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The curious parallel evolution of The Man from UNCLE and The Avengers

I’m starting to need a proper tag for “things I read or watched because of UNCLE” – case in point, this post involves two different examples of the genre. One is C.W. Walker’s book Investigating The Man from UNCLE, which I’m still reading now. Though it inevitably covers a lot of the same territory as John Heitland’s book on UNCLE’s history (and, admittedly, in somewhat less casually accessible fashion), it also adds a real wealth of new background detail and insight to the subject. I’m sure I’ll get around to writing up a proper review once I’m done – but for now, here’s a few specific details that caught my eye.

One of the more curious items of trivia from Heitland’s notes was the information that, early in development, there was at one point to be a supporting character variously named “Mary Smith” or “Doris Franklyn”: an out-of-work actress who would assist Napoleon during his adventures. Walker, happily, provides rather more detail about what her role was to be – making it clear that she was actually supposed to function as Napoleon’s partner in Norman Felton’s early drafts.

Even at this early stage, Solo would be a loner in name only. Described as Solo’s “confidant,” Mary Smith is a talented, if struggling, actress who also happens to be multilingual and something of a chameleon. She is ready to hop a plane to anywhere in the world to assume any number of identities as needed, though these masquerades “will always be in the realm of believably.” The synopsis indicates that Mary Smith may experience some conflict between advancing her career and assisting Solo, but inevitably she will join him because there is a “bond” between them.

What stands out about this concept – a professional male spy paired with a skilled female amateur – is that Felton seems to have unwittingly hit upon the formula behind another 60’s spy show, which was already airing on British TV: The Avengers (not to be confused with Marvel’s Avengers, with which it shares nothing but the name, and the paradoxical lack of interest in revenge as a motivator behind most of its adventures). For those unfamiliar, The Avengers followed the adventures of a professional spy by the name of John Steed, and his various non-professional partners – the most significant of whom were women. Exactly what agency Steed works for is never specified, nor (as far as I can uncover) why he relies so much on regular amateur helpers, most of whom have no connection to his current case, but it draws on so many of the same tropes as UNCLE that there’s plenty of basis for comparison between the two.

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