When I was a kid, whenever I would turn on the TV and see that spinning logo of ITC, with its familiar tune ("ba da ba da, baaaa!"), I became excited. The ITC logo heralded something cool on the syndicated airwaves. The Saint, perhaps, or Space: 1999. Or The Muppet Show.
Little did I know at that time just how many memorable shows ITC was responsible for. ITC (or the International Television Corporation) was a powerhouse British production company run by Sir Lew Grade. Even a partial list of their programs, produced over a 25 year span starting in 1955, is truly incredible. Besides the above-three shows, ITC also brought to our screens Danger Man (or Secret Agent, as it was known in the States), The Prisoner, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, UFO, The Champions, Department S, Jason King, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), The Persuaders, The Baron, Sapphire and Steel, Gideon’s Way, Hammer House of Horror and even the miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. This is by no means a complete list.
A number of the above shows have become icons of cult TV, and are still famous today. Less well-known, but easily ranking with the absolute cream of the ITC crop, is Man In A Suitcase.
Like many other ITC shows designed to appeal to the U.S. market, Man In A Suitcase (MIAS) featured an American actor in the main role. Texas-born Richard Bradford played McGill (no first name given), a tall, tightly-coiled ball of barely suppressed fury who stands out a mile in the more genteel surroundings of swinging 60s London. Kicked out of the CIA and (falsely) branded a traitor, McGill rents out his finely-honed skills for the best price available, taking on all manner of assignments, from bodyguard duty to hostage negotiation to more standard private investigation work.
Despite his seedy reputation and surly manner, McGill actually has a strong code of honor. He won’t work for just anyone, but when he does take a job, he sees it through to the (frequently messy) end. And he’s not above changing sides if his client turns out to be a lying, cheating scumbag. He’s really a highly moral character, clinging to his tarnished dignity in a dishonorable profession. And woe betide those who cross him...
The series only ran for 30 episodes (not unusual for an ITC show), and nearly every one of them is gold. "The Sitting Pigeon," (episode 2, originally aired Oct. 4, 1967) is a typical MIAS episode, and amply demonstrates the series’ qualities.
McGill is strong-armed by Scotland Yard Inspector Franklin (James Grout) to protect Rufus Blake (George Sewell), the youngest brother of a crime syndicate family (reminiscent of the Kray brothers, a notorious real-life gangster family). Rufus talks big but is actually a weak-willed, useless member of the gang. He’s agreed to give evidence against his older brothers at their trial, hoping to get at their money while they rot in prison. Blake has refused police protection, which is where McGill comes in. He has to keep Blake alive for 24 hours until the trial, despite the best efforts of the brothers’ crooked defense lawyer, Rudyard (Robin Bailey), who has his thugs combing the streets to find Blake and make sure he doesn’t make it to court.
McGill takes an immediate dislike to the boorish Rufus, and is incensed at being essentially blackmailed by the police into taking on the case.
McGill: No! I told you before. It’s not my kind of work.
Sergeant: It’s well paid.
McGill: Yeah? And where’s the money come from? Protection, rackets, people getting razored...
Sergeant: Just think of these people as taxpayers and yourself as a public servant.
McGill: No! Get your own public servant. You saw what he’s like. He’s just a...cheap, gutless...pigeon.
But, as usual, once McGill agrees to deliver Rufus safely into their hands, he’ll do whatever it takes to come through on his promise...even if it means bitch-slapping the uncooperative Rufus into following his advice.
Used to living the easy life of daily massages, posh hotel lunches and spending pots of cash wherever and whenever he sees fit, Rufus is not amused by McGill’s plan to lay low and avoid his usual hangouts. You’d think, after nearly being killed several times after ignoring McGill’s advice, he’d eventually tow the line, but no, he remains a pain in the neck to the end.
In the finale, McGill and his pigeon are holed up in an arboretum overnight. But Rudyard has spies everywhere (including a park hot dog vendor), and the hitman from up north is soon roaming the grounds. Rufus can’t resist lighting up a cigarette, alerting the hitman to his presence. As Rufus grovels and squeals for mercy, McGill clocks him and covers him with a coat to keep him hidden. But doofus Rufus wakes up, thrashes around and starts mewling for his big brothers. The hitman prepares to shoot, but McGill gets there first and takes him out with a vicious pounding.
Rufus scrambles for the hitman’s gun and points it at McGill, shouting, "Nobody lays hands on me. My brothers’ll kill you. I’ll kill you!!" McGill moves menacingly towards him, and Rufus cowers, lowering the pistol. McGill rips the gun from Rufus’ hand and shoves him towards the door. "Gutless punk!!" .
Next morning, Inspector Franklin sidles up to McGill outside the courthouse. The Blake brothers have been sent up for life, but it’s clear that old Rufus ain’t long for this world.
McGill: About how far you think he’ll get?
Franklin: Geneva. We can deliver him as far as that.
McGill: He’ll probably clean the bank out there and last 10 minutes.
Franklin: Save the British taxpayers a few bob in legal fees.
Besides boasting witty scripts, plenty of action and more complex themes than the average ITC adventure show, MIAS is raised into the upper tier on Bradford’s magnetic performance as McGill. Bradford strides, slouches and snarls his way through each story like a panther. World-weary, cynical, yet bristling with righteous anger -- he’s riveting to watch. A Method trained actor who worked with Marlon Brando, Bradford throws himself into the part. When he gets beat up, he makes sure we see the fallout: bruises, fat lips, moving slow with the pain. When he fights, he’s savage. (I wonder how many stunt guys he roughed up during filming.)
Bradford is surrounded by a slew of well-known British character actors, such as Robin Bailey (Charters of Charters and Caldicott, here smoothly evil) and James Grout (young and thin here, years before playing Chief Superintendent Strange on Morse). The juxtaposition of this big, fierce Yank with his more genteel English counterparts gives the show a really fun dynamic.
If you like your spy/adventure shows on the grittier, morally murky side, but still peppered with rough action, then I can’t recommend Man In A Suitcase highly enough.
For more on Man In A Suitcase, check out Sharman Towers cool website dedicated to the show here.
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