The popular TV action-adventure show is a specific genre format that flourished on British television screens during the sixties and early seventies, when a bevy of secret agents, gentlemen detectives, down-at-heel private eyes, superheroes and amateur crime fighters competed with each other for the attentions of audiences in numerous glossy episodic film series that came to be shown all over the world. Indeed, they played a significant role in Britain’s faltering economic export drive during the sixties – largely due to the dedicated efforts and business strategy of self-styled showman and entrepreneur Lew Grade, the managing director of ITC (Independent Television Corporation), the company that became primarily associated with the format after ITC was set up as a subsidiary to ATV. The action adventure genre developed out of the half-hour film series that dominated the American TV schedules during the fifties, and, starting with the syndication of ATV’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1955-1959), led to a flurry of swashbuckling historical adventure shows, produced often in co-partnership with American companies with the intention of selling them abroad and reproducing the same money-spinning success as Sidney Cole’s adventure classic.
Grade recognised, much more quickly than most of the rest of the British television industry at the time (which still filmed much of its output like a play, ‘as-live’, on black & white videotape) that shooting these series on film, and aiming to reproduce the same slick standards as audiences had come to expect from their experience of the cinema, was vital to furthering the company’s international prestige and, hopefully, gaining syndication on US TV for its product. The early success of the first half-hour incarnation of “Danger Man” in 1960 established the trend for and a bias towards the globetrotting secret agent/spy adventure genre, and just about every permutation imaginable was tested in a host of increasingly flamboyant and colourful telefantasy series -- inspired by the primetime success of ABC’s “The Avengers” -- as the decade progressed. By 1966 ITC was the biggest and fastest growing film organisation in the UK, with foreign earnings amounting to $15 million. ITC played a huge part in promoting what James Chapman calls (in his book “Saints and Avengers: British Adventure Series of the 1960s”) ‘the economic and cultural export of “Britishness”’ which is universally associated today with all aspects of the popular culture of the 1960s -- although at the time these shows were generally considered to be excessively formulaic and too beholden to American tastes to be taken seriously critically.
That’s all changed today, though. From “The Saint” to “Department S” to “The Persuaders!” these series are cult items, each with its own varying level of fandom and a continuing life on video and DVD. Network Releasing are planning the next stage in this extended cult life for seventeen of the most popular shows in the ITC stable (many of which are now nearly forty years old) with a crisp new series of re-mastered high definition releases in the Blu-ray format, to be made available over the next few years. And to give potential viewers a taste of what they can expect, three volumes in a series entitled “retro-ACTION” are being put out, available only from Network’s own website, which will feature one episode of each show in glorious HD. Now restored to their original shimmering excellence, you’ve never see any of these series looking this good before, with a level of detail and clarity that is frequently quite astonishing.
Volume 1 will feature some of the more colourful late-sixties shows: “Department S”, “The Champions”, ”Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)”, Strange Report” and “The Persuaders!” Volume 3, meanwhile, covers a mix of shows from right across the spectrum, looking back to some of the early ITC shows like “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, “The Invisible Man” and the first series, half-hour format version of “Danger Man”, while also featuring later shows such as “The Baron”, Shirley’s World”, “The Zoo Gang” and “The Return of the Saint”. For the remainder of this review, I’m going to take a look at the five episodes featured on “retro-ACTION: volume 2”, the contents of which, with one possible glaring exception, derive from some of the more realist examples of the espionage/adventure format ITC patented over the years.
THE SAINT (1962-1969): “The Queen’s Ransom”
“The Saint” was one of the first, the longest running, and one of the most successful British export adventure series of the 1960s (rivalled in the latter category only by “The Avengers”). It set down many of the major elements of the genre’s ongoing format, which were to be imitated by a host of similarly styled adventure film series later in the decade. The show, following in the wake of the half-hour episodes of “Danger Man”, broadcast between 1960 and 1961, furnished its debonair protagonist Simon Templar’s adventures with a global setting -- although the production never strayed further than the country lanes and roads surrounding Elstree studios in Hertfordshire, which is where, like “The Avengers” at the same time, it was shot.
