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Danger Man: The Complete First Series

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Patrick McGoohan
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This six-disc DVD boxed set from Network Films, comprises all 39 half hour episodes of the first series of "Danger Man" — the 1960's ITC-produced British TV spy drama that catapulted Patrick McGoohan to international fame — all the episodes arranged in production order and packaged with a commemorative booklet on the making of the series by TV historian Andrew Pixley (which was unavailable for review). This groundbreaking series arose when Lew Grade, the head of ATV (the Birmingham division of the fledgling ITV Network) and owner of its ITC film division, commissioned Australian-born producer-director Ralph Smart to come up with workable ideas for a series which could be made saleable overseas, particularly in America. Lew Grade's speciality at the time lay in producing popular, classy-looking and relatively expensive (compared with much UK TV drama of the day) dramas, shot on film in the half-hour format preferred by the U.S. market. The fact that a British television production company could not realistically expect to sell westerns (which were hugely popular in the late-'50s) to the Americans, led them to concentrate on rousing adventure-based costume dramas such as "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "William Tell". Smart had previously been involved in writing scripts for these shows as well as for Grade's first crack at producing a contemporary modern-day drama, "The Invisible Man", and proved a good choice for the set job when, after allegedly meeting with author Ian Fleming with a view to adapting his James Bond character for television (a project that quickly fell through when Fleming sold the rights to Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli), the two came up with a sort of Bond surrogate based around Smart's suggested title, "Lone Wolf".
To fit the American-friendly brief, writer Ian Stuart Black decided the character should be a freelance operative of U.S. nationality, working out of Washington for a fictional NATO security service. In the event, precisely who Drake works for is left rather ambiguous, and his accent is rather indeterminate as well —having enough of an American twang to it to suggest U.S. nationality without being too explicit about the fact. When the series came back in 1964 in a new hour long format (these episodes are also available from Network in a separate boxed set), Drake was slightly redrawn, becoming explicitly British and London-based, the accent now clearly placing him as a British agent now working for a fictionalised British agency called M9.

It was arguably the involvement of McGoohan himself in the conception of the series, though, that would really prove instrumental in defining the original tenor and style of the series in the early days. Famously stern in his views on the depiction of sex and violence on TV, McGoohan's creative involvement in the show led to his recasting the rather clichéd, rough, tough, bed-hoping agent originally conceived by Smart and Fleming as a much more idealistic and morally upright character. In fact, McGoohan seems to have had a rather antagonistic attitude to the James Bond character in general, and this almost certainly fed his determination to play his globe-trotting undercover agent John Drake as an upholder of a certain set of core values. McGoohan would later turn down the role of Bond, citing (in a 1966 interview) the character's lack of essential spirit: "Drake is not James Bond;" he said, "he is an ordinary man with a stubborn brand of courage. Hampering him with phoney romance and festooning him with guns is ridiculous." And discussing his no-sex, no-violence attitude to TV in another interview, the actor is quoted, in relation to Drake's Bond-like characteristics as first pitched to him by Smart and Fleming (quoted in Andrew Pixley's book "Danger Man: The Battle of the Cameras", available with Network's complete set of hour long episodes): "the love life planned for John Drake would have made me some sort of sexual crank. Every week a different girl? Served up piping hot for tea? With the children and grannies watching?" It was the same story when offered Roger Moore's role in "The Saint", McGoohan insisting he could never play such a promiscuous character and dismissing the role of Simon Templar as a bad influence.

