Man In A Suitcase – TV drama’s great step forward?

When I wrote a recent entry:

“Appraising television’s ultimate masterpiece – The Prisoner”

I realised afterwards that in saying that Patrick McGoohan and Edward Woodward were two leading actors of an era I could think of off-hand capable of conveying controlled intensity, I was doing one other essential protagonist a disservice.

I’m talking about the late Richard Bradford, who brought realism and edge in spades to his portrayal of McGill in Man In A Suitcase.

All three had remarkable range and each were major assets to the shows they were in, making the productions unthinkable without them.

Bradford’s particular speciality was brooding, bitter resentment and world-weariness, which he used to breathe life into the character of McGill – an ex-intelligence agent for the US, who had been used as a dupe by his employers for what they deemed to be ‘a greater good’, essentially ‘hanging him out to dry’ for treason he did not commit.

The irony of McGill’s predicament is that the reason he was eventually used in this way was that he was just too damned good at his job and uncovered an operation his masters didn’t want exposed.

The chip on McGill’s shoulder is massive and he really is the ultimate outsider.

Nobody can get close to him and he cannot get close to anyone.

His situation forbids any meaningful relationships and he survives (just) literally out of his suitcase, taking jobs which nobody else will touch and frequently comes off the worse for it.

On top of this, he is often exploited by the powers that be because they know they always have the trump card of the false treason charge.

The tone of the best of this series reminds me strongly of The IPCRESS File – the world is frequently humdrum, seedy at times, the main character is flawed and a little morose.

Harry Palmer, McGill, David Callan and to a certain extent John Drake, were all antidotes to Bond, to varying degrees.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.

He does have his successes.

One of the most striking elements of the show, commissioned initially as a potential sell to the US market and de facto replacement for Danger Man, was its depiction of violence.

McGill gets into a lot of fights and doesn’t always win.

Unlike The Saint, who seems capable of walking away from virtually any dangerous situation unscathed, no matter how many ‘heavies’ involved, McGill’s encounters are often brutal and with longer-lasting effect.

This approach would have far-reaching influence on TV drama in general as shows became more daring in their depiction of violence throughout the 70s and 80s.

The Sweeney, for example, owes a debt to Man In A Suitcase in this regard and by association to Bradford himself, who was keen to push for this realism, showing violence and the consequences of violence for what they are, rather than comic-book glamour.

One can argue that Callan picked up on this too, as there are moments in that show which would never have made the screen in the early 60s.

At any rate, Bradford brought attitude, realism and sheer grit to the screen and these are major contributary factors in what makes Man In A Suitcase one of the most unique and fascinating dramas of its time… and beyond.

Bradford demanded high-quality output from his co-performers and was recorded years later complaining about the standard of some of them, referring to the “bullshit actors” he had to work with, but without naming names (thankfully).

For the most part, he does dominate the screen but there are a few instances in the series where those he plays against are anything but “bullshit” performers and this usually makes for the show’s high watermark moments.

One overall critical observation I would make is that the series has ups and downs in terms of the quality of the stories.

Some episodes are just not as good as others and granted, you could say that about any series really.

But – and this is a massive positive – when this show is good, it really is outstanding.

For those new to the series, I would recommend the episode entitled Day Of Execution which is a perfect example of the pinnacle of 60s television.

This instalment sits well alongside any of the best of Danger Man – and that is a high recommendation, since up until this point, Danger Man was probably the best show on British TV (in my opinion).

Check out this excellent resource for more on Danger Man and, of course, The Prisoner:

https://www.theunmutual.co.uk/

I won’t spoil the plot of Day Of Execution for those who haven’t seen it, but suffice to say it features tense direction, a believable story, stellar turns from the cast, which includes Donald Sutherland and the always watchable TP McKenna, a high-octane masterclass from Bradford himself and a glorious car chase sequence, filmed in Kingston-Upon-Thames.

It also features my favourite one-liner in the whole series, uttered by Bradford, with just the right combination of befuddlement and cool, “Hey, you crazy idiots! My name’s McGill!”

A few other episodes hit this high as well, usually when Bradford gets a decent foil or at least someone with comparable screen presence to bounce off.

Check out Brainwashed, The Sitting Pigeon or Dead Man’s Shoes.

All great stories, all containing the trademark Bradford tour de force performance, switching from cool to supercool with absolute ease.

I can’t possibly write about Man In A Suitcase in a general sense without mentioning the music.

Wow.

Fans of The Prisoner will love this element of the show.

The theme tune is another Grainer classic and much of the incidental music is from the same idiosyncratic well that supplied McGoohan’s masterpiece.

It’s all available and well worth purchasing alongside the series itself:

https://networkonair.com/all-products/622-man-in-a-suitcase-original-soundtrack

The main theme is also notable for having been used again as a lead tune for a TV show.

Yes, of course, Chris Evans picked it up for TFI Friday years later – but McGill had it first!

Instantly recognisable, it’s one of the genuine greatest TV themes of all time, the very essence of 1960s cool.

To anyone interested in 60s television or indeed the development of television drama in general, Man In A Suitcase is essential viewing.

It is like ‘the missing link’ between the comic book shows and the move towards realism and heavier themes, hitherto unexplored in an entertainment presentation, but brought to life so beautifully by the leading actor who made uncompromising attitude a trademark and in doing so left an indelible mark on the history of British television.

The show unquestionably represents a great step forward for TV drama.

One thought on “Man In A Suitcase – TV drama’s great step forward?

  1. Great series. How much of a shock must it have been to 60’s audiences to see a hero being badly beaten and verbally abused, unlike clean-cut characters like John Mannering and Simon Templar.

    Liked by 1 person

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