Top 20 TV Spies

Not everyone agrees, but for me the spy story is definitely a subset of the crime and mystery genre. However, tales of espionage do come in all shapes and sizes: from contemporary to historical, deadly serious like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and utterly silly like Get Smart. What follows is a very personal guide to my top 20 TV examples in the genre – most are British and usually take the genre seriously. The list includes weekly episodic series, one-off plays, adaptations of novels (whether delivered as single TV-movies or as long form mini-series or serials) – some I guess are predictable and unavoidable, but I hope there are a few surprises tucked away too.

So here, submitted for Todd Mason’s Overlooked Movies meme over at his Sweet Freedom blog, is my list of favourites, and the reasons why, in chronological order, focusing mostly on the Cold War period …

For the most part I have ignored too many recent examples, the logic being that I want to try and let hindsight have at least the chance to percolate just a little. I don’t really expect everyone to agree with all of the choices (what would be the fun in that) but I have not put any ion just for the sake of being controversial. Simply put, these are the top 20 examples of the spy genre on TV that I like the most as of today – but I hope that anyone reading this will agree at least with some of them and I’d love to know what you make of even the ones you don’t agree with. So, in strict chronological order, we begin with …

1. DANGER MAN (1959-61; 64-67) (aka SECRET AGENT)
Patrick McGoohan is John Drake in this trailblazing British show aimed at the international market – originally a half-hour series that ran for 39 episodes, it then got revived in a new one-hour format in the wake of Bondomania though it pre-dated the movie series by several years. A rare show that started well and improved as it went along, in its second incarnation Drake made the transition from being an operative for NATO with a Transatlantic twang (McGoohan was born in New York) to being a British secret agent with an M-like boss, though the relationship was often very spiky indeed (and with good reason as Drake was often lied to). There were plenty of gadgets and irony to spare as Drake traveled the world (or the Elstree backlot anyway) in his white mini, but the plots were often very well crafted and McGoohan is utterly superb in his quirky way – just the best kind of show of its type at the time – but then McGoohan topped it, and in fact tried to destroy the genre entire, in The Prisoner (see below).

2. THE AVENGERS (1960-69)
This show traversed the entire 1960s, developing from black and white video noir at the beginning of the decade when Patrick Macnee was paired with Ian Hendry to the pop art psychedelia of the final season which matched the 1969 moon landing when Steed and his latest companion Tara King shot off into space too for the series finale. Sadly many of the early tape shows featuring Hendry and Honor Blackman are missing, but the height of the show, featuring Macnee and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, was shot of 35mm film and is beautifully preserved on DVD in its entirety

3. I, SPY (1965-68)
A truly globetrotting series starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, which I previously profiled in more detail here and which is probably my favourite American spy show ever – while many of the plots were smart and the characters memorable (especially the seven scripts penned by Robert Culp), and the overseas locations genuine for once, this was always a show about the testing of a friendship to its limits – and beyond. A show with a progressive agenda that made its point with great subtlety and charm with utter conviction, its trump cards were always Culp and Cosby, who on-screen exude charisma and genuine affection are just the greatest spy duo ever – and the coolest.

4. CALLAN (1965-74; 1981)
Gritty British drama created by James Craig (a pseudonym for David Munro) starring Edward Woodward as a reluctant hitman exploited by the British Secret Service. Right to distrust most of his long succession of bosses (who go under the code-name ‘Hunter’), with the exception of one who is promptly killed all too soon, and such bloodthirsty colleagues as Toby Meres and Cross, Callan’s only ally is the malodorous ‘lonely’, brilliantly played by Russell Hunter – their emotional exchanges were often the highlights of each tightly scripted episodes. Again, not all the episodes survive from the early years, but what there is has been beautifully presented on DVD and should be sought out by any true aficionados of the darker side of the spy genre.

