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The Man from Uncle

Warning: Do not read this if you have a morbid fear of acronyms

We live in times where it doesn’t take too much in the way of paranoid tendencies to view the world we know as a vast cauldron of bubbling stew – a stew filled with malevolent, dangerous and often secret ingredients throwing up a miasma of smoke and reflecting the world through a series of funhouse mirrors, behind which lurk all manner of nefarious and faceless bureaucrats constantly on the prowl, configuring secret plots and recruiting plotters. Like the Trojans, worms and viruses in the virtual world, they lie in wait to strike the unsuspecting. They hide behind the ‘newspeak’ and abbreviations of their secret organisations, societies, government departments, organised criminal gangs and affect us in unknown and unknowing ways. A nasty world indeed.

But spare a thought for those denizens of the secret world of 1960s spy films that mushroomed in the wake of the successes of the first three Bond films. The secret agent/spy film rolled into movie houses like a cinematic tsunami. A world of heroes and villains, plotters and conspirators, villains and arch-villains, goodies and baddies, double agents and triple agents, moles and sleepers. And that’s mostly the men. Female agents and fellow travellers come in an equal number of types – though their form (in all senses of the word) is a somewhat more stabilised (heterosexual) convention. One proof of that pudding is the always anticipated photographic essays that would appear in the rightly named ‘Playboy spread’ featuring fetching images of the ‘Girls of Bond’ with the release of each new film. Rosa Klebb, of course – played by the iconic cabaret artiste and wife of Kurt Weill Lotte Lenya – excepted. Worth noting, but a separate article in itself, is the none-too-subtle practice of the ‘good agent’ converting the misguided female (misguided as to political, cultural, consumerist or sexual proclivities) back to hetero or capitalist normativity through assault, conscience, example or just plain old penis power.

Male villains, on the other hand, are very often ‘othered’ by being depicted as older, disfigured in some physical way or just plain repugnant. Fanatical and megalomaniacal, they are doubly disfigured in mental ways as well. But they make for great baddies, and they and their secret organisations are the focus of this piece. Now while these films depict some ‘good’ government agencies protecting our vested interests, which often have true-life counterparts such as the CIA, FBI, MI5 and 6, KGB, MOSSAD and INTERPOL, there is an equal number of counter-agencies dead set on destroying ‘us’ or controlling ‘us’. They will stop at nothing to de-stabilise and subvert the hegemonic society. Or to simply control access to our earthly pursuits and desires, be it sex, space, mind, food or drugs.

The secret agent/spy/super-criminal narrative in these films may take many forms: the extravagant cinema of excess as in Goldfinger and the Bond franchise – enemies are S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) and S.M.E.R.S.H. (a Russian acronym that means ‘Death to Spies’) – or the more downbeat mundane world of the government agent as portrayed in the films of the Len Deighton and John Le Carré novels. Then there is the enchanted world of the low-budget, spy’sploitation film – many made in Europe – such as Operation Kid Brother (1967), starring Sean Connery’s lesser-known sibling Neil, or the quasi-serious spy films such as the Matt Helm or Derek Flint movies, or the out-and-out comedy spoof (sure sign of the end of a cycle) as in Fathom (1967) or Le Magnifique (1973). In almost all of these films, the good guy usually acts as deus ex machina in successfully thwarting the evil doings of the baddie and his acronymic organisation. And you gotta love these baddies if only for the sheer novelty of their evil societies and enthralling webs of organised crime or political machinations. But irrespective of their purposes, both sides share one secret obsession above all others: let’s call it acronymania. And the nemeses of altruistic government agencies have some of the best and most revealing. So it is that the men from U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) have their opposite in the interestingly named T.H.R.U.S.H. (never fleshed out in the television or film series but revealed in a spin-off novel as Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity). Of course, this common enemy was also shared by the short-lived The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., which starred Stephanie Powers as April Dancer.

In the television and film versions of Get Smart! Maxwell Smart of C.O.N.T.R.O.L. had to do battle with K.A.O.S. for five seasons during which, unusually, the acronyms were never revealed. The government men in Carry On Spying (1965) have to contend with agents from S.T.E.N.C.H. (Society for the Total Extinction of Non-Conforming Humans) while in the Morecombe and Wise vehicle The Intelligence Men, the enemy is from Schlecht (a German word for ‘bad’ or ‘ill’). The wondrous Derek Flint, played by 60s favourite James Coburn, works for Z.O.W.I.E. (Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage) and lasted for two outings, Our Man Flint (1967) and the lesser In like Flint (1967). The laconic – and ageing – Dean Martin played agent Matt Helm in a trilogy of films. His hands are kept busy working for I.C.E. (Intelligence Counter Espionage) and battling with Big-O (Brotherhood of International Government and Order) in The Silencers, followed by Murderer’s Row (both 1966). Helm returned to the screen in 1967’s The Ambushers and 1968’s The Wrecking Crew – while a fifth instalment, The Ravagers, although announced was never made. Could it be that Big-O triumphed?

