5 of the best classic TV spy shows

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Being Human creator Toby Whithouse’s new spy thriller series The Game is set to begin soon on BBC Two.

Set in the secretive world of 1970s espionage, the six-part drama stars Tom Hughes (Silk), Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy), Shaun Dooley (Misfits) and Jonathan Aris (Sherlock).

While we wait for The Game to commence, here are five of TV’s best spy shows from years gone by…


The Man from UNCLE (1964-68)

The Man from UNCLE

Few shows can be camp as a row of tents whilst being cool at the same time. NBC’s The Man from UNCLE managed this.

You had David McCallum and Hustle’s Robert Vaughn in black turtle neck sweaters exchanging witticisms and opening Channel  D. At the same time there were bad guys working for an organisation called THRUSH (really) who styled themselves on Alexander the Great or who wore Elvis jumpsuits and went by the name ‘El Supremo’.  And of course gadgets and swinging Dolly Birds.

UNCLE thrashes Mission: Impossible because it never took itself seriously and was always fun. Oh, and a certain Ian Fleming created the character of Napoleon Solo. And he knew a thing or two about spies, didn’t he?

> Buy The Man from UNCLE on DVD on Amazon.


Danger Man (1960-68)

Danger Man Patrick McGoohan

If there’s a ‘60s British spy series in this list, it’s not going to be The Avengers, which for all its greatness strayed too far over the line into fantasy and away from proper spy stuff.

Danger Man, however, boasted tightly plotted tension that made the most of its budget limitations and above all had Patrick McGoohan showing us what kind of kick-ass 007 he could have been if he hadn’t objected to Bond’s moral code.

His John Drake would show Daniel Craig’s young upstart a thing or three, without having to bed women and kill people needlessly to do his job.

> Buy the complete Danger Man boxset on Amazon.


The Sandbaggers (1978-80)

The Sandbaggers

If you’re looking for the ancestor of Spooks, then this overlooked late ‘70s ITV drama is it, with Roy Marsden as the head of the titular secret service unit that specialised in ultra-covert defections, assassinations and operations whilst fending off political interference.

The Sandbaggers, like Spooks, wasn’t afraid to kill leading characters off either.

> Buy the complete The Sandbaggers boxset on Amazon.


Smiley’s People (1982)

Smiley’s People Alec Guinness

For my dosh this is superior to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, bringing old George Smiley’s quest for Karla (the Russian spy boss played here by Patrick Stewart, no less) to a twisty, turny conclusion through an elaborate maze of defections, traps, blackmail and family secrets on an international scale, with a wonderful theme tune.

Oh, and for me, it’s also the moment Alec Guinness ceased to be ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ (I’m sure he would have been pleased to learn).

> Buy Smiley’s People on DVD on Amazon.


Callan (1967-72)

Callan Edward Woodward

Edward ‘Ewar Woowar’ Woodward later sent this role up in the ludicrous The Equalizer, but at the time Callan was one of the starkest and bleakest meditations on the isolation being a spy can bring.

David Callan’s a killer – of that there is no doubt, but his conscience is stronger than his loyalty to the superiors and colleagues always quite happy to shaft him.

Woodward is uniformly excellent, as is Russell Hunter as the closest thing Callan has to a best friend, petty criminal Lonely. The utterly great 1972 movie version is also worth seeking out.

> Buy the Callan Definitive Collection boxset on Amazon.


What’s your favourite classic TV spy show? Let us know below…