This week, the latest spy-fi blockbuster, Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E, hit cinemas worldwide. Most are aware that it’s based on an old TV series, but few can actually remember it. If you want to get yourself up to speed, read on..
The Man from U.N.C.L.E was an American TV series that enjoyed popularity in the sixties on NBC. It starred Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo, a secret agent working for the international counter espionage and law-enforcement agency, ‘U.N.C.L.E’, an acronym for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Controversially, Napoleon Solo defies traditional Cold War relations and teams up with a Soviet spy called Illya Kuryakin. Together they work to infiltrate the higher evil forces that threaten both the East and West, otherwise known as the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity, or, er, THRUSH for short.
The show ran for four seasons, starting out in black and white in 1964, before switching to colour for series two onwards. With the glossy new colour scheme came a boost in popularity and a more jovial tone.
Episodes would traditionally feature an innocent character getting sucked into the world of espionage, with Solo and Kuryakin working together with other key members of the U.N.C.L.E team to save said character and keep the global THRUSH threat at bay. Every episode was called ‘The ___ Affair’ except, for some reason, in season two when they had a two-part episode called ‘Alexander the Greater Affair ‘, which briefly deviated from the traditional titling system.
The geeks among us will appreciate that The Man from U.N.C.L.E marked the first time William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy appeared together on screen (series one, episode nine ‘The Project Strigas Affair’), a full two years before Star Trek began.
Unfortunately, the show fell on hard times in season three, after ratings plummeted due to the farcical, slapstick approach employed by producers to rival the popularity of ABC’s Batman. Though it returned to more serious storytelling and was renewed for a fourth series, it never managed to recover its viewing figures and was cancelled halfway through season four.
The show spawned a brief spin-off series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E, in 1966, but failed to gather enough of an audience to last more than one season. There were, however, eight successful feature length films – basically elongated episodes with added sex and violence – which were released in movie theatres alongside the series.
And now it’s time for Guy Ritchie to pick up the baton and have a go at reviving the East / West dream team. With greater focus on the Solo / Kuryakin rivalry, a female villain in the form of Elizabeth Debicki, and a total indulgence in 1960s glamour, anticipation about the reception of the film is running high. As we go to press, reviews have been mixed!