“Every government has its secret service branch,” declares John Drake (Patrick McGoohan) in the weekly preamble to Danger Man (1960 to 1968). “America, CIA; France, Deuxième Bureau; England, MI5. A messy job? Well, that’s when they usually call on me or someone like me.”
The “messy job” of espionage has been a television staple for almost 60 years. ITV’s new adaptation of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File may bring back memories of Michael Caine’s trio of Harry Palmer pictures at the height of the swinging 60s. But it also continues a rich tradition of spy shows on the small screen.
The influence of Ian Fleming and 007 was inescapable in the 1960s, when – alongside those listed in our top 10 – the likes of I Spy (1965 to 1968), The Wild Wild West (1965 to 1969), The Baron (1966 to 1967), Callan (1967 to 1972), The Champions (1968 to 1969) and Department S (1969 to 1970) all filled the TV schedules.
Later, Bond’s gadgetry prompted a shift into techno-espionage with Airwolf (1984 to 1987), while MacGyver (1985 to 1992) and Alias (2001 to 2006) refined the ‘spy-fi’ genre. More recently, animations like The Secret Show (2006 to 2007) and Archer (2009-) and such comic-book spin-offs as Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) have targeted younger audiences, as have shows linked to bestselling authors, like Chris Ryan’s Strike Back (2010 to 2020) and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (2018-).
But there was an old school Le Carré-like gravity about Burn Notice (2007 to 2013) and the cult Deutschland 83 / 86 / 89 (2015 to 2020) trilogy, which centred on a Stasi agent. The “messy job” is clearly far from done.
Danger Man (1960 to 1968)
While Dr. No (1962) was still a twinkle in Cubby Broccoli’s eye, Patrick McGoohan was concluding the opening spiel to British TV’s first significant espionage show with the words, “Oh yes, my name is Drake, John Drake.” Created by Ralph Smart, the series originally had Drake working for NATO in half-hour episodes before CBS pulled the plug Stateside. Following the success of 007, however, the gadget-tooled Drake returned in the employ of M9 in 50-minute episodes (rebranded Secret Agent in the US) that relied on intrigue and ingenuity rather than sex and violence, because of McGoohan’s strict Catholic beliefs.
After 86 missions, the show was replaced on ITV by Man in a Suitcase (1967 to 1968) when McGoohan defected to The Prisoner, which was inspired by the 1964 episode ‘Colony Three’, in which Drake infiltrates a spy school in an escape-proof town. But the show’s most gratifying legacy is undoubtedly the Cosgrove Hall cartoon series Danger Mouse (1981 to 1992).
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964 to 1968)
As with Danger Man, 007’s creator was involved in the planning stage of this tongue-in-cheek, gadget-laden series, which was originally entitled Ian Fleming’s Solo. During a concept-shaping lunch with producer Norman Felton, Fleming’s mention of a minor character in his 1959 Bond novel Goldfinger resulted in the birth of agent Napoleon Solo. He also came up with the name April Dancer for Stefanie Powers in The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966 to 1967).
The acronym stands for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, whose headquarters were secreted behind Del Floria’s Tailor Shop in New York. In charge, over 105 episodes, was Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), but the focus fell on Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Russian partner Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), whose teaming represented a conscious attempt by co-creator Sam Rolfe to thaw Cold War relations. In the absence of the KGB, antagonism was provided by THRUSH, a nebulous organisation bent on world domination that kept ensnaring innocent bystanders in its dastardly schemes.
Get Smart (1965 to 1970)
In seeking to lampoon the Bond movies, co-creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry decided that Maxwell Smart should be a cross between 007 and Inspector Clouseau. Using a voice based on his stand-up impression of Thin Man star William Powell, star Don Adams excelled at both wordplay and pratfalls, as Agent 86 bungles his way through missions against KAOS for the ever-exasperated Chief of CONTROL (Edward Platt), with the aid of Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon).
So realistic were the gadgets Smart employed that the CIA enquired whether anyone was leaking classified secrets to the writers. Brooks and Henry had departed by the end of season two, but Adams landed an Emmy hat-trick before the show tailed off. It later made ill-advised returns on the big (The Nude Bomb, 1980) and small screen (Get Smart, Again!, 1989), before a 2008 reboot with Steve Carell.
Mission: Impossible (1966 to 73)
Having already sponsored The Untouchables (1959 to 1963) and Star Trek (1966 to 1969), Desilu Productions backed the first two seasons of Bruce Geller’s groundbreaking spy show, which was inspired by the 1964 crime caper Topkapi. Driven by Lalo Schifrin’s Morse code-inflected theme, the show’s globe-trotting action famously opened with a self-destructing tape message outlining the mission.
A revolving-door casting policy enabled Impossible Missions Force team leader Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) to supplement regulars Barney Collier (Greg Morris) and Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus) with femmes fatales like Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) and Lisa Casey (Lynda Day George) and those disguise masters Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) and The Great Paris (Leonard Nimoy). While IMF ventured into eastern Europe, there was no explicit Cold War undercurrent and several of the 171 episodes involved removing corrupt regimes in the developing world before the focus latterly switched to the US-based Syndicate.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)
John le Carré is British television’s most adapted espionage writer. This classic BBC take on a 1974 bestseller inspired by the Cambridge Five scandal was followed by a sequel, Smiley’s People (1982), and four more lauded series: A Perfect Spy (1987), The Night Manager (2016), The Little Drummer Girl (2018) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (2021).