Although it strove to portray a consumerist fantasy paradise of glossy high living and globe-trotting urbanity that was very much a feature of the 1960s self-image, the show has its roots in a literary character dating back to the 1930s. Created by pulp fiction writer Leslie Charteris, the character of Simon Templar appeared in volume after volume of “Saint” novels throughout the 30s and 40s. The 1940s also saw a cycle of “Saint” feature films, conceived as support features to run alongside the main box office draws of the day by RKO Studios, the character played first by Louis Hayward and then by George Saunders. When “The Saint” was later revived for some American radio plays, Templar was portrayed by a long list of actors which included among them both Vincent Price and Tom Conway. So when former feature film producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman acquired the rights from Charteris to use the character in a TV series, Simon Templar already had a long pedigree that actually owed more to old-style British adventure outlaw heroes such as Bulldog Drummond and Raffles than it did to the womanising, amoral world of James Bond, which was just about to gain worldwide ascendancy.
But it is Roger Moore’s affable, raffish but refined portrayal of the character which has come to define Templar in the minds of most audiences since the advent of the series. Although the TV version of Simon Templar downplays the original character’s vigilante aspects and, certainly by the time the colour episodes were underway, had become highly influenced by the cinematic representation of the world of rapacious, expensive living depicted by the James Bond franchise, Moore was refining the slightly arch, ironical performance style he would later adapt when he himself assumed the role of Ian Fleming’s secret agent hero, while presenting a much more sanitised, fairly square ‘50s image of the international playboy and part-time crime fighter, than either Fleming or indeed Charteris had originally conceived.
Initially syndicated by ITC, the series was sold to the major American network NBC in 1966 when it moved from black & white to colour, and it is one of the first colour episodes from this era -- “The Queen’s Ransom” -- which has been selected for this compilation. Like most ITC shows, the format and structure of each episode followed an established pattern and “The Queen’s Ransom” offers a perfect illustration of the outline of a typical episode of “The Saint”. We start with a pre-credit sequence which establishes the foreign location: In this instance we’re in a casino in Monte Carlo. Then, Templar becomes accidently involved in an altercation of some kind. In this episode he foils an assassination attempt on the life of the ex-king of the Arab kingdom of Fedyra (George Pastell). Templar is recognised by the King’s English wife, at which point the famous ten note signature musical motif (written by Charteris himself) plays over an animated halo that appears above Templar’s head – with Moore looking up and arching an eyebrow at it in his usual inimitable style. The series then leads into one of Edwin Astley’s many hummable theme tunes.
It turns out that King Fallouda is planning on taking power back from the people who originally deposed him, but to do so he must first raise finances by obtaining his wife’s expensive jewellery collection, which is being kept in a vault in a bank in Zurich. His enemies are aware of his plans and are plotting to have him murdered at every available opportunity, making travelling to Zurich far too risky for him. Falllouda asks Templar to collect the jewels in his place, and, after being assured that Fallouda plans on building schools and hospitals etc. for his suffering people once back in power, he agrees. The young queen Adana doesn’t trust this dissolute playboy (whose reputation precedes him) and insists of coming with him on the perilous journey. Unfortunately, there is a spy in Fallouda’s camp who relays all this information to the king’s enemies, meaning Templar and Queen Asada’s journey is about to be anything but straightforward.
Shot in sumptuous colour and cunningly arranged with a large dollop of film slight-of-hand to appear to move from Monte Carlo to Zurich to the French countryside, “The Queen’s Ransom” plays like a perfectly honed fifty minute version of a classic Hitchcock adventure, with the same mix of humour and suspense as defined “North by Northwest” or “The 39 Steps”. The antagonistic attitude that develops in the partnership between Templar and Dawn Addams’ Queen Adana drives much of the episode’s action: she proclaims herself convinced that he is an untrustworthy conman and affects an air of contemptuous disdain throughout their dangerous journey, while the true barb in their relationship is revealed when we learn that Templar actually knew her before she was married (we never learn precisely what their relationship was, but we can easily take a guess!) when she was a simple bus conductor’s daughter rather than the imperious royal personage she affects to be now.
