PART ONE: THE PROTOTYPE.
“They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.”
The above quote is part of the chorus from Johnny Rivers’ hit Secret Agent Man. A song that peaked at the number 3 position on US Billboard Charts in 1966. It was an easy hit – the guitar riff was unforgettable and the lyrical content glamourized a subject that was very en vogue at the time – espionage. Super spies with their cool cars, gadgets and adventures in exotic locals with equally exotic women. Considering the cultural behemoth that it was, it’s reasonable even among the glut of imitators to attribute the song and source of the most prevalent tropes in Spy-Fi Television and Cinema to James Bond. It’s a fair assumption, but it’s not an entirely accurate one. In the case of Secret Agent Man, it’s downright incorrect.
It is true that James Bond creator Ian Fleming struggled to make his character a proper film sensation in the 1950s, barely culminating in a 1954 CBS television production of Casino Royale with Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond. Fleming collaborated with Kevin McClory and Jack Wittingham on a screenplay called James Bond, Secret Agent in 1958. The results of that collaboration are well known and have plenty of commentary. Thankfully due to Fleming’s persistence and input, by 1960, television finally had a proper super spy to call its own.
That secret agent was not James Bond.
Ralph Smart, an Australian television writer, director and producer was approached by ITC head Lew Grade to work with Fleming to create a James Bond series for television. Smart already had scored hits for the UK-based production company with The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Invisible Man. Most importantly, they were popular in the United States, the market upon which Grade had his eyes firmly set. The name recognition of Bond coupled with Smart’s production track record made the project a strong contender to succeed in America.
Unfortunately, Fleming had to drop out of this new project and took Bond with him. Smart and Fleming’s replacement Ian Stuart Black, were left with a shell of a character. Smart and Black figured it would be best to start with a relatively clean slate. James Bond became the Lone Wolf, which then became Danger Man protagonist John Drake. All that was needed was an actor with a buzz and a presence.
Hot off a BAFTA win for his performance in the BBC production of Ibsen’s Brand, actor Patrick McGoohan was approached to be the face of their new program. McGoohan had a reputation for his unconventional looks, powerful dominant presence and tough on-screen persona. Smart, Black and McGoohan along with writer Brian Clemens created a pilot episode and it’s star character.
Early versions of the pilot opened with Drake waking up in bed with a lady reaching over to open a safe. Insistent that the series remain family friendly, McGoohan refused to carry firearms or do anything sexy with his female co-stars. Otherwise, when View From The Villa premiered on September 11th, 1960, all the other important elements were there. Irish-American NATO Operative Drake, dressed in a gray Anthony Sinclair suit from Savile Row, swiftly walked down to his fancy car parked outside NATO headquarters in Washington D.C. His mid-Atlantic voice over growling:
“Every government has it’s own secret service branch. America, CIA. France, Deuxième Bureau. England, MI5. NATO also has it’s own. A messy job? Well that’s when they usually call on me or someone like me. Oh yes, my name is Drake, John Drake.”
The episode itself took place in Rome and the rustic Italian countryside (which in reality was a little eccentric resort town in Wales called Portmerion). He drove an Aston Martin. His lean, almost athletic figure was flattered by a further array of well-tailored suits. He wore a derby hat. He even had his own catchphrase – “I’m obliged.” Although Drake never locked lips with his female co-stars, he certainly developed a rapport with them. They were quite taken with him, too. With exotic locales featured in every story, the disguises, cigarette lighter cameras and hidden radios would follow a few episodes later. Sound familiar?
Even though Drake was rooted firmly in literary pulp detective and spy fiction – he was as much Ian Fleming as he was John laCarre and Bulldog Drummond – there was a unique, dangerous and urbane quality to McGoohan’s portrayal. Any sort of frayed nerves Drake may have had were only hinted at in the twitch of his eyebrow or the snap of his fingers. Whenever he was caught off guard, a flash of brilliance or an effective single blow would put Drake back into control. This was a man, while working for his governing body, who projected and maintained his cool.
Danger Man was the prototype of a new television sub-genre and it’s initial proper introduction to a timeless archetype – the Modern Gentleman Super Secret Agent.
