Not just a ‘Prisoner’ Prequel

In 1960, a television executive at ATV by the name of Ralph Smart proposed a new thriller series for the still very new ITV channel. The name of the series was Danger Man, and it was to star Irish-American actor Patrick MacGoohan, already highly-regarded as a stage actor of some intensity, as Special Agent John Drake, in what would be a series of 37 twenty-five minute black-and-white episodes, intending to fit half hour slots on the commercial network.

As the introduction explained, each week, Drake was a secret service operative. All countries around the world have organisations that deal with complex, frequently sensitive and secret cases, such as the CIA, or France’s Deuxieme Bureau. Drake is one agent, but his employers are NATO, and his brief is world wide.

Drake’s brief might have been world-wide but the filming wasn’t. As early as episode 2, a scene supposedly in Eastern Europe, Romania or Bulgaria I think, was instantly recognisable to me as being filmed on the rougher road on the western shore of Thirlmere, opposite to Helvellyn in the Lake District, whilst a China-set episode in the first dozen broadcast was filmed in a Welsh folly village that, several years later, would become much more well known.

Danger Man was a success, but there was no second series, then or not until much later. Though it had been popular in America, where ATV’s Lew Grade ultimately directed all his efforts, American financing for a second series could not be found and the show lapsed.

Until 1964, that is. Danger Man had been sold around the world. What’s more Ian Fleming’s James Bond had become a worldwide star in films, and there was a massive appeal for spy series. Fleming, incidentally had been approached to help define the series but had dropped out without contributing. Smart decided to rethink Danger Man completely.

All that was left of the original set-up was John Drake, Secret Agent. In its new form, Danger Man (still in black-and-white), was re-imagined as a 49 minute episode series, to fit an ITV hour long slot. Drake himself was now British, instead of Irish-American, as he had self-identified once in series 1, and worked for the British Secret Service. Edwin Astley, a popular composer of television theme and incidental music (and future father-in-law of Pete Townsend), was brought in to write a new theme, ‘High-Wire’, which immediately became one of the most thrilling and exciting themes of the Sixties, an era of great television themes that has never been equalled.

And the new Danger Man was a smash. MacGoohan quickly became the highest paid male actor on British TV. The show was a hit in America as well, where it was re-named Secret Agent (to limit the association with series 1 and give the show a new start) and Johnny Rivers recorded a US-only theme, ‘Secret Agent Man’. There were spin-off novels in the usual American fashion. I even read one once.

The new Danger Man ran until 1966, two full series. It was so big that Lew Grade upped the budget to enable the fourth series to be filmed in colour (for America: in Britain, colour was only achievable on BBC2, 625 lines, and not the standard 405 lines on which BBC1 and ITV operated). Former journalist George Markstein, a man with connections to the UK Intelligence Community, was appointed as Script Editor. Two episodes were filmed in colour, and then Patrick MacGoohan resigned.

What followed is now part of Television history, not to mention the subject of my first, series long, in-depth blog series. In February of this year, just before the lockdown struck, I bought a boxset of Danger Man series two and three, the complete run. I’ve been saving it for months, as the next thing up on Tuesday mornings, once I reach the end of Person of Interest. It’s time has come. We start next Tuesday. Listen to this.


12 thoughts on “Not just a ‘Prisoner’ Prequel

  1. Between 1974 and 2000 McGoohan appeared in four different episodes of Columbo. A few years ago, due to the vagaries of TV scheduling and different channels showing Columbos of differenf vintages, I was able to see all four in a matter of weeks. Very disconcerting, especially since he played very different characters in each series.

    I’m a long time fan of The Prisoner, have enjoyed what little I’ve seen of Danger Man, and look forward to reading your take on the series.

    1. I saw him in one episode of Colombo, where he was the villain, of course, but i don’t believe I saw any of the others. i’m guessing he was the villain each time (my late mother was the Colombo fan in our household, I tended to watch virtually none of the Seventies crime boom: my time came with Hill Street Blues). I loved Danger Man as a kid, and I’m talking here from age 9-11 and the few episodes I’ve seen since stand up fantastically well. In a different vein, as well as The Avengers.

  2. Living in the US, I saw him first as Secret Agent and I did love P.F. Sloan Secret Agent song, but when I heard Edwin Astley’s theme on the A&E DVDs, it just knocked me out

    1. The Sixties was the greatest era for TV themes and this, for me, is one of the three best, alongside – of course – The Avengers and The Prisoner. But don’t forget Man in a Suitcase…

      1. Here’s a list of all of McGoohan’s work on Columbo, pinched from IMDB.
        “Peter Falk and Patrick McGoohan collaborated on six “Columbo” movie of the week projects from 1974’s “By Dawn’s Early Light” (as an actor-Col. C. Rumford); 1975, “Identity Crisis” (as an actor-Nelson Breener, and as the Director); 1976, “Last Salute To The Commodore” (as the Director); 1990, “Agenda For Murder” (as an actor-Oscar Finch, and as the Director); 1998, “Ashes to Ashes” (as an actor-Eric Prince, as the Director, writer of the tele-play, Co-Executive Producer); 2000, “Murder With Too Many Notes” (Director, Writer, Co-Executive Producer). Patrick McGoohan previously was awarded an EMMY for his “Columbo” performance. Peter asked Patrick to return for this 1998 “Columbo – Ashes to Ashes” as the featured star role; rewriting the script (tele-play) and to direct the film.
        Their previous professional working association had been very creative and productive in their projects development. Falk was comfortable with this alliance because he relied upon McGoohan’s creative and inventive scene motivation and performance development vastly improving production values. Incidentally, the 2000 “Murder With Too Many Notes” brought the pair together again, which Falk had wanted McGoohan to star in as the featured role, as well Direct. Patrick felt the Network would not approve of his (McGoohan) repeating as the featured actor, which Peter Falk reluctantly agreed with Patrick. In preliminary production, Patrick had revised and had completely rewritten the entire “Ashes to Ashes” tele-play’s script. The script featured a mortuary setting, including the director’s counseling office, casket display selection room, chapel, embalming laboratory, and crematorium.”

        Ashes to Ashes was McGoohan’s last screen appearance while Murder With Too Many Notes was his kast directing gig.

  3. I really do appreciate the time you’ve taken on that, David.My mother would certainly have seen the first three and almost certainly the fourth, unless the gap between US and UK broadcast was elongated: she died at Xmas 1991. One day, I must watch those for myself.

  4. The first series of Danger Man Patrick spoke with an American accent which he then changed to an English accent for the second series on.

    1. Yes indeed. I was too young to have seen the first series when broadcast in 1960, though I caught up with it (and was very much shocked) when it was repeated in, I think, the Nineties. There was a four year gap before the second series, and when it was brought bank, it was given a comprehensive reboot: from 30 minutes to 60, from nondescript theme music to Edwin Astley’s brilliant theme, from NATO troubleshooter to British spy and, naturally, from American to British. The leap was so great that that was why the mid-Sixties Danger Man was re-titled to Secret Agent in America.

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