5. MAN IN A SUITCASE (1967-68) (aka McGILL)
In many ways the antithesis to The Prisoner (see below), this ultra-hardboiled series used up some of the staff that didn’t follow McGoohan from Danger Man into his new show and took the same premise (a spy loses his position in mysterious circumstances and has to fight to maintain his own sense of self) – they both even feature fantastic theme tunes by Ron Grainer. But while the McGoohan show sought to deconstruct the genre, Man in a Suitcase was the epitome of the tough guy agent having to preserve his life and sense of honour against a cold and unforgiving political landscape. Richard Bradford is terrific as McGill (no first name) and was the only recurring character – but his shoulders were more than big enough.

6. THE PRISONER (1967-68)
The spy show to end all spy shows? Quite literally in fact. I suspect you either love it or hate – for me its a masterpiece and a great example of having your cake and eating it too, its surreal conclusions sending up the whole premise while broadening the remit of its premise beyond mere genre confines while there are plenty of fabulous hard-core spy episodes within the brief 17-episode run for those who want those satisfactions too – sublime, witty, unique a true classic.

7. DEPARTMENT S (1969)
Peter Wyngarde’s swinging dandy detective ‘Jason King’ – later spun off into his own, inferior and more overtly comedic series – made his debut in this action adventure show from the ITC stable. Great fun with plot ingenuity put at at a premium, this is a show that especially delivered some wonderful pre-credit teasers for some baffling and outrageous mysteries. It also co-starred Rosemary Nichols and Joel Fabiani, who as the other Interpol agents of the team somehow manage to hold their own against the OOT camp of Wyngarde’s wardrobe.

8. TRAITOR (1971)
Sadly not available on home video yet, this classic TV play by Dennis Potter features John Le Mesurier as a Philby-style defector who, while being interviewed in Moscow by three British journos has to defend his principles and his conception of what ‘England’ really is, which is then explored through a series of flashbacks to his youth and with a very clever twist in the tail which makes us re-evaluate everything that we have just seen. Potter would return to the same territory in Blade on the Feather (1979) starring Donald Pleasance, a more ambitious and beautiful looking play that at least is available on DVD commercially though it’s not actually as good as the earlier work being somewhat overburdened with some of the author’s mannerisms.

9. THE SANDBAGGERS (1978-80)
The New York Times called it the best spy series ever made, and it is hard to disagree – in its chilly, cerebral and utterly brutal way, this is episodic espionage like no other. Roy Marsden, years before playing Adam Dalgliesh, is Neil Bunside, the head of the eponymous black ops unit who is almost an utter cynic. Brilliantly written by creator Ian Mackintosh and executed by an excellent cast, the show only dipped when in its third and final season it was forced to a premature end when the author mysteriously vanished while flying over Canada in a small plane. Focusing mainly on talk rather than action, this exploration of the dark and Machiavellian side to the spy game makes for utterly compelling viewing.

10. CHARLIE MUFFIN (1979)
Also released in the US under the title A Deadly Game, this TV-movie stars David Hemmings as a British agent caught between his own people and the KGB and ultimately has to decide which is worse. Adapted by Keith Waterhouse from the novel from Brian Fremantle and directed with his usual seriousness by Jack Gold, this is a real one-off (even though Fremantle wrote some inferior sequels later).

11. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (1979)
The recent movie adaptations has made the original mini-series starring Alec Guinness as spymaster George Smiley a known quantity all over again, to which all one should say is – good! It’s not my favourite  le Carre novel from this story of a complex search for a double agent at the heart of British Intelligence makes for great TV with a long succession of the great character actors keeping interest alive during all seven episodes.

12. REILLY ACE OF SPIES (1983)
Sam Neill truly made his name in this highly romanticised depiction of a real-life spy Sidney Reilly. Troy Kennedy Martin’s scripts are often fanciful but this is a fascinating look at history none the less and offers many fine performances and exciting set-pieces along the way (though the casting of a heavily made-up David Suchet as an Oriental was clearly a stupid move).

