TV Espionage & Spies


REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


ADAM HALL (ELLESTON TREVOR) – The Tango Briefing. Doubleday, US, hardcover, 1973. Dell, paperback, 1974. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1973.

QUILLER. “Tango Briefing.” BBC One; September 5, 1975. Written by Adam Hall, based on characters he created. Cast: Michael Jayston as Quiller and Moray Watson as Angus Kinloch. Guest Cast: Nigel Stock as Loman, Prunella Gee as Diane, Reg Lye as Chirac and Paul Angelis as Vickers Designer: Peter Blacker. Produced by Peter Graham Scott. Directed by David Sullivan Proudfoot.

   My experience with Quiller is limited. I began with the disappointing film QUILLER MEMORANDUM, then the good but nothing special book NINTH DIRECTIVE. Recently I read the book TANGO BRIEFING and watched a rare copy of the British TV episode based on the book.

   Both versions of TANGO BRIEFING were written by Adam Hall (Elleston Trevor) and featured Quiller searching for a lost plane in the Sahara desert. A mission that had already cost lives.

   I enjoyed the book, and even though it was fifth in the Quiller series it felt like an introduction story to the character. Narrated in first person by the character Quiller, and while he remained a self-effacing enigma, the book was filled with many details about his job and his life (which amounted to the same thing).

   Actor Michael Jayston (TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, 1979) was well chosen for the role, better than the film’s version played by George Segal. Quiller has a lack of respect and trust for authority figures. Segal played it with more Connery-as-Bond-like humor, while Jayston had a meaner, rude touch.

   The book TANGO BRIEFING was a well-written thriller full of tension and excitement. The TV episode was loyal to the book, but due to time and budget, made a few changes, changes that stripped the story of much of its suspense and drama.

   Few have ever seen the QUILLER TV series. Even in the collectors market the series is difficult to find. Apparently only three episodes of the series thirteen survive. Luckily TANGO BRIEFING was one of them. The short-lived series aired only once on the BBC and was never shown again. Its episodes met the same fate of many BBC genre series of that era such as DOCTOR WHO, and ADAM ADMANT LIVES (reviewed here ) when the stuffy old men at BBC in a fit of snobbery purged its entertaining non-socially conscious series from its warehouse.

   Anyone aware of the TV series probably best remembers it for its popular theme song written by Richard Denton and Martin Cook (HONG KONG BEAT, THE GREAT EGG RACE).

   The song was released on a 45 record with “General Direction” from QUILLER soundtrack on the B-side.

   The mission in TANGO BRIEFING was to recover the cargo of a downed plane in the Sahara desert. The mission had gone bad and The Bureau sends Quiller in to complete the job. He was not told why the plane’s cargo was so important or what it was, but he realized it was vital to the British government that he reach the plane before the local Algerian government or anyone else who might be looking for it.

   His “director” on the mission was Loman. Loman would make the plans and handle all the details while “the executive” or “ferret” Quiller was out in the field. The two had worked together before and neither liked the other or approved of the other’s methods.

   After Quiller met with Loman there is an attempt on his life. In the book Quiller barely escaped alive and was physically weakened for the rest of the adventure, while in the TV episode he escapes with no injuries as a young native sets off the trap. I am not sure why writer Hall made the change but it was an important one.

   The book Quiller is a superspy, a man able to do what few men can. Forced to overcome his injuries, Quiller goes beyond the average spy. From watching the three available episodes, the TV series producers seemed to want to make Quiller a more fallible realistic human but keeping Quiller’s arrogance and attitude. Unlike the book Quiller the TV Quiller was an unlikable one-dimensional character.

   Every scene in the book added to the risks for Quiller, with time running out and others getting closer. TANGO BRIEFING the book makes powerful use of time and its passing. But the TV episode limited by its hour length could not fit it all in and what was used often felt contrived.

   Four of the book’s characters made it from book to TV episode. Besides Loman, the other member of Quiller’s support team was inexperienced radio operator Diane. The character served a better purpose in the book with Quiller’s disapproval of her inexperience and concern for her youth adding tension and jeopardy to the story. The character of Diane was badly misused in the TV episode. TV Quiller was fast to forgive her inexperience and shook her hand accepting her to the team, there were G-rated hints of possible romance, and a scene was clumsily dropped in where she beat up a bad guy who attacked her in the radio room.

