Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Classic British Spy TV: Sark and Rick Discuss The Avengers, Secret Agent, and The Prisoner

The best decade for spy television series? The obvious answer is the 1960s, in which British TV produced a plethora of well-regarded espionage series from Danger Man in 1960 to The Baron (1965) and Man in a Suitcase (1967). The most influential of these shows were undoubtedly The Avengers, Danger Man (aka Secret Agent), and The Prisoner. All three were imported to U.S. television, where they attracted solid followings. Their popularity hasn’t waned over the years with frequent appearances on cable and through video releases. Sark and Rick, two film and TV buffs from different generations, discuss these classics:

Rick: The Avengers went through several iterations which can be categorized by the different female leads from Honor Blackman to Diana Rigg to Linda Thorson to Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers). Starting with the best, how would you rank them and what’s your rationale?
Linda Thorson as Tara.

Sark: As you suggested, my favorite ladies on The Avengers are easily associated with the series itself. I would rank Diana Rigg as the best, when the series was at its peak -- plus, she’s ridiculously charming and astoundingly beautiful. I also really like Linda Thorson: she was able to capture that delightful quality and starred in some great episodes, though some with Linda weren’t as strong. Joanna Lumley is good, and Purdy is an odd but intriguing character, much like The New Avengers. And while I like Honor Blackman, she was on the show during its early days, where it was stiff and and a little dreary, and her performances unfortunately reflect that. How would you rank the Blackman, Rigg, Thorson and Lumley years?

The one and only Mrs. Peel.
Rick: I agree that the Diana Rigg years were the best. The stories were often witty, the dialogue delicious, and the Mrs. Peel-Steed relationship just vague enough to keep one wondering. My second pick would be Honor Blackman. Yes, her episodes were often clunky, but she defined the kick-butt heroine and--without her--there may have never been a Mrs. Peel (perish the thought!). My third pick would be Purdy--sort of a Mrs. Peel “lite”--and finally Tara. I like that the producers tried to do something different with Tara, to make her more vulnerable than Emma. But I never warmed up to her...perhaps, it was just a matter of still mourning Diana Rigg’s departure. What are some of your favorite Avengers episodes?

Rigg and Patrick Macnee.
Sark: While I do enjoy The New Avengers, I don’t recall any standout episodes. The majority of my faves are Emma-centric: “The Master Minds”, “Quick-Quick Slow Death”, “Death at Bargain Prices”, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station”, “The House That Jack Built”, “The Joker” and “Murdersville”. There’s also “A Touch of Brimstone”, which is great because... well, if you’ve seen it, you’ll know. I think Patrick Macnee had the best chemistry with Dame Diana Rigg, which really did make the episodes much more fun. I do like some episodes with Tara King, however, including her intro and Emma’s goodbye, “The Forget-Me-Knot” and the ridiculously titled “Look -- (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) -- But There Were These Two Fellers...”, which is a good one for Tara. What are your faves? Any with Purdy or Cathy?

Rick: I haven’t seen the Honor Blackman episodes since A&E showed them in the 1990s. As for The New Avengers, I recall enjoying “The Last of the Cybernauts...?”, especially since it linked back to the original show. To be honest, all my favorites come from the Emma years and include the ones you mentioned, especially “The Master Minds” and “A Touch of Brimstone”. Other personal picks include the highly amusing “The Winged Avenger”, “A Surfeit of H20” (what a great opening), “What the Butler Saw” (with Steed as a gentleman’s gentleman), and “A Sense of History” (loved the Robin Hood part). I could talk for hours about The Avengers, but let’s move on to Danger Man, better known in the U.S. in its one-hour format as Secret Agent. The half-hour episodes, which ran from 1960-62 in the U.K. are pretty good, but I think the series took off when it returned in 1964 in its one-hour incarnation. It’s well-written and features some fine guest stars, but--for me--the series works due to the casting of Patrick McGoohan as the anti-James Bond. What say you?

Sark: I agree that the later, longer episodes are better than the earlier ones. Perhaps, it's only because I viewed the half-hour episodes after the more popular versions, but the shorter feel too short, like the story’s just taking off and then suddenly stops. They're wonderful, but just not They’re wonderful, but just not as strong or entertaining as the hour-long episodes. And yes, some great stars! I remember seeing Hammer queen, Barbara Shelley! I like that you called Patrick McGoohan’s John Drake an “anti-James Bond,” but I’ve always maintained that McGoohan would have made a most excellent 007. Since we’ve already discussed The Avengers, how do you think Drake would have fared with a partner, female or otherwise? That would have been interesting, but I like him much better as a solo agent. What do you think?

Rick: I can’t imagine Drake with a partner of either gender. He comes across very much as a loner, which seems realistic to me because relationships could cloud his judgment. I can’t think of an episode in which there was even a hint of romance. Am I missing one? He did express remorse over the fate of a female character in one of my favorite episodes “Colony Three.” In it, he infiltrates a training camp for enemy spies. There are a lot of parallels with The Prisoner, which would come a few years later. Plus, that episode featured the great Niall MacGinnis from Curse of the Demon. Danger Man boasted some fine guest star turns, from MacGinnis and the fabulous Barbara Shelley to Bernard Lee (M in the 007 films), Susan Hampshire, Ian Hendry, Barbara Steele, and Joan Greenwood. Though a big Danger Man fan, I do have some minor complaints about the series. The modest budgets required a lot of in-studio shooting to substitute for international locations. That could look pretty bad, which was sometimes distracting. Also, I think MacGoohan ended the series at the right time, as some of the plots were beginning to become repetitious.

