Coppers & Spies Revisited
Continuing with the re-written versions of the original Coppers and Spies blog posts published on the MovieMail site in 2014. Each part contains additional research material and information on the various crime and spy adventure series the original blog series covered, timed to celebrate Network's highly-anticipated release of The Professionals in high-definition last March.
3: We Want Information - ITC and The Prisoner
Mention the acronym ITC to a certain generation and it conjures up memorable images: Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds machines, Roger Moore and his saintly halo, Number Six being menaced by a huge white balloon and Jason King’s outré wardrobe. Formed in 1954 by Charleston champion and talent agent Lew Grade, Incorporated Television Company was a subsidiary of ITV franchise ATV and first made an impact in the 1950s with filmed period adventure series featuring Robin Hood, William Tell and Sir Lancelot.
Grade was ‘a shrewd judge of public taste’ and financed dramas and light entertainment series with an emphasis on mass popular appeal. 1955’s The Adventures of Robin Hood demonstrated his prowess for securing co-production deals and ensuring sales of British made television to the major US networks. It paved the way for the international success of Gerry Anderson’s puppet and live action series and ITC’s cult spy and crime adventure dramas of the 1960s.
ITC’s major advantage was to shoot on film rather than record on tape, the industry standard adopted at the time by the BBC and other ITV commercial franchises. High quality, export-ready filmed productions shot on location and in technically sophisticated British film studios were more appealing to the lucrative US television market. ITC eventually generated $100 million for the UK economy and received a Queen’s Award for Export.
The company became synonymous with its crime adventure series, beginning in the 1960s with Danger Man, The Saint, The Baron, Man In A Suitcase, The Prisoner, The Champions, Department S, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and ending in the 1970s with The Persuaders! and Jason King.
All predominantly featured male secret agents, freelance troubleshooters, private investigators and amateur sleuths and embellished this male dominance with an emphasis on style, production values and Britishness. Each series also had an iconic title sequence, often designed by Chambers and Partners, and memorable theme music composed by the likes of Edwin Astley, Tony Hatch, Ron Grainer or John Barry.
Beneath the surface of what could now be viewed as conservative, misogynist and sexist male stereotypes lay Grade’s willingness to support the ‘questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions.’ This is perhaps best showcased by The Prisoner’s unique perspective on the genre, as a disquieting alter ego to the equally playful The Avengers, and the fantasy elements that delineated the formats of The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk. Jason King was itself, perhaps unintentionally, a satirical view of the format and one constructed entirely from the clichés of the ITC back catalogue.
These programmes consolidated ITC’s export drive in the 1960s and on the back of this it promoted a wide range of male heroic types. Although they offered various performances of masculinity, which expressed certain changes in attitudes and values during the explosion of British popular culture in that decade, these series globalised the crime and action genre and created heroes with transnational appeal.
Danger Man and The Saint, broadcast from 1960 and 1962 respectively, began the cycle and were influenced by international crime-fighting series of the late 1950s such as The Third Man, Interpol Calling and The Four Just Men and pre-war fictional gentleman adventurers like Richard Hannay and Bulldog Drummond. Both series initially attempted a level of realism before they reflected the arrival of pop aesthetics and fantasy celebrated in rival series like The Avengers.
Danger Man’s origins are credited to Ralph Smart, who had produced, directed and written on The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Interpol Calling and The Invisible Man for ITC. When Grade commissioned him to create a new series, Smart first had a number of meetings with Bond creator Ian Fleming with a view to bringing Bond to television but Fleming had already sold the rights to Eon.
Smart developed a pitch for a series called Lone Wolf. It was an espionage thriller with a cool, no nonsense central character sorting out the assignments Interpol and the CIA 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 commissioned the pilot Smart co-wrote with Brian Clemens, who would shortly afterwards pen the opening episode of The Avengers. Patrick McGoohan was cast in the role of Drake after Smart saw him in a 1958 Play Of The Week television production, ‘The Big Knife’. McGoohan’s star was in the ascendancy and, as he started filming the first series of 39 half hours of Danger Man, he picked up an award for his role in ‘The Greatest Man In The World’ a 1959 play in ITV's Armchair Theatre.
McGoohan demanded changes to the lead character before he would commit to the series. He was unhappy with the pilot's depiction of Drake as a man of violence and a womaniser. Gradually, as the series progressed McGoohan transformed him into a man who rarely carried a gun, treated women with utmost respect and only resorted to fisticuffs when necessary. Drake was a deeply moral man who often questioned the unforgiving nature of his profession.
