TV Espionage & Spies


REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

VIRGIN OF THE SECRET SERVICE. “Entente Cordiale. ITV, UK, 11 April 1968 (Season One, Episode Three). Clinton Greyn, Alexander Dore, John Carter, Veronica Strong, Noel Coleman, Katherine Shofield, Frederick Preisly. Devised by Ted Willis. Teleplay by Betty Paul (as Betty Lambda). Directed by Paul Bernard. Currently streaming on YouTube.

   Captain Robert Virgin (Clinton Greyn) of the British Secret Service finds himself in Paris to attend the funeral of the son of a peer of the realm, an artist who was murdered, a John Bull figure with a knife through his chest found,  his body signaling that a Chinese Secret Society wanting revenge for the humiliation of the Boxer Rebellion is about to strike.

   The mostly likely target, according to Virgin’s chief Colonel Shaw-Camberley (Noel Coleman), is the Duke of Albany (Frederick Preisly) in Paris to negotiate the Entente Cordiale between the British and French against Germany, but more interested in the Can Can at the Moulin Rouge and its star, Cigarette (Katherine Shofield), the dead artist’s lover/model.

   Virgin and his batman Doublette (John Carter) pose as an artist and his servant to get close to Cigarette, is she part of the scheme or does she know something? She’s not particularly fond of the British despite her tastes in men, and her casual nudity modeling when she meets Virgin disconcerts him and Doublette both.

   Cigarette: And what do you paint?

   Virgin: I specialize in horses.

   Cigarette: And are the horses nude?

   Of course as feared there is a plot afoot, the Yellow Peril raising its ugly head, but in full irony more in the mood of Thoroughly Modern Millie than Dr. Fu Manchu.

   German secret agent Karl Von Blauner (Alexander Dore) has allied with Chinese assassins to assassinate Albany and they want to know what Cigarette knows too, leading to a white slavery ring, Virgin and Doublette trapped in a flooding chamber beneath enemy headquarters, an assassination attempt at a concert, and a final blowout at the Moulin Rouge with Albany surrounded by would be assassins.

   Along the way the mysterious Mrs. Virginia Cortez (Veronica Strong) appears across the hall from the Albany to lend a hand foiling the assassination while Virgin rescues Cigarette and others sold into White Slavery from a Chinese laundry. Mrs. Strong’s unexpected appearances no matter where Virgin’s adventures take him are a running joke in the series, likely an unsuccessful attempt to do a Victorian Mrs. Peel.

   It’s all played tongue in cheek and completely straight-faced despite the absurdity of the plot and dialogue. It’s no easy thing to pull this kind of thing off, but the British do it splendidly and this plays many of the notes of The Avengers (not as stylish and closer to the Honor Blackman than the Diana Rigg episodes) and Adam Adamant Lives, with Greyn appropriately dashing, rather thick headed but good at his job, brave, and veddy British. It’s a played broader than say The Wild Wild West, but the same general feeling of laughing up the sleeve while still attending to the action and adventure elements applies here.

   Everyone plays it straight but with more than enough humor with Dore particularly good as the villain, Carter as Doublette, and tall, blonde, handsome Greyn well cast as the hero. Unlike many attempts at this kind of thing the jokes mostly land and do so without the characters having to wink at the audience or step out of character.

   Virgin of the Secret Service was devised by Ted Willis (Lord Willis) creator of the legendary long running police procedural television series P.C. 49 and author of Man-Eater, The Buckingham Palace Connection, and The Churchill Commando. It ran thirteen episodes in 1968 from ITC, and while it only ran the one season it is worth catching the episodes available on YouTube

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID VINEYARD:

   

RUNNING BLIND. BBC Scotland, 1979. Stuart Wilson, Ragenheidur Stendor, George Sewell, Vladek Sheybal. Teleplay by Jack Gerson, based on the novel by Desmond Bagley. Directed by William Brayne.

   This co-produced British and Icelandic television adaptation of Desmond Bagley’s thriller Running Blind, was originally released as a mini-series and re-released as a feature that appeared on PBS, and that is just about the last time anyone saw it until recently. To say it has been elusive is an understatement.

   It’s now available on YouTube.

   Alan Stewart (Stuart Wilson) a retired British (or as he insists, Scottish, he even carries a skean dubh, a Scottish dagger) agent for an unnamed department is approached by his old boss Slade (George Sewell) who once had Stewart execute a old friend turned suspected traitor. Stewart naturally wants nothing to do with Slade and the Department, but the job in question is in Iceland where Stewart’s girlfriend Elin (Ragenheidur Stendor) lives and is as simple as delivering a small package for a lot of money.