Although the original run of Danger Man only lasted 39 episodes, it proved to be a massive hit in most major television markets save for the one Lew Grade had intended – America. Upon the somewhat lackluster performance in the US, Grade stopped production of new episodes. Still, it made several million dollars in sales and solidified McGoohan’s status as a great leading actor. Once the series went on indefinite hiatus, it was only a matter of time before McGoohan was approached to do more projects.
In the meantime, Ian Fleming finally manged to connect with producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli. James Bond was heading to the place Fleming felt he deserved to be – the cinema. Fleming had his own ideas of whom he wanted in the role: Cary Grant or David Niven. Considering the physical demands of the role and the somewhat limited budget of one million dollars secured from United Artists for Dr. No, a less notable name would have to be considered. Aware of his work on Danger Man, EON approached McGoohan for the role.
To visualize why this would have been a reasonable casting choice upon EON’s part, here are three episodes at random, which samples were pulled from.
Find And Return
Bury The Dead
Pulling Bond moments from episodes of Danger Man wasn’t particularly difficult. On a superficial level, there was nothing to suggest that McGoohan would not have been a good fit for Bond. The mold was already there. He even had a slight resemblance to the Bond in novels, depicted here in a drawing commissioned by Fleming:
In a way, McGoohan did – he said “No” to Dr. No.
The possible reasons McGoohan declined playing James Bond were debated and numerous: too much violence, moral objections to the treatment of women, creative tensions with a poor script and a less than ideal director Terrance Young. In the short time McGoohan worked on the original run of Danger Man, he managed to obtain a certain level of input and freedom on the series. At that part in his career, similar circumstances would have been nearly impossible for him to achieve on a major motion picture. Especially difficult on an established creation that wasn’t his own. McGoohan raised far too many objections for him to fit into the role properly.
Regardless of the specific reason, all the ones proposed, which caused McGoohan to turn down 007 had one thing in common: personal integrity.
It probably was for the better. With McGoohan and his set of conditions at the helm, Bond would have probably met the same fate as the first series of Danger Man: a respectable financial performance everywhere except where it really counted – The United States. Much of the bold and robust populist symbols associated with the Bond franchise – from Sean Connery’s brandishing of a Walther handgun to Ursula Andress wielding her hunting knife and white bikini bathing suit – would have had to be sacrificed or at the least somewhat tamed.
The critical quality of Dr. No may have been just as high, if not higher, with a more intellectual and less primal James Bond. Certainly, McGoohan’s acting abilities would suggest that he would have excelled at conveying the more brooding and melancholic Bond in Fleming’s novels. It would be akin to starting the Bond franchise with Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights rather than Connery in Dr. No. Though now endlessly critiqued and lampooned, the raw violent and sexual imagery were key to the series’ initial success; particularly in America, let alone anywhere else. Without that, the larger budgets would not have been allotted for the advancement and addition of more visual spectacle in later films like Goldfinger and Thunderball – another reason for the series’ longevity.
Moreover, though McGoohan was unabashedly masculine in a Western traditional sense, his often idiosyncratic performances combined with his penchant for moralizing and streak of individualism caused an everyman appeal to somewhat elude him. To compare him to Connery in that respect, Connery had him beat. To paraphrase McGoohan, he never set out to make (nor could he be) Coca-Cola.
Sean Connery was Coca-Cola. Patrick McGoohan was more like Ginger Beer spiked with Myers’ Rum – Dark and Stormy.
Nevertheless, McGoohan, Danger Man and John Drake could still be felt in the early Bond films and subsequent espionage films and television. It has been speculated that McGoohan suggested his contemporary and friend Connery, who at the time wasn’t as well known as McGoohan, for the role of Bond. McGoohan’s tailor Anthony Sinclair was used to make Connery’s suits. There are comparable fashion cues. There’s a similar flippancy and cadence to how Connery said “Bond, James Bond” in all of his appearances as 007 to how McGoohan said “Drake, John Drake” in the first series of Danger Man.