Two local characters, Chirac, the man who flies Quiller to the desert, and Vickers, the freelance oil driller, make it to the TV episode. Chirac goes from the book’s lovable old ex-war hero to the TV episode’s weak link. Vickers was a minor character in the book. His appearances in the TV episode were obviously forced by the need to foreshadow the TV’s version different ending.

   Then there is the desert search for the plane that takes up much of the book and the TV episode. The TV version greatest mistake was to abandon the book’s first person narration. The scenes in the desert are among the highlights of the book. Quiller’s narration allows us inside the character, fleshing him out. We may not learn his real name or details of his past but we do learn how he thinks and feels. This is where Quiller becomes someone we care about.

   In the TV episode, plot information and characterization was limited to the radio conversations between Quiller and Diane and Loman at the radio base in Kaifra. Without Quiller’s explaining his thoughts and exploring the details of his situation, we never feel his fear and stress as we do reading the book. This left the story in the TV version underdeveloped and less powerfully dramatic.

   While the QUILLER theme song is great, the episode soundtrack was awful and let down the episode. The desert scenes could have worked better if the soundtrack had supplied the emotions of the scenes that the narration gave readers in the book.

   Director David Sullivan Proudfoot (WARSHIP) did his best. His highlight was a shot of the shadow against a desert dune of a vulture circling over an unconscious Quiller.

   The two versions differed in endings. The book’s final scenes would have made an exciting end for a theatrical film. The TV ending was weak, contrived and obvious.

   The book is well worth reading. It is hard to believe the same man who wrote the book wrote the TV version. I suspect Hall’s final draft was not the final shooting script.

            SOURCES:

Action TV: http://www.startrader.co.uk/Action%20TV/guide70s/quiller.htm

The Unofficial QUILLER website http://www.quiller.net

The Encyclopedia of TV Spies by Wesley Britton (BearManor Media, 2009)

KAREN A. ROMANKO – Television’s Female Spies and Crimefighters: 600 Characters and Shows, 1950s to the Present. McFarland, softcover, February 2016.

   The full title of this book is self-explanatory, I’m sure. I’ve only browsed through it myself, so this is not a review, but in my opinion this is a book that every reader of this blog ought be know about, if you don’t already.

   To open the book, author Karen Romanko provides a long and knowledgeable introduction to the overall history of female crimefighters on television, followed in the main portion of the book by a comprehensive alphabetical listing of all relevant TV series and their significant characters, cross-referenced between the two. For example, the TV series Elementary and the character Joan Watson each have their own entries, each mentioning the other in bold face.

   The first entry is Acapulco H.E.A.T., followed by Lydia Adams (Southland); the last two are Roberta Young (Snoops) and The Zoo Gang, a British production that aired in this country on NBC in 1975.

   This is a book that’s easy to get caught up in, following one familiar show to its star and then to others not so familiar, and vice versa for (in my estimation) hours on end.

COMING SOON – THE TV EDITION
by Michael Shonk


   Most TV junkies claim Fall premiere week as their favorite time of the year, but mine has always been the May upfronts. Upfronts are parties the networks throw for major advertisers, ad agencies and the media in attempt to get them drunk enough to believe next Fall’s TV series will be the best ever and hope they forget the lies the networks told about the quality of last season’s shows.

   In the past, May was the most dramatic month for the TV fanatic. TV viewers embraced hope of the new, relief when their favorites survived, and the devastation when they didn’t. But it is just not the same anymore.

   The broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, and CW) have joined cable networks in the effort to supply original programming all year round. New television series never stop coming. The Big Four and-a-Half networks just announced their fall lineup with huge fan fare ignoring that September is no longer the best month of TV.

   Pushing the limits of space here, let’s check out the highlights of what is coming this week, this Summer, this Fall, and in 2017.

   Just because the main season is over, it doesn’t mean the broadcast networks abandon original programming. WAYWARD PINES is back on FOX. CW has the final season of BEAUTY & THE BEAST. CBS has the return of ZOO and two new series starting in June that sound better than any of CBS new fall shows. AMERICAN GOTHIC tells the story of a family that has discovered one of them is a serial killer. From the creators of THE GOOD WIFE, BRAINDEAD is a comedy thriller about a young woman who discovers aliens are eating the brains of politicians and government workers. NBC has the Olympics this summer but also airs AQUARIUS.