   Slade also dangles that he might be more inclined to protect Stewart and Elin from the Russian masterspy Kennikin (Vladek Sheybal) who was emasculated by a missed shot Stewart made in attempting to kill him.

   A little added incentive.

   As you might imagine, nothing is that simple. Almost from the moment he sets foot on Icelandic soil, it becomes clear that the Russians are onto Stewart and that his own side is less than forthcoming.

   Contacting Elin, who doesn’t suspect who or what Stewart is, he uses her to misdirect the men following him and finds he is on the run from both the Russians, the British, and soon the CIA.

   Just what is he carrying, and who is on whose side?

   Running Blind was one of Bagley’s best novels, and that’s quite a compliment for the South African actor turned thriller writer whose work includes High Citadel, The Vivero Letter, Freedom Trap (filmed as John Huston’s The MacIntosh Man), Tightrope Man, The Spoilers, Snow Tiger, and more.

   Bagley would become a bestselling thriller writer whose work bridged the gap between the earlier generation of British thriller writers like Geoffrey Household, Hammond Innes, and Victor Canning, and the newer breed represented by Alistair MacLean, Gavin Lyall, and Duncan Kyle. He had Innes’ eye for detail, Household’s grasp of rough country, Lyall’s uncanny research skills, Canning’s cynical view of the Security Services and MacLean’s gift for twisting plot and hard action.

   Unlike most writers of his era he almost never repeats himself, and his protagonists are distinct and easy to identify,

   Action is the by-word of the print version of Running Blind, and it is perhaps only natural that the mini-series format is a poor one to convey that. Though the structure of the film is close to the book, the first third seems mostly Stewart looking over his shoulder against the rather bleak Icelandic volcanic landscape, and the lack of directorial style and a good score means everything depends on the actors and the scenery, and both are almost good enough to carry it, particularly Wilson.

   About a third of the way through things pick up considerably, and if you will keep tuned in until the point when Stewart and Elin are stalked by an assassin with a high powered rifle while camped out, you will probably stay for the entire story which falls in the category of films that seem much better in retrospect than while you are trying to get into them.

   That change is notable. The scenery becomes more dramatic, the action comes faster, the suspense is greater, and the twists come more frequently.

   Running Blind is not a completely successful translation of Bagley’s fast paced hard pounding novel, but it is entertaining if you stick through a slow first third. Valdek Sheybal (From Russia With Love, Billion Dollar Brain, The Wind and the Lion, and on television in mini series like QB VII and Shogun) picks things up considerably playing the KGB spy master Kenniken with a mix of suave professionalism and barely disguised fury at Stewart. That tension between the complete professional and the angry man gives the quiet scenes between him and Stewart real (and much needed) power.

   Most of the cast is unfamiliar, or at best faces you have seen but don’t really connect a name with. Lead Stuart Wilson is much more familiar now than his younger face in films like The Mask of Zorro, Hot Fuzz, Lethal Weapon 3, and Enemy of the State and on television in Dinotopia, MI-5, and Prime Suspect. More often than not today he plays a bearded villain not unlike Sheybal in this.

   Running Blind is mostly a curiosity. If you have read or enjoyed Bagley’s fine novels this is a bit more, but I admit it isn’t fully successful and it’s a book that deserves a big action movie done right and not a small half-hearted mini-series.

   I can see where they saw the minimal sets and Icelandic setting and thought they could get away with it, they just don’t quite pull it off, though I like it more than it probably deserves. The chance you might too makes it worth investigating.

   

QUILLER. “The Price of Violence.” BBC, 60 minutes. 29 August 1975. (Season 1, Episode 1.) Michael Jayston (Quiller), Moray Watson (Angus Kinloch). Guest Cast: Sinéad Cusack, Ed Bishop. Screenplay: Michael J. Bird, based on the character created by Adam Hall (Elleston Trevor). Director: Peter Graham Scott. Currently available on YouTube.

   It’s been over five years since the greatly missed Michael Shonk reviewed Adam Hall’s Tango Briefing, the fifth adventure of the master spy known only as Quiller. Along with that review he discussed the BBC TV series based on the books. At that time, only three of the episodes were known to have survived. Lo and behold, the whole season has recently turned up, easily found by doing a search for them on YouTube. I only wish that Michael were still with us to see them.

