Danger Man was a hugely successful espionage drama which premiered in 1960 and introduced Patrick McGoohan as secret agent John Drake. Drake took on hazardous missions all over the world, initially for NATO and then the British Secret Service.
The series was made by the Incorporated Television Company ( ITC), led by Lew Grade. During the late ’ 50s ITC produced mostly historical swashbucklers, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, aimed mainly at the international market, but they were also televised across ITV’s network.
To boost sales to America, Grade commissioned writer and director Ralph Smart to develop ideas for a modern- day series with an international look to it. Smart intended to make a James Bond television series and had discussions with 007 creator Ian Fleming. When this failed to materialise, Smart, with the help of writer Ian Stuart Black, created John Drake and based him on Bond. Smart’s idea reflected Cold War tension, growth of mass communication, advances in technology, and burgeoning international travel. Drake was a solitary, globetrotting American NATO agent based in Washington. Initially the series was called “Lone Wolf”.
By 1959, when Danger Man went into production, 31- year- old Patrick McGoohan had experienced theatrical success and appeared in a number of films. However, after reading the early scripts McGoohan, found the emphasis on sex and violence unacceptable for a television audience that would include millions of children. He insisted that this type
of content was removed before he would commit to the series. Television executives were unhappy with his stance but McGoohan, a Catholic and the father of young daughters, refused to back down on principle.
McGoohan’s own view of Drake was that he was in the heroic mould — like the classic Western hero; a good man with a strong sense of morality and fair play; who used his wits to outsmart opponents, but was tough and fought clean; who would only use a gun in a desperate situation. He appreciated attractive women and charmed them, but his job could not be hampered by romantic liaisons. Speaking in 1965 he said: “For young children watching Danger Man, I’d rather they saw a hero rather than an anti- hero.”
The 25- minute format meant episodes of the new action series moved at a cracking pace, usually building up to a climactic fist fight. The important international feature of Danger Man was accomplished by editing together the production team’s location filming in the UK, dressed studio sets and library footage of foreign countries. Drake’s “Washington” office, seen in the opening title sequence, was actually located in London’s Marylebone Road.
Danger Man’s first episode, “View from the Villa”, featured Drake in Italy investigating a murder and the disappearance of millions of dollars of gold bullion. The North Wales location of Portmeirion doubled for an Italian village and McGoohan later chose it to be The Village for his enigmatic masterpiece The Prisoner.
Drake’s contacts included Colonel Keller ( Lionel Murton) in US Intelligence, and Hardy ( Richard Wattis) from the British Secret Service. There was a stark contrast between Hardy and Drake; one a fussy, middle- aged Englishman who lived with his mother and the other a young, ingenious, self- reliant American.
Filmed at MGM studios in Elstree the series was produced by Smart assisted by Aida Young — one of television’s first female producers. McGoohan, who was extremely interested in the production process, went on to direct three episodes.
Despite successful sales around the world, Danger Man did not generate the expected level of interest from
the American networks. A second series was not commissioned so McGoohan pursued other projects for the next three years.
The immense popularity of the James Bond films in the early ’ 60s no doubt prompted the decision to revive Danger Man in 1964, with extensive changes to the original concept. From being an American NATO agent, the new Drake spoke with a British accent and worked for M9 in the British Secret Service. The character’s sports car from the earlier series was replaced by an inconspicuous Austin Mini Cooper.
Danger Man returned in October 1964 and the memorable new opening sequence featured McGoohan’s figure — shown briefly in negative — walking towards the camera. A sparkling harpsichord theme tune “High Wire”, written by Edwin Astley, accompanied both opening and closing titles.
In the new series Drake’s maturity had given him a greater understanding of people, and he rebelled against some of his assignments sometimes clashing with his deceitful and ruthless M9 boss, Admiral Hobbs ( Peter Madden). Arguably the most important change was the expansion of episodes to 50 minutes. This allowed for more complex storylines and greater character development.
In 1964 Grade successfully sold Danger Man to American television reputedly for more than a million pounds. There, the series was retitled Secret Agent and given an additional theme called “Secret Agent Man” sung by Johnny Rivers.
The third and final series, filmed mostly at Shepperton studios, began in autumn 1965 and ended the following April. After completing two colour episodes in spring 1966, McGoohan decided to quit his role as John Drake. Although Danger Man had made him an international star and the highest- paid actor on British television, he wanted to move on.
Throughout his time at NATO and M9, Drake dealt with double agents, assassins and defectors. He was a highly skilled undercover operative and to combat his enemies he was an expert in the use of
covert gadgets. These were Drake’s tools of the trade and supported his acute observation and intuition on assignment. Two gadgets he often used were his Philishave electric razor that doubled as a mini tape recorder and his lighter, which secretly snapped a picture as the lighting button was pressed.
Behind the scenes, Danger Man’s high production standards, excellent directors and storylines contributed to its international success. Its writers endeavoured to reflect real events and tensions in the world. A popular theme was the independence of Britain’s colonies and a number of episodes were set in Africa. Other episodes alluded to the Profumo scandal and the theme of compromised or corruptible Establishment figures.
Intriguingly two Danger Man episodes appear to have influenced McGoohan’s later series The Prisoner. In “Colony Three”, Drake was sent to a replica of an English village that instructed communist agents in the British way of life. Residents were free to roam the village but no one could leave. “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” was a surreal visualisation of Drake’s nightmare in which he feared blackmail and exposure as an agent.
Danger Man was one of the first television series in the ’ 60s to have tie- in merchandising including a board game, jigsaws and books. In 1967 Lew Grade won the Queen’s Award for Industry for earning Britain £ 35,700,000 in television sales and without doubt it was Danger Man that contributed largely to the figure.
Danger Man was British television’s first modern secret agent and set the bar for the many spy series that followed. It was truly a trailblazing series — dominated by the compelling and inimitable Patrick McGoohan.
Gadgets, such as the lighter which doubled as a camera, were essential tools for Drake.
Patrick McGoohan starred as John Drake in Danger Man.
John Drake with the traitor Rawson, played by John Fraser, in an episode broadcast in 1964.