Thus the vagaries of class mobility are being explored in the guise of the comedy of manners that runs alongside the twisty chase plot that ensues as Templar tries to foil the enemies of King Fallouda in their efforts to get their hands on the jewels that Fallloua will need to finance his return to power. Adana has moved by marriage into esteemed royalty, from a previous lowly social position -- way beneath that of Templar’s urbane gentlemanly class -- up into a position of power, where she gets to adopt airs and graces. Much of the episode’s humour is based around Templar ostensibly bringing her down a peg or two, while actually reconnecting her to her true self rather than that of the role-play of ’Queen’ she’s adopted. In order to foil the plotters, Templar often plays up to his caddish image, only for it to be revealed that he’s actually been using it as a ruse to plot a diversion in order to get the pursuers off their trail. But after being betrayed by the pilot of the light aircraft who is meant to be ferrying them out of Zurich, Templar and Adana have to make their own way back to Monte Carlo with a gang of dangerous criminals in hot pursuit.
This becomes rather an enjoyable episode then, with lots of varied settings, lots of plot twists and plenty of humour throughout. Roy Ward Baker directs an episode that looks as polished and colourful as anything Hammer might have produced in the late-‘50s. As was common in the short-hand the series relied on to convey a sense of globe-trotting exoticism, the various locations are indicated with an artful mix of foreign road signs, back protection and crude national stereotypes (blacked-up Asians are always swarthy and untrustworthy and the French garage attendant the couple meet wears a beret and speaks in ze ‘Allo Allo!’ accent). One of the more enjoyable vignettes occurs when Templar and Adana meet a sweet little old lady, Mrs Pemberton (Nora Nicholson), who claims to have once worked for the French Resistance and apparently helps the couple effect their escape in her souped-up chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, only for it to be revealed that she is actually a mercenary who is in league with the plotters aiming to steal the jewels. She eventually attempts to poison them both with drug-laced tea and fruit cake! The whole episode, then, is premised on the unreliability of appearances, those engendered by the new mutability in class position, which was now becoming a factor in the iconoclastic culture of the ‘60s, most of all.
The HD transfer we get here is marvellous, with the level of clarity unparalleled, the colours rich and strong and the fine detail visible in costumes, sets and dressings absolutely amazing. Minor damage occurs sometimes at the end of reels, but is very brief and not at all distracting. It’s difficult to conceive of this episode ever looking better.
DANGER MAN (1965-1966): “No Marks for Servility”
“Danger Man” was one of the very first ITC series to exploit the popular espionage/spy drama format several years before James Bond made it the international money-spinner it was eventually to become. Initially created and produced by Ralph Smart as a weekly half-hour action adventure spy series, “Danger Man” was later resurrected in the now TV standard hour-long format in 1965, at the behest of ITC, which was looking to repeat the international success they’d recently enjoyed with “The Saint”, but were still struggling to achieve with the shows they’d financed since –- many of which were not finding those much sought after sales in overseas markets.
The half-hour episodes of “Danger Man” had been a great early success for the company at the beginning of the sixties, so it was natural to look again at the format. Based around the adventures of a globe-trotting spy called John Drake (played by Patrick McGoohan), who works for an unspecified NATO-approved security organisation, the series in its original form privileged the usual exotic action-packed adventures set in foreign lands, yet was underpinned by a much more psychologically real quality behind its approach than that of most other fantasy-based espionage shows. The series was grounded in Cold War political realities and displayed a much more serious tone -- largely because McGoohan’s strict Catholicism prohibited him from characterising Drake in the Bondian bed-hopping persona that was becoming the norm in the espionage genre around this time. McGoohan rejected not only the ruthless pragmatism of Bond, but also the freewheeling playboy lifestyle of Simon Templar, preferring Drake to be an upright, unerringly serious and intensely moral man -- upholding the best Western values of justice and freedom in a world which was increasingly being mired in the ambiguities of Cold War intrigue.
