Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Spies We Loved - The world of Espionage and Spying on Television

For as long as there has been television and radio, there has been a fascination of the world of the spy and espionage plus also the the sometimes murky word which goes behind it. Cinema-goers have followed the likes of James Bond through Harry Palmer and onto Jason Bourne, to get their fix of glamorous locations, beautiful but sassy women and physically demanding action as well.

Those this cannot be said that television has been left behind in this, to a certain extent the ITC series of the sixties and the seventies dealt with lone action heroes going about their duties as citizens to sort out any problems which may occur, but away from the world of Simon Templar and The Saint to Danger Man's John Drake was the grip of the Cold War where all sides were trying to work out what what each other was doing.

In 1963 one of the earliest series, Espionage was made by ATV both broadcast in Britain and in America on NBC. As an anthology of stories allowed for a fluid cast with no leading characters however the series did introduce many famous names some of their earliest acting roles such as a pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper, David Kossoff along with Patrick Troughton, Patricia Neal and Billie Whitelaw plus also Anthony Quayle who had himself been a member of the Special Operations Executive during World War Two.

The series differed from being based in the Second World War to modern Cold War times with agents operating for peaceful means or as resistance operatives, taking in the tales of
the agents working on the front line and showing the public what life was really like for these operatives rather than fast cars and a fast lifestyle as well. Allowing for reality to be shown in daily operations allowed series to go in one of two directions, either down the fast paced action route or the more in-depth dramatic route more real to situations that agents were facing on a day to day basis.

With the American networks taking the more glamorous action, the British broadcaster wanted to show the real side of spying, leading to more grittier series which did not flinch away from tough, bleak reality. But what happens when you ask too much about about what you do when your job is in the dark and murky world of espionage? The answer is simple, you become a special agent. That is what happened to David Callan over four series and feature length film. Callan played by Edward Woodward as the reluctant professional killer for 'the Section' a shadowy branch of the intelligence services first appeared in an edition of Armchair Theatre on February 4th 1967 featuring in a story called 'A Magnum for Schneider' written by James Mitchell who had written not only Callan, had been a prolific writer of spy thriller but also crime fiction plus writing for shows such as The Troubleshooters for the BBC, Justice for Yorkshire Television and ABC's own The Avengers as well as creating When The Boat Comes In for the BBC.

With such a cast including the likes of Edward Woodward and Peter Bowles, gave the story a almost chilling edge underscored with the music of Robert Farnon at the beginning, though the action takes place in the studio as opposed to the glamorous ITC shows of the time, allowing the scenes to be more realistic than fantasy of which the normal world of the agent was.

David Callan, himself had a steady hand and a cool nerve, but Callan also had a conscious about what he doing, much of the action was about those who were doing wrong, did wrong or about to do wrong at some point in the future. Cold blooded, he may seemed but it was for safety of the public he did it. Long before Spooks hit out screens in the new millennium, Callan focused on the darker side of spying and who to get results. But it was the downtrodden nature of the character which grabbed the public's attention, trading in being in an anti-hero.

With Edward Woodward's memorising performance as Callan, it became a firm favourite with viewers everywhere. But when the stories became more about his struggle then the action which had made it popular. Where as Bond was going to paradise, Callan was doing the dirty work, becoming an anti-hero for the times. The right show had come at the right time, in 1967 where other action series had become luxurious, Callan had paired it right down to the basics. A gritty man for gritty times, where was Britain had been a bright, colourful place by this time it seemed like the party was over and a reality check that these
things had to be done by operatives to keep its citizens safe for the good of the nation it seemed.

Where as Callan ruled the small screen at the end of the sixties and into the early seventies, Harry Palmer was doing much the same for cinema audiences. The anti-Bond in the novels by Len Deighton was deliberately the complete opposite of James Bond, his upbringing and style were said to be working class and for all the glamour Bond encountered Palmer has his hands tied by bureaucracy about what he can and can't do in his position. For the big screen, the production values were almost as big as Bond's with Michael Caine playing eponymous character for the films.

However where it had seen that the movies and television were seeming miles apart apart from the bigger serials made by ABC and ATV in Britain, but with both Callan and Palmer cemented the style of the spy series. The unglamorous world for operatives being shown, more listening than doing meant that one of the greatest tales of espionage, cross and double cross could be the most simple telling of a tale ever.

