I must have been about 10 or 11 years old when I stole…borrowed that first James Bond novel from my brother’s bookshelf, reading it secreted beneath blankets, and lit by flashlight. I could barely wait for the next new Sean Connery Bond movie to come out, persuading my mother to take us to a downtown movie theatre so we wouldn’t have to wait until it finally made it out to the suburbs.
Between Bonds I’d indulge my female adolescent spy fantasties watching my favorite TV secret agents. The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Mission Impossible, I Spy, even the comedy series Get Smart, and cross-genreWild, Wild West were network must-see TV for me back in the day.
But I’ve always thought that the British really did the genre justice—even on television. After all, the Brits spawned an entire generation of great spy novelists in addition to 007′s creator Ian Fleming. So it is no surpise that they also really knew how to produce memorable teleivsion espionage series like Secret Agent, The Prisoner, and The Avengers. U.K. production company ITC brought many of these series to the U.S. along with other British television that went on to attain cult status, including Man in a Suitcase.
Premiering here in 1968, the show immediately captured my interest; I remember being fascinated by the central character—the enigmatic (and quite dashing) loner known only as “McGill.” The series lasted only one season (30 episodes), but Acorn Media, the company responsible for bringing much British classic film and TV to DVD (and to America) is releasing the first 13 episodes of Man in a Suitcase January 25.
Richard Bradford (The Untouchables) plays McGill, a former U.S. intelligence agent forced to resign for reasons to which we’re not privy at first. But we learn in episode six (“Man from the Dead,” originally intended as the series pilot) that six years earlier, McGill had been accused of aiding a French scientist (LaFarbe) defect to the Russians. He stood down, declining to interfere, when he might have prevented the scientist from crossing over to the other side.
There are suggestions throughout the first several episodes that McGill is indeed a traitor. But we learn that LaFarbe is actually a double agent working for British and American intelligence services while serving in the highest levels of the Soviet scientific community. The only man who knows the truth—that McGill is merely the fall guy for the operation—has been missing and presumed dead for six years—since just after LaFarbe’s “defection.”
Because this reveal happens in the series pilot, the show’s creators evidently wanted this information to inform our understanding of both the character and the series. But because we’re in the dark until episode six due to the reordering, some of the earlier episodes don’t make as much sense as they might otherwise have. McGill is a traitor, but he’s allowed to operate freely in Europe (and even do assignments for the Americans). But why? It’s not clear until you know the back story provided by episode six. I strongly suggest watching the pilot “Man from the Dead” first—then commence with the rest.
Even after it’s clear that the Americans believe McGill isn’t a traitor, it really makes no difference. To clear McGill would mean endangering LaFabre. So like the quintessential stoic cold warrior, McGill sucks it up and carries on.
The LaFabre incident leaves McGill without a country, without money and without much of a future. He works as a private investigator and even as a bounty hunter for money: a much-disdained, disgraced hired gun.
McGill cuts a fairly tragic figure. Perpetually in danger, he can’t sustain a relationship without also endangering his partners. So although he tries to reconnect with women he’s loved in the past, he always ends up alone. He’s cynical and brooding, yet you can sense an underlying heroism and nobility, which comes through when he endangers himself to save the life or family relationship of someone else.
The prematurely gray American actor Richard Bradford (who was only in his 30s when the show aired) is great as McGill, bringing the right amount of bravado and gravitas to the man without a country, living out of a tattered brown leather suitcase. His McGill often gets beat up, left unconscious and bleeding on the pavement. Bradford insisted on this sort of realism: his character is not involved in pretty game of martinis and easy women (well maybe the easy women part). The work is dangerous and people get hurt. And McGill gets hurt in nearly every episode, hiring himself out to do both private investigative work—and some intelligence work on behalf of the Americans and U.K.
The show works best (for me anyway) when the stories involve espionage or exploring McGill’s past life as intelligence operative rather than his more mercenary gigs. “Variation on a Million Bucks” is a two-part episode, especially well done; it’s chilling, tense and involving.
An impressive list of guest stars make appearances in this 13-episode collection. Watch for a very young Donald Sutherland, just before fame struck in the movie M.A.S.H., playing an twitchy, old friend of McGill’s. Others notable guest stars include George Sewell (Dr. Who), Jane Merrow (The Lion in Winter), Rupert Davies (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). British actor Stuart Damon makes a brief appearance in an episode long before becoming Dr. Alan Quartermaine on the ABC soap General Hospital!
Like most Acorn releases, Man in a Suitcase comes with no real extras. The only bonus feature is a photo gallery for each disc with episode shots.
Although the stories are somewhat dated, and the series is a bit formulaic, I had a great time traveling back to ‘60s London, and finding myself unexpectedly pulled back into the world of “Mac” and his battered leather suitcase.