“Open Channel ‘D'”
This is American Television at it’s best, spy series just don’t come any cooler than this. Almost a direct result of the success of Bond in the cinema’s, though the series had been in development since 1961. A little known fact (outside of fan circles) was that of Ian Flemings involvement in the early development of the series, though his final contribution was little more than the name Napoleon Solo. Another name was also contributed by Fleming, in Flemings version of UNCLE, Solo’s boss was to have had a secretary much akin to Moneypenney in his Bond books, named April Dancer a name that was later to be used in the Girl from UNCLE.
Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Nackovich Kuryakin (David McCallum), UNCLE’s favourite nephews, who each week for 105 episodes would combat the menace for the most part of THRUSH. The threats in UNCLE were global, and indeed UNCLE itself was to be an international organisation, owing no allegiance to any one government. Here in the midst of the cold war was a spy series that had an American and a Russian agent not opposing each other but working side by side, for a larger cause that of world peace. As explained in the first season’s opening titles “UNCLE is an organisation consisting of agents of all nationalities. It’s involved in maintaining political and legal order anywhere in the world.” Early episodes also contained personal introductions from the three principles, whereby they spoke directly into the camera explaining their role in UNCLE.
This in itself is part of UNCLE’s success or appeal. The pretence of this being a real organisation, with even a disclaimer being included in the end credits. “We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement without whose assistance this programme would not be possible.” The series also owes much to the casting, the teaming of Vaughn and McCallum, the tongue in cheek humour and banter between them, just enough to give the right feel without going too far over the top and becoming stupid. You could believe in the characters, because the actors appeared to believe in their situations.
The first season of 29 black and white episodes first aired in 1964, starting with ‘The Vulcan Affair’, which in a slightly different and longer form was released as a feature film ‘To Trap a Spy’. In all, eight UNCLE films were produced by the combining of 15 episodes, and it is possibly thanks to these films the series has remained as popular as it still is, (In my case it was these films that first introduced me to the series) barely a year goes by without one or another of the films being broadcast in the UK. Only 90 of the 105 episodes were shown in the UK, as the episodes used to make the films were not sold to TV companies in countries where the films were to be on general release. Likewise the last 5 UNCLE films were not shown in the USA. American audiences were not impressed with paying at a cinema, to see an episode, which they were able to watch on television for free as had been the case with the first 3 films. Napoleon and Illya were to return in 1983 for a one off TV movie “The Fifteen Years Later Affair” but no full-scale revival followed.
A remarkable array of different products were issued in connection with this series, everything from bubble gum to wristwatches, few other shows at this time came close to the range of products issued, (Today this amount of spin off’s is commonplace). It must be remembered that although as larger a range of products appears for Star Trek (and continues to appear) most of this did not occur until the series syndication in the early seventies. Interestingly the first pairing of Shatner and Nimoy, prior to Star Trek, takes place in a first season episode The Project Strigas Affair. There were quite possibly more UNCLE products issued in America during the sixties than for almost any other TV series at the same time.
Merchandise briefing now continues: