Open Channel D!

During research for this blog, I discovered that the US TV show ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ premiered on US TV on my 2nd birthday in 1964. As a consequence, I caught up with it at a later date. Thinking about it my guess would be that, that came about due to the collecting of bubble gum cards. If that particular past time had been an Olympic sport in Tokyo 1968, you would be now reading the blog of the youngest ever-gold medallist, as I was that dedicated to it.

I had collections for the majority of cards that were on the market, including those from P.G. Tips, though I actually hated the taste of tea, and that is something that continues to this day (the tea drinking not the card collecting.)

So, along with a healthy collection of other merchandise that was available for this show, that would have been my way into the wacky world of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The premise of the show is wrapped up in the spy genre, which appeared to be everywhere following the success of the James Bond franchise. Indeed Bond creator Ian Fleming contributed many concepts for this show working alongside the creator and producer Norman Felton. The programmes working title – ‘Solo’  – was the brainchild of Fleming. 

This was an MGM Television series and U.N.C.L.E. stood for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement and was not affiliated to the United Nations as many viewers thought.

The actual m(e)n from’ were Robert Vaughan who played Napoleon Solo (again named by Fleming) badge wearer number 11 and David McCallum starring as Illya Kuryakin – badge number 2. The head of the New York office was Mr Alexander Waverly (badge number 1) played by Leo. G. Carroll.

The series ran for 105 episodes in total with the first episodes filmed in black and white. Colour was first introduced from late 1963, and the show ended in mid-January 1968.

McCallum’s good looks, immediately gained him a dedicated fan base and at public appearances to promote the show, he was often mobbed and physically attacked by his many female followers.

As in any good spy story, there has to be an enemy and in the show that came in the shape of ‘THRUSH’ an organisation whose avowed aim was to take over the world. The origin of that name was later revealed in a spin-off book ‘The Dagger Affair’, to stand for The Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity. ‘THRUSH’ was founded by an old enemy of Sherlock Holmes, namely Colonel Sebastian Moran.

Recognising the threat, the U.N.C.L.E. organisation was actually one of co-operation between governments, with the USA represented by Solo and the Russians by Kuryakin.

Entry to their HQ was gained through a secret entrance in Del Floria’s Tailor Shop. With a nod and a wink to the tailor, Solo and Kuryakin nipped round the back and into a science fiction paradise of buttons and flashing lights.

So real did the world of U.N.C.L.E. appear to many of its audience, that hundreds of applications to join the organisation were among the 10,000 letters a week sent to the show in its early days. In the end, a disclaimer had to run at the end of each episode by MGM to point out that this was indeed, a fictitious show.

Its terrific and well-remembered theme tune was by Jerry Goldsmith and incidental music throughout the four seasons of the show was provided by the likes of Nelson Riddle and Lalo Schifrin among many others.

All the episodes had the premise of featuring an innocent member of ‘Joe Public’ who had found themselves caught up in a battle between good and evil. In would step the U.N.C.L.E. operatives to ensure that right prevailed.

Ratings-wise, it was slow going at first, but momentum quickly picked up and then the show became hugely popular, going on to win a Golden Globe for ‘Best TV Series’ in 1966. However trying to keep up with the ever-changing TV landscape in the US, elements of comedy and slapstick, a parody of the more comical Batman TV series running at the same time, were introduced, but in truth never really worked and the show was eventually cancelled halfway through season four as viewing figures plummeted.

Over the years many a famous face appeared on the show, including William Shatner and Leonard Nimmoy (well before Star Trek became, well, Star Trek) Terry Thomas, Telly Savalas, Joan Collins, Jack Palance, Leslie Nielsen, Nancy Sinatra, Martin Landau, Sonny and Cher, Rip Torn and even Joan Crawford in the episode ‘The Karate Killers’ from 1967.

There was a spin-off, called The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. by NBC with Stephanie Powers starring as agent April Dancer (name again supplied by Ian Fleming) and her boss was also Mr Waverly. It only lasted one series.

My entree into this was mentioned earlier with the bubble gum cards, and it is fair to say The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was one of the first to properly explore the merchandise angle more than most.  With it came comics, the Napoleon Solo gun with bits that you could bolt on, (everyone wanted one of them) dressing up outfits, the distinctive badges and U.N.C.L.E. membership cards.

In reality, the series crashed and burned somewhat after a fantastic start, but what is clear is the impression it made, and left, on a generation like mine from whenever they saw it.

A good legacy that.

The Mumper of SE5