By Peter Hummers on September 11, 2020
In 1959, Ian Fleming had completed about half of his James Bond novels. No movies had yet been made. He worked for a while with Ralph Smart, of Britain’s ITC Entertainment, on a television show about a globe-trotting spy who introduced himself as “Drake, John Drake.”
In 1967, the star of that show, which was called Danger Man, created one about an ex-spy who, after being kidnapped, finds himself on a remote island with others, being relentlessly debriefed by a mysterious organization for whom he may or may not have worked, as he struggles to maintain his individuality.
Irish-American actor Patrick McGoohan was born in Astoria, Queens, New York City, to Irish immigrants in New York, who were here to seek work. Soon after they moved back to Ireland, and a few years later moved to England. ITC head Sir Lew Grade wanted to produce an exportable spy television series, so McGoohan used a mid-Atlantic accent in his portrayal of John Drake, at first a NATO agent “from America.”
The first series of Danger Man comprised 39 half-hour episodes. They were sleek and stylized freestanding adventures, which in America, were used as a summer replacement for Steve McQueen’s Wanted: Dead or Alive.
Plots involved Drake searching for the money of a murdered American banker, Drake ordered to kill an assassin whom he’d rather capture, Drake investigating slavery in the Arabian desert and so on. They were simple plots, with the interest coming from Drake’s erudition and charm and a few gadgets, such as miniature cameras.
The first series was quite good; the second, better by an order of magnitude.
The second, improved series was marked by hour-long episodes and more complex storytelling. Interesting tradecraft was highlighted, such as folding a document into a newspaper and exchanging it with a “strangers” newspaper, and bad information given out to see who passes it along, not to mention some well choreographed action.
This is the series that made it to America under the title Secret Agent, accompanied on US TV by Johnny Rivers’ song “Secret Agent Man” (which you can hear <here> in a 2018 live performance).
Drake is now a Brit in a bit of an antagonistic relationship with his M9 “employer,” with sarcasm and passive aggressiveness informing their dialogue, setting the scene, by the way, for McGoohan’s subsequent series.
The characters are given multiple motivations, the plots are intricate, and Patrick McGoohan is pretty near perfect as an ordinary-looking fellow—more the bureaucrat Alec Leamas of John le Carré’s fiction then The menacing 007 of Ian Fleming’s. <Here> is a trailer for the second series.
And then there’s The Prisoner. If Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein, screenwriter for The Odessa File, had set out to make a timeless cult classic about subjectivity, the nature of identity, the surveillance state, and the individual versus the collective, they couldn’t have done any better.
McGoohan took the idea of the disgruntled spy from Danger Man and ran with it. The opening sequence, which had slight variations leading into each episode, introduced the story. (One can be seen <here>.) An unnamed intelligence agent (McGoohan) throws a letter of resignation down on the desk of his superior (Markstein), followed by his slammed fist. He stalks out and drives to his flat. As he is packing a suitcase, gas comes through his keyhole and he passes out, waking up apparently still in his apartment—but when he looks out the window he is nowhere he has ever seen before.
McGoohan’s agent is indistinguishable from John Drake, but the sets are very colorful in contrast to Danger Man‘s black-and-white mise-en-scène. The Prisoner was filmed at Portmeirion in Wales <official website>, a resort community also used in the first episode of Danger Man, when it stood in for the Italian countryside and came to the attention of McGoohan.
The “village” has a self-contained air about it, like a model railroad layout. It is very colorful, as are the outfits worn by the villagers, also ostensibly ex-secret services, who seem to be compliant. But when our agent, now known as Number Six, hears an alert during which everyone stays still, a giant white balloon comes rolling through, smothering one who is running from it, the same balloon that later thwarts his own first escape attempt.
A series of “Number Twos,” played by such actors as Eric Portman and, notably, Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey), relentlessly grill Number Six while he plots his escape. “Why did you quit,” they begin. He counters by demanding to know, Who is Number One?
“You…are Number Six.”
The Prisoner is an odyssey, albeit one where Odysseus can’t even leave Troy until he finds out who the gods actually are, which answer will ultimately take him home. <Here> is a contemporary trailer.
Next time, there’s no business like show business: Orson Welles frightens America and Superman commits suicide—or does he?
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