In the first series, the suggestion that Drake was American accompanied a preponderance of stories that implicitly commented on North America’s role in Latin American politics during the sixties. When it emerged again in 1965 with a quirky, memorable harpsichord theme by Edwin Astley, former associate producer at Ealing Studios Sidney Cole was the new producer (Ralph Smart was given a prominent executive producer credit) and the format had been noticeably revamped in the light of the trend for all things British during the mid-sixties. Drake was now unambiguously a British agent and worked for a London-based security organisation called M-9. The same seriousness accompanied the show’s approach to its subject matter, but shaded with even more doubt than before, as Drake often found himself at odds with his uber-pragmatic boss, Admiral Hobbs (Peter Maden). The tone of the stories now revolves more around the subject of Britain’s post-imperial decline in power and prestige around the world, as the country’s former colonies become independent. Drake is often attempting to promote peace and stability in regions formerly run by British administrations, sometimes battling corrupt would-be dictators, or else up against forces of regression represented by corrupt Western business interests, or occasionally by old school captains of the former Imperial regime who will not accept the new post-colonial political consensus. In this way John Drake as a character represents the way Britain wanted to see itself in this period: decent, honourable and incorruptible in a time of upheaval. The stories follow the lead set by authors Len Deighton and John Le Carré though, in often presenting a compromised world where there are few moral certainties and good and bad shade imperceptibly into each other. Having said that, the series continued to conform to the slick, glossy ITC look, with Drake often immaculacy turned-out in expensive suits and representing an image of masculinity that stresses his handsomeness and virility.
The episode included here, “No Marks for Servility”, is one of the first to be written by the series original creator Ralph Smart in 1965, and well demonstrates McGoohan’s very different approach to the role of professional spy when compared to the kind of portrayal that was commonly to be found in, say, the show’s US contemporary “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, or in the James Bond films of the time. Drake goes undercover in Rome as a manservant for a vile, Greek swindler and extortionist called Bernares – a property tycoon who loans monies to impoverished third world countries but then blackmails their officials into taking part in his dodgy arms rackets. Drake is assigned the role of collecting evidence to incriminate Bernares, whose great wealth gives him access to the rarefied world of the upper classes all over Europe, including friends of Drake’s boss Hobbs, who arranges to have Drake installed as the manservant in the Rome estate of Hobbs’ associates Mr & Mrs Fielding. Drake then sets up his high-tech surveillance equipment all over the Fieldings’ house, with concealed monitors hidden in the wine cellar downstairs.
The episode manages to merge this pop obsession with futuristic gadgetry (particularly of a surveillance nature), which often featured in the spy genre, along with the impression of glamour and sophistication relayed by the MGM studios’ recreation of picturesque Rome locales, with the gritty psychological tropes of the more serious literary spy fiction of Deighton et al. For Drake inadvertently discovers that not only has Bernares kidnapped the beautiful young daughter of a prominent banker in order to force him to co-operate with one of his illegal schemes (the daughter is played by a twenty-year-old Francesca Annis), but he is also an incorrigible bully who beats up his young, impressionable English wife (Suzan Farmer). McGoohan is in top form here, as he struggles to maintain the professional detachment needed to keep his cover intact while witnessing all of this unpleasant activity from below quarters. Matters are made all the more difficult because Bernares senses Drake’s dislike for him and so delights in abusing his position of power to make the undercover spy’s life as a servant a total hell. The keynote moment comes when Drake becomes so enraged by the crook’s abusive, insulting behaviour that he crushes a glass in his hand with anger while he outwardly maintains his air of placid servility.