McGoohan also turned down the chance to play Simon Templar in the adaption of Leslie Charteris’ novels about The Saint for the same reasons he turned down Bond. The role would eventually turn actor and patron saint of #Bond_Age_ Roger Moore into a star and carve his path to succeeding Connery as 007. Danger Man writer Brian Clemens would go on to become an important creative force behind another legendary Spy-Fi series, The Avengers. Knowing a more moral spy like Drake could be successful allowed for the creation of John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee. Macnee held similar reservations to McGoohan’s in regards to playing a character that was too much like James Bond. Of course, no Avengers, no Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale or Pussy Galore. No Diana Rigg as Emma Peel or Tracy Bond, either.
Even Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File had a bit of Drake in him, which was EON Productions’ attempt to create a more serious spy franchise. Sure enough, though it made Michael Caine a reputable star and icon of British cool, the three Harry Palmer films – Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain along with Ipcress met the same fate as the original series of Danger Man – critical and financial success in Europe but not in America.
McGoohan’s star didn’t exactly fade away upon the rejection of Bond. In fact, due to Bond’s success, a second series of Danger Man was commissioned by ITC in 1964 with McGoohan back as John Drake. The format was changed from 30 minute to 60 minute episodes. A fair amount of retconing occurred. Now that England was suddenly the coolest country on Earth thanks to The British Invasion, John Drake traded in his, American heritage, NATO credentials and big cars for a job with Her Majesty at M9.
As a side note, future Bond veteran John Glenn served as an editor on the reboot of Danger Man before heading to work for Bond in 1969.
While it retained the title Danger Man in Canada and The UK, it was called Secret Agent in the US and given a new theme song – Secret Agent Man by Johnny Rivers. That’s right. Rivers wasn’t singing about James Bond. He was singing about John Drake.
Not as Asian as the misheard lyrics suggest.
(Here’s the UK titles with High Wire by Edwin Astley. Just because it’s cool and the theme is much more fitting for Drake.)
He also acquired McGoohan’s more natural English accent and Mod sensibilities. Drake wore skinny ties and drove an Austin Mini Cooper S. Although he was a little too old for a Beatle cut, Drake was never too stodgy to listen to The Beatles without earmuffs (McGoohan even expressed a fondness for them in an interview in 1965). While McGoohan was still reticent from performing love scenes, Drake became a bit more lax in regards to displaying affection towards female characters in stories. While never truly acted upon, Drake’s occasional desires to protect or become involved with women throughout the series were made known – sometimes stated or seen within the nuances of McGoohan’s performances. They were often integral to progressing the story of an episode as well as spurring Drake’s character development.
While posing as a butler to a suspected extortionist in No Marks For Servility, Drake nearly blew his cover when he overheard his boss committing spousal abuse. In Sting In The Tail, Drake felt remorse when he forced an assassins’ girlfriend to seek asylum in England after gaining her trust. Drake also felt sad when he was betrayed by a female enemy double agent during a night in together in Are You Going To Be More Permanent? There was a tinge of heartache when Drake said no to running away with Simone in The Black Book (spying is a lonely profession, after all). In A Date With Doris, Drake expressed his gratitude to Juana Romero with but a slow, soft kiss upon her cheek – and that’s it. There were women in positions of authority, women of science and women as full rival or allied operatives. By the period standards, Danger Man tried hard to treat women as individual people. There was an inherent regard to human lives both female and male. Since Drake would not romance women, there had to be other reasons for female characters to be around.
For more context in regards to his attitudes towards women, here is a song that’s played throughout the series called Mio Amore Sta Lontano (which roughly translates from Italian to My Love Is Far).
Here’s the English original by The Zombies “I Remember When I Loved Her.”
For John Drake, there really was no scorn for rejection nor ambition for conquest in regards to women. He had more of a desire or yearning to escape his marriage to his job as a secret agent. A stark contrast to James Bond, who very frequently saw women he slept with die, and delved into occasional outright mistreatment of women. This was where the most important difference in Danger Man came into play.
Much like the Arms Race or the Space Race fueled by the Cold War, the Spy Race was in full swing. Every major television network or film studio had at least one spy related-property. All of the British titles previously mentioned plus many of the countless American, French, Italian and even Soviet counterparts were vying for public affections. Bond was the king of the genre. Everyone involved was making money off their spy properties, too. Even the purely comedic and tongue in cheek spy franchises like Derek Flint and Matt Helm were profiting in their cheery, gleeful lampooning.