      NBC medical drama NIGHT SHIFT returns for its third season:

   Cable networks offer original scripted programs in May and June including AMC’s new crime drama set in a restaurant, FEED THE BEAST, and the last season of HELL ON WHEELS, HBO’s GAME OF THRONES, TNT’s LAST SHIP, MAJOR CRIMES, MURDER IN THE FIRST, and RIZZOLI & ISLES (final season), TBS’s ANGIE TRIBECA, Cinemax’s OUTCAST, Netflix’s ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, ADULT SWIM’s DECKER: UNCLASSIFIED, and SYFY’s 12 MONKEYS.

   The heck with Marvel and DC, give me an IDW comic book like the fun horror/western WYNONNA EARP.

   Cable original scripted programs continue through the summer with returning series such as SYFY’s KILLJOYS and DARK MATTER, FX’s TYRANT and THE STRAIN, STARZ’s POWER, USA’s SUITS and last year’s hit MR. ROBOT.

   New series include Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS set in the 1980s, a supernatural series centered on a missing boy, SYFY’s post-apocalyptic drama AFTERMATH, and TNT’s GOOD BEHAVIOR based on the Letty Dobesh books by Blake Crouch.

      Based on Stephen Hunter’s book POINT OF IMPACT, USA network new series SHOOTER premieres in July.

   This fall live television, especially sports such as the NFL and World Series, will distract the viewing public. Cable lead by one of the most watched TV series in all television, AMC’s WALKING DEAD will hold its own. TNT reboots TALES FROM THE CRYPT, this time from M. Night Shyamalan.

         Netflix starts another series featuring a Marvel comic character – LUKE CAGE.

   Midseason 2017 promises to offer some entertaining new series on cable networks. USA’s FALLING WATER is a supernatural thriller about three strangers who find they can share dreams. SYFY’s horror anthology CHANNEL ZERO,

      Syfy’s THE EXPANSE, the best TV series I watched in 2015-16, will return for its second season in January 2017.

   Top network CBS will add three new dramas this Fall. BULL starring NCIS Michael Weatherly as Dr Phil back when he was a consultant specializing in manipulating… uh, I mean analyzing juries. Medicine meets technology in the new drama PURE GENUIS.

      The pilot of MACGYVER had many behind the scenes problems. Let’s hope Macgyver can find the right knick knack to save the show.

   Two new CBS series wait for their turn and midseason. DOUBT a lawyer show starring Katherine Heigl, and TRAINING DAY, based on the film. But more important are two series that CBS hopes to premiere in 2017 on CBS ALL ACCESS, its streaming service. First original new series will be the sequel to THE GOOD WIFE. The second is perhaps TV most famous franchise in history. It began on NBC, cancelled and resurfaces as a successful film series. It was used to establish Paramount in the syndicated market. It began UPN (now CW) and tried to save the network before the merger with WB. As Paramount continues to pump out theatrical films, CBS will use STAR TREK to jumpstart its streaming service.

         Without a title or any idea what it is about, the new STAR TREK series is the most anticiated television series of next season.

   Among the CBS series returning in the fall are BLUE BLOODS, CODE BLACK, CRIMINAL MINDS, ELEMENTARY, HAWAII FIVE-O, MADAM SECRETARY, NCIS, NCIS: LOS ANGELES, NCIS: NEW ORLEANS, and SCORPION. While CRIMINAL MINDS – BEYOND BORDERS will be back in 2017.

   SUPERGIRL reminded CBS what its TV audience likes, so the new shows look like the old shows and SUPERGIRL flew off to CBS little sister CW. The comic book superhero will feel comfortable with the rest of DC comic superheroes, ARROW, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, and CW’s top show FLASH. CW continues to specialize in comic books, horror and the weird.

      New this fall to the mini-me of broadcast networks is FREQUENCY based on the film.

   Returning during midseason will be THE 100, iZOMBIE, THE ORIGINALS, SUPERNATURAL, and THE VAMPIRE DIARIES.

   Midseason, CW will add FOX reject RIVERDALE, based on the characters from Archie comics focused on a murder mystery. But this is not Scooby Doo or your old Archie (even the comic books are not your old Archie), this Archie deals with “adult issues” such as him sleeping with his teacher.