   There is much to like in “The Price of Violence,” the very first episode, but something I found as awfully rough going was that there is no dialogue at all in the first nine minutes, only scenes of some of the usual Mideast violence in Israel and Lebanon. Without knowing who any of the characters are, or — truthfully — no idea of what is happening, it all goes by too vaguely and with no particular context or meaning, then only to be forgotten once the story itself begins.

   Which has Quiller home in disgrace, his mission in the war zone a failure. As a penance, he’s not cashiered outright, nor put in a desk job, but put into a state of semi-limbo instead, a situation to which he does not take kindly. But his immediate superior (played impeccably well by Moray Watson), as well as the director of the totally secret “Bureau,” have other plans for him, and he’s ever so subtly nudged into becoming the bodyguard of the head of the World Food Commission, a totally innocuous man who otherwise has no play in the proceedings.

   Involved, however, is the man’s legal advisor, played to perfection by Sinéad Cusack, and sparks between Quiller and herself fly immediately. (She was to turn up again in two later episodes.) Quiller is a loner and a cynic, but as a man deeply involved in the spy business, never carries a gun. The sad but steely-eyed Michael Jayston was made for the part. George Segal, who played Quiller in the movies, was not.

   The series lasted for only one season of thirteen episodes, all now available, at least for the time being.

   

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE “The Frame,” CBS, 21 January 1967 (Season 1, Episode 17). Steven Hill, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, Martin Landau. Guest Cast: Simon Oakland, Arthur Batanides, Joe Maross, Joe De Santis. Currently streaming on Paramount Plus.

   After seemingly endless episodes in which the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) rescued Eastern Bloc scientists from behind the Iron Curtain or stopped communist insurgencies in Latin America, it was refreshing to watch an episode of Mission: Impossible‘s season one that didn’t involve international intrigue whatsoever.

   In “The Frame,” Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) and his team aim to stop Jack Wellman, a syndicate boss who has moved beyond racketeering and into the business of assassinating American politicians. And who might that boss be portrayed by, you ask? None other than veteran tough guy character actor Simon Oakland. Many people will remember him primarily as irascible newspaper editor Tony Vincenzo in Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75). But he also appeared in television shows such as Bonanza, Rawhide, and Hawaii Five-O as well as in numerous crime films and westerns.

   I’ve always been a fan of his work. Oakland, with a loud voice and commiserate imposing physicality, often ends up overshadowing other actors in his midst. Such is the case in this episode of Mission: Impossible. What’s notable is how unobtrusive both Hill and Martin Landau – who I like immensely – are in comparison to the scenery chewing Oakland.

   All told, it is a fun episode, one that benefits from a primarily single-location setting. One in which the IMF team takes on the role of a catering team to serve Wellman and his associates a fancy dinner. What Wellman doesn’t realize is that while he is being treated to a multi-course meal, Barney Collier (Greg Morris) is working diligently to break into his basement vault. And if you’ve ever wanted to see how silly Steven Hill looks in a chef’s hat, this is a golden opportunity.

   

THE BARON “Diplomatic Immunity.” ITC, UK, 28 September 1966 (Season 1, Episode 1). Steve Forrest as John Mannering (alias “The Baron”), Sue Lloyd as Cordelia Winfield, Colin Gordon as John Alexander Templeton-Green, Paul Ferris as David Marlowe. Based on the character created by John Creasey. Director: Leslie Norman. Currently streaming on Britbox.

   The Baron was one of the lesser known series characters created by John Creasey (writing as Anthony Morton), but when the folks at ITC decided they wanted a TV show to compete with the James Bond movies and the U.N.C.L.E. TV shows, they decided that The Baron would do very well.

   The series, which lasted only one season and 30 episodes, was filmed in color, somewhat unusual in those early days of British TV. In the TV version, fairly closely to the books but with some differences, John Mannering is a wealthy antiques dealer with connections all over the world, which makes him a highly regarded person of interest to be co-opted by a secret British secret service agency to work for them undercover for them.

   In “Diplomatic Immunity” Mannering is asked to go to a fictional European country to retrieve some valuable pieces of jewelry stolen by a female employee of the head of one of that country’s top governmental agencies, using her diplomatic immunity to get them back into her country.

In all-out imitation of the James Bond films, Mannering goes fully equipped with all kinds of secret gadgetry, and it is best you pay close attention, since – wouldn’t you know – he gets to use all of them whenever he needs them. The story is slight – the basic story line doesn’t need the full hour’s running time – but it’s entertaining, and Steve Forrest is hunky enough and the girls he meets all seem willing enough for viewers of either sex to have something to look at.

