Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Man in a suitcase -- The girl who never Was

I think Man in a Suitcase is one of those television shows that resonates quite strongly with those from my generation but is almost unknown to anyone else. It was one of those detective dramas from the sixties by ITC, produced with an eye towards the American market. From what I've learned it was the direct successor to Dangerman (Secret Agent), utilising the production crew after McGoohan left to pursue The Prisoner project. The style of the show went even further down the hard boiled route than Dangerman, our hero, McGill, played brilliantly by the uncompromising method actor Richard Bradford, was laconic and moody, morose even. A disgraced former US intelligent agent, McGill was man cast adrift from his former life, living from job to job, a man who rarely slept under the same roof for more than a week, a man in a suitcase. His exploits often placed him in peril and presented moral dilemmas more complex than is usual for a typical hero. He was as likely to find himself in conflict with an unscrupulous client as was to be exchanging blows with heavies in a darkened alley. There's a good chance, I think, that the show took its cues from popular American fiction, there's a definite Mike Hammer feel to McGill but just as the unjustly maligned Spillane's character never found a popular audience in US television, Man in a Suitcase also fell on unwelcome shores and was cancelled after the first season.

Whether the show's failure to find an audience in the US was a result of audience reaction or the manoeuvrings of TV execs is uncertain, what is clear is that television in the US was moving into less dangerous territory. Successful shows like The Man from Uncle were being softened up, partly through the influence of mid-sixties camp, partly through concerns over the depiction of violence. McGill's world of casual violence and moral ambiguity might be too grim for a nation seeking respite from the reality of the Vietnam war, who knows?


The single episode that really stick is my mind is, The Girl Who Never Was, this episode features Bernard Lee in a fantastic role. He plays a retired army man, Kershaw, I'm not sure what rank but his character's affectations suggest a Warrent Officer. Kershaw's character is brilliantly and succinctly conveyed in the script by Lee's performance. He's a man with his best years behind him, who misses the status and respect his rank afforded him. He's one of two antagonists in the story, the other, Gilchrist is an art dealer played by Annette Carell, while not exactly unscrupulous, Gilchrist is callous and devious and betrays both Kershaw and McGill in like manner.

The plot revolves around a painting looted from Italy during the war by a mentally disturbed British soldier and the efforts to recover it. McGill's character moves through the narrative like the wind or the tide, a force of nature, not a typical protagonist motivating the narrative, he just does his job. What makes his character sympathetic is his ethical code and his personal integrity. He doesn't meter out justice or arbitrate between good an evil, he's just trying to make an honest living while making as small a wake as possible through a sea of troubled humanity. As you might guess the resolution of the plot is not straight forward but the final scene is one of my favourites of any tv drama.


  1. I stumbled across this show as a Friday afternoon repeat while unemployed and it became something of a highlight of my week. Much darker than shows of its ilk and with many a down and edgy ending which gave it an air of class in my book.

    1. Yeah I agree with that, I think they raised the bar with Man in a Suitcase. I've re-watched the first episode, it's definitely not the comic code approved material you'd expect.

  2. 'Man In A Suitcase' was indeed a brilliant show, and one of the highlights of my childhood. It would be interesting to see if any of the plots were 'borrowed' from 'The Saint', as was the case with 'The Baron', another two of my favourite shoes from the '60s. I believe that the programme was called 'Man With A Suitcase' in the U.S. - unless that was another show with a similar name.

    1. That's an interesting idea, looking at plot crossover of the ITC series of that genre.some of 'em do ring a few bells. Jigsaw man, which is quite an oddball episode and one of the softer ones reminds me of Man from Uncle plot although I can't recall the episode and I'm not sure of the sequence ie. Uncle -> Suitcase or Suitcase -> Uncle. The first episode is a kidnapped & brainwashed staple, which made me groan when I saw the flash caption, "Brainwashed" but it's well worth watching, mostly because Bradford makes it work and they broke some rules when wrote the script. I do recall The Saint being a pretty good show too but I haven't seen any for years, there's one plot I vaguely recall involving telephones that kill you when you answer 'em but it's possible I've got mixed up with another ITC show.

