By the mid 1960s, Lew Grade’s ITC had carved out a reputation for slick action-adventure series, offering feature film production values, tailored to meet the needs of the all-important American networks. The formula was essentially that of the suave, infallible hero who could go anywhere and do anything against a pageant of cosmopolitan locations (mostly realised in Elstree studios and its environs). On paper, such characters were essentially cardboard cut-outs, and it was up to the leading man to stamp some kind of personality on the role; very effectively in the case of The Saint and Danger Man.
Despite successful overseas sales, by the spring of 1966, ITC was faced with problems when three of its key series were turned down for renewal in the US spring schedules. In response, Lew Grade hired former ABC vice-president of programming Ed Sherrick as a creative consultant to work on all future series aimed at the American market. Shortly after his appointment had been announced in trade journal Kine Weekly, the same publication reported a turnaround in ITC’s fortunes: The Saint and The Baron would both continue in production, alongside two new productions, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, and ‘a new series of thirteen one-hour films entitled McGill’, the latter to be produced in association with the American ABC network.
Co-production was fast becoming a by-word in the television industry, and was widely seen as an attractive way of bankrolling expensive new productions; but McGill, which entered production at Pinewood studios in September 1966, would be wholly financed by ITC – a fact which a clearly irate Lew Grade was forced to spell out to Kine Weekly’s Tony Gruner, who had previously suggested the new series was the result of a co-production deal.
So what did the new production have to offer? Series like The Saint had demonstrated the appeal of a hero with no ties or affiliations to an organisation (and no boss to report in to), who could literally turn up in any location and immediately become involved in the plot of the week, and in the case of McGill, creators Richard Harris and Dennis Spooner had come up with another variation on the theme. Their format envisioned a lone bounty hunter, free from obligations to work and family, adrift and far from home, living out of a suitcase in a succession of dingy rooms, operating as a typical ‘gun for hire’ and taking on whatever work he could get, however dangerous or uncertain, simply to make ends meet. But where Harris and Spooner pictured their creation as a standard wise-cracking tough guy, McGill would turn out to be something new and different, unique in the annals of ITC.
Into the role stepped relative unknown Richard Bradford, who had come to Lew Grade’s attention in the 1966 movie The Chase, playing alongside Marlon Brando. Bradford had come out of the Actors Studio in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and his playing style was very much that of the ‘method’ advocated by the studio, derived from the ideas of Konstantin Stanislavski. It was this ‘method’ approach by which Bradford transformed McGill from a hackneyed cliché into a real and believable person.
Danger Man had already offered up some superior scripts in which characters were confronted with the ethical and emotional consequences of their actions, and this focus on consequence became one of the keynotes of the new series. McGill was portrayed as a fallible, often volatile idealist, fiercely committed to defending the underdog, even when it meant taking a beating for his troubles – and it frequently did. Uniquely for a TV series of that era, the production pulled no punches when it came to depicting the outcome of such action, and McGill was often to be seen brusied and bloodied, his face blackened and swollen after taking a pounding. Bradford reportedly took great pains over his makeup for these scenes, as is illustrated in this image from the pilot episode, with the series showing a commitment to grim realism even at this early stage.
By October 1966, the new production was being referred to by its now familiar title, purloined from the pilot episode, where the ‘man in a suitcase’ had in fact been McGill’s former CIA boss, Harry Thyssen, living a shadowy existence following a faked death. But the phrase was even better suited to the rootless hero McGill, and provided the new series with an intriguing title to draw in the audience.
Production continued through to the end of 1967, by which time Man in a Suitcase had made its debut on British television, with ATV Midlands running episodes at 8pm on Wednesday evenings from September 27, and their London weekend franchise placing it just after 9pm Saturday evenings following the Bob Monkhouse-hosted gameshow The Golden Shot. Faced with stiff competition from the BBC, ITV was soon forced to drastically revise its Saturday scheduling, and The Golden Shot was dispatched to Sunday afternoons, along with imported western series Cimarron Strip. McGill, however, stood firm, and Man in a Suitcase held onto its Saturday evening slot, eventually sliding an hour or so forward to finish its run at 7.30pm. Meanwhile, in America, audiences would have to wait until May of 1968 to see the new series on the ABC network.
Despite some favourable reviews, Man in a Suitcase failed to make the same impression as some of its illustrious ITC predecessors, and there would be no new episodes produced after the initial run of thirty. The series was repeated around the ITV regions during the 70s, with episodes appearing, generally in a late-night slot, until around 1978, but by comparison with others from the ITC stable, it fared relatively badly, failing to make the transition to daytime broadcasts when the new afternoon schedule was introduced.
The series had been almost forgotten when it finally resurfaced as part of a new repeat package in the mid 1980s. Now considered acceptable for a lunchtime audience, Man in a Suitcase was shown on a regional basis across the ITV network from 1985 to 1988, and won a new generation of fans, including Chris Evans (who later borrowed the theme for his own Channel 4 show) and Morrissey, who featured an image of McGill on the cover of the Smiths’ single Panic.
Viewers were fortunate in that ITV had elected to strike new 35mm prints for the mid-80s repeat, and the series held up well against more modern productions, with Richard Bradford’s charismatic performance still coming across as fresh and innovative. Now, with the benefit of modern technology, we’re able to present the series as never seen before, alongside the extremely rare feature film presentation of the two-part story Variation on a Million Bucks.
While many veteran TV series may deliver a warm, nostalgic glow, Man in a Suitcase is a sharp reminder that, at its best, television in the 1960s could be tough, uncompromising and original.
Man in a Suitcase: Volumes 1 & 2 are available to order now