Shot in handsome black & white by director Don Chaffey, the HD transfer here reveals some beautiful set design by art director Jack Shampan that only emphasises the general elegance of the production. The shadowy climax of the episode, when Drake explores the cob-webbed house in which Annis is being held, is rife with extra detail that considerably enhances the atmosphere; and costumes and furnishings once again display previously unseen new levels of extra visual information, despite the occasional very infrequent fleck or blemish discernable on the film. “Danger Man” was one of the best of the ITC series of the sixties and looks revivified and newly fresh in this lovely new master.
THE PRISONER (1967-1968): “Arrival”
By 1966 Patrick McGoohan was beginning to tire of “Danger Man”. The format, he felt, was becoming both repetitious and stale. The actor was now also becoming more interested in the production side of filmmaking and wanted to exert much more control over the series. After striking a deal with Lew Grade, McGoohan quit “Danger Man” after only two episodes of a planned 26 episode run in colour, taking several of its key personnel with him, including art director Jack Shampan, director of photography Brendan J Stafford and directors Don Chaffey and Peter Graham Scott, to work on a new top secret project that was to be filmed at Borehamwood and on location at the picturesque coastal resort Portmeirion -- a model village in the North of Wales designed by architect Clough William-Ellis, and which had already featured in the first episode of “Danger Man” back in 1959. McGoohan set up his own production company, Everyman Films, to make “The Prisoner” for ITC with George Markstein: a script editor who had recently joined the “Danger Man” team. The result of their efforts is possibly the zenith of cult telefantasy programming. Resolutely ambiguous, idiosyncratic and striking in its visual eccentricities, there’s possibly never been a major series that managed to maintain such an air of mystique, or which managed to bring such avant-garde experimentalism to a mainstream audience. The meaning of the series -- if there ever was one -- remains hard to pin down, which gives the show a timeless appeal despite its being heavily steeped in the imagery and countercultural concerns of the late-sixties.
McGoohan rooted the series ostensibly in the same traditional espionage genre that had made his name, playing on a standard thematic motif of spy fiction, in which the professional secret agent finds he can never leave the job behind him and go back to an ordinary life. In “The Prisoner” McGoohan plays a secret agent who suddenly resigns from his job ‘on a matter of principle’ but who is then promptly kidnapped, and wakes to find himself in a replica of his own house, constructed in a sunny, deeply mysterious and eccentric Italianate village. The main authority figure, who calls himself number 2 (and who changes in every episode and sometimes several times within one episode), wants to find out why he resigned. McGoohan (renamed number 6, which is the only name we ever know him by) wants to know where he is and who has brought him here. He also wants to escape. Each episode revolves around the attempts of the unknown powers who control the Village to extract ‘information’ from number 6 using increasingly convoluted plots and schemes to do so, while number 6 each week tries to concoct his own counter plans of escape. The battle of wits invariably ends in stalemate at the end of every episode. The audience meanwhile never learns who number 6 is, why he originally resigned, where the Village is, who controls it, or anything in fact pertaining to the main threads of the surface plot. At the end, the series evades the resolution of any lines of continuing narrative by spiralling off into outright surrealism and trippy acid-tinged freakiness -- this is probably the only aspect of it which has noticeably dated it since, and it also left ATV’s switchboard jammed with angry callers at the time when the final mystifying episode was broadcast. The series remains fresh and invigorating, though, precisely because it can be read on so many levels simultaneously, as a political and social allegory but also as a reflexive, ironic comment on the conventions of TV genre fiction itself.
This disc features the first intriguing episode of the drama, directed by Don Chaffey. It’s almost the most perfect first episode of a mystery series you could imagine, and it’s understandable, therefore, after this episode goes to such lengths to set up so many tantalising questions, why many viewers were left feeling cheated at the end not to have all the answers provided. The fact that McGoohan was merely using the mystery/espionage/sci-fi genres as a platform for his own existential interests probably wasn’t too much consolation at the time.
