Espionage complete series DVD review

An unjustly forgotten 1960s ITC series boasts a wealth of big-name directing talent. Paul takes Espionage for a spin...

Espionage

Back in the 60s, Lew Grade was shaping up ATV with a varied range of entertainment. Whilst some of the shows have gone on to cult status, there are other series that seem to have been forgotten, and yet retain a dramatic punch.

Espionage is a series of 24 one-hour plays, much in the vein of Armchair Thriller. Each story has a different setting, from contemporary London to 19th Century China, wartime exploits to Cold War tensions. Shown from late 1963 to early 1964, it emerged at a time of rising popularity for screen spies and secret agents.

Grade’s earlier ITC series, Danger Man – with an all-action secret-agent as its hero – had found a wide global audience. Within a short space of time, James Bond and the Man From U.N.C.L.E had added extra glamour to the life of the spy. However, Espionage concerns itself with the more serious side of political subterfuge, stories often based on real-life events.

The series offers a dramatic array of adventures involving spies and soldiers, diplomats and rebels, journalists and politicians. Some focus on the betrayal of a lover or a country, others tell of gallantry and heroics, and of risking life and limb to deliver secret messages or to liberate comrades or a town from the enemy or oppressors. In all there are 24 episodes, employing a wide range of directors and actors from both TV and film, as well as from both sides of the Atlantic. For example, Dennis Hopper stars alongside British actress Patricia Neil in The Weakling, Donald Pleasance is central to a tale of Caribbean dictatorship in The Liberators, whilst James Fox tackles French student demonstrations against the bomb in To The Very End.

Ad – content continues below

There are other familiar faces too, such as Sam Wanamaker, Barry Foster, David Kossof, Peter Vaughan, Joan Hickson and Sian Phillips. As evidence of the varied settings and time periods, Ronald Culver returns to Spain where he fought in the Civil War (Castles In Spain), and Bernard Lee, Bond’s future boss, is caught up in the fight for independence in an African country (Snow On Mount Kama), and Patrick Troughton rallies a band of Republican rebels on the eve of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin (He Rises On Sunday, And We On Monday).

However, a number of notable directors also contribute stories. Robert Winter poses the Espionage question Do You Remember Leo Winters? and went on to work on such cult series as Hawaii 5-0, Gunsmoke and Columbo. Likewise, David Green directed the Troughton tale, and later made a name for himself with major US dramas such as Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man. Stuart Rosenberg, who started off the series with the three tales, including the opener The Incurable One is probably best known for films such as Cool Hand Luke and The Amityville Horror. Equally, Ted Kotcheff, who helmed the growing unrest against the mighty Manchu dynasty (The Dragon Slayer), went on to direct Life At The Top and First Blood. The Liberators comes courtesy of Hammer Horror stalwart Seth Holt, whose work includes The Nanny and Taste Of Evil.

The most significant name is Michael Powell, whose extraordinary legacy includes The Red Shoes, A Matter Of Life And Death and Peeping Tom. He contributes three tales that are widely varied in subject matter and tone. Never Turn Your Back On A Friend is a taut test of wartime friendship with a team of saboteurs from different nationalities trying to bond before a mission, and stars Mark Eden, Julian Glover and Donald Madden.

On the other hand, A Free Agent builds its drama from the marriage of a British spy to a Russian agent, much to the consternation of their individual governments, but who’s deceiving who? This time Anthony Quayle, Sian Philips and Norman Foster are amongst the cast. The most unusual of the trio, however, is The Frantick Rebel, which is the oldest time period (17th Century London just prior to the American Civil War), and is also the only tale which is played more as farce than high tension. It also features two familiar historical figures – James Boswell and Samuel Johnson – who are trying to prevent an American woman from smuggling out intelligence secrets. The cast too is just as startling, pairing Roger Livesey (the eponymous hero in Powell’s The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp) with comic impersonator Stanley Baxter and Jill Bennett.

Other familiar names make a prominent contribution: Maurice Binder devised the opening credits, a montage of dramatic photos. He built his later reputation from designing the iconic credit sequences for many Bond movies. The raw, edgy theme is scored by Malcolm Arnold, whose work on films such The Belles Of St Trinians and The Bridge On The River Kwai as well as his reputation as a classical composer, earned him a knighthood.

Considering the wealth of talent involved in the series, the provocative nature of some of the tales (even by today’s standards) and their varying quality, it is surprising that Espionage has not left a stronger impact. It’s almost as if some spy had covertly stolen our collective memories and kept them concealed until enemy agents rescued the master tapes, liberating them to our renewed enjoyment. In these current uncertain times of global disruption, maybe there’s no better opportunity to explore the hidden wealth of a ground-breaking programme from 45 years ago.

Ad – content continues below

3 stars

Distributor: Network (rrp £59.99)

Rating:

3 out of 5