The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: s01 e01 – The Vulcan Affair


After the best part of a year spent watching a British espionage series dedicated to a grounded and realistic vision of spying as a grim, nasty and brutish business, what greater contrast than to move on to its polar oposite, a light, flashy, fantastic, America thriller version of the same thing that was its almost exact contemporary?

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was another of my parents’ favourites that we all watched in the mid-Sixties, a bright whirl of action, adventure and snappy lines from Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin, the two leading Agents of the United Network Comand for Law and Enforcement, whose assistance in the making of the programme was always so assiduously thanked over the closing credits. That was in black and white, although only the first season was filmed as such. In the Nineties, BBC2 rebroadcast in, on Friday nights, to my great delight, allowing me the chance to watch it again in colour.

At the moment, all I have is the first, black and white season, it being surprisingly hard-to-impossible to get later seasons on DVD without paying ridiculous sums for Complete Seasons box-sets, but that’s the next six months of Tuesday mornings sewn up and who knows, the horse could always learn to talk.

‘The Vulcan Affair’ was a slightly re-filmed pilot episode for when the series was going to be called ‘Solo’. As such it is very much a solo affair for Solo, with Ilya and Mr Waverley enjoying less than five minutes of screen-time put together. Indeed, Leo G. Carroll, as Mr Waverley wasn’t even in ‘Solo’, and was substituted for Mr Allison, played by Will Kuluva.

The pilot is much more serious and straightforward than the U.N.C.L.E. I remember. It sets itself up immediately as a clash between U.N.C.L.E. and its opposite number, THRUSH, clearly derived from James Bond’s SPECTRE, who will be the eternal antagonists, thus placing it at one remove already from any politically oriented espionage. All the episode titles will be ‘(such-and-such) Affairs’ and it kick-starts the U.N.C.L.E. formula by which each episode will feature a guest star playing an ordinary person who gets swept up into whatever foul plot Messrs Solo and Kuryakin are out to foil.

In this first episode, the guest is Pat Crowley, of whom I’ve never previously heard, a genuinely lovely looking and very game lady, as Elaine May Donaldson. Mr Waverley has been advised of the intended assassination of President Ashumen (William Marshall) of a newly-forged independent African country. This is to occur on the visit of Ashumen and two of his patriotic ministers to America, whilst inspecting a chemical plant owned by Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver), a senior THRUSH agent. Vulcan is a recluse, last known to have had a girlfriend at college, the afore-mentioned Elaine May, now a happily-married mother of two, but the only person who can get Solo near to Vulcan.

Elaine May becomes glamorous and lovely (and how) widow, Elaine May van Early, finding that whilst she’s stirring up old emotions in Andy, she’s also stirring up old emotions about him. Mixed in with finding it impossible to believe what Solo says is true – until THRUSH try to kill him – Elaine May also finds herself attracted to being attractive, to being the best-dressed, most beautiful woman at a Washington party, among movers and shakers.

It’s a complex situation for her but, like any decent, god-fearing American mother, she buckles down to helping Solo, even if it ruins her hairdo and gets her all sweaty. The day is saved. The assassination is not of Ashumen but his two Ministers, who would oppose Ashumen handing their country to THRUSH to take advantage of diplomatic immunity, armies and the like. In the end it’s Vulcan and Ashumen who die, Elaine May goes home happily to her family and Solo tries it on with the beautiful stewardess. We’ve already had a sunlamp and bikini shot of Victoria Shaw as the communications girl in Channel D, inside U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to keep up the glamour level.

So. On one level a disapointment in being a straightforward thriller with little of the fantasy of U.N.C.L.E. with which I’m familiar, but still a well-made, down-to-earth episode, especially the tense and professional open, as THRUSH agents break into U.N.C.L.E. headquarters to attempt to kill Mr Waverly. Or Mr Allison. Not what I expected, more like Danger Man at its best. Let’s treat that as a bridge.