   While CBS remains the top network, NBC is close behind. Its two biggest hits are SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL and THE VOICE, each hogging up much of NBC’s fall schedule. This fall NBC adds five games of Thursday night football (CBS shows the first five, NBC has the last five). Without any major holes in its fall schedule, NBC saved its most promising new series for midseason, adding only three to the fall lineup.

      NBC’s only new drama this fall is TIMELESS, the most promising series of the many this season featuring time travel.

   Some of the series returning this fall are BLACKLIST, BLINDSPOT, CHICAGO FIRE, CHICAGO MED, CHICAGO PD, GRIMM, LAW AND ORDER SVU. SHADES OF BLUE will have to wait for SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL to end.

   Other new shows waiting for their turn include comedies POWERLESS (insurance office comedy set in the world of superheroes), TRAIL & ERROR (court comedy). New dramas are BLACKLIST – REDEMPTION (spinoff), EMERALD CITY (based on Baum’s Land of Oz books), MIDNIGHT, TEXAS (based on a series of books by Charlaine Harris (TRUE BLOOD)), TAKEN (prequel to film series) and what would any NBC list be without another Dick Wolf CHICAGO series, in this case CHICAGO JUSTICE.

   There is hope at FOX. This year they have the Super Bowl guaranteeing better numbers at the end of the season. Ratings are changing, and FOX is pushing the hardest to find a way to count those of us who no longer watch TV live or on a TV set.

   TV is about to enter an era of MONEYBALL. For those not familiar with baseball or the movie or the book, sabermetrics uses an endless amount of numbers to measure performance. Networks like FOX are all ready there, someday the media will catch up.

   Speaking of baseball, FOX will have the World Series this fall as well as new series PITCH (story of first woman to play in Major League Baseball). Other new series of interest coming this fall are THE EXORIST (based on William Blatty’s novel), and LETHAL WEAPON (based on the film).

      My pick for first fall show cancelled is FOX’s SON OF ZORN, an animated barbarian tries to cope in live action modern world.

   Shows returning in fall include BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, insane GOTHAM, LUCIFER, ROSEWOOD, SCREAM QUEENS, and QUINTCO. Series returning in midseason include SLEEPY HOLLOW and the final season of BONES.

   Among the new series waiting for 2017 are APB (rich man buys a police precinct), MAKING HISTORY (time travel comedy), SHOTS FIRED (racially charged shooting involving a cop), and PRISON BREAK (sequel to 2005 TV series).

      FOX is hoping 24 – LEGACY will be as successful as the original 24.

   ABC did not have a good year. Its president of programming was sacrificed to the Nielsen Ratings Gods in prayers for better numbers in the demo.There was not enough time to change the fall offerings, but it is expected ABC will copy CBS and NBC with less soap operas and more procedurals.

   ABC’s new fall dramas of interest to us begins with DESIGNATED SURVIVOR starring Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development ends up President after a terrorist attack takes out most of the leaders of the American government. CONVICTION with Hayley Atwell (AGENT CARTER) as a spoiled former first daughter who is forced under threat of jail to lead a small group investigating cases where the convicted might be innocent.

      NOTORIOUS is about the seduction between law and the media.

   Returning this fall are HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER, MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., and ONCE UPON A TIME. While these returning series have to wait until midseason their turn – AMERICAN CRIME, THE CATCH, SCANDAL and SECRETS & LIES.

      Among the new ABC shows waiting for midseason is TIME AFTER TIME, based on the movie and stars Freddie Stroma as H.G. Wells.

   Over one hundred TV series in the 2015-16 season were cancelled or ended. RIP.

FOUR FORGOTTEN TV AND RADIO SPY SERIES

by Michael Shonk


WORLD OF GIANTS. ZIV Productions, 1959; syndicated. Cast: Marshall Thompson as Mel Hunter, Arthur Franz as Bill Winters and Marcia Henderson as Miss Brown.

SPY SHADOW. NBC, 1967-68. Depatrie-Freleng Productions with Mirisch-Rich Television. Voice Cast: Ted Cassidy, June Foray, Shepard Menkin, Don Messick, Paul Frees. Producers: David H. Depatie and Fritz Freleng.

