The origins of Danger Man lie in a series of fortuitous connections between Australian producer Ralph Smart, legendary ATV executive Lew Grade, writers Ian Stuart Black and Brian Clemens, Bond novelist Ian Fleming and the actor they cast in the lead role of John Drake, Patrick McGoohan. Regarded as one of the best pre-Bond spy series made for British television, it eventually made a star out of McGoohan and paved the way for the glossy secret agent and fantasy thrillers that would be ITC's (and ATV's) bread and butter during the decade that followed Danger Man's original transmission in 1960/61.
Grade had already had much success on the fledgling ITV network with costumed adventures series such as The Adventures Of Robin Hood and was determined to crack the lucrative American market with a drama that better reflected the contemporary mores of the 1960s. With Danger Man, Grade once again emphasised the high quality of productions coming out of ITC's studios based at MGM Borehamwood with all 39 half-hour episodes of the first series shot on 35mm and featuring some extensive second-unit filming undertaken in Europe.
In 1960, to make the move from the imagined past of Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, Ivanhoe et al, Grade commissioned Ralph Smart, who had produced, directed and written on Robin Hood and The Invisible Man for ITC, to come up with a new series. Smart had already had a number of meetings with Bond creator Ian Fleming (seven of the Bond books had been published by 1959) with a view to bringing Bond to television but Fleming had already sold the rights to Eon.
Instead they came up with a pitch for a series called Lone Wolf, an espionage thriller with a cool, no nonsense central character sorting out the dirty jobs other intelligence agencies wouldn't touch. With writer Ian Stuart Black's input the original pitch made the character of John Drake an American (probably with a view to selling the series to the US market) working for NATO. Grade gave the nod to a pilot co-written with Brian Clemens and Smart cast McGoohan in the role of Drake after seeing him in a Play Of The Week television production, The Big Knife (1958). McGoohan's star was in the ascendancy after being nominated as best actor of the year for his performance in Ibsen's Brand (BBC 1959) and, as he started filming on Danger Man, he picked up an award for his role in The Greatest Man in the World a 1959 segment of ITV's Armchair Theatre.
McGoohan himself demanded changes to the character of Drake before he would commit to the series. He was not happy with the original pilot's depiction of the spy as a man of violence and a womaniser. Gradually, as the series progressed McGoohan molded Drake into a man who treated women with reasonable respect and only resorted to fisticuffs where necessary.
The first series of 30 minute episodes tend to stick to a standard formula: a pre-credit sequence depicting the threat or problem and then, after the iconic title sequence, Drake on a mission to resolve that situation. He might have to assassinate someone, smuggle out defectors, aid democracy in foreign countries or solve murders that have some bearing on both NATO or US foreign policy. Politically the series reflects the Cold War threat as well as both the dismantling of Empire and the antagonisms between the States and Latin American nations. The global stage is brought to life in the now highly recognisable ITC house style of well designed studio sets, second unit footage, stock footage, travelling mattes and back projections. The desire to depict these foreign locations in the series reflects the aspirations of the 'jet set' generation of late 1950s as well as an attempt, commercially, to market the series with global appeal.
The scripts are crisp, snappy, often somewhat economic, and the series is filmed in a black and white noirish style that's polished and slick. Scripts came from a mix of writers, with Smart writing a great deal of the series himself but also including Jack Whittingham (later embroiled in Kevin McClory's ongoing Thunderball production saga), the aforementioned Clemens and Stuart Black and American scripter Jo Eisinger.
Stylistically the first series embraces both the post-war 1950s cultural milieu, evoking comparisons with The Third Man (both the film and the television series), Carve Her Name With Pride and the spy fiction of Desmond Cory, Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming and looks ahead to the explosion of 'pop' culture in the 1960s. The series was also being transmitted at the tail end of an intelligence scandal in Britain, involving the ‘Cambridge Spy Ring’ of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. The public's appetite for spies and espionage was certainly heightened by their sensational exposure as Soviet spies. The first series also, as James Chapman wrote in Saints And Avengers, "belongs to the lineage of the professional secret agent thriller" as opposed to the amateur investigations of say Richard Hannay or Bulldog Drummond, even though morally the character is closer in tone to them than he is compared to James Bond.
The series features a consistently good performance from McGoohan as Drake who comes across as somewhat aloof, cynical and often morally at odds with his masters in NATO and the US but has a principled and moral work ethic regarding his cases. This complexity was the major appeal of the character to the audiences of the 1960s and it still fascinates today. It's also chock full of many of the highly recognisable British character actors of that generation and was directed by well respected names in the industry, including Peter Graham Scott, Clive Donner and Seth Holt. McGoohan also directed an episode, The Vacation. You'll also have fun spotting all the location filming done in Portmeirion (mostly for View From The Villa but with some footage featured in at least another three episodes) years before The Prisoner was a twinkle in McGoohan's eye.
Standout episodes include Position Of Trust, with wonderful performances from pre-Bond Lois Maxwell and Donald Pleasance; An Affair Of State featuring Patrick Wymark and John Le Mesurier; look out for the likes of Patrick Troughton and Robert Shaw in Bury The Dead and in other episodes the likes of Roger Delgado, Warren Mitchell, Honor Blackman and Barbara Shelley too. Throw in Edwin Astley's blistering jazz-tinged score for good measure and you can understand why Danger Man is held in such esteem as a good example of ITC's output before the the later series itself became part of the production cycle of slightly campier spy fodder such as The Saint and The Champions with only Man In A Suitcase latterly reflecting the more serious tone of this first series. McGoohan went on to make The Prisoner, perhaps the most atypical fantasy espionage series of them all.
• Commemorative booklet on the making of the series by Archive Television historian Andrew Pixley
• Extensive image galleries, including many unseen stills
• Mute trailers
Danger Man - The Complete First Series (Network DVD 7953139 - Region 2 - Released 25th January 2010 - Cert 12)