Danger Man of course set out to separate itself from the crowd. Due in part to his rebellious nature and need for more creative direction, Patrick McGoohan, and by extension, John Drake, began to feel like a Prisoner in his own show. Danger Man started to question tropes, which were not only firmly established by the Bond films, but found their genesis within itself.
Not only was Danger Man a prototype for Film and Television spies it eventually became a series to show signs of the genre’s first earnest deconstruction – and Patrick McGoohan stood firmly at the helm of both.
A couple of episodes were very good, albeit very different examples of this.
At the start of The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove, Drake drove a pristine white convertible through the idyllic English Countryside. During an attempt to avoid hitting two boys playing with a ball on the side of the road, Drake lost control of his car and crashed into a tree, which left him unconscious. The chain of events that followed in the episode contained some very odd and often very direct references to James Bond. In the scene after his accident, Drake returned to his flat to find a co-worker reading a copy of From Russia With Love – Sean Connery prominently featured on its front cover.
Upon being summoned by a different superior than usual, Happy Lovegrove, Drake discovered much to his and his bosses’ dismay that he had developed a gambling habit – and owed five hundred pounds to a casino. Determined to figure out how he acquired the debt, in the next scene, returned to the casino in question. He was greeted by a very familiar face at the door: Desmond Llewelyn.
While the episode never alluded to Bond more directly than those examples, Drake drifted through Lovegrove with plenty of implicit ones to the franchise thrust upon him. Drake even broke his own rules in regards to women. He asked Adrienne Corri’s character Elaine Pearson “Have you ever been spanked in a casino before?” before pulling himself away once Elaine questioned Drake’s apparent sexual aggressiveness. Drake struggled with not finding at least a tiny bit of pleasure when asked how he felt having women throwing themselves at him – toward his more delicate places, most certainly.
Other characters in the episode insisted on seeing Drake on occasions, which he couldn’t recall. Morsels of proof sustained Drake’s belief that someone was impersonating him, but as the episode progressed, he started behaving slightly out of character. His actions started to resemble those of a certain 00-agent.
On top of Drake’s unusual behavior, the episode took on a surrealistic quality. There were some interesting visual cues and directorial choices. That pesky Lovegrove was literally quite ubiquitous in the episode, abruptly appearing as other characters in the show, including appearing as Drake.
Drake started to get wise to a spy ring operating out the casino. The faint possibility that all of that repression has finally led to him developing a sinister split personality occurred to him, too. Thankfully, in a flash of lucidity he attempted to end his dream with a literal bang. Drake woke up surrounded by police officers and nurses attending to him at the scene of the crash. The entire episode was just a manifestation of Drake’s own unconscious mind. Drake was a very moral character that was very concerned about conducting the dirty business of espionage in the most ethical manor possible.
Having a James Bond-like split personality was John Drake’s own nightmare and by extension a harsh criticism of his spy contemporary – one which he himself had a role in creating.
In Judgment Day, Drake was sent on a mission, which on the surface seemed quite routine for the agent. He traveled to Lebanon to retrieve a scientist, who possessed important research in regards to vaccinations. The scientist was under threat from a mysterious terrorist group. Between being stranded in a small Lebanese town for the night and meeting an American archeologist, Drake, the scientist (revealed to be a former Nazi) and a Persian pilot, ended up getting kidnapped by the archeologist. The archeologist was head of the terrorist cell the entire time. The JDF-like group planed to execute the scientist for performing deadly experiments on Jewish captives in a concentration camp. With the best intentions, Drake insisted on a trial to allow the Nazi Scientist to explain himself for his crimes against humanity.
The usual arguments were tossed around: following orders and death necessary for progress. Though the arguments didn’t save Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, they were at least subject to a proper trial. Not the sort of vigilante justice the Israeli group desired. Drake, who was supposed to act as a symbol for moral, Western ideals, was caught in the middle of a hopelessly complex political question. Established that not only was John Drake not James Bond but made an effort to avoid being him, the episode was bound to play out more realistically. Drake was very noticeably irritable and unshaven throughout the episode. He’s more Humphrey Bogart in To Have or Have Not than Sean Connery in Dr. No (or even John Drake at the genesis of the series). Drake submitted to the will of the terrorist leader and ultimately could not save the life of the scientist.