  3. I remember a Saint episode where his friend, a journalist, was murdered while doing an expose' of organized crime, so Simon took over and continued the investigation. At the end, a gangster had booby trapped a telephone so that it would blow up when answered, but Simon turned the tables so the villain blew himself up. There was a similar gimmick (and solution) in a Twilight Zone episode with Martin Landau.

    A Saint episode, "Lida," was remade as "Portrait of Louisa" for The Baron. I don't know offhand which others were remakes.

    Of course, American shows also recycled plots. You could see the same script over the years being adapted and re-used by The Mod Squad, The Rookies, Starsky & Hutch, Charlie's Angels, and T.J. Hooker. But then, they did the same thing with "B" series westerns in the 1930's-'40's-early '50's. So the same plot would be used for Roy Rogers, Zorro, Bill Elliott, and The 3 Mesquiteers. It wasn't so bad when episodes or movies were shown months or years apart, but I heard a story (maybe true, maybe rumor) that "Lida" and "Portrait of Louisa" aired on the same night in the US.

    The "softening" of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was probably part of the general trend toward campy comedy in the mid-1960's. Most of the sci-fi and spy-fi shows (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost In Space, Man From UNCLE, Wild Wild West, and The Avengers) really seemed to go over the top in 1966-67, then tried to tone it down in '67-68, when the camp fad was passing. If anything, UNCLE over-compensated, and its last season was played so straight that it lacked even the subtle comic relief that is usually a part of spy thrillers.

    BTW, the "kidnapped & brainwashed" premise was used so often on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea that it soon became a tiresome cliche.

    I probably mentioned on Kid's blog that Man In a Suitcase reruns were syndicated in the US, with the original title and opening credits, in the 1970's. Don't know if the title was changed for its 1968 run on the ABC (American Broadcasting Company) network.

    BTW, you know that stock scene of the white Jaguar going off a cliff that seemed to appear in every ITC action-adventure show sooner or later? AFAIK, it was first used in the Baron episode, "Something For a Rainy Day."

    Oddly, the British adventure shows with American stars or co-stars (MIAS, The Baron, The Champions, The Protectors, The Adventurer) never made much of an impression in the US. The most popular British shows in the US (Danger Man/Secret Agent, The Avengers, The Saint) were the ones with British stars.

    1. The recycled script thing, is an interesting topic, I've come across a few instances as talking points, shows like Maverick and you as mention, the ITC series. there's potential there for an article or even a light book, it might cause a bit of consternation though, if it was too up to date. Recently I saw the Alfred Hitchock Presents episode, The Case of Mr. Pelham. Although it was based on a novel it's quite a nice example of recycling. The "remake" was a pretty decent theatrical release, The Man Who Haunted Himself and who should be staring in it, Roger Moore no less.

      The sixties camp thing, is something of an oddity, I've never really been able to reconcile the reasons behind the trend. I have tentatively made a connection with concerns over violence/censorship but it's somewhat a tenuous association, that is contradicted by some of the material. For instance, it's said that the Wild Wild West was cancelled because of pressure on the Network over violence but the whole show seems somewhat stylised in the camp mould to me.

      The American lead or guest star became a default for ITC, not so much to appeal to audiences I think, more to sell a show to the network execs. It's one of those unfortunate ironies, that you have to get past entertainment/media professionals, who tend to be very conservative about their expectations, before you can get to the public. One notable example of this is Thriller, an anthology series, it featured a different American guest star in a lead role every week. These actors might be, people with a significant presence in the US, a regular role in a TV soap or something but often in Britain, we didn't have a clue who they were. It turned out reasonable well though for British audiences, a lot of these people put out decent performances. When it came to selling the show to the US though, I seems they had to make quite a few changes, toning down the chill and horror aspect, even to the extent of having different endings.

      I'm going to have to keep an eye out for that Jaguar, it does ring a bell but that car-over-cliff device was so ubiquitous during that period, it's easy to miss the recycling.