As cult TV series go there are few that can rival The Prisoner for its fantastic scenery, excellent ambience and completely impenetrable storyline that people, to this day, still can’t quite get their heads around. However, we’re not looking at The Prisoner here but rather its predecessor which while less well-known is still deserving of attention and that is the excellently named Danger Man. The two programmes are inextricably linked with many actors (including the lead man Patrick McGoohan) appearing in both and many people believe ‘the prisoner’ (aka number six) was in fact the main protagonist from Danger Man – John Drake.
First shown in 1960 the first series of Danger Man lasted until 1962 before a two year hiatus. It then re-surfaced in ’64 and lasted until 1966 during which a further three series were made. The second iteration of the series was also known as Secret Agent in the USA (the name was changed at the last minute by US television executives because it was felt the alternative title would have more appeal to American viewers) but was ostensibly still the same show with an extended run time boosting the original 25 minutes to a beefier 49 minutes which enabled more character development and deeper storylines.
The back story was about secret agent John Drake who was employed by NATO (and latterly by M9 a British intelligence organisation) as a roving troubleshooter who usually ended up in foreign locations (South America and the Middle East being particular favourites) where he assisted with the process of democracy or sorting out threats to NATO. There seems to have been a certain level of what they call retroactive continuity (changing the facts to suit the storyline) in terms of Drake’s nationality as he starts off with a noticeable mid-Atlantic accent but in the second series this switches to a British accent with a slight Irish brogue and in one episode he claims to be Irish. Unlike his fellow 1960s agents The Saint and James Bond, Drake did not allow himself to be distracted by foxy women and this was mainly down to McGoohan’s wish for the show to be watched by all the family.
Danger Man set out to be more realistic and down-to-earth than the Bond movies of the time with Drake having none of the far-fetched paraphernalia of 007 and also rarely if ever carrying a gun. In fact he was very much the opposite of the trigger-happy secret agent. Patrick McGoohan wanted his secret agent to tread the higher moral ground so alongside his avoidance of extra-curricular dalliances he also very rarely killed anyone and lived a clean but rarely boring life; all-in-all a true gentleman spy.
Considering it was a weekly show at the time the writing is excellent and a lot of the location shots were actually shot on location and not in a parking lot round the back of Shepperton studios (although some of the more exotic locations must have stretched the budget a bit too far but we’ll forgive the occasional dodgy beach shot). In addition many of John Drake’s hopes and fears seem remarkably prescient today around 50 years years after the programme was first made. Fears about a society under constant surveillance, concerns about right-wing extremists, episodes featuring identity theft, internment camps and several highlighting trouble in the Middle East – most notably Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.
Only two of the episodes were ever filmed in colour which makes it unlikely you’ll stumble across Danger Man (or Secret Agent if you’re in the US) on any cable channels but it is available on DVD and has the VoEA stamp of recommendation should you wish to seek it out.
Towards the end of its run McGoohan had wanted to write and star in his own unique show and felt some of the storylines for Danger Man had run their course. He then went on to write and star in the legendary Prisoner series which cemented his place in TV history. The first episode of The Prisoner was shown in September 1967 and some 45 years later it has websites, discussion groups and regular fan meetings – few TV programmes of such a vintage can boast that. What many people forget though is the foundations for The Prisoner were laid in the earlier work of Danger Man and it seems to have slipped off the radar somewhat. If you get the chance check it out – many argue it’s more realistic than Bond, less far-fetched than Mission Impossible, certainly not as cheesy as The Avengers and some of the storylines were actually recycled to be used in The Saint.
Danger Man – a true original sixties spy series.
VoEA Quick Fact: Patrick McGoohan turned down the role of James Bond twice fearing he’d be typecast.