, often owing more to film noir or detective serials than anything spoofed in Austin Powers. Each episode is remarkably distinct in tone, putting protagonist John Drake into a unique set of circumstances and watching him cleverly unravel the mystery.
Patrick McGoohan: Man Among Men
Most people who know Patrick McGoohan are probably familiar with his work on the seminal TV show The Prisoner (more on that later). Well, that, and maybe throwing that dude out the window in Braveheart. However, many don't know that he was also one of the baddest motherfuckers ever to have played dress-up for a living.
- Early in his career he played Starbuck in a TV adaptation of Moby Dick starring Christopher Lee and directed by Orson Welles, though recordings of this have unfortunately been lost. Welles later said in an interview that he was "intimidated" by McGoohan's intensity as an actor. Orson Fucking Welles.
- More praise from Welles: "[McGoohan] would now be, I think, one of the big actors of our generation if TV hadn't grabbed him. He can still make it."
- He was offered the role of James Bond before it went to Sean Connery. He turned it down because he did not like Bond as a character, particularly his alcoholism and womanizing, which went against his devout Catholic beliefs. He also famously turned down the role of Simon Templar in The Saint.
- When he turned down Bond in favor of playing John Drake for a fraction of the paycheck, he did it in exchange for creative control of the character. As the series progressed he exercised this control more and more, eventually moving to direct and write episodes.
- He demanded that Drake always "use his brain before using a gun," and also that love interests were out of bounds. His vision of the character was a driven man who got the job done at any cost, and he felt this would be undermined by the kinds of romantic subplots the Bond stories employed.
- He was an amateur boxer, and choreographed his own fights in the show. These scenes still have a remarkable visceral intensity, especially when compared to their contemporaries.
Secrets of A Dangerous Agent-Man
When Danger Man first aired in the UK in its half-hour format it was a modest success. However it didn't do well enough to make the jump to American TV, and after the initial run of 39 episodes it was cancelled.
A few years later, thanks to Dr. No and other films/shows, both the US and UK were in the grip of spy-mania, and in 1964 Danger Man was brought back. This time it was extended to an hour-long format, giving the creators greater freedom to explore different kinds of stories. McGoohan relished this freedom, directing and writing several episodes under the pseudonyms "Joseph Serf" and "Paddy Fitz."
The relaunched Danger Man was also made with American audiences in mind from the start. It was released in the US as Secret Agent Man, and its theme song (written by P.F. Sloane and Steve Barri, and recorded by Johnny Rivers) became a bonafide hit on its own, reaching #3 on the Billboard charts and outliving the show that inspired it in popular culture.
While it's a perfectly charming song, it's also a shame that it's since overshadowed its source material. "Secret Agent Man" is now synonymous with the kind of campy spy-fiction popularized by the Bond series, when in fact the show itself is most notable for how it diverges from the tropes of Bond. McGoohan always conceived the show as a grounded take on Cold War-era espionage, as opposed to Bond's escapist action-fantasies. Despite both being ostensibly about "spies," the differences between the franchises are incredibly telling:
- Where Bond would enter a room, announce his name, then order his signature drink, McGoohan's Drake was always far more subtle. Many episodes begin with him adopting an undercover persona in order to infiltrate a group or solve a mystery, and we rarely ever see the real John Drake.
- Obviously the lack of romantic subplots was notable, but even more notable were the often-fascinating female side characters who would appear. Note to writers: if you intentionally do not define your female characters by their relationship to your protagonist, you end up having to create other, more interesting motivations for them.
- Although both Bond and Drake often rely on gadgets, Danger Man again took a far more grounded approach to this, i.e., no wristwatch lasers or exploding pens. Drake would employ things as plausible as a hidden listening device or a disassembled weapon. One episode sees him strategically position a telescoping rod near a fence, which he later uses as a pole-vault at a crucial moment. For Drake it's all about having the right tool for the right job, not who has the best toys.
- Sometimes Drake would fail. Sometimes innocents would get hurt, and sometimes it was partly his fault. These failures really make you feel the weight of Drake's responsibility, and go a long way towards explaining the character's driven nature.
He's Not A Number, He's A Free Man!
The hour-long Danger Man ran from '64 to '68, and was relatively successful, however, during the fourth series McGoohan decided to quit. The show ended on a whimper, with the fourth series consisting of only two episodes. Producers were looking to capture more of Bond's popularity as their ratings waned, so they ditched the typical structure in favor of a two-part miniseries, filmed in color for the first time in the show's history. Apart from the vaguely racist overtones of episodes "Koroshi" and "Shinda Shima," as well their campy Bond-esque production design, it was also clear that McGoohan himself was tiring of the show. After the episodes aired, McGoohan announced he would be writing, producing, and starring in a new show called The Prisoner, along with many key figures from Danger Man's production team.
Although The Prisoner is still (rightfully) regarded as one of the most groundbreaking shows to ever air on television, Danger Man has been given somewhat short shrift by comparison. While there is much speculation that The Prisoner's unnamed "Number Six" is, in fact, John Drake, this was never confirmed. However, certain Prisoner episodes played off of themes from Danger Man, with one particular episode ("The Girl Who Was Death") adapted from an unused Danger Man script and featuring John Drake's former handler "Potter," played by Christopher Benjamin in both shows. While these connections are little more than speculation on the fans' part, for viewers at the time, the spectre of John Drake hung over The Prisoner's gonzo dystopian spy-fi.
Although Danger Man never lit the world on fire the way Bond did, nor left the enduring legacy of The Prisoner, it remains one of the best pieces of spy fiction I've ever had the pleasure to enjoy thanks to its tight writing and compelling performances. Thanks for that, John Drake.
*For simplicity's sake I'm ignoring the CBS adaptation of Casino Royale from 1954, because c'mon... They called him 'Jimmy' Bond and made him American. That just ain't right.
pocoGRANDES occasionally writes things for TAY, the Kotaku reader's blog. This is not one of them, but he may put it up there just for funsies.