FORTUNE HUNTER. Fox, 1994. BBK Productions Inc. / Columbia Pictures Television. Cast: Mark Frankel as Charlton Dial, and John Robert Hoffman as Harry Flack. Created by Steven Aspis. Co-Executive Producers: Steven Aspis & Paul Stupin. Executive Prodcuers: Frank Lupo & Carlton Cuse.

MR. I.A. MOTO. NBC Radio, 1951; sustaining. Cast: James Monk and Mr. I. A. Moto. Produced by Carol Irwin or Doris Quinlan. Announcer: Fred Collins or Ray Barret. Director: Harry W. Junkin. Writers include Harry W. Junkin, Robert Tallman and Jim Haines.

* * * * * * *


WORLD OF GIANTS (WOG). “Special Agent.” Teleplay by Donald Duncan and Jack Laird; story by Donald Duncan. Directed and produced by Otto Lang. Guest Cast: John Gallaudet and James Seay *** While on a mission behind the Iron Curtain, American spy Mel Hunter suffered an accident that shrank him to six inches. “Special Agent” is the series first episode and is the story of Mel’s first case as a six-inch man. Mel and his normal sized partner Bill search an office for secret papers.

   There are two episodes available on YouTube – the first and last. Both are slow paced and clumsily written, even for the late fifties era. Direction and special effects did what they could with the limits of technology at the time. Drama was mocked as the most serious threats to life of our hero spy came from a cat and a falling pencil.

   According to Broadcasting, (July 28 1958, August 18 1958 and July 28 1958) WOG was originally scheduled for the 1958-59 fall season on the CBS network. It would have aired on Wednesday following Invisible Man. Production problems caused the series to be delayed. The 1958 season was a bad time for network’s ad sales; the networks were still struggling with the fallout from the quiz show scandals. Both Invisible Man and World of Giants were replaced by the live drama Pursuit. WOG would finally air in syndication starting September 1959 and last only thirteen episodes.



SPY SHADOW. “Evila the Terrible” Credits can be found here on the Big Cartoon Database. *** Villain Evila is trying to take over the World again. Her servant has invented a hypnosis ray gun that Evila uses to obtain everyone’s jewels and money. Interspy agent Richard Vance is sent to stop his old flame.

   This poorly animated and written Saturday morning cartoon is bad enough to be fun to watch. Spy Shadow was a segment of Saturday morning cartoon series, Super President Show. (Super President was the President of the United States and when needed turned into costumed superhero Super President who could change his molecular structure to any form).

   Spy Shadow featured Richard Vance, an agent for an organization named Interspy. Thanks to his training in mysterious Tibet, Vance and his shadow could separate to fight Super-villains. The episodes usually began with the villain succeeding in his/her/it evil plot of the week. Vance would try to stop the crime and bad guys. Vance would fail and get captured. The villain would usually leave Vance in an over complicated death trap. Vance’s shadow would separate from his body and save the spy/detective from the trap. The only thing that could stop the shadow was darkness, as the shadow needed light to exist.

   Both Spy Shadow and Super PresidentT episodes can be found on YouTube.




FORTUNE HUNTER. “Red Alert.” Written by Carlton Cuse; directed by Mike Levine. Guest Cast: J.G. Hertzler and Karen Witter. *** The plot has a mad man seeking to free the Ukraine from Russia by blackmailing the World with nerve gas. The nerve gas had last been seen stored in an out of date Russian satellite that had crashed in South Carolina.

   “Red Alert” featured a better than average script for the series by Carlton Cuse (Lost). Frankel offered some appeal as a cut-rate Bond while Hoffman was less hammy than usual. Karen Witter was terrible as the 90s stereotype – the female brilliant scientist/kick ass soldier with a beauty queen’s looks.

   I would not be surprised that this series still has fans, especially young men who grew up during the 90s. Fortune Hunter is a typical example of the 1990s Action TV series with a style best described as 90s version of Stephen J. Cannell does James Bond.

   However Fortune Hunter lacked any originality. The premise was a rip-off of TV series Search (1972, NBC). Former top British spy Charlton Dial now worked for Intercept Corporation, a private company specializing in high-risk assignments recovering objects. Dial was the field agent who had special contact lens and earpiece that allowed comedy relief and Intercept tech Harry to monitor Dial’s activity as a one man “Probe Control.” And not surprisingly the series had a fondness for gadgets.