13. CHESSGAME (1983)
This just may be the most obscure title here – a six-part adaptation of three novels by Anthony Price starring Terence Stamp as hisstorian-cum-spy Dr David Audley, the author’s trademark combinations of history and modern crimes are handled superbly. Never released as a series on video, the three two-parters are available individually under the titles: The Alamut Ambush, Deadly Recruits and Cold War Killers. These are well worth seeking out for Stamp’s great under playing and the clever storylines – a real shame that so few episodes were made.

14. MR PALFREY OF WESTMINSTER (1984-85)
Alec McCowen is brilliant as the Smiley-like spy master in this brilliant and too little known series thankfully now available on DVD. Originally shown as being the head of an ultra-high tech department in the pilot, for the series he had been downgraded to working out of a semi-basement, at the beck and call of an ultra-tough boss clearly moulded after Margaret Thatcher. This is another show more about internecine gamesmanship than action though there is some of that too here – McCowen, inevitably suffering for being the smartest person in the room, is a wonderful and unlikely hero.

15. GAME, SET & MATCH (1988)
I wish, oh how I wish, that this series were available on home video. Adapted from Len Deighton’s initial trilogy about Bernard Sampson (in the end there would be 10 volumes dedicated to the character and his family), it is said that the author didn’t like the casting of Ian Holm as his hero. He is much older than the figure in the books, but he is an exceptional actor and always anchors the sometimes sprawling narrative which moves between London, Berlin and Mexico. Sampson used to be a British agent working in Berlin, where he was brought up, but five years after a disastrous operation he has been relegated to a desk job and watched as his beloved wife Fiona (the sumptuous Mel Martin) makes a far better career for herself within the department, not least because unlike him, she comes from a rich and powerful family. But soon he will have to head back to Berlin as his ‘Brahms’ network comes under fire. The big twist, when it comes at the end of the ‘Berlin Game’ section, will blow your socks off. Made on a big budget but never repeated and one of the last genuine Cold War spy dramas (the Berlin Wall tumbled not long after), I really hope this makes it to home video soon – there are illegal copies out there but one really must wait for the official release. In the meantime, read all the books in order, especially its first volume Berlin Game, possible the best thing Deighton has ever written.

16. ASHENDEN (1991)
Also AWOL on video, this was a 4-part BBC adaptation by David Pirie of the collection of short stories by Somerset Maugham previously adapted by Hitchcock as Secret Agent. This is much more faithful to the originals though it also reflected Pirie’s fascination with the relationship between the real-life inspiration of an author’s work, with Alex Jennings starring as the Maugham-like hero who, in old age, recalls his past as a wartime spy with very mixed emotions. Another show yet to legally make its appearance on home video, it wi well worth looking for in case it gets repeated on TV with a fine supporting cast including Elizabeth McGovern, Joss Ackland, Alan Bennett and Alfred Molina as the ‘hairless Mexican’.

17. A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION (1991)
Brilliant stage play by Alan Bennett turned into an equally brilliant TV drama by director John Schlesinger (and thus a companion piece to their 1983 excursion into real-life espionage, An Englishman Abroad), with James Fox starring as Anthony Blunt, the art expert ultimately revealed to be the fourth man in the Cambridge spy ring. Remembered mostly for the long sequence in which Blunt gives a tour of the paintings to the Queen (played by Prunella Scales), who may or may not know of his past, this is a complex and powerful story in which layers of deception in his debriefing are equated with the restoration of art and the discovery of earlier paintings under the top soil of a canvas.

