The Rainbow Affair – A Man from U.N.C.L.E. novel


Poignantly, in light of our collective loss of Robert Vaughn last week, a belated self-birthday present arrived a day or so ago to remind me a little of how much fun The Man from U.N.CL.E. could be.

One thing that American TV has always done far more often than British TV, where Doctor Who is the only example I can recall, is the licensed novel. Take the characters off the small screen and run them through original stories, written quickly and simply by professional authors. Star Trek has done this even more than Doctor Who, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was very popular in the licensed novels game, with a different writer every month.

This isn’t news, of any kind, nor is the fact that half a dozen such novelisations were written by the late David McDaniel, a writer of SF and spy thrillers, with a good, smooth, inventive approach to these fast and cheap books. He wrote the middle of the three The Prisoner novelisations, and his second U.N.C.L.E. book was the best seller of the series.

Only a couple of months ago, in one of my prowls around the internet, I learned about the above U.N.C.L.E. novel and it’s extra interest. ‘The Rainbow Affair’ was the only novel set in England, but it had an extra cachet over and above that distinction, one that made it a rarety, and expensive to collect.

And then a copy appeared for about £6.00 so I bought it and it arrived this week, and I read it and enjoyed it immensely.

The story is well and professionally told and McDaniel captures the personalities of Messrs Solo and Kuryakin quite convincingly, though alone among the writers of such novels, he doesn’t indulge in the usual level of flirting from Napoleon. The plot is simple, and seemingly a bit below U.N.C.L.E.’s usual level of interest, as Ilya Kuryakin makes plain from the outset. In England, there is a master-criminal, Johnnie Rainbow, a planner, organiser, leader, mastermind (the then-recent Great Train Robbery is attributed to him). Bank robbers are certainly not U.N.C.L.E.’s remit, but THRUSH are looking to take Johnnie Rainbow under their wing, absorb his organisation, and his organisational capabilities into their organisation, and our two heroes are despatched to step into the way of this goal.

They will, of course, have the full cooperation of Scotland Yard (newly decanted into New Scotland Yard and still feeling its way around a bit) which is good but only up to a point, that point being that Scotland Yard is absolutely convinced that Johnnie Rainbow does not exist and never has existed outside of pulp fiction.

Nevertheless, Johnnie does so exist, and at the end of the day he has no intention of allowing his perfectly-sized and, in its odd way patriotic, kingdom to be subsumed into anything so cold or inhumane as THRUSH.

What makes this book special in any way? There’s a hearty dose of cliche, right from the start, with London socked in by a pea-souper of the kind that were  becoming non-existent in 1967, and from the opening chapter you wouldn’t imagine there was a single Englander not dropping their aspirates in an impeccably Cockney accent.

But the delight of this book is in the inside joke, as McDaniel throws in near-anonymous references to British thriller characters from books and television. At various times, one or other or both of our heroes find themselves passing the time with – or simply passing – The Saint, Steed and Mrs Peel, Miss Marple and Father Brown, and of course a very elderly gentleman who has retired to keep bees on the Sussex Downs.

The first of these characters, the recognition of whom set me off into a delighted peal of laughter, was a Police Detective described as a large stomach with a red face following it, who is named only as Claude. You can work that one out for yourselves.

There are opportunities missed. There is no room for a pixie-ish man with a soup-bowl haircut, brandishing a recorder and hanging around a police telephone box, nor an Edwardian-caped gentleman with a sword-cane, but I think I’ve spotted everyone (the one from the Goon Show was indecently explicitly identified).

Though I am suspicious of the young woman on the motor-cycle, who prefers to be called Joey, and who does an awful lot of running around for her Aunt Jane. If she isn’t some sort of adventurer in her own right, she damned well ought to be. And if she is, could someone drop me a hint in the comments?

No, though the book would not be unfairly characterised as a cheap pot-boiler, it was cheerful and expert and fun, and well worth its time for its shameless drawing together of so many disparate worlds into a temporary continuity, and I recommend the book happily. And dedicate to the memory of the late Mr Vaughn, who is not in the least shamed by it.