Sark: Speaking of shows’ endings, what about The Prisoner? Not necessarily its final episode, but the fact that it ended so soon. I love having access to quite an abundance of Avengers episodes, as well as Danger Man/Secret Agent, but I can’t readily complain of The Prisoner’s short life, as it never wanes in quality. I think it would have flourished with additional episodes, but for how long? As it is, the series will forever be strong. Any thoughts?

Rick: It ended at the perfect time, though I think the final revelation is one of the all-time great puzzlers. My theory is that every TV series has a specific life span and rarely does that exceed, say, three years. After that, there may still be good episodes, but typically the quality of the show declines. The Prisoner was such a great concept: Retired spy is kidnapped and held against his will in a weird village as his captors try to find out why he left the spy business. It’s a fiendishly clever show--my favorite episode is the Western “Living in Harmony”--but the concept is limited from the start. No. 2 tries to find out what No. 6 knows, No. 6 tries to escape, he gets caught. There are only so many variations to this central plot. I think McGoohan understood that and envisioned a limited series. Yet, despite all I’ve just said, it’s not the plots that made The Prisoner unique...it was the Kafkaesque themes and the look of the show, from the Village itself to the clothes and the local “newspaper.” Well, that’s my take on it away. Where do you place The Prisoner in the pantheon of TV spy series?

Sark: As a spy series, The Prisoner is surprisingly effective. I’d have to rank it fairly high because it’s so odd and unconventional. Though, honestly, neither The Avengers nor Danger Man bows to convention. All three series makes spy shows endlessly refreshing. You can even put them together in their own timeline: The Avengers with the playfulness of youth; Danger Man with a world-weary spy; and The Prisoner with the spy in retirement. A playground, a spy at home wherever he is, and a retirement home. I think the best spy series are remembered for the characters, and these UK shows prove that with the titles alone, all referencing the story’s players. Any final thoughts?

Rick: That's a nice wrap-up to close out this discussion. As always, Sark, I had a blast hanging out at the Cafe with you and discussing classic TV. I assume you're picking up the check this time? Otherwise, I wouldn't have ordered the deluxe blueberry pancake breakfast.

Sark: Thanks, Rick, for an enjoyable look at television in the UK. Let’s do this again sometime. And don’t worry, I’ll get the check. I’ll just need a minute or two alone with your wallet.


  1. What a great conversation. I feel so inadequate that I have nothing to offer, as I haven't ever watched any of these series! Still, I enjoyed eavesdropping on your two.

  2. I loved this dialogue, Rick and Sark! I concur that these 1960s British spy shows were excellent. "The Avengers" with John Steed and Mrs. Peel was often quite clever and always entertaining because of their rapport. "Mrs. Peel, we're needed" and off they would go to figure out another elusive mystery.

    It was good to see "Danger Man" included here. Like Rick, I don't think Drake would have been the same character with a partner. As Sark pointed out this anti-James Bond would have made an excellent James Bond.

    I think "The Prisoner" may have been the best planned of all of these series. Depriving Number 6 of his privacy (they spy on him constantly) and ability to leave the supposedly quaint Village while resorting to whatever tactic that could be utilized to get information was ultimately quite frightening. We can never be sure if he is being held by his former employer or his enemies. It would be interesting to see "The Prisoner" done like "Groundhog Day." For example, Number 6 could block the vent into which they insert the sleeping gas and go about his day where we gather more clues as to who he is and what happened. Just thinking . . .

    There is that $64,000 question that remains debated: Is Danger Man's John Drake Number 6?

  3. Toto, Patrick McGoohan once stated that John Drake wasn't No. 6...but I'm convinced that was just to throw us off the scent! There are too many similarities between the characters and I don't just mean Mr. McGoohan's mannerisms. Kim, I think you'd enjoy all these shows, but especially THE PRISONER. It can be viewed as quirky entertainment or on a more analytical level with its complex commentary on privacy, identity, and rebellion.

  4. Macnee and McGoohan were two of my favorite stars of that genre. Both had that dry, British humor, the acting was great, and I loved them. I can't remember the individual episodes as well as you two (amazing!), but I always watched the shows. Diana Rigg was the only Emma Peel to me! I never watched The Prisoner, don't know why. Your conversational style in this post and your knowledge of the shows is just excellent, guys. Kudos!

  5. If you enjoy puzzles...mystery...intrigue and adventure , you would like The Prisoner ! It is not the average television show . ..and dares you to find your own interpretation of what it means . ..as there are several levels of information being presented to you. It is comparable to reading the Bible . ..it takes a little work to understand it...but it's well worth the effort and time ! My favorite Danger Man episodes are The Blue Veil . ..The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove and No Marks for Servility. I can't pick a favorite from The Prisoner . ..they are all unique and intriguing . ..however A,B and C and Change of Mind ...Hammer Into Anvil and Once Upon a Time are wonderful episodes where Number 6 has some success against the Village agenda . I never got into The Avengers for some reason . I just didn't find it that interesting . I really enjoyed your article about Danger Man and The Prisoner though...and enjoyed the humor! Be Seeing You !