18. 24 (2001-10)
It may never have truly improved on its opening season, but this ‘real’ time’ spy drama was a great show in its day, brilliantly playing audience on all sides of the political divide though its split-screen aesthetics and its breathless plot twists – while it was, utterly unmissable and even the distinctive ring-tone lives on …

19. ALIAS (2001-06)
The first three seasons are brilliantly entertaining as they take a simple premise – a high school girl is also an undercover operative – and then undercuts it when she discovers that she is being duped by the enemy and is now running missions for the real CIA and subtly undermining the mission for the make agency – confused? Well, quite! Jennifer Garner is endlessly appealing as the tough and beautiful lead though the real acting kudos has to be shared with Victor Garber as her tough as nails father Jack and their nemesis Sloane (Ron Rifkin). The fantasy element introduced in the pilot in the shape of a ‘Rambaldi’ artefact could never be quite made to go away and did undermine the show as it reached its conclusion but at least to begin with this was a sassy and fresh show that knew how to make the best of its assets.

20. SPOOKS (2002-11)
Retitled MI5 in the US, this is by far the BBC’s longest-running spy drama. While most of the cast were decimated as the years wore on, this remained an exciting and dynamic show that never quite exhausted itself – quite a feat among a sea of post 9/11 spy shows. Its final moments, which reintroduced a character long thought dead while we mourned the passing of one of the last of the original cast members, was the perfect grace note on which to conclude.

But one could easily add another twenty, perhaps including more lighthearted fare like The Man from UNCLE, the original Mission: Impossible, Wild Wild West, Six Million Dollar Man / Bionic Woman or the more recent Chuck, Burn Notice, Nikita or even the procedural hybrid NCIS – what would you add or take away?

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61 Responses to Top 20 TV Spies

  1. Bev Hankins says:

    I’m not a big spy/thriller fan, so I haven’t seen a lot of these. I do LOVE The Avengers though in all of its incarnations. Steed and Peel are just so smooth and hip and loads of fun. I haven’t seen the I Spy since I was very young–so I’ll have to reserve judgement on that one. I do have pleasant vibes from what I do remember, though. Now…The Prisoner…I’m afraid I’m in the hated it camp. I just couldn’t get into that whole trapped in a village scenario.

    • Thanks very much for all the great feedback Bev – I, Spy to my view holds up thanks to the great Cosby and Culp duo. Although my two 8-tear-old nieces would disagree, I do wonder if ‘spying’ remains primarily a boy thing, even with a female protagonist …

      • I don’t know about the boy/girtl thing….I just know for me, I much prefer the more humorous take of The Avengers to anything. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is also a favorite of mine…wound up that like my mom, I had a crush on Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). Get Smart was okay–a little bit too camp, but fun.

        • Thanks very much Bev – at some point I must give UNCLE another whirl as it has been much too long.

          • Bev Hankins says:

            I watched several of the UNCLE episodes about a year and a half to two years ago. I hadn’t seen them since I was home with my parents and was surprised at how well they had held up to what I remembered. That doesn’t always happen with TV shows that I watched when growing up….

          • Indeed! On the other hand, I think if something does stand up like that then it really is worth treasuring, no two ways about it.

  2. Sergio – I’m not nearly as well-versed in the spy-TV genre as you are, so I will defer to you. But I do think you’re spot on about The Avengers, I Spy and Reilly…. What did you think of the original incarnation of Mission: Impossible?

  3. Sergio, this is a terrific list and I am saying thus because only four of these are familiar to me, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and GAME, SET & MATCH, and the more recent 24 and ALIAS, and even these I have not seen. I’d be surprised if Indian television telecast any of these spy series at any point of time. All we got in the 80s and 90s were British and American sitcoms. I’ll have to look elsewhere for some of these television serials. I haven’t read the espionage novels of Anthony Price though I have heard of him and do have access to his books.

    • Price’s books deserve to be much better known Prashant so if you get the chance grab some! But you are definitely on the side of the good guys as you may be one of the few people here to havce seen Game, Set & Match – my old VHS tapes from 1988 are getting very worn!