Scripted in seven parts as a sequence of interconnecting flashbacks, the serial stars Alec Guinness as George Smiley, a disgraced MI6 operative who conducts a covert inquiry into the calamitous Operation Testify to expose a Soviet mole at the Cambridge Circus headquarters. Amid a star-studded ensemble, the BAFTA-winning Guinness is exceptional as the world-weary, cuckolded, but relentless spymaster who takes a dim view of betrayal and the breach of service codes in the face of post-imperial decline. Gary Oldman played Smiley in the Oscar-nominated 2011 feature version.
Reilly: Ace of Spies (1983)
Euston Films specialised in no-nonsense crime shows like The Sweeney (1975 to 1978) and Van der Valk (1977), and whimsical gems like Minder (1979 to 1994), before embarking upon this 12-part, 25-year-spanning survey of the exploits of Britain’s ultimate (and slipperiest) gentleman spy. Having become something of a bogeyman in 1960s Soviet espionage cinema, the allegiance-shifting Sidney Reilly is here portrayed as a calculating opportunist. As incarnated by the Golden Globe-nominated Sam Neill, he’s possessed of debonair poise.
Written by Troy Kennedy-Martin, this BAFTA-winning series was adapted from a biography by Robin Bruce Lockhart, whose father, R.H. Bruce Lockhart, had conspired with Reilly in the 1918 Ambassadors’ Plot to assassinate Lenin. Lockhart Sr is played by Ian Charleson, while Leo McKern steals scenes as Greek arms dealer Basil Zaharoff, who was as much an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld as Reilly was for James Bond.
24 (2001 to 2010)
With 192 episodes spread over eight seasons, 24 overtook Mission: Impossible and The Avengers to become the longest-running espionage show in US television history. Amassing 68 Emmy nominations, it debuted two months after 9/11 and tapped into the traumatised nation’s psyche. Each season comprised 24 real-time episodes that pitted Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), an agent with the Los Angeles-based Counter Terrorist Unit, against enemies of the state, unreliable allies, moral dilemmas and a ticking clock. The latter featured prominently on a screen that frequently split to present simultaneous action in differing locations.
Drawing on the old serial standby of cliffhanging endings, the combustible show also encumbered the characters with domestic problems that complicated their professional duties. Playing Bauer as a resourceful maverick who did whatever it took to prevail, Sutherland also headlined the 2008 teleplay 24: Redemption and the 12-episode special 24: Live Another Day (2014). However, he was absent from the unsuccessful spin-off, 24: Legacy (2017).
Spooks (2002 to 2011)
Conceived in a bookshop and launched in the aftermath of 9/11, this zeitgeisty, BAFTA-winning BBC series ran throughout the millennium’s first decade and reflected the changes in targets and tactics tasking the intelligence community. Bringing American visual slickness to British dramatic quality, Spooks endured a rocky start when complaints flooded in after a female character was thrust into a deep-fat fryer in the second episode. But this was all part of a master plan to move away from le Carré-like urbanity and explore the ineluctable reality that the nation was protected by agents with murky private lives. As the tagline stated: “MI5, not 9-5.”
In addition to the superior scripts, the cast was also stellar, with Jenny Agutter, Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo among the Thames House regulars under the watchful gaze of Section D’s Peter Firth, who appeared in all 86 episodes and the spin-off feature, The Greater Good (2015).
Homeland (2011 to 2020)
Although inspired by the Israeli series Hatufim/Prisoners of War (2010 to 2012), this study of US spycraft during the War on Terror was devised by 24 alumni Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Reflecting the mood of a conflicted nation, Homeland confirmed that there were no longer any easy answers for the world’s sole superpower. Consequently, bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) kicks against the system in believing that USMC sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) is a reprogrammed jihadist sleeper rather than a hero returning from eight years’ captivity in Afghanistan.
Such was the balance struck by the writers in escalating the stakes and blurring the lines between the ambitious Brody and the fixated Mathison and her rule-bending boss, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), that the show drew criticism from each end of the political spectrum for its pseudo-psychology, bleeding-heart liberalism and Islamophobia. No wonder the 2012 Peabody Award judges described it as “a Rorschach test of post-9/11 doubts, fears and suspicions”.
Killing Eve (2018 to 2022)
Adapted by Phoebe Waller-Bridge from Luke Jennings’ Villanelle e-novellas, the first series of Killing Eve established the cat-and-mouse tension between MI6 investigator Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and Russian assassin Oksana Astankova (Jodie Comer). Codenamed Villanelle, the antagonist bears comparison with the anti-heroine of Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990). However, a darkly comic vein runs through the action, which has characterised the subsequent series head-scripted by Emerald Fennell, Suzanne Heathcote and Laura Neal.
Despite the title, Villanelle takes perverse pleasure in keeping Eve alive (even after she shoots her in revenge for a stabbing) because, “Sometimes when you love someone, you will do crazy things.” Yet, while its fixations with feminism, fashion and ferocity have placed this homoerotic nailbiter among television’s most intelligent, subversive and idiosyncratic espionage shows, the critical response has steadily cooled.