On the other hand, the series was picked up by ABC in this country for only part of its run,  then could only be seen in syndication. It may be that “hunky” is not good enough: you need the charisma of a Roger Moore as well, and that Steve Forrest unfortunately didn’t have.

REVIEWED BY MIKE TOONEY:

   

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE “Wheels.” CBS, 29 October 1966 (Season 1, Episode 7 (of 171)). Cast: Mark Lenard (Mora), Percy Rodriguez (police captain), Martin Landau (Rollin Hand/Miguel Cordova), Peter Lupus (Willy Armitage), Greg Morris (Barney Collier), Barbara Bain (Cinnamon Carter), Steven Hill (Dan Briggs), Perry Lopez (the priest, uncredited), Bob Johnson (voice on tape, uncredited), and Jonathan Kidd (registrar). Producers: Barry Crane, Joseph Gantman, and Bruce Geller, executive producer and series creator. Writer: Laurence Heath. Director: Tom Gries. Series available on DVD and is currently streaming on CBS All Access.

   Things are really rotten in Valeria, a small Latin American country on the verge of becoming, as the voice on the tape informs Dan Briggs, “a terrorist dictatorship” thanks to the jefe’s rigged voting machines. Briggs and his dauntless Impossible Missions Force are tasked by “the Secretary” (of State? Defense? Who knows?) with unfixing the election in a way that “will honestly reflect the vote of the people.” As always, cautions the voice, “should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, he will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Piece of cake.

   The plan Briggs comes up with is going along smoothly until their electronics expert, Barney Collier, is badly wounded in a jailbreak, creating grave doubt as to whether or not the mission can be completed. Leave it to the plucky Barney, however, to come through in the end . . . .

   The first season of any show is usually a bumpy ride and this one was no exception (e.g., Cinnamon breaking into unwarranted tears), but this episode of Mission: Impossible pretty much follows the format the series adhered to in all seven of its seasons. (The thing about “format” is that it can and often does degenerate into “formula.”)

   In this particular series the easiest way to create suspense is to have some problem arise that threatens to blow the team’s cover; here it’s Barney’s wound and the unwanted interest by the secret police that force the team members to “improvise.”

   Overcoming unexpected setbacks poses a real challenge to screenwriters and not all of them are up to it. Two writers who were very good at it were William Read Woodfield teamed with Allan Balter, the Levinson and Link of the series; together they were responsible for the most engaging stories in Mission: Impossible, but not this one.

   “Wheels” was writer Laurence Heath’s first script for Mission: Impossible; he would be responsible for twenty-three altogether.

   You’ve probably seen director Tom Gries’s name on TV or movie productions; he did good work on Breakheart Pass (1975), the film adaptation of Alistair Maclean’s novel and screenplay. This was his only Mission: Impossible story.

   Several years ago Jonathan Lewis contributed a Mystery*File article about producer/creator Bruce Geller’s directorial involvement with Harry in Your Pocket (1973), an offbeat crime film, and you can read that here.

   

TWO LEGENDS [DVE LEGENDY] “Double Standard.” Russian TV, 09 February 2014 (Season 1, Episode 1). 2 hours. Ana Popova, Artem Krylov. Directed by Vyacheslav Kirillov. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

   Probably because it appeared first on Russian TV, there isn’t a lot of information about this show on Wikipedia (nothing) or IMDb. Here’s how the four-episode mini-series is described on Amazon Prime:

   “He teaches mathematics and she teaches biology. The only thing they have in common is their brilliance: they both speak several languages fluently, have a command of the latest technology, know how to use all kinds of weapons and are trained in the martial arts. These two teachers are, in fact, legendary spies.”

   She is, of course, also beautiful, once she’s out of the classroom and can let her prim everyday facade fade away. As a math teacher, he looks like, well, a math teacher, hiding behind thick-rimmed glasses, à la Clark Kent, but in his spy outfit, he looks like, well, a math teacher.

   In this first episode, they start out not aware of the other’s existence. One is following the trail of an international terrorist, the other tracking the dealing of a notorious financial swindler. When their paths cross, their first meeting is spectacularly lengthy scene of hand to hand combat, not unlike when two Marvel superheroes cross over into the same comic book and have to slug it out for a while before they discover they are on the same side after all.

   The series was a huge hit in Russia, I am told, and I can see why. The plot itself takes second place to the action, action, and more action. The hand-held camera work, even when two people are having a conversation, can make the more susceptible viewer quite dizzy, swooping here and there and back around again. It didn’t bother me, but if you decide to give this one a try, you might want to fasten your seat belts down ahead of time.