  4. michael says:

    Like your list and agree “Danger Man” is number one. There were seven I have not seen yet as a deprived American so I’ll pick seven American ones.
    RUBICON (AMC, 2011) http://www.amctv.com/shows/rubicon

    DELPHI BUREAU (ABC, 1972) A researcher with a photographic memory works for an American top secret agency. Much what “Rockford Files” did to the PI, this show did to the spy genre.

    ARCHER (FX, present) Brilliant animated spoof of the TV and movie spy.

    THE MIDDLEMAN (ABC Family) Secret organization dealing with surreal and bizarre comic book like villains. Based on comic book.

    SHEEP IN THE BIG CITY (Cartoon Network, 2002) What “Rocky and Friends (Bullwinkle) was to the Cold War spies, Sheep was to the modern day top secret military organizations.

    BLUE LIGHT (ABC, 1966) Who knew Robert Goulet could act? He played an American who had become a Nazi during WWII but in reality worked for the American government, code name – Blue Light.

    BARBARY COAST (ABC, 1975) William Shatner’s version of “Wild Wild West.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bj-g0b13lQs

    • Thanks for that greta list Michael – I really liked Rubicon a lot and wished it had lasted longer and Archer does crack me up though I’ve seen a few episodes so far. Blue Light I have never seen though.

  5. TracyK says:

    This is a very fun list.

    A lot of these I either haven’t heard of or haven’t had the opportunity to watch. My favorites on the list are TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and The AVENGERS. My husband and son love The PRISONER. I have never seen GAME, SET & MATCH but I would pay a lot to be able to. I agree with you on ALIAS. It was great for a few seasons, then went downhill and we gave up. We are just now trying MI5… from the start of course. I bought the I SPY DVD on the basis of your earlier post but haven’t started watching it yet.

    More currently, we have enjoyed all of Chuck, Burn Notice and are devoted to NCIS.

  6. Colin says:

    That’s a very comprehensive and wide-ranging list Sergio. I’m familiar with pretty much all your choices up to the 70s/80s (especially the ITC stuff, which I can’t get enough of) but the more recent material has passed me by. I’ve been watching progressively less TV over the last ten to twelve years, to the point where I now see only an extremely limited amount. Current storytelling and filming techniques simply don’t work for me or connect with me on any level so I don’t feel I’m losing out.

    As for changes, I would have included The Man from UNCLE and The New Avengers, which I grew up with, I guess.

    • Thanks for that Colin – I remember watching The New Avengers and then The Professionals as a kid but have found repeats a bit disappointing frankly despite the fine cameraderie between the actors. It’s weird, I used to watch the UNCLE movies as a kid and thought they were fab but never got into the show at all. You’ll have noticed how little camp there is on this list … I still watch a fair amount of telly but I know exactly what you mean about mordern styles though I would hold up The Wire and The Shield for instance as examples of top drawer telly that simply would not have been possible in an earlier age.

      • Colin says:

        I am possibly being harsh in my view of current TV, but I’ve simply got out of the habit of watching these days. I’m probably missing out on some worthwhile stuff, I know. The thing is, I just can’t work up the enthusiasm to trawl through all the dross in the hope of uncovering a gem.

        • I do find watching shown on DVD often makes a difference ere, especially given the serialised nature of most dramas today. Alias and Burn Notice for instance are great tongue-in-cheek action spy shows – and NCIS is just awesome! Of course the latter is virtually impossible to miss if you switch on any TV in the known universe, but I really love it.

          • Colin says:

            The serialized stuff does put me off since I can rarely commit myself in that way. What with watching movies, reading, work, trying to write odds and ends, and have some semblance of a social life, I struggle to find the time these days.

          • I certainly watch very little drama ‘live’ these days.

      • Colin says:

        And I should have said, I get what you mean with UNCLE. Some shows grab you and some don’t – try as I might, I could never get into Mission Impossible.

