Monday, July 20, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Media: Counterspy (1958)

I well remember when the first edition of Tim Brooks’s and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows appeared in 1979, opening up new vistas for those of us interested in television history. But of course, not all shows were in prime time, and not all were on networks; until Alex McNeil’s Total Television came out in 1985, I had no idea just how many syndicated and odd time-slot series there were, right from the beginning. In 1990, Lee Goldberg’s researches into unsold television pilots first manifested as a volume from the predictable publisher for such material, McFarland (and has continued to appear in various permutations since). But as far as I can make out, even Goldberg has never heard of the unsold 1958 pilot, Counterspy, which had it landed would likely have been another series on the syndication market. It doesn’t have the feel of a network property.

It’s there at the IMDB, though, and now it’s up on YouTube. The Counterspy pilot was the latest (and I believe last) manifestation of a property that had, in the familiar manner of the era, already bounced between radio and feature films. Counterspy (aka David Harding, Counterspy), created by Phillips H. Lord (1902-1975), began its life on the radio early during America’s participation in World War II, in May 1942, and continued airing until 1957, although it is not clear to me if there were any new original episodes past 1953. Plenty of detail about the show and its creator can be found here:

The David Harding - Counterspy Radio Program

Counterspy came to the movies in 1950 with two low-budget features starring Howard St. John, David Harding, Counterspy and Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard; the second is reputed to be better than the first.

Arriving on television (although not for long), Counterspy followed the Dragnet semi-documentary template of familiarizing the audience with the procedures of a protective institution. The stories are said to be “based on actual facts taken from documented records of Intelligence Operations Unit C, your United States Counterspies!” – I think that’s just boilerplate language, I doubt there was any cooperation from a real agency. There is a classic text crawl at the show’s opening:

Today, as never before, the defense frontiers of this nation have been extended to the far reaches of the globe. To preserve American security, our institutions, and way of life, is the inflexible purpose of men your counterspy unit – and it is to these selfless heroes whose constant vigilance insures the independent existence of you, the people, that this series is dedicated.

Our narrator-guide is Don Megowan, a big man who played a lot of small roles but did have an important featured part on the short-lived Cameron Mitchell syndicated series The Beachcomber. At first, though, we see more of his operative Keller, played by Brad Johnson (who was the male love interest in the syndicated Annie Oakley from 1954 to 1957). We are taken through the backstory behind the “tragic peacetime death of a Navy frogman” that is revealed in the shock opening, set on a beach in Brighton, England. A former British diver is recruited to take underwater photos of the hull of a Russian vessel that has been demonstrating unusual navigational abilities. But of course, if he is discovered in this mission, the U.K. and U.S. will officially deny knowing him.

Since the script works out rather cleverly, I think I should refrain from saying exactly how, in order not to decrease your viewing pleasure. The closing lines of the narration are nifty. I will note that I was amused to see writer Jack Anson Finke make good use of a problem that critic Danny Peary once flagged with respect, I think, to Thunderball – that underwater fight scenes are kind of a waste because the equipment worn by the combatants prevents you from telling who’s who. The underwater sequence in Counterspy was filmed, the credits tell us, at Silver Springs, Florida, and is totally Sea Hunt (also partially shot at Silver Springs).

Agent Keller gets to do some fast driving in a cool-looking roadster which I’d appreciate help identifying – sort of Jaguar XK-style? There is some second-unit or stock footage of British roads (including the predictable appearance of a double-decker bus) to preserve the illusion that we’re in the U.K. The interiors and the portside scenes were probably filmed in Southern California, so we’ve got the blending of film from three separate locations, not too badly done. The director of the half-hour was Ralph Murphy, who worked in low-budget features from 1931 to 1954, and then moved into television helming. Bernard Schubert was the hopeful producer.

Why the show wasn’t picked up, I’m not sure, but maybe the Cold War paranoia was ebbing a bit, post-McCarthy and all, so the timing wasn’t quite right.


  1. The Marsh book, however, at least in all the editions I've read, is foolish enough to include syndicated programming of at least the sort that would appear in "fringe" timeslots (as they've been known at least since the 1970s, when the FCC mandated that the networks had to let the stations have 7-8p ET/PT Monday-Saturday for their own programming...which led to a boom in syndicated gameshows, "news" magazines and high-profile off-network repeats. COUNTERSPY had been network radio, but probably did seem a bit tired by 1958, after the vogue had already passed for I LED THREE LIVES and the sort. And I think the syndie original market was a touger nut to crack in 1958 than it might've been earlier, even with (or particularly with) Ziv TV's established hits, NTA and DesiLu separately and together offering further programming, and a few series still plugging along after going syndic after DuMont and Paramount Television Network packed it in in 1955. There were half-hour holes in each commercial network's primetime schedules in those years, but only so many, and not yet so many independent commercial stations (even given the handful of exclusive ex-DuMont and PTN affiliates to make them a viable further market, as the NTA Film Network would discover in those years).

  2. Sorry, Marsh et al's volume was foolish because it included the syndie programs, but utterly ignored (and ignores, through the latest edition I've seen) all PBS and public broadcasting programming unless, like FIRING LINE and a few others over the decades, they also appeared on commercial television. Bob Newhart on the Philbrick series: