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.