Before the cinematic Bond became notorious for his use of gadgets, Drake was already making ingenious use of tie-pin cameras, dart-firing umbrellas and electric shavers with built in recorders. When he was offered the role of James Bond in Dr. No at the end of Danger Man’s first series, McGoohan turned it down, citing the dubious morals of the character and the poor script as his reasons.
Three years elapsed before Danger Man returned for a second series, during which McGoohan pursued a film career. ITC scored another hit with The Saint and the spy adventure genre was popularised by the success of the first two James Bond films. These factors initiated the return of John Drake and Sidney Cole took over as producer for a further 32 hour-long episodes. Filming commenced in March 1964 and the second series was transmitted just before the Christmas release of Goldfinger, the Bond film that firmly established the iconic franchise.
The second series saw some changes. Drake now worked for a branch of the British Secret Service, M.9 and as Ralph Smart explained in the ITC press book: “John Drake is now less cold, clinical and perfect. He is less infallible. He behaves more humanely. He makes mistakes. And he is altogether more likeable.” The glossy aesthetics of the Bond films were also of greater influence. Drake was shown using more gadgets and, importantly, employing them while dressed in clothes created by the Fashion House Group of London. Yet, just as Danger Man increasingly represented the cultural and consumerist values of the decade, the series maintained its realistic approach to global politics, the Cold War and Britain’s role in international security.
Joining Cole as story-editor at the end of the third series in early 1966 was ex-journalist George Markstein. Markstein was a major influence on the genre and worked with McGoohan again, later joined Thames Television as story editor on Special Branch and Callan, oversaw the development of The Sweeney at Euston Films and provided the original storyline for Who Dares Wins, the SAS embassy siege film starring Lewis Collins.
Being one of ITC’s most successful exports, preparations were made to move Danger Man from black and white into colour for its fourth series. However, McGoohan was tired of the role and concerned the series was becoming repetitive. He was keen to develop a new project. In April 1966, after Danger Man had filmed two final episodes in colour, ITC announced the end of the series. McGoohan had already secured backing from Grade for a new series, created in partnership with Markstein and second-unit director David Tomblin, called The Prisoner.
Meanwhile, suave playboy Simon Templar of The Saint and based on the Leslie Charteris character introduced in 1929’s novel Meet The Tiger, set the tone on television for self-made amateur investigators living the jet-set lifestyle. Charteris’s Templar, a gentleman outlaw and crime-fighting crusader, has enjoyed an extended life in novels, magazine stories, radio, cinema and television adaptations since the 1930s.
Charteris eventually sold the television rights to producers Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker. ITC financed the series and production commenced in June 1962. Originally, Grade wanted Patrick McGoohan to play Simon Templar when Danger Man went on hiatus after its first series in 1961 but Baker felt McGoohan did not have the romantic style or tongue-in-cheek panache the role demanded. Leading man of ITV’s Ivanhoe series, Roger Moore, was cast and for millions of viewers came to embody the charismatic, debonair Templar.
A glossy, cosmopolitan adventure series which ‘elaborated a male fantasy of luxury and laid back cool’, it successfully ran for 118 episodes over seven years and sold to over 80 countries. It epitomised ITC’s production and sales ethos - particularly when the series moved into colour in 1966 - and through the figure of the immaculately tailored and coiffed Moore, it projected ‘a form of masculine identity that embraced a credo of affluent pleasure, narcissistic style and personal ‘liberation’ through consumption.’
Baker revised the format when he worked with producer Monty Berman on The Baron, featuring high life antiques dealer, part-time British intelligence operative John Mannering, and on The Persuaders!, the ultimate expression of these playboy investigator tropes. Simon Templar also reappeared, unchanged save for Ian Ogilvy replacing Moore, in Baker’s 1978 series Return of the Saint.
Clearly targeted at an international audience, The Persuaders! was co-produced for ITC by Baker, Johnny Goodman and star Roger Moore through their own Tribune Entertainment subsidiary. They deliberately secured an American co-star to appeal to the US networks and Hollywood star Tony Curtis played rough diamond Danny Wilde as the foil, in the series' double act, to the sophisticated Brett Sinclair played by Moore.
