In the 1980s, one of the best channels in Atlanta was WVEU-69. The metro area had a couple of dozen different cable systems, and only a handful carried MTV at first. While their salesmen pushed and prodded and cajoled for spaces on networks, churches and parent groups pushed back against all that pre-verted rock music, delaying the inevitable in many communities for a couple of years. So Channel 69 snuck in on the UHF dial where nobody could stop it, and just played everything MTV would play, and probably more, starting in 1982.
But within about three years, say around Live Aid, everybody who wanted their MTV had their MTV, and nobody wanted the knockoff anymore. WVEU needed a new format to make it through the eighties, and that meant filling every timeslot with whatever they could find that was cheap. Happily, around 1986-87, that meant a whole freaking pile of ITC series.
Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t take anywhere near the advantage of this that I could have. I was a broke teenager too lazy to keep an afternoon job and only had a little cash for then-pricy VHS tapes, most of which were used for Doctor Who, but this was a good time for a teen who was crazy for British television. We had pirate Avengers tapes in every Camelot, Record Bar, and mom-n-pop video store (as discussed here), we had The Young Ones and The Comic Strip Presents on that pre-verted MTV, we had The Prisoner, Monty Python, Butterflies, The Bounder, and everything on Mystery!, Masterpiece Theatre, Wonderworks, and Great Performances on our two PBS stations, plus we had a little something on WATL-36 I’ll tell you about next week.
And on WVEU, we had Space:1999, UFO, The Persuaders!, Man in a Suitcase, and The Champions. As I mentioned previously, these were pretty faded and beat up 16mm prints. The color was drab and lifeless, but we got used to it. One day a local shop got in eight episodes of UFO on laserdisc and our brains exploded at how colorful it was supposed to look.
And WVEU also had Secret Agent, and the last week has had me shaking my head at what a dumb teen I must have been to not have been watching this all the damn time. I know that I “watched” it twice, but probably while talking on the phone or reading comics at the same time, and also knowing that more people talked about The Prisoner, so the later program must have been better than this. I have no memory at all what those episodes might have been.
I also know I saw a third, the final black-and-white adventure, “Not So Jolly Roger,” because I taped that one, watched it a second time, agreed that it was really entertaining, but in that teen way, I didn’t follow up on it with more. But with a list like that above, can you blame me? That’s why I have no memory of eighties American television. I was watching all that stuff, plus trying to track down Sid and Marty Krofft and whatever Avengers we couldn’t find locally from tape traders.
Plus I had to make at least some room for MTV, although that ended up being pretty much just Sunday / Monday midnight to two.
One final thought before moving on from nostalgia to this evening on the sofa: despite everybody and their grandmother raving about The Prisoner, it remains the only ITC series that leaves me cold. (Although in fairness I have not actually seen any of The Adventurer.) As a teen, I “liked” it through gritted teeth, because I was supposed to, but I found it so frustrating to watch, because, after all, it is a series where the hero must lose every week. As an adult, I certainly admire it and love all the actors and the music, but The Prisoner is not fun and Danger Man absolutely is. Sorry, McGoohan, but I’d rather have had seventeen more episodes with John Drake and no pretentious critical essays about what it all means, man.
Anyway, to accompany the release of Doctor Who‘s “Fury From the Deep” last year, some of the actors and production crew revisited one of the locations from that story: Red Sands Fort, which was commissioned as an anti-aircraft base a few miles offshore in the Thames Estuary. I showed our son that part of the documentary this afternoon, ostensibly just to look at an amazingly fun-looking place we’ll probably never get to visit. Who filmed at Red Sands about two years after Danger Man did for its final black and white adventure in 1966, a gem of a story written by Tony Williamson, directed by Don Chaffey, and featuring the great Edwin Richfield as the main guest star.
Turns out my memories of this story had some holes in it. I’d completely forgotten the character of the drunk cook, but I remembered most of the plot pretty well. Enemy agents are using a pirate radio station to broadcast coded signals to a nearby submarine using a recording of “The Blue Danube” as cover for the real transmission. I really amused myself with this one. After showing him that bit of the documentary, I talked about pirate radio over dinner and let him know that a real pirate outfit, Radio 390, was actually using the Red Sands facility shortly before that Doctor Who was made. It got a thanks in the end credits of this episode.
The look on the kid’s face from that first establishing shot of the fort was priceless. So that’s why Dad was telling me all this stuff! He enjoyed this one and said that it was one of the best ones we’ve watched. “We ended Danger Man on a high note,” he said, and went off humming the theme again.
That’s the last of John Drake’s adventures that we’re going to watch for the blog, but stay tuned… we have another ITC classic coming in for a sample run next week!