Lesser ‘quality’ genre films had just as colourful spy rings, evil agencies, secret criminal gangs, nasty villains and femmes fatales. Tom Adams took the role of Charles Vine in three Bond pastiches: Licensed to Kill (1965), followed by Where the Bullets Fly (1966) and ending with the almost impossible to find Somebody Stole Our Russian Spy aka OK Yevtushenko (1968). Sorry, no acronyms in those, but in the name of inclusion I mention these lesser spy film obscurities. The character of Bulldog Drummond – an early prototype for James Bond – was disinterred from his pre- and immediate post-war jingoistic and chauvinistic British grave by the actor Richard Johnson (who had been considered to play Bond) in, first, Deadlier Than the Male (1966) and then Some Girls Do (1969). It is interesting to observe that all actors originally considered for the part of Bond subsequently appeared in spy films: David Niven, Trevor Howard, Cary Grant, Patrick McGoohan, Richard Todd and James Mason.

A feeble 1966 effort to cash in on the popularity of American Borscht Belt comedians Allen and Rossi was The Last of the Secret Agents, a film that co-starred Nancy Sinatra pitting the G.G.I. agents (Good Guys Institute) against the evil baddies, THEM (no further details provided but clearly not ‘us’). Although the outrageously camp Modesty Blaise (1966) is not strictly a spy film, it does involve a clandestine criminal organisation, The Network, of which Modesty (Mam’selle) is head, and apart from her Colt .32, Modesty Blaise has a secret weapon, you might say, in the form of ‘The Nailer’. Using a cunning trick of stripping off and going topless, she distracts the enemy (nails their attention) while her minions carry out her nefarious plans. Couldn’t be simpler.

Of course, many of these secret agent/secret society scripts, from Bond to Helm to Drummond, originated in literary works. Ted Mark’s satyr-like hero, Steve Victor, The Man from O.R.G.Y. (Organisation for the Rational Guidance of Youth) plied his spy trade over the course of 15 books between 1965 and 1981. Big sellers in their day, they mixed cheeky Bond-like shenanigans with one sexual escapade per chapter, brought about by our spy’s day job as a sexual sociologist and supported by academic funding, which more accurately reflects the true meaning of O.R.G.Y. to Victor: Obtaining Research Grants for Yours truly. Ted Mark’s books took advantage of the post-Tropic of Cancer publishing atmosphere of the sexually liberated 60s, and a new class of erotic spy novels emerged. Other publishers followed with the 34-book Rod ‘The Coxeman’ Damon series. Dr Damon is Head of L.S.D. (League for Sexual Dynamics) and works covertly for the super-secret Thaddeus X. Coxe Foundation. Tim O’Shane is the fictional Man from T.O.M.C.A.T. (Tactical Operations Master Counterintelligence Assault Team) and lasted for nine outings between 1967 and 1971. There was also The Lady from L.U.S.T. (League of Undercover Spies and Terrorists), whose enemy was H.A.T.E. (the Humanitarian Alliance of Total Espionage), and The Man from S.T.U.D. (Special Territories and Unique Development), who dated The Girl from W.I.L.L.N.G. (Western Integrated Long Lease Insurance Nonpayment Group). You get the idea! I leave it to readers to decode the acronyms of some other series that emerged in the light of the Cold War and spymania: The Miss from S.I.S., The Man from S.A.D.I.S.T.O., The Man from P.A.N.S.Y. and The Girl from H.A.R.D. In terms of sales though, it was The Man from O.R.G.Y. who topped the poles (no pun intended of course). Most of these acronym-led secret adventure series were optioned by the studios and were considered for film adaptations to cash in on the boom, but once again, among this lot it was Ted Mark’s man who was translated into celluloid with the 1970 release of The Man from O.R.G.Y. aka The Real Gone Girls, directed by James Hill (Born Free, Worzel Gummidge Black Beauty) with a script written by Mark himself and starring Robert Walker Jr. (Easy Rider) as Steve Victor.

So, now that the Wall is down, and the Commies brought to heel, it is reassuring to know that many of the above clandestine secret agencies have likewise passed into history and can now be revealed. As can another little known state secret: Electric S.H.E.E.P. is a secret sleeper organisation whose acronym means Electric Society for the Halting of Effusive and Excessive Praise.

This article will self-destruct in 10 seconds. Good luck, Jim.

James Evans