The series was a mixture of private investigation caper and spy thriller and was driven by the abrasive relationship between Wilde and Sinclair whose ‘form of friendly rivalry, light-hearted banter and constant oneupmanship’ dominated the narratives. It reflected the penchant in the 1970s for male buddy relationships in films and television, echoing the success of films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the partnership between that film’s stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
The Persuaders! consolidated its globetrotting credentials by consciously eschewing ITC’s standard use of stock footage to represent international locations in favour of actually filming the series on location in France and Italy. However, despite its lavish overtures to a male lifestyle fantasy and success in the UK and Europe, it failed to set the US market alight.
Performances of masculinity
When McGoohan ceased being John Drake, former CIA agent Sam McGill firmly occupied the realist male hero mode (Texan method actor Richard Bradford insisted upon this approach) in Man In A Suitcase, co-created by writers Dennis Spooner and Richard Harris and produced by Sidney Cole.
Like The Baron, its American leading man diluted ITC’s inherent Britishness and injected a dose of cynical, macho, no-nonsense virility. McGill was a hard-boiled Chandler-esque figure who openly criticised the establishment, shed light on the ills of post-colonialism and offered ‘a distinctly jaundiced view of ‘Swinging London’.’
Spooner’s work with The Baron’s producer Monty Berman led to the formation of Scoton, a partnership that had a major influence on the development of ITC’s adventure series. In The Champions, Department S, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and Jason King, all created and produced by Scoton, realism was eclipsed by science fiction, fantasy and comic elements.
For instance, The Champions featured three secret agents whose abilities were augmented by telepathy, precognition, super hearing and strength through an encounter with a mystical Tibetan civilisation and, in the dark but whimsical Randall and Hopkirk, one of the private investigators was a ghost.
While The Champions’ themes tapped into the Western vogue for joining the so called ‘hippy trail’ search for Eastern enlightenment in the late 1960s, its agents were fighting its very antithesis. Like all of their series produced within the confines of the Pinewood, Elstree and Borehamwood studios, ITC ensured their three ‘super heroes’ defeated communist threats from East Germany, Cuba, China and Russia and their modus operandi was to protect international security rather than a specific threat to Britain.
Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) was initially something of a departure for ITC. Originally a vehicle considered for comedian Dave Allen, the series begins as a whimsical, supernatural fantasy but jettisons these elements in favour of seedy crime narratives.
Unlike many of the other ITC series in which the protagonists spend their time jetting around the world (mainly through the use of the aforementioned stock footage), Jeff Randall and Marty Hopkirk (the dead detective resurrected as a ghost) are more or less confined to the grubbier back streets and domestic fringes of London. The only exception was the studio recreation of Monte Carlo for the highly amusing episode 'The Ghost Who Saved the Bank at Monte Carlo'.
Becoming a mythology of conspicuous affluence and style, with stories forged in the ‘white heat of the scientific and technological revolution’, ITC crime and spy adventure also offered various performances of masculinity that spanned stoic Drake, gentlemanly flâneur Templar, hardnosed ex-CIA agent McGill and, by 1971, author Jason King, a character who redefined the male mystique.
Appearing in Department S before headlining his own series, the foppish aesthete Jason King was a crime writer much happier to raise a glass of champagne than throw a knockout punch. King, played by Peter Wyngarde, took conspicuous affluence, style and notions of class to such exaggerated and contradictory levels in Jason King that his masculinity seemed to exist on the nexus of heterosexual and homosexual codifications.
The hero in King’s novels was Mark Caine, a Bondian alter ego whose exploits were self-reflexively interchangeable with King’s own reluctant investigations of international crime. As Andy Medhurst noted: ‘this particular fop is also a stud, with women both on-screen in the episodes and off-screen in the audience finding King a sexual magnet of immense and irresistible proportions.’ While the series originally made King and Wyngarde into ‘a byword for potent heterosexuality’, seen in hindsight it provokes multiple, complex readings about gender, style and masculinity.
Jason King may have mocked ITC’s macho clichés and stereotypes but its female characters were little more than window dressing. Scoton’s formula of teaming two men with one woman offered some progress but the equality of Steed and his female partners in The Avengers rarely troubled ITC’s male dominated world of spies and agents. Agent Sharron Macready in The Champions and Department S’s computer expert Annabelle Hurst were the closest ITC got to depicting emancipated female heroes.
The surveillance society
McGoohan, having left Danger Man, created The Prisoner for ITC. It began in 1966 with a pitch to Lew Grade, including George Markstein’s 60-page treatment, art director Jack Shampan’s sketches and McGoohan’s photographs of the Italianate North Wales village of Portmeirion. It ended in winter 1968 with McGoohan hurriedly editing ‘Fall Out’, his stream of consciousness finale, two weeks before transmission.