The episode is perfectly constructed almost as a mini-travelogue, introducing the viewer to the layout and the strange character of the Village, as number 6 is shown around his new home by this week’s number 2 (Guy Doleman). The place looks for all the world like a peaceful Edwardian-era village square, with baroque statuary everywhere, freshly clipped lawns (‘Please Walk On The Grass’ state signs all around the Village) and an apparently complicit population who dress in frockcoats and top hats or multi-coloured capes, stripy jerseys and Edwardian cricketing colours. The only mode of transport available (discounting the occasional penny farthing bicycle) is a fleet of golf buggies that provide a taxi surface; tannoy speakers dotted around the Village broadcast public information and ‘uplifting messages’ which also interrupt radio broadcasts in one’s own home which are enforced and can’t be switched off. There is constant round-the-clock video surveillance monitoring, both inside one’s house and outside; in one humorous and eccentric scene, we see that even the graveyard statues, in the old overgrown Victorian cemetery on the outskirts of the Village, are really surveillance cameras in disguise, with movable heads able to track their subject’s every movement!
The modish style of the series is unusual for the ITC output of the time, with a modern rapid-editing style and Dutch angles frequently employed to disorientating effect. The set design flirts with sixties modernist notions of the futuristic when portraying the operational centres of the Village, and contrasts them with the quaintly old fashioned sixties trend for Edwardiana, with its cartoonish marching bands parading around the main square and quirky jazz arrangements of old Victorian music hall numbers like ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ on the soundtrack; Ron Grainer provides the memorable, driving, brass-arranged theme music. That this was the era of psychedelia and The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper is inescapable. The science fiction element is felt when number 6 makes the first of his many escape attempts, running to the coastal ‘forbidden zone’ only to be confronted with the strange white spherical orb guardian of the perimeter known as ‘Rover’, which incapacitates him by adhering to his face while making a monstrous roaring noise. Eventually, number 6 discovers an old colleague of his called Cobb (Paul Eddington) is also being held prisoner in the medical bay, but is unaware that he is being drawn into a wider plan to entrap one of the other new residents of the Village.
“The Prisoner” is already available on Blu-ray in its entirety, so its presence here serves only to provide those fans that have not yet done so with a further spur for picking it up, as it looks absolutely spellbinding in the HD format. The Village locations look gorgeous and the fine detail now evident is amazing. The series’ rich colours pop off the screen in every scene.
GIDEON’S WAY (1964-1965): “The Tin God”
This black & white British crime series feels radically different from the style of most other ITC film productions of the period. Produced by Robert S Baker and Monty Berman at the same time as the couple were also making “The Saint” for Lew Grade’s corporation, the partnership followed a similar strategy of adapting the adventures of a popular literary character, in this case John Creasey’s Commander George Gideon from the author’s Gideon of Scotland Yard novels. The series is resolutely realist in its approach and features believable, down-to-earth characters in recognisable unglamorous settings, shot on location in and around London circa 1964. As a social document of the era then, the show is invaluable, providing viewers with an unparalleled historical glimpse of an era like no other series in the ITC cannon.
John Gregson played the title role with Alexander Davion as his rather more photogenic assistant, Detective Chief Inspector Keen. In this episode, directed by John Gilling, two dangerous criminals escape from Strangeways and go on the run. Derren Nesbitt plays the unhinged escapee Benson, who has organised the escape plan with the aid of his outside criminal contacts; John Hurt appears in an early role as his accomplice Freddie. Benson’s primary concern is getting to see his wife Ruby (Jennifer Wilson), but both we and Freddie soon realise that this is not because of any great desire to be reunited with his beloved.
When news of the escape comes through, Commander Gideon personally visits Ruby, who lives on a quiet suburban street in London, to assure her of her safety. It turns out that it was Ruby’s information which enabled the police to catch up with Benson after he savagely assaulted a man, leaving him crippled for life. She directed them to the lock-up garage in which her violent husband was hiding out in the aftermath of the crime. Benson subsequently went down for 15 years. It turns out that his only reason for escaping at all is to find Ruby and make her pay for grassing him up.
