We’ve been making a short trip through the ITC catalog to align – slash – pad out the TV that we’re watching with the movies that I plan to write about, and this morning, we looked at the first of five sampler episodes of Man in a Suitcase. It’s not the lightest or most fun of ITC’s series, but it was often very entertaining and intelligent. Sort of a proto-Burn Notice, it starred Richard Bradford as McGill, a disgraced former American intelligence operative who claimed that his superior ordered him to stand down and let a valuable asset defect in the early 1960s. The superior’s body washed up in the Mediterranean, nobody can corroborate his story, and the tarnished McGill has spent years bumming around Europe, bounty hunting and doing discreet, unlicensed investigations. Have luggage, will travel.
Man in a Suitcase was created by Dennis Spooner and Richard Harris, and made in 1966-67. It was shown in the UK starting in the fall of 1967 in most of the ITV regions, and some of the 30 episodes, perhaps 17, were networked by ABC in the summer of 1968, on Friday evenings opposite repeats of Star Trek on NBC. It has one of television’s greatest theme tunes, and, like Danger Man, it was regularly seen in syndication on UHF stations for the next twenty-odd years. As I mentioned a couple of months ago, it was among the ITC series that we got in Atlanta on WVEU-69 in 1986-87, exactly when my interest in British television was sparkling, although the rule of “too much to watch” meant that I only tuned in a couple of times. I believe I was probably less interested in it because the lead actor is an American.
Several of ITC’s adventure series didn’t have what we think of as “pilot” episodes that set up the premise. Man in a Suitcase does, but it’s not really essential to following the premise. During its first UK screening, “Man From the Dead” was actually shown sixth. It goes into the backstory of McGill’s disgrace when the superior who gave him that fatal order is spotted alive in London. Like many adventure series from the period, like a favorite Avengers installment, the audience is given a pretty strong clue that the man is truly alive, because it’s a photo of that well-known thespian John Barrie. Also appearing in this one: Stuart Damon is one of McGill’s former associates. Co-creator Dennis Spooner didn’t actually do very much work on Man in a Suitcase; not long after they filmed this one, he would move over to Elstree to work on The Champions, where Damon would find regular work as one of that show’s leads.
Our son enjoyed it, but admitted it was a little confusing in places. I liked how they were very subtle and discreet about the intelligence agencies, and at one point McGill follows one man to an office for a Baltic Nations import-export-development-whatnot, an obvious visual clue, from its day, that this is the London front for at least one gang of Soviet operatives, but of course this was lost on our son. He enjoyed the fisticuffs and the locations and the straightforward nature of the plot, if not necessarily the characterization. The climax includes a remarkable beatdown, shot from a long distance at a since-demolished greyhound racing track, as McGill gets on the receiving end of at least twelve Russian agents.
I told him we’re likely to see more of this in the next week. Even when he lost a fight, Simon Templar usually just had a sore head and his hair slightly mussed. When McGill scraps, it shows. Maybe they only made thirty episodes because the character retired in 1968 to do something less likely to get himself concussed, like fighting bulls or skydiving without a chute.