‘Fall Out’, the final episode of The Prisoner, left millions of viewers puzzled and angry when it was transmitted on 2nd February 1968. After 17 episodes, it was not the conclusion they expected to McGoohan’s latest series.
Markstein’s original treatment incorporated his knowledge of Inverlair Lodge in Scotland where, during the Second World War, British Intelligence ‘managed’ recalcitrant agents, and his reflections on McGoohan’s resignation from Danger Man. The Prisoner was, for him, a continuation of Drake’s story. For McGoohan it was increasingly an expression of his own socio-political concerns. Markstein, unhappy with this direction, left in March 1967 when production concluded on the first thirteen episodes.
Expressing McGoohan’s own liberal but conflicted political awareness in a decade of radical social transformation and counter-cultural dissent, The Prisoner commented on and reused the formulaic tropes of the series he had just resigned from. It transformed them into a prescient, allegorical treatise on the surveillance society and the democratic state’s mission to coerce individuals into conformity.
A hyperbolised, satirical version of many ITC spy adventure series, using the era’s pop iconography to startling and memorable effect, The Prisoner was unique. Its central, unnamed anti-hero, Number Six, battled to retain his identity and sanity in a mysterious Village where ‘retired' former agents were controlled with drugs and brainwashed to extract the valuable information in their heads.
The parochial, cheery, mock-Italian Village, an analogue of Markstein’s Inverlair Lodge and Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the global village created by advances in communication technology, belied its totalitarian purpose. The Prisoner was not only about Number Six’s desperate attempt to escape incarceration but also his Kafka-esque journey to expose Number One, the anonymous power controlling the Village. The series concluded pessimistically as Number Six discovered he was Number One and ‘we all eventually join the enemy against ourselves’ in the battle between the individual and authority.
Subverting the James Bond conventions used in the episode, 'Fall Out' defied audience expectation the series would reveal the Village’s diabolical mastermind in its subterranean depths. Having escaped, Number Six returned home where, symbolically, his front door opened automatically with an electronic hum as the door to his Village cottage once did. McGoohan therefore intimated that, no matter how hard we try, we can never escape from the Village, or from ourselves. It was ultimately a rather conservative, pessimistic conclusion.
The Prisoner, a costly gamble on McGoohan’s concept by Lew Grade’s ITC, seemed to say freedom is elusive, resignation and rebellion are futile and conformity is inescapable but, like the decade from which it emerged, it continues to defy convention and to this day remains radical, enigmatic and thought provoking.
- Chapman, James, Saints & Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s (I.B.Tauris, 2002).
- Cornell, Paul, Day, Martin and Topping, Keith, The Guinness Book of Classic British TV (2nd Edition, Guinness Publishing, 1996).
- Courtman, Matthew, ‘The Beginning’, ‘The Basics’, ‘John Drake’ and ‘The Turning Point’, The Danger Man Website (2001) available at http://www.danger-man.co.uk/ accessed July 2014.
- Fairclough, Robert, The Prisoner: The official companion to the classic TV series (Carlton Books, 2002).
- Feasey, Rebecca, Masculinity And Popular Television (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).
- Langley, Roger (ed), ‘Who Is Danger Man?’ in Danger Man Magazine, (Six of One, Issue 1, September 1984).
- Medhurst, Andy, ‘King and queen: interpreting sexual identity in Jason King,’ in Osgerby, Bill and Gough-Yates, Anna (eds), Action TV: Tough Guys, Smooth Operators and Foxy Chicks, (Routledge, 2001).
- Osgerby, Bill, ‘“So you’re the famous Simon Templar”: The Saint, masculinity and consumption in the early 1960s,’ in Osgerby, Bill and Gough-Yates, Anna (eds), Action TV: Tough Guys, Smooth Operators and Foxy Chicks, (Routledge, 2001).
- Pixley, Andrew, The Prisoner: A complete production guide (Network, 2007)
- Rodley, Chris, ‘Degree Absolute: The production, destruction and afterlife of The Prisoner,’ in Primetime (Volume 1, Number 3, WTVA, March-May 1982)
- Tibballs, Geoff, Randall & Hopkirk Deceased, (Boxtree/ITC 1994).
Last time: The Avengers and Z Cars
Previously: Fabian of the Yard and Dixon of Dock Green