The story then centres on Ruby’s young son Syd (played by a cherub cheeked Michael Cashman of “East Enders” fame), who continues to idolise his criminal father because his mother can’t bear to let the boy know the truth, which is that Benny regularly beat her up during the years she was married to him. Syd simply refuses to accept that his father committed any crime and professes to despise his mother because she betrayed him to the coppers. Despite Gideon placing a police guard on the family home, Benson enlists the aid of the boy’s ‘Uncle Charlie’ (Arthur Lovegrove), who has maintained good relations with Ruby while remaining secretly loyal to his brother. Charlie delivers a message to Syd, and the boy, delighted at the prospect of seeing his hero dad -- The Tin God -- again, gives his school police guard the slip and is secretly delivered by Charlie to Benson’s docklands warehouse hideout. His plan to get back at Ruby is not to murder or torture her physically, but to take Syd away with him, leaving his frantic mother not knowing where he is, or indeed whether her son is dead or alive!
It’s notable that this beautifully photographed black & white series uses the police drama genre more as a contextual showcase for a series of character studies than for the usual endless scenes devoted to the main protagonist’s investigation of that week’s crime. Commander Gideon is actually rather a bland and, in this story, peripheral figure, with the storyline concentrating most of all on the manipulative, murderous psychopath Benson (played with controlled relish by Nesbitt) and his increasingly faltering relationship first with his partner Freddie as they evade police road blocks and make contact with Benson’s outside helpers -- and then with his innocent son Syd. Gideon’s own family are featured as a contrast to the troublesome relations between Ruby and Syd, presenting a picture of domestic bliss with wife Kate (Daphne Anderson) the model housewife mother, and Gideon comically pictured trying to help his younger son Malcolm (Giles Watling) do his maths homework.
Syd’s idealised, imagined relationship with his father rapidly goes pear-shaped once he meets the man, in the clammy surroundings of the derelict dockside warehouse: with Benson having already killed a parking attendant for no real reason, Freddie has long ago suspected that his escape partner is not completely mentally sound, and is soon also on the receiving end of his wraith when he questions the wisdom of bringing the boy to their hideout, risking leading the police straight to them by doing so. Nesbitt, who was a mainstay of ‘60s and ‘70s film series, and who starred in “When Eagles Dare”, is excellent here, casually and coldly explaining to his nervous partner Freddie how to get people to do what you want them to do by getting them to first fear you. Benson is the classic screen representation of a sociopath, not even disliking people so much as being indifferent to them, seeing them merely as the means to an end or an obstacle to be overcome.
The setting of the story, based around run-down warehouse complexes in London’s docklands, adds a level of plausibility and gritty sense of place due to the unusual amount of location shooting employed on the series in comparison to most other ITC-produced shows, which strove to look international and exotic with the aid of stock footage and judicious editing. “Gideon’s Way” actually revels in its realism, with scenes set on motorways, on real suburban streets and in schools. The police are portrayed not so much as heroes as reliable, dependable patriarch figures who remain very much in the background while the main drama unfolds around the relationship between Ruby, Benson and Syd. This HD mastered episode, like all others on the disc, offers perfect clarity and immense detail, bringing the London of 1964/65 to vivid life. This lesser known ITC series is well worth checking out.
MAN IN A SUITCASE (1967-1968): “Somebody Loses … Somebody Wins?”
This unusual series presented all the colourful surface gloss of many other ITC film series about crime fighters that emerged in the late-sixties, but was actually set in and around a more hard-bitten, seedy world that owed much to the genre of American hardboiled detective fiction, despite its main character being based in contemporary London. Created by screenwriter Richard Harris and former Doctor Who script editor Dennis Spooner, “Man in a Suitcase” saw former Ealing studios editor and producer of the ITC shows “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Danger Man”, Sidney Cole, taking up the role of producer again, while Harris and Spooner relinquished script supervision duties to an American screenwriter, Stanley R. Greenberg.