With these unshakeable, almost puritanical attitudes informing his ideas about how John Drake should behave onscreen, one would have thought that the series would have easily ended up being stodgy finger-wagging fare indeed — but this is not the case. Even in this first series, where the plot-lines have to be wrapped up in neat twenty-five minute packages and character development is inevitably sketchy to say the least, it's amazing just how consistently engaging the show actually is. The episodes do certainly deal in moral certainties; Drake is always on the right side of a very clear moral line, and, unlike in the later hour long episodes, is always perfectly in tune with his superiors. The series has the tone of a '50s-style western but set in a post cold war climate. Nevertheless, the character is always likeable and exciting, the writers forced by the unavailability of corny old standbys like romantic sub-plots (which McGoohan would simply point-blank refuse to play), to come up with a host of intriguing scenarios that result in some neat twists, and witty scripts that invariably find room for some brisk, nicely choreographed action-packed fisticuffs near the conclusion of each episode. The end result is that these punchy, no-nonsense stories feel a lot less dated than many popular programmes from this era, while still retaining a slick '60s vibe that's easily as appealing as that of the flashier Bond franchise. The globe-trotting format means Drake can be dispatched to all corners of the world (with the aid of some stock footage and a few well-dressed sets), his travels taking him far a field, and putting him everywhere from the old world splendour of Paris or Vienna to the arid deserts of Arabia.

With only twenty-five minutes available per episode in which to set up each plot, create some sort of drama around it and then bring the whole thing to a satisfying resolution, the creators of the show are understandably forced to take every short cut available to them in order to make the show work. Quite a few episodes rely on a lot of exposition in the form of a Drake voice-over (McGoohan usually striking an amused laconic tone, although it deadens any sense that the character is ever really in danger during his exploits, otherwise he presumably wouldn't have been around to tell us about it afterwards!), which gives the viewer the sense of being plunged into the thick of things from the off, the episodes effectively starting halfway through the story.
In this endeavour to create a sense of urgency and a strong character-defining image right from the get go, the show's opening sequence, and Drake's accompanying voice-over, was undoubtedly of vital importance. It's probably the most striking and memorable thing about these first series half hour episodes and was extremely cleverly put together to create the strongest image possible, perfectly encapsulating the tone of the show. The sequence starts with twilight shots of the Washington skyline, a towering yet anonymous Government office block dominating the scene, its windows ablaze with light. The graphic — "Danger Man" — zooms toward the viewer, accompanied by Edwin Astley's catchy theme music, a strident brass-based piece underpinned with a thrumming guitar riff. A clean-cut man emerges from the for-grounded office building, walking vigorously towards a stylish low-slung sports car parked across the street; he throws his mackintosh into the passenger seat and drives away at speed while the following is heard above the punchy music:

'Every government has its secret service branch. In America it's CIA; France Deuxieme Bureau; England MI5. NATO also has its own. A messy job? Well that's when they call on me. Or someone like me. Oh yes by the way, my name is Drake, John Drake'.

This is the lead-in to each episode and it perfectly sets the scene for the clever, well-crafted scripts that follow. There are surprisingly few weak episodes among the crop; and all they hold up so well, partly because they were all shot on 35mm film and so continue to look really excellent, but also because of the astonishing array of talent behind the scenes. A trot through the screen credits throws up many a recognisable name; from Hammer director Seth Holt in the director's chair on four episodes (McGoohan also directs one ep) to one of the most acclaimed British directors of the '60s and '70s — John Schlesinger, here cutting his teeth in the role of assistant director. Aida Young, the well remembered producer and assistant director on many a Hammer Film and a host of beloved British TV programmes, was production manager on the show which also abounds with guest appearances from many of the more recognisable names of the era: Charles Grey; Hammer films' stalwarts Michael Ripper, Hazel Court and Barbara Shelly; the second Dr. Who, Patrick Troughton; Honor Blackman (looking almost unrecognisable with a fifties perm!); Donald Pleasance, Patrick Wymark and Warren Mitchell, usually essaying small guest roles -- many of these actors would make more than one appearance in completely different roles over the course of the thirty-nine episodes that make up the first series. Although the show looks expensive, cost cutting measures like this are made evident by fact of the arrangement of these episodes in their order of production rather than original transmission. Thus, Michael Ripper and Donald Pleasance appear in several episodes that come up quite close together on these discs, when they would have been spaced further apart on transmission. Another cost cutting measure is the constant reuse of the same sets; again this can be obvious when the episodes appear close together, no more so than in the desert-based episodes "The Nurse" and "The Blue Veil" where exactly the same helicopter shots are reused, together with the studio-based desert sets. These two episodes were broadcast at either end of the series run, but appear back-to-back here, thus giving the game away!