   While all thirteen episodes were filmed and reportedly successfully aired around the World, Fox pulled it off the air after only five episodes aired. “Red Alert” was the last to air on Fox.



MR. I. A. MOTO. “The Bazaloff Paper.” Written and directed by Harry W. Junkin. Produced by Carol Irwin. Cast: James Monk as Moto. Guest cast: Ross Martin and Connie Lembeke. *** Moto is in the Far East searching for a murdered scientist’s paper that could change the balance of power in the Pacific.

   The character of Mr. Moto first appeared in a series of books written by John P. Marquand. I have a great fondness for the film version of Mr. Moto as portrayed by Peter Lorre. Both the books and films are still remembered today, but the same can not be said about the NBC radio series.

   The radio series was well-written, racist, sexist and an excellent example of the culture at the time. Japanese-American Moto worked as an international secret agent fighting communism and crime all over the world.

   The series aired on NBC in 1951 without a sponsor. It was a difficult time for radio, as TV was replacing it as the public’s favorite home entertainment. The focus of NBC was more on TV, and while the network produced 23 half-hours without a commercial sponsor, NBC paid little attention to promoting the series. Because of this there remains some confusion and questions about Mr. I. A. Moto.

   For example, there are two versions surviving of the same story – “Bazaloff Paper” and “Kuriloff Paper.” Some believe one was for the West Coast and the other for the East Coast. Others believe one was a rehearsal copy and the other the final air version. Here are both versions:

               Bazaloff Paper:

               Kuriloff Paper:

   More details about Mr. I. A. Moto can be found at The Digital Deli Too.

THE GRID. “Hour One/Hour Two.” TNT, US, 19 July 2004 as the first two episodes of a six-part mini-series. First shown on BBC Two, UK, 2004. Dylan McDermott, Julianna Margulies, Bernard Hill, Jemma Redgrave, James Remar, Piter Marek, Silas Carson, Olek Krupa, Barna Moricz, Emil Marwa, Robert Forster, Tom Skerritt. Director: Mikael Salomon.

   A failed poison Sarin attack in London post 9/11 leads to the creation of a international counter-terrorism team in the US led by Maren Jackson (Julianna Margulies) of the National Security Council. Others are members of the FBI (Dylan McDermott) and the CIA (Piter Marek). Characters on the British end of things are played by Bernard Hill (MI5) and Jemma Redgrave (MI6).

   In spite of the stated spirit of cooperation between the various agency involved, not-so-hidden rivalries between agencies break out almost immediately, not to mention the squabbles between MI5 and MI6 in the UK, the latter which also resents the US team’s “know it all” involvement, which by the end of episode two has proven quite wrong.

   They must have spent a lot of money putting this mini-series together. It shows, but the dazzling switches from scene to scene and country to country is just that, dazzling, and there are a lot of characters to keep straight at the same time. By the end of Hour Two, I think I was doing well, but I had better keep watching, or I am afraid all I have put together so far will be lost.

   But I say with an ulterior motive: as a bit of persuasion to make sure I do so. The story, while very dramatically done, does not seem to break any ground that hasn’t been plowed over many times before, and I am not talking about the threat of Islamic terrorism in specifics, but anti-espionage efforts in general.

   The inclusion of intimate details in terms of personal backgrounds and animosities as well as inter-agency squabbling falls into the same category. It’s nice on the eyes so far, but while I’m sure I will continue, there’s no sense of urgency about it either, which is too bad on many levels, including the amount of time and energy that was put into this.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          


17 MOMENTS OF SPRING. Gorky Film Studios, USSR, TV Mini-Series, 12 x 70m episodes, 1973. Original title: Semnadtsat mgnoveniy vesny. Vyacheslav Tikonov, Oleg Tabakov, Rotoslav Plyatt, Yekterina Gradova. Narrated by Yefim Kopelyan. Screenplay by Yulian Semyenov, based on his own novel. Director: Tatyana Lioznova.

   A man and an elderly lady stand in the wood and discuss the beauty of nature and the glory of spring after a long winter. We are in Germany, outside Berlin in February 1945 in the last days of WWII and it has indeed been a long winter.