The show starred American actor Richard Bradford in the lead role as McGill -- an ex CIA intelligence agent based in London. Generically, the show is mid-way between the gritty, morally complex Cold War spy dramas of John Le Carré and the hardboiled fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashsiel Hammett, becoming something of a hybrid of the two genres with its unusually bleak storylines of honour and betrayal, frequently ending unsatisfactorily for the show’s main protagonist. McGill is an outsider: dismissed and now distrusted by the Americans because they suspect him of being a traitor after he apparently helped one of their agents to defect (he’s stuck with this label because clearing his name would compromise the safety of the former colleague in question, who is actually a double agent still working for the U.S.). Neither does he represent or fit in with the culture of his current British surroundings though, meaning the series often offers a more detached critique of British society -- especially when it comes to class -- than the more robust representations of British identity conveyed in, for instance, “Danger Man”.
Instead, McGill works as a trouble-shooter for hire. Rather than the noble motives of John Drake or many of the other detectives and investigators in ITC’s fictional world, he does his job for money in order to earn a living. Thus, the series’ storylines frequently revolve around impossible moral dilemmas and deal in shades of right and wrong rather than certainties. “Somebody Loses … Somebody Wins” offers a perfect illustration of this: the gorgeous Jacqueline Pearce (ten years before she became Supreme Commander Servalan in “Blake’s 7” but with the same hairstyle nonetheless) plays Ruth Klinger: a British agent who may or may not want to defect to the East Germans, and whose superiors set her a loyalty test to find out. Meanwhile, McGill is employed by an East German émigré to track down his missing brother Johann Liebkind in Dresden, unaware that he is really being set up by the security services who want to establish a connection between Liebkind -- a former Nazi who has gone to ground in East Germany -- and the U.S. as part of a plan to establish Ruth’s credibility with her new masters. McGill and Ruth know each other from McGill’s days in the American Intelligence agency, and the former agent finds himself forced into deciding either to set up an innocent man (Liebkind may be a Nazi but he is innocent of collaborating with the American Intelligence forces) or risking Ruth’s safety if he doesn’t allow her to finger him as an American agent to her new East German bosses.
This episode is very le Carré in tone then, since Ruth and McGill (and Liebkind) are being used by forces greater than they, and, having been caught in the trap that’s been made for them, have very limited room for moral manoeuvre. It’s directed with great style and panache by John Glenn, who would later go on to direct many of Roger Moore’s James Bond films in the eighties. It’s also very convincing in creating a forbidding Cold War atmosphere, with crumbling bomb sites and grey streets full of towering East German architecture -- although it’s all down to a combination of stock footage, the studio back lot and possibly a few less salubrious regions of London standing in for Dresden. Pearce is brilliant as the former flame now forced to betray the ever-edgy McGill to the East Germans, and it’s a shame she didn’t get to appear in more series of this nature as she would have made an excellent lead. Richard Bradford is rather a wooden and untypical hero for the flamboyant era of Jason King and John Steed, but he fits the downbeat surroundings the series creates for him fairly well. The series was never that popular at home (seemingly pandering to American audiences, but the Americans much preferred the fantasy England of “The Avengers” to the seedy underbelly of post-swinging London featured in “Man in a Suitcase”) and doesn’t have the cult appeal of most of the other ITC shows of this period, but this is a strong episode with good performances and a convincing atmosphere. It also looks rather lovely in HD, with the transfer here looking as ravishing as it ever could, absolutely bursting with colour and vivid detail.
Network Releasing have certainly whetted our appetites with these truly stunning, brand new re-mastered HD transfers. The episodes chosen for this compilation are all strong ones and we can only wait with baited breath for the full HD box sets of these series to emerge, hopefully sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the three volumes of ITC retro-ACTION can all be purchased from Network’s website at www.networkdvd.net