The plot-lines often take their cue from the general political climate of the day: there are plenty of cold war- themed stories revolving around leaked secrets, secrets being sold and double agents being exposed in the course of Drake's cunning operations; another favourite backdrop is the military coup in a far off (usually African) state. Corrupt politicians or state officials caught embezzling their country's money appear several times, and stories with Drake going undercover in order to subvert a terrorist plot (there is even one — "Sanctuary"- where he infiltrates a Scottish gang intent on smuggling weapons over the Irish Sea to be picked up by the IRA) are another favourite. Brian Clemens was a writer or co-writer on several episodes here, and his well-known predilection for the Hitchcockian suspense drama finds full expression in "The 39 Steps"-influenced episode "Time to Kill" (co-written with Ian Stuart Black) in which, sent to Paris on a mission to assassinate a professional hit man, Drake finds himself handcuffed to a pretty school teacher who is determined to stop him going through with the mission. Some of the most memorable episodes find a quirky or unusual idea and then weave a suspenseful plot around the situation: "The Girl in the Pink Pajamas" starts with an amnesiac girl found wandering alongside a railway track in the Balkans, repeating the name of a nondescript local hospital. This leads ingeniously into a clever plot to assassinate a Central European president. "The Sisters" is a clever defection-based story that turns on a neat twist when Drake has to use ingenious means in order to determine which of two separated sisters who have not seen each other since they were children, is, in a fact, a spy merely posing in the role. One of the best episodes (ironically enough, titled "The Prisoner"!) meticulously documents Drake's intricate plan to bring home a U.S. citizen from the Caribbean, where he's has been forced to remain locked inside the US embassy for five years. A clever magician's trick, utilising an exact double of the prisoner, whom Drake has spent months training for the job, forms the crux of the story and the suspense comes from seeing the elaborate scam unfolding before our eyes.” Name, Date Place" could almost be an Avengers plot line (and indeed there is a very similar story in Honor Blackman's first season) revolving around an ultra secret organisation that will assassinate anyone for a price. In order to expose the organisation, Drake hires it to kill himself! "The Relaxed Informer", meanwhile, has an intriguing plot based on the standard theme of tracing the source of leaked information, but here it turns out to involve hypnotism. "The Island" is a particularly fun story co-written by Brian Clemens and Ralph Smart, which has Drake stranded on a remote island after the plane he's chartered to transport two captured assassins to the mainland crashes. A battle of wits ensues between Drake and his two prisoners, Mr Wilson and Mr Jones: a dapper pair of pin-strip wearing gentleman killers beautifully played by Allan Cuthbertson and Peter Stephens.

All the episodes look wonderful on Network's new boxed set; the transfers all come with a clean, crisp monochrome image with barely a scratch visible. The series original mono audio is clear and reasonably loud, with little background noise evident at all. The discs feature extensive image galleries for every episode including behind the scenes shots and seemingly just about every publicity still ever taken for the series. Disc six also features a McGoohan portrait gallery as well as a reel of mute TV trailers for a selection of episodes (looking rather beat-up in comparison to the episodes themselves) and the background stills for the opening sequence.

"Danger Man" would develop into a much more rounded series when it came back in 1964 with an hour long format, the increasingly troubled and complex version of Drake presented there paved the way for McGoohan's role as number 6 in the cult drama” The Prisoner". These early episodes are hugely entertaining though: pacey espionage dramas with a slick look, plenty of commitment from McGoohan and tightly constructed storylines with loads of enjoyable guest performances. Definitely worth any fan's money.

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