        • It is hard to explain though and often it is just down to the actors and the characterisation. I mean, I used to think The Man from Atlantis was the best show ever – but I was 8 years old at the time (I can still hum the great Fred karlin theme tune though …)

          • Colin says:

            Yeah, me too! I used to love that invisible man thing with Ben Murphy and his digital watch too! :)

            I do think the fact I was/am ambivalent about the actors in Mission Impossible is part of the problem with that one.

          • I re-watched the David McCallum Invisible Man again recently when ti came out on Blu-ray, which was seriosuly botched technically by the ‘need’ to create an artificial widescreen version. The pilot was written and produced by Steve Bochco and uses the same structure as Double Indeminity, which he had just remade for Universal TV. Apart from a few slightly lewd moments and the Henry Mancini them tune it was incredibly poor – I also remember preferring the Oemga Man revamp of the series.

          • Colin says:

            Revisiting what you remember as childhood favourites can be a major disappointment. Experience has taught me to be selective in that regard, as there have been too many shows that left me scratching my head in puzzlement over what younger me thought was great back in the day. In certain cases, especially TV shows of my youth, memories are best allowed to remain just that, sadly.

          • Equally, in the cases where they do still stand up (I feel that wy about SAPPHIRE & STEEL and THE PRISONER for instance), that really does add to the allure. But how often will that happen?

          • Colin says:

            Haven’t seen Sapphire & Steel since it was broadcast, so it’s good to hear you feel it still holds up.
            I think, generally, the more juvenile the show was the worse it tends to fare to our adult eyes.

          • I don’t have very high tolerance either – in the case of Sapphire & Steel and The Prisoner, these were shows that were deliberately going against the grain so I suppose this may be while they still hold up (well, at least in my estimation). I was always mad about Sapphire & Steel though and the fact that it is now easy to get an dinexpensive too is just the icing on the cake. If you have not seen The Sandbaggers by the way I would really, really recommend that you give it a whirl – again, easy to get from Network on DVD.

          • Colin says:

            Quick question – was The Sandbaggers shot on tape or film? For one reason or another, I sometimes struggle with VT material, especially the multi-camera aspect.

          • THE SANDBAGGERS is multi-camera tape with OB material shot on grainy 16mm (with Leeds standing in in Eastern Europe) and is a fairly dialogue-driven show. If you’re not a fan of that theatrical style I can see how this might put you off – but, to my mind, just the best of its kind ever. if you give it a go, make sure you watch the seasons in sequence.

          • Colin says:

            Cheers – I may take a chance on it.

          • First series available at a good price here.

          • Colin says:

            Damn! That’s very tempting.

          • Actually Colin, as I owe you a favour or three, let me see if I can sort somethign out for you – I’ll ping you by email.

          • Lookng forward to seeing what you make of it.

  7. vinnieh says:

    Great post, glad the Avengers is on it. It is such an iconic show.

  8. Patti Abbott says:

    I have trouble with spies on TV because they tend to be parodies or too jokey and they don’t work for me. The best are the short series done by the BBC IMHO. TTSS will never be topped on TV but the movie stands up to it very well.

    • I pretty amuch agree Patti but I think most of these examples really do stand up – Game, Set & Match is near-impossible to get hold of unfortunately and the same goes for Ashenden but well worth seeing if you can.

  9. Yvette says:

    Well, I must have spent the last few decades in a cave since I haven’t heard of most of these shows except for DANGER MAN (SECRET AGENT) which I only vaguely remember because of its catchy opening titles tune. I also remember I SPY which I loved. Also THE AVENGERS (the years with Diana Rigg) and THE PRISONER which again, I only vaguely remember watching on early TV.
    I did enjoy REILLY ACE OF SPIES too.

    It’s possible that since I do not have a spy thriller sort of mind I may have missed these other shows even while they were flashing right in front of me. I never saw ALIAS, I was always busy doing something else I guess. And I refused to watch 24 after viewing part of one episode and rolling my eyes so much I was in danger of flipping over and falling into a coma. My health comes first.

    I do enjoy spy books though, so go figure.

    But all is not lost, I’m making note of your faves, Sergio, and will try and find a couple of them for viewing. I admit that some of them sound very intriguing.

    • Thnaks for all that Yvette but you are right, health definitely comes first! I have a real soft spot for Alias for instance but its probably a bit jokier than most of the titles I selcted but I did really like the energy and sheer sense fo fun – and Jennifer Garner was / is awesome! There, I said it, I let the inner fanboy out …

  10. Skywatcher says:

    Some fine spy drama here. MR PALFREY OF WESTMINSTER andTHE SANDBAGGERS were especially fine. You’ve covered most of the biggies, although there was a fascinating BBC show from the late 70s called THE OMEGA FACTOR. It was a weird mix of espionage and the supernatural, and anticipated THE X FILES by a number of years. Another odd-ball British show was SPYDER’S WEB, which played the whole spy game as surreal comedy (one of the episodes has the Soviet Union using a lonely hearts club to place agents in the West). THE PIGLET FILES was an ITV situation comedy about MI5. It starred Nicholas Lyndhurst, and was interesting in that the espionage element was fairly believable and low-key. The humour came from the fact that the agents were neither James Bonds or George Smileys, but a mixture of the competent and time wasters, slackers, and idiots who you will find in any office.

    I’m a big fan of Anthony Price’s novels, although I understand that Price absolutely hates CHESSGAME, feeling that it had very little to do with his books.

    • Thanks for that Skywatcher – I re-watched Syder’s Web and did enjoy some of it (incluing the Peter Sallis episode by Roy Clarke) but it felt like a show that couldn’t really decide how silly it was prepared to be. I didn;t know that Price dislike the series – maybe that explians why there there were no more. Shame really, seems that’s what happened with Game, Set & Match too.

  11. The top three and THE PRISONER i loved dearly back in the day. The rest I’m unfamiliar with or just didn’t watch. I have novels on those four, including one based on the half hour version of DANGERMAN, though I never saw hat either.

    • Thanks very much Randy – I remember reading some of the James Blush novelisations of The Prisoner but I think that’s about it really. Didn;t know about Danger Man tie-ins at all, fascinating.

  12. Jeff Flugel says:

    Terrific post, Sergio! Your list is a very fine and comprehensive one, and one I can firmly get behind, as most of the titles I would have included are in there. :) I’m especially glad to see you give some love to such wonderful series as MAN IN A SUITCASE (one of the best discoveries for me in recent years), the brilliant THE SANDBAGGERS, I SPY and so many others. Being a big fan of this genre I’ve seen nearly all of these, though I have yet to catch up with CALLAN or CHESSGAME. Personally, I’d have found room for THE WILD WILD WEST, as it’s a program I loved as a kid and think still holds up very well now. I’ve grown somewhat fond of the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE but can only watch that show intermittently, so I can understand why you left it as a runner-up. Anyway, I could go on and on about all the great shows on this list, old and new, but I’ll just end by saying – well done mate!

    • Thanks very much Jeff, that really kind of you. Callan in particular I would recommend as being a very British entry but it is available in very decent editions of DVD both in the UK and Australia and is a real treat to have in store.

  13. Skywatcher says:

    CAVERSHAMRAGU: There is a fascinating, and very extensive interview with Anthony Price at a site called EXISTENTIAL ENNUI. Price doesn’t seem to be against the idea of adaption to television in principle, but was rather wounded by what he saw as the massive changes made to his stories. I suppose that the Cold War setting makes them rather dated nowadays, but the new film version of TINKER, TAILOR….shows that there is still an interest in this sort of thing if done properly, so It would be wonderful if someone made another attempt to do them for TV one day.

    • Thanks very much Skywatcher for the heads up about the Antony Price interviews over at Nick Jones’ excellent Existential Ennui website – to read both parts of the interview, click for part 1 and part 2, while for many fine posts on the author’s books, click here.