If it were Bond, he probably would have managed to shoot the terrorists and bed the archeologist (who just happened to be female) after safely returning the former Nazi scientist to England. Bond was England. Bond always had to put Queen and Country first. Most importantly, Bond always had to win by any means necessary. Victory was vital to sustain the status quo of British influence. Not just culturally, but in all aspects of human life. Although the British Invasion in regards to music, fashion, film, and television was on full assault, Great Britain had been surpassed by America as a global superpower.
John Drake’s failure to carry out his mission diplomatically was a comment on the very real weakening of the British Grip on world affairs – a romantic ideal, which was perpetuated by Bond.
The idealistic John Drake of 1960 had become a much more restless and inquisitive character. Lashing out against superiors and deviating from his orders would have been unheard of for Connery’s incarnation of 007. It became Bond’s nationalism versus Drake’s individualism and humanism.
Despite the often grim and bleak endings and commentary, Danger Man in it’s second incarnation managed to achieve a remarkable amount of success in the UK. Perhaps because the series did make an earnest attempt to be a spiritual opposite to Bond and the other competing television shows. The series consistently questioned other programme’s ideals and depth. Viewers were captivated and intellectually stimulated by the show’s ambiguous stories. Ignoring the dated moralizing and production values, Danger Man holds up the best in relation to its contemporaries critically. Save for perhaps The Avengers and the more progressive approach it took in regards to developing it’s female protagonists.
By the mid 1960s, Patrick McGoohan was the most popular and highly paid actor in British Television, making roughly £2,500 a week (£42,000 or $66,000 USD in today’s currency). To place his level of popularity in a contemporary context, adjusted for inflation, McGoohan making that much money per week was notably higher than the amount David Tennant was making for Doctor Who in the late 2000s. The series’ success, with absolutely no doubt, owed thanks to the thoughtful charisma and intense presence McGoohan brought the role of John Drake.
What made his level of success so admirable is that it was achieved, mostly, on McGoohan’s own terms. Even though Drake took one too many punches or never bared much muscle or skin, he certainly exuded confidence and cerebral provocativeness. McGoohan appealed to people that appreciated a more erudite and cunning man. His base was akin to fans of Benedict Cumberbatch in the newest BBC adaption of Sherlock. Though Drake was a more traditionally masculine man, an apt comparison due to Sherlock’s initial aversion to anything too sexual. Wits were placed before (albeit plentiful) brawn. Principals and ideals were to be upheld before popularity or material pleasures.
With Drake being fashioned in his own qualities, it was natural that McGoohan questioned and ultimately became frustrated with the Danger Man. “Boredom, was how it started,” he said. His boredom made sense. No matter how much the lines between John Drake and Patrick McGoohan were starting to blur, legally McGoohan would have never been allowed to inherit full control over Drake’s character from Ralph Smart. McGoohan would not have been able to escape the spiritual confines of Fleming’s Gentleman Spy Archetype, either. Especially due to Mcgoohan’s own contributions to that sort of character in the public consciousness. Danger Man was the prototype of both his ultimate success and ultimate frustration. The likes of James Bond, Napoleon Solo, Simon Templar or Matt Helm weighed McGoohan down far too heavily. His own sense of creative power and hunger for artistic depth had finally outgrown John Drake’s character and genre.
So, two episodes into filming series 4 of Danger Man, Patrick McGoohan approached Lew Grade and resigned.
According to an interview with Production Manager Bernie Williams, the cast and crew had a sort of going away party for McGoohan. One person approached the freshly resigned actor with a very important question.
“What happens to secret agents when they resign?”
Though the question was in jest, McGoohan had taken the question to heart. A few days later, he went back to Lew Grade with an idea for a “spy series.” Though the concept seemed strange to Grade, he was keen to have his highest grossing actor back at ITC. Grade agreed to fund McGoohan’s new project.
Patrick McGoohan’s only means of escape from Drake-like typecasting was to deconstruct the character and the genre under the guise of a spy series. A fully unique series McGoohan, with his resources and power at his disposal, had to set out to make on his own.
So what exactly happens when THE secret agent resigns?
They create The Prisoner.
Acknowledgements and Further Reading: