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?