   The man, Mr. Bolyan, is also Standartenfuherer Otto Von Stirlitz, a decorated and trusted intelligence officer in the SS who has the ears of Walter Shellenberg a popular and important officer with ties to Hitler, the general staff, and Reichmarshall Himmler of the SS. Darkly handsome and Nordic, Stirlitz seems the perfect Nazi and for six years he has been. For six years he has buried his real identity as Colonel Maxim Isayev of Soviet Intelligence while working in German intelligence and rising to an important position in SS intelligence.

   So begins the low key Soviet spy drama from 1973 that brought to life the adventures of Stirlitz, the creation of novelist Yulian Semyenov in a twelve part mini-series that rocked Soviet television and popular entertainment to its core. Power shortages happened whenever 17 Moments of Spring aired because ninety percent of television sets in Russia were tuned to Stirlitz’s adventures. Even today Stirlitz jokes are common in post Soviet Russia (and simply don’t translate into English — I tried) mostly drawing on the dour deliberate Stirlitz glacial resolve to show no emotion whatsoever and his plodding ways.

   Yulian Semyenov was the Russian Ian Fleming, like his British counterpart a journalist with intelligence ties from the war and well known by his superiors. His creation, known as Stirlitz rather than Isayev, is no James Bond however. Stirlitz is stoic, sexless, dour, brooding, self sacrificing (at one point he sees his wife he has not seen for six years and cannot reveal himself and we are treated to three minutes of baleful sad eyes), and there is precious little violence in his adventures.

   That isn’t to say Semyenov was unaware of Fleming and Bond. One of his novels about Stirlitz is called Diamonds for the Revolution of the Proletariat, in which the young Isayev is assigned to find the jewels of the Royal family that have gone missing after their execution and which are needed to fuel the new Soviet Republic, you have to wonder since that Republic certainly wasn’t forever, about the Fleming influence.

   Some of the novels were even printed in English, at least one as by Julian Semyenov even getting into an American paperback edition, but far and away 17 Moments of Spring is the best known of his works and Strilitz adventures, covering, as the title suggests, in semi documentary style, seventeen days in early spring 1945 as Strilitz strives to uncover transcripts of talks between the Western allies, England and the United States, with the crumbling panicked Nazi elite, Soviet paranoia under Stalin at least providing the McGuffin for a deliberate but fairly fascinating documentary style spy drama populated with a spate of historical characters on both sides.

   The project came into being during the period of detente, when things loosened up considerably and even a James Bond film or two got into the hands of Soviet elites. While there is a clear implication the West is not always up to any good in relation to the Soviets (and that was a two-way street in reality) the real bad guys are the Nazis and it takes a surprisingly soft middle ground stance on the role of the West, certainly giving credit where it is due despite the McGuffin about possible Western double dealing (in truth, by that point the West would not have settled the war with anything but unconditional surrender, but you have to give a spy story it’s McGuffin — nonsense or not — certainly there were those in the West arguing to save what was left of Germany to turn against the Russians). In short, the propaganda isn’t noticeably intrusive.

   Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Stirlitz and Oleg Tabakov as Shellenberg are the stand out performances here, a subtle cat-and-mouse game underway as Stirlitz falls under suspicion and the inevitable end of the Reich puts every nerve on edge as rats either try to desert the sinking ship or fanatics refuse to see the truth. Shellenberg is presented as a charming ruthless Nazi who nonetheless sees the writing on the wall and that it is increasing late to save anything including his own neck.

   While Semyenov and Stirlitz are pretty much it for Cold War Soviet spy fiction from Russia for something livelier, you might seek out the adventures of Boris Stolitzy, a smart charming hard drinking and womanizing KGB agent whose Cold War adventures were penned by a Finnish writer and who bore a resemblance to later 007 outings in that his adventures never really seemed to pit him against the West. Since the fall of the Soviet Union mystery and thriller fiction is somewhat livelier than before with writers like Boris Akkunin, but still far from well known here.

   Currently BBC 4 Extra is airing The Soviet James Bond, a half hour documentary about Semyenov and Stirlitz, and the complete series of 17 Moments of Spring can be seen on YouTube with English subtitles. It’s worth watching one episode just to see how the other side did it, and in its quiet way it is surprisingly like a John Le Carre tale crossed with early spy dramas like The House on 92nd Street and Walk East on Beacon Street. Actually it is considerably less leftist than Le Carre to be brutally honest resembling one of those politically uneasy WWII flag-wavers where the Soviets are reluctantly embraced as Allies.