Though in 1969, when Thames Television already had Callan, they decided to launch a new drama series looking at the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police, dealing in anti-espionage and anti-terrorism as well bridging the gap between the police force and MI5. The focus was on showing what was going on in the capital, the black heart which was beating underneath. The series first premièred on the 17th of September 1969 with the first episode called 'Troika' looking at a spy ring based in London with the link between a civil servant, an ice skating champion and a KGB agent based posing as a travel agent, the view of this side of society was a new one for viewers allowing them to see the police which before had been more of the beat officer, though style the production used in the first two series was quite jarring with the scenes within their headquarters recorded on videotape and the outside shots filmed on outside broadcast film cameras, much like the same technique used by Thames' own Van der Valk and other shows. However when Euston Films took on responsibility of making the show in 1973 as one of its first of many productions, the whole of the programme was filmed on 16mm film giving it a gritter appearance later to be used by The Sweeney and Minder as well.

When the characters of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Haggerty played by Patrick Mower and Strand, a shadowy civil servant played by Paul Eddington that the series picked up in 1973, but the 1974 series also featured Dennis Waterman as a criminal in the episode “Stand and Deliver”, with later Mower, Eddington, George Sewell who played Chief Inspector Alan Craven in Special Branch as characters in The Sweeney though Waterman was to play George Carter memorably alongside John Thaw's Jack Regan. It is said that Special Branch formed a template for The Sweeney to take on the baton from there. But Patrick Mower was to get his own action role in the BBC's own Target at the end of the 1970's, proving that Special Branch was a good training ground for action stars.

At the same time as Target was on the BBC, Yorkshire Television came up with a new series to look at the men and women who served for the Special Intelligence Service, more commonly know as MI6, though the acronym S.I.S was in the series itself. The operatives working for the department were a special breed usually charged with dealing with highly political sensitive or diplomatically complex missions such as defections, assassinations and rescue missions. But because of the seemingly underfunding of the department led by Neil D. Burnside played by Roy Marsden, the S.I.S has to share information with the C.I.A leading to both coming into conflict at times but with Burnside's job of delicately trying to please both the British and United States governments at the same time.

But this does have an effect on Burnside's well being and health in the end, with him looking out for his operatives and their safety turning into an obsession for him. Though the story of The Sandbaggers and what happened to him could could have been in the plot in the series itself. Scottish writer Iain Mackintosh, a former naval officer who had previously written the BBC's Warship had written all of the first two series scripts, but in 1979 when travelling with his girlfriend, a British Airways stewardess they were lost at sea when the single engine aircraft had disappeared over the Pacific Ocean after they had stopped off at a disused U.S. Air force base and that the plane crashed in an area not covered either U.S. Or Russian radar. Three of the scripts were written by Mackintosh when him and girlfriend had disappeared leading to the last four being written by other writers and the last episode's conclusion to be inconclusive and unresolved because the new writers and the producers though they could not write an ending that would have been up to the standards that Mackintosh had set for the series.

The style itself was to be an antidote to the James Bond films which had been about girls, gadgets and cars. With hardly no action sequences and more dialogue than most shows allowed the series to go in a new direction focussing on the reality of the operatives, their lives in such a risk business with regular characters getting killed, double crossing complex plots and a multi-layered story.

But why does the world of the spy and espionage appeal to viewers when they had more glamorous series and films out there? Does it come from a need to find out what exactly these people do to protect our nation, perhaps it can be explained in the same way as a good murder mystery. The actual suspense of what will happen to characters next and the plots itself had to be followed week to week, as the 1970's went into the eighties people's minds were a world away from the glamour of vodka Martinis and thinking towards the Cold War plus what it actually meant. In safety knowing there was something to trust, though not all the time as it seemed the opposition was internal and external as well.

Though if it wasn't for these earlier series, then the likes of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy could have not been made allowing the public to understand the complex situations that agents could be put into both in their work and their own lives, but the unravelling of these cases shown in Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and its sequel Smiley's People meant the web which was weaved by what seemed like a simple situation led to complications for its protagonists. Later on in Spooks, let the action take centre stage just as the Bond series of films were being rebooted from the heyday of the 1970's and 80's with more dramatic licence, showed the working of the inner sanctum of MI5 and its agents. The focus to the new millennium and its challenges, led the series become pure in the workings of the action by almost copying a movie style, with the series becoming cinematic later on. Though as the stories got bigger and bigger, thus the action itself had to be come bigger and bigger. Much with The Sandbaggers in the 1970's the characters were seemingly expendable and there was much risk to the job than had been seen before.

Whether if its MI5, MI6, the KGB or the CIA, the fascination with the secret service continues for viewers and writers alike and as long as there as spies and cases to solve there will be room for the spies we love.

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