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Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Man in a Suitcase

I just finished working my way through the boxed set of the 1967-68 ITC series Man in a Suitcase. It's taken me longer than I expected it to, and it's provoked some mixed feelings.

It's a show that I was enormously impressed by, the first time around. And I still am, but in a qualified way. So much of it holds up. Both Ron Grainer's theme and the credits sequence (designed by ITC regulars Chambers and Partners) are pretty well timeless. As is the simple but powerful premise of a scapegoated CIA man using his old skills as best he can to make a below-the-radar living in Europe.

Perhaps the most impressive element is a central performance of towering integrity and commitment by Richard Bradford; almost unknown before the series, almost forgotten after it until he resurfaced in a string of steady character roles for American TV.

Bradford prowls through the show with the grace and presence of a jungle animal, once wounded, twice shy, forever set on avoiding trouble, forever unsuccessful at staying out of it. My decades-old recall is of him getting the shit beaten out of him on a weekly basis, at the end of which he'd haul himself up off the ground and totter away with his trust often betrayed, but his dignity always intact.

All of which is what made the show stand out in my memory. What let it down this time around was just about everything else.

You can make allowances for the production values of the day; a good story will overcome that, no problem. But with a handful of exceptions, Man in a Suitcase didn't get good stories. What it mostly seems to have got, if you believe the rumours, was rejected Saint scripts made-over for the character.

So by the middle of the set I was flagging and when I got to the end, I had to go back to the pilot episode (Man from the Dead) and watch it again to remind myself why I've always held the series in such high regard.

The whole "Yank in London" setup made brilliant sense in the context of the premise, whereas in shows like The Baron and The Adventurer it was an obvious matter of commercial calculation. McGill's London felt real, with well-chosen locations and the sense of a genuine city rather than a tourists' backdrop. There in the pilot were the grit, the texture and the coherence that would slowly leach out of the episodes that followed, leaving Bradford standing there like the one enduring feature in an eroding landscape.

He wasn't popular with other cast and the crew, by all accounts. In his autobiography, Supervising Editor John Glen wrote, "Richard didn't seem to believe that acting was essentially about pretending, and wanted to do everything for real."

One can only imagine the eye-rolling and the after-hours bar chat that this must have provoked. But well done, Richard; time has proven you right.

There's a wonderfully bonkers version of the theme arranged for two flamenco guitars here.

8 comments:

Lee said...

I am Network's bitch. Their DVD releases have been an absolute education for me. If not for them, I'd never have known the likes of Sandbaggers, Public Eye, Out, or The Owl Service ever existed. Gawd bless 'em, and British telly.

Good Dog said...

I bought The Sandbaggers box set. Brilliant! Except I discovered the final disc of season one was badly corrupted.

Had it replaced twice and they were both duds. Shame because it was a really great show.

Also got The XYY Man which I hadn't seen before. Quite entertaining although the foley artists couldn't provide decent gunshots when the pistols come out.

Gail Renard said...

Also check out The Power Game. I'm totally hooked. I believe that The Planemaker series was its precursor and I'd love to see that too!

Lee Goldberg said...

Have you ever heard the original, unaired, vocal version of the theme? It's amazingly, wonderfully awful...one of my favorite themes of all time.

Stephen Gallagher said...

I've never heard the vocal version, but its reputation will be enough to send me off with my fingers in my ears if there's ever any danger of it... I've spent 20 years trying to clear my head of a lousy lyric that someone added to the adagio from Kachaturian's Spartacus back when it was used as the theme for The Onedin Line!

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Just started the box set. I saw one episode in 1967 and loved it! Love the 1967 style - Barbara Shelley looking ladylike and Judy Geeson in a silver crochet minidress. The fights and violence look chaotic, real and painful - so unlike the Avengers' choreographed "judo". And McGill is no superman or even an expert boxer. Jacqueline Pierce does a brilliant job as "Miss Brown" who takes the money instead of reporting an assault. (She and Judy Geeson seem to have an unfortunate amount of lip filler. Fortunately in Pierce's case this wasn't permanent.) Richard Bradford - what can one say? Everybody drinks large tumblers of whisky (cold tea) with no apparent effect. Did swinging chicks drink whisky? Dubonnet and coke or Campari soda more likely? Looking forwrd to the rest. Will try singing the theme tune.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Three or four years ago I had a stab at chasing down the rights for a possible reboot; the premise is an elegant one, I think, with a clear set of motives for a complex protagonist. And US networks were looking for shows to coproduce overseas.

I got so far with ITV, but no further. Perhaps it's for the best...

Deke DaSilva said...

I was thinking that a remake would have been interesting with Russell Crowe as McGill but that would have had to happen in the early to mid '00s. He would have been man enough to do the character justice and with a 1hr 30mins plus running time, they could have showed how exactly he was discredited/framed by the CIA and the rest of the film could have been his first ever case. Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman, Layer Cake, Kickass) could have been an ideal director or Sam Mendes even.