Saturday, December 17, 2011

I’ve Been Here Before (View From the Villa)

airdate:  11 September 1960
NATO opening:  no
NATO openings so far:  0
NATO-less openings so far:  1
Vacation spoiled: yes
Vacations spoiled so far: 1

[This is my blog about Danger Man / The Prisoner.  If you want my blog about
The Avengers, click here.

As always:  SPOILERS BELOW.]

You’re a secret agent man
who’s after the secret plan
how do you act so they don’t know you’re a spy?

(Oh sorry, wrong theme song.)

The camera pans over attractive flowers and Italianate bric-a-brac while we hear an irregular rhythm in the background – which turns out to be the bad guys beating information out of a captive.  They overdo it, he dies, and an unseen witness gasps and jumps out the window.

The first season of Danger Man – and very nearly the only season, being separated from the second season by over a year – was once so little remembered that A&E’s earlier “complete” dvd sets omitted it entirely; and when it was first included on a later set it was advertised, falsely, as never having been aired in North America.  In fact it not only aired in America (under the title of Danger Man, the only season not to be called Secret Agent here) but was made specifically with the lucrative American market in mind (which is why it was recorded expensively on film rather than cheaply on videotape – which in turn explains why all of its early episodes survive, escaping the mass-erasure fate that devastated the early years of videotaped shows like Doctor Who and The Avengers). 

The focus on the American market likewise explains, perhaps, why John Drake was originally portrayed as an American; in this first episode, when Drake discovers evidence that the murder victim had been having an extramarital affair, another character explains “This is Rome, Mr. Drake, not New England” (and receives the reply “Well, it happens in New England too, you know”), thus apparently establishing New England as Drake’s place of origin.  (At the same time the familiar trope of naïve/innocent American vs. sophisticated/corrupt European is raised and immediately dismissed.)  McGoohan’s accent was somewhat indeterminate – his own background being simultaneously American, Irish, and English – and he could turn his accent a few notches in the direction of any of the three, always managing to sound almost-but-not-quite-right in each of them.

In later seasons he is either English or Irish, and is working for a fictional British intelligence service called M9, a kind of fusion of MI5 and MI6.  In this first season it’s not entirely clear for whom Drake works.  According to the opening narration:
Every government has its secret service branch:  America, its CIA; France, Deuxième Bureau; England, MI5.  A messy job? Well that’s when they usually call on me, or someone like me. Oh yes: my name is Drake – John Drake.
(Actually it’s MI6, not MI5, that is the equivalent of the CIA and Deuxième Bureau; but at the time the show was made, the existence of MI6 was not publicly acknowledged – and wouldn’t be for another three decades, despite being by that time an open secret.)  This might mean that Drake works for one of these agencies but is being coy about which (though not Deuxième Bureau, surely), or it might mean (more probably) that he is a freelance contractor who works on occasion for each of them.  But some versions of the narration insert the sentence “NATO also has its own” after the list of agencies, setting it apart from the rest in a way that makes it sound as though it’s specifically NATO’s agency that Drake works for.  And the gold whose theft Drake is asked to investigate in this episode is said to have been intended for Italy’s contribution to NATO, so it would make particular sense for Drake to be called in if he is indeed a NATO agent.  The whole ambiguity is nicely captured by the imagery accompanying the narration: a geographically impossible shot of a London building (Castrol/Marathon House) in the foreground (look closely – click the pic to enlarge it  and you’ll see a London bus stop sign as well) and Washington D.C.’s U.S. Capitol building in the background.  It looks the way McGoohan’s accent sounds.  Whose side are you on? – That would be telling.

The title Danger Man is ambiguous; does it mean a man who faces danger or a man who is dangerous?  The (later) theme song emphasises the former meaning, but seeing McGoohan stalking around in his odd angular manner irresistibly suggests the latter.  The title of this episode, “View from the Villa” (penned by Danger Man showrunner Ralph Smart and future Avengers writer Brian Clemens), is ambiguous too: at first it seems to mean the view that the aforementioned unseen witness had of the murder, but it later turns out to mean the particular vantage point from which a certain painting was made, enabling Drake to identify a certain location.

And what a location!  For the painting of a village that’s the crucial clue in the story turns out actually to be of the Village, as in this episode it’s Portmeirion, the Welsh seaside resort and future filming site of The Prisoner, that’s doubling as the Italian village to which Drake is led by the painting.  Indeed it was during the filming of this episode that McGoohan first got to know Portmeirion, thus laying the ground for his later decision to set his magnum opus there. For a blog devoted to the project of reading Danger Man through the lens of The Prisoner, the fact that it begins in Portmeirion is serendipitous.  The Villa(ge) is indeed everywhere!

(One especially inaccurate online summary, confusing diegetic and extradiegetic locations, tells us that “Agent Drake is sent to the small seaside resort of Portmeirion in North Wales to investigate the murder and to try and recover the money.”  In any case, he’s not “sent” anywhere.)

In another parallel, “View from the Villa” begins with McGoohan having to interrupt his vacation to investigate the case; in the opening sequence of The Prisoner, McGoohan’s character, having just resigned, is packing tropical vacation brochures into his suitcase when he is abducted.  (The theme of official duties interfering with Drake’s holiday plans will continue throughout Danger Man.)  And I suppose Drake’s initial reliance on an apparently helpful source of information who is actually trying to mislead him is another Prisoner parallel, albeit a tenuous one.

There’s not much explicit socio-political commentary in the episode, though, apart from some acid comments about bankers at the start.  The episode is set in Italy, which at the time was experiencing an economic upswing, and had joined the common market three years earlier, so the episode’s embezzlement plot could be seen as a commentary on the corruption that accompanies boom times; but the episode’s center of gravity is Drake’s interaction with two women (the witness’s dressmaker, and the murder victim’s wife), and his search for a third (the missing witness).  (Although this blog is not for the spoiler-averse, I’ll leave for the viewer the discovery of how these three women are connected, since nothing I have to say hangs on it.) 

We do see a bit of possible hypocrisy on Drake’s part:  he expresses his resentment at being called in to solve a mere murder case; yet when told there’s something more important than murder at stake, he turns moralistic, demanding to know how anything could be more important than murder.  This establishes Drake as a somewhat prickly character to get along with.

Above all, McGoohan effortlessly dominates the screen with his elusive combination of smoothness and awkwardness, like a graceful commanding spirit attempting to operate an unfamiliar body, coming across as a blend of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, and Lt. Columbo – and making the episode a delight to watch.

Be seeing you!


  1. stumbled on this...great enhancement to great viewing write on!

  2. Thanks! Don't worry -- although I've been away from this blog for a while, I do plan to continue it.