The Prisoner: Other Media


A Graphic Novel

Though the canon of The Prisoner lies solely in its seventeen, much-repeated episodes, there were attempts, both contemporaneous and afterwards, to expand the concept into other media. I am not referring to the 2010 re-make by American TV, which I neither have nor will watch. But there were spin-off novels, in the tradition of the American market for popular shows, and several attempts to translate the series into comics.
The most prominent examples of trying to cash-in on the appeal of the series were the three novelisations written in America between 1968 and 1969: The Prisoner by Thomas M Disch, Who is Number Two? by David McDaniel and A  Day in the Life by Hank Stine (a mini-pseudonym for JeanMarie Stine).
I bought these in the Eighties when they were re-published in the UK through New English Library, though I’d read the first and third as library books in the late Seventies, whilst living in Nottingham. I sold them on again, years ago, and my memories of them are faint and patchy.
The three books are very different in style and approach, although the three authors wrote them to be continuous, with the succeeding novels having some vague reference to their predecessor, as if that adventure had been half-obliterated by brainwashing or drugs.
Disch was a major SF writer of repute, whose work centred upon helpless, passive individuals in situations they are unable to control, so not the obvious writer to continue the story of Number Six. His story was set after the end of the series and Number Six’s ultimate ‘escape’, and involved his recapture and return to the Village, in an oddly prosaic fashion.
However, he has been brainwashed to forget completely his previous incarceration and everything to do with the Village (he only discovers this in the form of videotapes – several years before these became available – consisting of the seventeen episodes of The Prisoner).
I remember little else of the story, save that the book as a whole was downbeat and generally dull. It completely lacked the surreality of the series, save for that in-joke, and the device of effectively restarting the whole thing, treating The Prisoner as something done and dusted, seems to me to be, in retrospect, a device to allow Disch to write as Disch, and not in McGoohan’s model.
McDaniel, in contrast, was a prolific writer of licensed properties – The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Star Trek being two of his regular berths – and a very good exponent of the field according to those who collect such books. His Who is Number Two? was chronologically second, but not released until last, for some unfathomable reason.
It’s the most conventional of the trio, and the one most anchored to the format of the series. McDaniel’s Number Two plots to undermine Number Six’s resistance, to gradually overcome his desire to escape by allowing him to have his /lotus in the Village, and by gradually providing supplies that enable the Prisoner to lavish attention on cleaning, re-tuning and eventually racing his beloved car on a self-built track near the beach.
The more Number Six has a stake in life in the Village, the less determined he will be to resist. But Number Six is very slowly constructing an escape plan, as his new, customised, fibreglass streamlining is actually intended as a boat hull, with the Lotus to motor an escape. Which fails,of course, but which enables Number Two to get away in Number Six’s stead.
Stine’s A Day in the Life, though the furthest removed from the series, was always the most interesting book. It’s a subjective, sollipsistic, impressionistic account of life in the Village as a mixture of good and bad times. The Prisoner ends up getting away to London, absolutely free and clear, only for the whole experience to be revealed as some kind of hallucination which, as he has expected all along, cracks in one go.
Incidentally, both McDaniel and Stine specifically identify Number Six as John Drake.
All three are worth reading as curios, and several different editions are available through Amazon and eBay, but they bear the usual relationship spin-offs have to a series: they are neither canon nor able to evoke more than an impression of the original.
Since then, there have been two other attempts to invoke The Prisoner in print. Roger Langley, founder of Six of One, wrote three Prisoner novellas in the Eighties, all privately printed and collected in a single Volume that can be bought in the Six of One shop in Portmeirion. I have read none of these, but the internet accounts are dismissive.
More recently, the LA-based Powys Media, who specialise in Space: 1999 novelisations, have branched out into Prisoner spin-offs as well, with two to date and a third due in 2013. Again, I have read none of these, but the on-line reviews available for The Prisoner’s Dilemma do praise its capture of the mood of the series and its sheer energy of invention.
