The Decades channel apparently carries old TV, which remains increasingly popular the farther away we get from those old shows’ original broadcast dates.
That includes shows that weren’t produced in the U.S. (Or North America, given how often Toronto and Vancouver substituted for U.S. locations in the 1980s, apparently a tax thing.)
Decades lists several British TV shows that came here in the ’60s, including a few I watched. Unlike the many British shows that showed up on PBS, including “Upstairs Downstairs,” these showed up on CBS, NBC and ABC.
The British Invasion went beyond the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits, beyond music in fact. Perhaps more so than any other time, the 1960s saw Americans devouring British pop culture, from Mary Quant’s miniskirts to Mary Poppins. James Bond was the king of the big screen and MG advertised its cars in magazines.
Naturally, this carried over to television. The spy craze led to an influx of British television productions on American networks. Here were shows produced in the U.K. on the Big Three networks in primetime. Often, the imports were plugged in as summer replacements. Some of these shows were so massive — or used American actors — it’s easy to forget they were English.
Here are nine British shows with their American network and year of U.S. premiere. They were all action series. No comedies made it over the pond to network primetime, because some things just don’t translate culturally, despite the fad. In fact, the only thing that didn’t seem to click with 1960s Americans (at first) was Monty Python. The comedy troupe’s Flying Circus premiered on the BBC in 1969, but would not turn up on PBS for half a decade.
Though it now struggles against Marvel blockbusters in Google searches, the Avengers were once popular enough to merit its own (and admittedly regretful) cinematic remake in 1998. The sexy, tough Emma Peel and the posh John Steed made for a perfect pair, first appearing together in the fourth season in 1965. ABC paid a handsome $2 million for 26 episodes in 1966, affording the series high production values.
I actually watched the decade-later sequel, “The New Avengers,” before the original. Both were on CBS after the 10 p.m. news before David Letterman left NBC.
Novelist John Creasey cranked out hundreds of books, page-turning adventures with characters like Gideon of Scotland Yard and the Baron. The latter earned a television adaptation with American actor Steve Forrest in the title role as John Mannering, an antiques dealer and undercover agent. Filmed in the U.K., the dialogue was overdubbed to change terms like “petrol” to “gas,” etc. Like any good agent, Mannering had an enviable car, a Jensen CV-8 Mk II.
Why did the title have to cover up Alexandra Bastedo’s face in the opening? (Not to mention the other two.) The stunning blond would at least get to show her features on the cover of a Smiths album in 1988. Bastedo, Stuart Damon and William Gaunt starred as a trio of agents for Nemesis, a United Nations intelligence agency based in Geneva. The three trotted across the globe, taking down Nazis and madmen.
Journey to the Unknown
Iconic horror house Hammer Film Productions Ltd. turned out this deliciously dark anthology series that featured American stars such as George Maharis and Patty Duke. In the episode “The Last Visitor,” Duke plays a woman stalked at a resort. It fits nicely alongside series like Thriller and Night Gallery.
Man in a Suitcase
When Patrick McGoohan jumped from Danger Man (a.k.a. Secret Agent) to The Prisoner, much of the Danger Man crew shifted to this espionage thriller. Like The Baron, Man in a Suitcase featured an American actor in the lead. Unlike the jet-setting spies of the era, this show’s hero, McGill, was pushed into the shadows, a disgraced CIA agent forced to resign and take work where he could find it. With its gray morality and increased violence, this Man was ahead of his time.
The brilliant blend of spy thriller and science-fiction became a cultural touchstone despite lasting a mere 17 episodes. The premise — an agent being held on a mysterious resort island — has been repeated, parodied and referenced countless times over the last half-century. Some fans theorized that McGoohan’s character, No. 6, was in fact his earlier character John Drake of Secret Agent/Danger Man. The actor denied it, yet the debate rages on. It is fascinating to view The Prisoner as a Secret Agent sequel.
Before Roger Moore slurped his shaken martinis as James Bond, he was another dapper secret agent, Simon Templar. The adventures were based on the Templar novels originally written by Leslie Charteris in the 1920s and ’30s. In the early black and white episodes, Moore breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, though the gimmick was given up when the series went color. In 1997, Val Kilmer starred in a Hollywood remake.
“The Saint” also had a decade-later sequel.
Sing along now: “Secret… AY-gent Man! Secret… AY-gent Man!” The twangy Johnny Rivers theme song helped popularize this American retitling of Danger Man, and the tune was later covered by Devo and stuck in the first Austin Powers movie. But this was far more than a catchy song, with McGoohan’s John Drake taking on realistic Cold War threats.
Puppet action! Just how popular were these marionettes? In 2015, Amazon Prime launched a new Thunderbirds Are Go series, though sadly it was computer animated, not controlled by strings. The inventive creation of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson was the Voltron for 1960s kids, mixing the family dynamics of Lost in Space with the low-budget thrills of playing make-believe with dolls. There was some serious special effects talent at work here. Effects director Derek Meddings went on to work on James Bond and Superman films. Miniature models beat CGI every time.
“Thunderbirds” was preceded by …
… both of which were on TVs all over the U.S. in the 1970s.
There were other series that didn’t make it over here, either because they wouldn’t translate well (or were already here in a different form) …
… or because Americans couldn’t understand the thicker British accents:
PBS viewers got to see “Inspector Morse” …
… who looks an awful like DI Jack Regan of “The Sweeney.” In a neat touch, the sequel put Morse’s young partner in a series of his own …
… with a young partner of his own.