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Mid-January 2015

Cry U.N.C.L.E.


Some things I don’t plan; they just happen. One thing leads to another which leads to another, and before I know it, I am in the midst of a situation.


Early last summer, I was informed by a friend in the United Kingdom that the kingdom may be far less united after the Scottish Referendum in September. I had grave doubts that the Scots would really make the break. I opined that the Scots enjoy a good fight but would likely not vote overwhelmingly for separation from England. After the referendum was indeed defeated, this foreign correspondent quipped that it would be a wonder, after all of the fuss and finances, if England did not vote to separate from Scotland! Regarding this one issue, the voter participation reached almost ninety percent, something unheard of in America.


Just prior to the historic vote concerning the fate of the fierce Scots, I happened upon a video interview with David McCallum. Being such a tv-phobe, I only recognized the still-charming, still-boyishly handsome Mr. McCallum as Illya Kuryakin. I listened to his impeccable dissection of the situation, particularly to his enunciations of “there is the ideal and then there are the consequences.” And then I learned that David had found a new role as Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on a television show entitled NCIS.


I had heard of NCIS but presumed it was a derivative of CSI, another television show that I ignore. I asked Dear Husband to research this show and, not to my surprise, it has been on the air for 12 seasons! Oh well, I’ve been busy!

The television show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, was a big hit during my childhood although I saw only a few shows here and there. I was too young to realize that the Women of the U.N.C.L.E. Universe (which included THRUSH) formed such a big part of the show’s popularity. When I took a look at some YouTube video montages of the incredibly beautiful, fashionable, strong heroines and villainesses, all with “I-want-every-single-one-of-them” hairstyles, I realized that this show clearly deserved the hit status it had at the time. It has aged very well. (Judging from the price of its DVDs, it has aged marvelously!) And those hairstyles are indeed en vogue and in style!


Dear Husband and I proceeded to watch episodes from Season One which turned out to be the best: tight, amusing plots; extremely well-written, witty, provocative dialogue; and superb acting. The first season was obviously meant to be a vehicle for Napoleon Solo/Robert Vaughan.


I was always partial to Illya. It was not “Love Illya” for me but there was a certain mystique about the character created by David McCallum (a trained actor and musician from a family of classically trained and acclaimed musicians). He took a secondary role of a tag-along agent (spy) and transformed it into an enigmatic, introverted, intensely appealing, white-hot Russian.


With his Scottish-English-Russian accent, Mr. McCallum subtly but undeniably stole the show from Robert Vaughan who was quite gracious about the artistic sleight-of-hand. The success of one character only added to the success of the other. (I find it most ironic that the suave Mr. Vaughan went on to long-term success in the British dramatic series, Hustle, during the same time that Mr. McCallum was enjoying his ducky role in the United States.)

Leo G. Carroll, who was into his eighties at the time, created a spymaster who moves the pieces on the spy chessboard with such aplomb that one need only see him occasionally for full effect. These two fairly young actors must have benefited from working with the veteran British actor whom Alfred Hitchcock used in not one but SIX films!


After two seasons, this show in particular suffered dreadfully from the “Batman” influence. The POW-ZAM-WHAM-ZOWIE music began to infiltrate (infect) action scenes late in the second season. COLOR also spread spores of unseemliness. The creator, Sam Rolfe, went on to other projects after the first season, and so U.N.C.L.E. became an orphan. Initially, success has many fathers, but this success attracted far too wide an extended family! The show was going all over the place in terms of plot and creative impetus. (The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. accomplished precisely the effect that Mr. McCallum predicted: dilution of the franchise.)


I have long admired David McCallum as a quietly bold actor with an intense, compressed acting style that can exude charm as capably as displeasure, sometimes in competing amounts. Anyone who plays the role of Judas Iscariot (and with such intriguing credibility!) early in his career is a risk-taker who deserves applause. I also find quite laudable the research which this professional thespian undertakes as part of the work of portraying any character. And I would be remiss in this essay if I did not include some Illya quotes, as well as a few McCallum ones:

From “The Fiddlesticks Affair” --

Villain: "But on my honour—"

Illya: “Were you a gentleman, Mr. Rudolph, as I once was, you’d realize that no man calls upon his honour so much as he who lacks it.”


From “The Odd Man Affair” –

Napoleon: “You picked his pocket.”

Illya: “If you prefer such a bourgeois description of an act of pure presence of mind.”


Of a mysterious agent from the past: “He reputedly had a certain masochistic charm for some women.”


From “The Love Affair” –

“The cult must be a cover for THRUSH. It has that scent of blood-stained events trailing in its wake.”


From “The Bow-Wow Affair” –

“No man is free who works for a living. But I'm available.”


“First gypsy I’ve seen wearing a Paris original.”


“I always worry about people who aren’t scared when they ought to be.”


The Love Interest: “See how I read your mind?”

Illya: “What an alarming thought.”


From the man behind the actor’s mask:

“Fear, conformity, immorality: these are heavy burdens. They drain us of creative energy. And when we are drained of creative energy, we do not create. We procreate, but we do not create.”


“I think your life is governed not by the bricks or mortar around you. It's governed by who holds your hand and who spits in your eye.”


“But so far as countries are concerned, I don't go to a place to see what's there, but who is there.”


“I've never outgrown my childhood.”

I, for one, am thankful that David McCallum never outgrew his childhood. That treasured time was nonetheless fraught with fears from World War II.


Born in Glasgow in 1933, McCallum moved as a child with his family to London. Like many other children in England at the time, he and an older brother were evacuated to Scotland at the outbreak of World War II. With his mother, a former cellist, he lived in Gartocharn, one of those idyllic, picturesque villages that exalt the Scottish countryside by Loch Lomond. One can only guess at the endowments of serendipity granted by those vicissitudes of life to the imagination of this growing, impressionable, expressive child. At the age of ten, he returned with his family to London where his father, a violinist, became the conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

When, late last year, Dear Husband found online some amusing, whimsical images from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I asked him to bookmark them. I stated that I could use them for wallpaper for my laptop screen. He said, “I think these pictures could be used for an essay. I’m sure there is an U.N.C.L.E. essay in you.”


I softly groaned. “Well, there is an opening for an essay in mid-January.”

Dear Husband chuckled. “And, guess what? There is a spy-fi action comedy film coming out in August 2015: the remake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.!”


I loudly groaned. “I have to get this essay out ahead of that distortion of the real thing.”


And so I have! “They” must Cry Uncle!