The world of comics has not ignored The Prisoner either, with both Marvel and DC taking their turn at trying to adapt the series. Marvel licensed the show for adaptation in the mid-Seventies, at the behest of writer Steve Engelhart, who was in tune with its anti-establishment theme. Working with veteran artist Gil Kane, he produced an eighteen page adaptation of Arrival which, in a later interview, he described as following the episode faithfully, but adding thought bubbles.
The result, to the best of my knowledge, has never been seen, as Stan Lee decided it wasn’t visual enough, and gave the project to Jack Kirby instead. Kirby had already demonstrated his enthusiasm for the series in 1968, plotting and drawing a four part Fantastic Four story, set in a similarly mysterious Village in Latveria, operated by Doctor Doom.
With the standard page-count having been adjusted yet again, Kirby got seventeen pages now, and he duly wrote and pencilled an adaptation of the first half of Arrival. A total of six and a half pages were inker by his regular inker, Mike Royer, before the plug was again pulled, and Marvel concluded that they couldn’t turn The Prisoner into a Marvel Comic, for which I am grateful.
Nevertheless, many of Kirby’s pages have appeared, and can indeed be seen on-line: enough to make you wish he’d been given more latitude. He does a sterling job of interpreting McGoohan and Portmeirion into his style, whilst working within his own futuristic design, and the work intrigues.
It would be left to DC, a decade later, to actually succeed in getting a Prisoner comic into print, as a four part Prestige format series later collected as the Graphic Novel, Shattered Visage (the title being taken from the Shelley poem, Ozymandias).
The comic, co-written by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith and drawn by Motter, was fully approved, with both McGoohan and Leo McKern agreeing the use of their faces. It departed from the series in being set contemporaneously, twenty years on (and dismissing the series’ own finale as a drug-induced hallucination).
The story centre on a divorced couple named Drake, Thomas and Alice (the latter a nod to Lewis Carroll), who both come from a British Intelligence background. Alice, who has resigned, plans to sail the world in a computer-controlled yacht. Thomas, who is still in the system, rigs her boat to run aground and strand her on the island where stands the decaying ruin of the Village.
Twenty years on, the man who was Number Two, after a long prison sentence, has published an autobiography exposing the Village. Thomas has been responsible for vetting it and has blurred many details as to the programmes running at the time (as well as contemporary, real-life security issues). But what Thomas knows is that, when the Village was closed down, the man known as Number Six stayed on, renumbering himself Number One. And the former Number Two is on his way to the Village.
Hence, Alice is sent on ahead, whilst Thomas, working alongside a seemingly rogue American agent, follows later. By now, Alice has been named as Number Six by the ageing, heavily bearded familiar figure, who speaks mainly in shallow platitudes, and whose decision to stay when he could leave makes him look like a mere contrarian, as opposed to a principled man.
When Number Two turns up, intent on ‘freeing’ his erstwhile enemy from the Village, instead of the subtle psychological battle of Once upon a Time, we get a fist-fight. Though it is interesting to have the ex-Number Two claim that the Prisoner was defeated: unable to bend, he broke, shattered, and when he took a Number, any number, even Number One, he accepted the Village’s valuesand lost.
This pertinent point is, however, undercut when Thomas and his American pal arrive, find the underground control rooms that were the scene for Fall-Out and discover several more active nuclear weapons. These get set off, destroying the Village once and for all, and killing Thomas with it.
Alice and Number Six sail back to London, where he shaves off his beard and delivers one final platitude that undermines the precepts of the series: “Does the presence of Number Two require the existence of Number One?”, and assures her that his secrets are still completely safe and that the World would have been destroyed by now if they weren’t.
All this takes place against a background of sub-Le Carre intrigue, culminating in a new set of masters taking over British Intelligence. Thomas’s boss is ordered to resign, is gassed and take away mysteriously, implying that the cycle is beginning again.
What might have been moderately interesting in its own right, turns out to be confused, confusing and over-eager to stuff itself with unexplained hints, nods and winks, and it falls a long way short of living up to McGoohan’s original ideas, even if it was approved by him (“he didn’t hate it,” Motter said).
So, when all is said and done, we only have the seventeen true stories, and nothing else to lend itself to expanding our visions.