   

   

BODYGUARD. “Episode 1.” ITV/BBC One, UK, 26 August 2018. Richard Madden as PS David Budd; Keeley Hawes as The Rt. Hon. Julia Montague MP, the Home Secretary and Conservative Party Member of Parliament for Thames West: Sophie Rundle as Vicky Budd, David’s wife; plus a large ensemble cast. Director: Thomas Vincent.

   After successfully defusing a terrorist attack aboard a speeding train, PS David Budd is assigned the ask of guarding Home Secretary Julia Montague against possible attempts on her life. Unknown to host of his superiors, Budd is suffering from PTSD from his years of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but because of his moody and sometimes violent behaviors at home, he is separated from his wife and two children.

   There isn’t a lot of time to fill out an actual story in this, the first of six episodes, but it certainly does a great job of paving the way for what comes next. Budd does not care much for the policies of the woman he is guarding, thinking of her as just another politician who does not care for the men and women who must do the fighting to carry them out, and conflict between them seems inevitable. His domestic problems at home are also sure to play a role in what comes next.

   The British seem to do this kind of story much better than we seem to on this side of Atlantic. With only five more episodes to go, I’m much more likely to finish this particular example of that than some others I’ve been sampling. (I assume you’ve been following my recent investigations into streaming TV right along with me.)

   

TAKEN. “Pilot.” NBC, 27 February 2017. Clive Standen as Bryan Mills and Jennifer Beals as Christina Hart. Large ensemble cast, including guest stars, some of whom may return; others who won’t. Showrunner/screenwriter: Alexander Cary. Director: Alex Graves.

   Now as most of you already know, those of you who are well ahead of me on this, Liam Neeson played Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative whose life takes three separate and serious turns of events, each turned into a  fast action film and huge box office successes. Rather than a fourth film, what to do with the character? Go back to his beginnings and build a TV series around them.

   It lasted for two years, and believe it or not, this is the first I’ve known about it. I was scouting around on Amazon Video looking for something else to watch with Jennifer Beals in it, and there I found it.  I haven’t watched the movies either. Always meant to. Haven’t yet.

   Of course you realize that the TV series is totally generic. Take the name of the character and the title (Taken), and voila. There you have it. Name recognition from day one.

   The pilot has, unfortunately, no plot in and of itself. It’s an “origin” story all the way, nothing more. But nothing less, either. When terrorists kill Mills’ younger sister in retaliation for killing a drug lord’s son, Mills takes matters into his own hands – but not quite. He’s tracked all the way and given help (rescued) by Christina Hart’s team of operatives. She’s a Deputy Director with Special Portfolio at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. (Confession time. I had to look this up online.)

   The story ends with Mills being recruited by her. I hope I’m not giving too much away. The pilot is well enough done, but what kind of stories will follow next is not entirely clear. We are left with only our imaginations at work. I might watch the movies next, but on the other hand, since Jennifer Beals is in the series, I can’t tell you that I’m all that sure about that.

   

COUNTERSTRIKE “Dealbreaker.” USA Network., 01 July 1990 (Season 1, Episode 1). Christopher Plummer, Simon MacCorkindale, Cyrielle Clair, Stephen Shellen, Laurence Ashley-Taboulet. Guest Cast: Susan George, Chuck Shamata. Director: Mario Azzopardi.

   Counterstrike was a Canadian-French TV series that was broadcast on USA here in the US for three seasons, beginning in 1990.  Christopher Plummer was the biggest name in the cast, playing ,Alexander Addington, the wealthy leader of a group of three counter-terrorism agents. Unfortunately in this, the first show of the series, there is nothing to show how the team was assembled or their motivations, if any. The viewer is expected to pick upon things as they go.

      

   And this is a state of affairs that applies to the story itself, I’m sorry to say A little bit of stick-to-it-iveness is a handy thing to have sometimes, and eventually the overall picture becomes clearer. To wit: A former girl friend of one of the team (Simon MacCorkindale) has been kidnapped. She’s now the wife of a former CIA agent who’s gone back on a deal with some terrorists involving some bomb detonators. It’s up to Peter to get her back, along with the help from Addington  and the other two members of the team. The husband he cares about not at all.

   There’s lots of spy stuff going on, but you needn’t bother paying too much attention to the details. There’s not a lot in this one you’ve haven’t seen before, and when you did, it was probably better told. Many of the episodes are playing now on YouTube, however, and maybe once you get to know the characters better, maybe the shows improve as well.

   

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