  14. John says:

    Lots of UK shows here that I have obviously never heard of nor seen. How can you include The AVENGERS and leave off THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.? They’re so much in the same vein. The original MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE was a real favorite of mine. And I’d never call that show lighthearted. Watched it religiously when I was a kid and it felt so deadly serious. I also liked an interesting show from the 1970s called THE ZOO GANG, based on a novella by Paul Gallico, and imported from your side of the pond which featured Lilli Palmer, Brian Keith and John Mills. I guess it was more an “ex-spies turned adventurers” series than a true spy show. Still I liked it and would include it for being so unusual.

    One minor correction: Sydney Bristow was in her 20s when ALIAS first started. There may have been a flashback to her high school days. But in the first episodes she was living in a house with a roommate and ostensibly working for that bank. ALIAS was incredibly fun to watch. It was the beginning of retro pulp TV and paved the way for all the comic style adventure series of the 2000s. The whole series is practically stolen part and parcel from old pulp magazines. I can show you stories in Doc Savage and The Shadow and other hero pulp magazines that are directly related to most of the more outrageous plot lines like search for the Rambaldi devices. It’s too much of a coincidence for me.

    • Cheers for that John – Alias was very pulpy but it would be wonderful to read the originals for the stories – sounds marvellous. I think they did do some fancy footwork to explain that Sydney was a postgrad who came late to her studies or some such. What I really like about The Avengers is how it changed through the decade but remained only ever true to itself; while I suppose I was less keen on UNCLE and Mission: Impossible really as they did seem to get pickled in aspic very early on. But you know what? it’s probably just about how I responded to the characters at the time. It’s not like I have watche d a whle episode of UNCLE in the last ten year after all but I remember a lot of very slapdash episodes after the switch to colour …

  15. Sarah says:

    I had no idea that the Game/Set/Match trilogy had been made into a series. And starring the wonderful Ian Holm. Can’t we start a campaign to get it released on DVD?

    • Hi Sarah, well, I’m not surprised really – I still have the VHS tapes I recorded back in 1988 but it’s not just Deighton disliking it as it wasn’t much of a ratings hit at the time. The sheer length and complexity was probably a bit off-putting too. Tinker Tailor is only half the length and tells just the one story but Game, Set & Match is 13 episodes dramatising three novels and basically is impossible to follow if you haven’t been there from the beginning. Which makes it perfect for DVD though!

  16. Ela says:

    Rather shamefully, I only know ‘Danger Man’ through the spoof animated series ‘Danger Mouse’, which was a staple of my childhood. I remember watching ‘Ashenden’ when it was broadcast but don’t remember much about it now: I’d certainly buy it on DVD.

    • Well Ela, I really envy you – if you’re ever in the mood I think you have some really superb TV drama waiting for you out there as most of these are easy to get in DVD though it is maddening that the likes of Ashenden and Game, Set & Match have proved so elusive (officially at least – there are bootlegs out there).

  17. Bob Randisi says:

    Game, Set and Match can’t be found because Len Deighton won’t allow it to be shown. He hates it.
    I’m in total agreement about Sandbaggers, Danger Man, Callan, The Avengers, but I’d rate Man in a Suitcase higher–and I also consider that show a private eye show. Also, I Spy is the best American spy now.
    What? Nobody picked A Man Called Sloan? How about The Wild Wild West and the original Mission: Impossible?

    • Thanks Bob – Mission: Impossible would definitely have been my 21st choice and I think everyone agrees I should have included it – I sense you are a Robert Conrad fan! I do remember liking Sloan a lot as a kid (circa 1979 I think) but haven’t seen it since then and I did decide to omit most of the jokier shows from my list purely to avoid making the list too long – I should have made it the top 30, shouldn’t I …

  18. Pingback: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [VHS] | WWW.DBESTREVIEW.COM

  19. Emilia says:

    Does anyone know what is Mr. Palfrey’s opening theme? I’ve searched in vain, with no results…

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