Railways on TV: The Adriatic Express Affair (The Man from Uncle)

This series of posts on railways and railway journeys on cult TV shows kicks off with this second-series episode of The Man from UNCLE. And the show itself starts off in great UNCLE style with the men using communicators hidden inside guide books. If they survive they are no doubt in someone’s collection nowadays. I also love the way it starts with Solo ogling a pretty girl.
I find it interesting the way you could actually miss the railway journey in this show if you tried to – the journey is mostly a foil to the colourful plot and larger than life characters. I hadn’t thought about it until watching this show for the umpteenth time this afternoon, but I hadn’t thought about what genres The Man from UNCLE could reference, by which I mean that it obviously isn’t just a straight spy show and while the third series has the reputation for camping it up in competition with Batman (imagine even trying…) this episode of this series is certainly not completely dead pan. Elements of camp abound throughout this – whoever put out a raging fire with a soda siphon? – but it also has elements of…I want to say slapstick or the circus. I’m thinking particularly about the man with a false beard in the station: if you try to place obviously false beards in context it usually means an obvious fake spy, and usually that beard is going to be twanged on his chin, which is what makes me think of the more humorous elements. I may be taking this too far, however.
I find the character of Madame fascinating. I really cannot tell whether the old lady act is intended to be deliberately put on so that people will underestimate her. Certainly she acts as if she is very elderly indeed while still managing to keep tabs on a beauty empire as a day job and be a THRUSH agent as well. I would put her age as being in her sixties (although I am notoriously a bad judge of this) yet she herself states that she doesn’t sleep at all. She is another of these characters in The Man from UNCLE who are overdone just enough to be completely unreal. I find particularly interesting that Madame’s main beauty advice is to stay out of the sunlight – this is surprisingly modern and at the time you would expect any beauty kitten to spend quite a lot of time and effort getting the kind of deep tan considered attractive at the time, and leading to malignant melanoma in later life.
The technology is also overdone enough not to hold water when under consideration (please don’t think that this is a criticism) . The spikes in the sausage stall are wonderfully ridiculous – there is no conceivable way any death caused by that could be accidental and the particular incident at the station would in reality stop the train departing. The plot of a culture which can effectively end everything is right up there with the later series of The Avengers. Those who know me will know that this is probably the highest praise I personally can ever give to a TV show!
The train (just in case anyone thought I would never get round to mentioning it) is used to provide the kind of closed environment in which an investigation and action can be carried out. This is hardly a whodunit though, as I think it is very clear from very near the beginning who is on the THRUSH side. Apart from anything else, Madame is very obviously the stock femme fatale of the spy genre. Once again this is not a criticism – it is a statement of fact and I would definitely put this show in the category of ones you must sit back and enjoy the atmosphere for a bit, rather than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. This show does borrow a major trope from the spy genre, which I will take it upon myself to describe as the struggle in/outside of a train, a staple of so many films of the 1960s. If I have a criticism of this show it is that the train is slightly too obviously a set. Although when I come to think of it I think that I may be seeing it like that because I am returning to UNCLE after a little while of not watching it. I am also coming straight from the uncompromising realism of The Sweeney and the contrast makes it slightly too obvious where the stock footage of a steam train is used.
In fact I realise that I have actually forgotten how much of a parody The Man from UNCLE is. I do love the way Solo invites Madame to join UNCLE, and the revelation that she was the originator of THRUSH. And even better I love the way Madame presents herself as an UNCLE agent to the young girl. There are so many shades of The Avengers in this show, especially in Madame’s pursuit of endless youth which becomes a quest to end the world when she can’t get what she wants, that it is impossible to enumerate them all.
My absolutely favourite scene is the one where Solo is so rude about the way Madame applies makeup, indicating that she should have her eyes tested.
I am actually finding it quite difficult to criticise this show if you are looking for an entertainment rather than a straight spy mystery or whodunit. It moves at exactly the right pace to maintain interest, and – at least to my mind – has none of the feeling you can sometimes get about 1960s TV that it is moving at a snail’s pace. It is rather obviously completely shot in the studio, but that was the state of the art at the time and I would be being slightly unreasonable to expect it any other way. Visually it relies on what I think of as the classic Man from UNCLE palette of lots of greys with hints of yellow green and blue. I have only just realised that these aren’t completely divorced from what we in Britain would call Festival of Britain colours. Naturally this is merely an observation, although I feel that this show would have been read very differently in Britain than in the US at the time. I mean that it doesn’t look like one of the later ‘unreal’ series of the 1960s. At this point I am wondering aloud more than anything else, and wouldn’t like to pursue this too far.
All in all, superb comfort TV to the background of the comforting rattle of the train on the tracks. It doesn’t bear too close examination if you are expecting it to be too much of an exact spy piece. And just one criticism – I’m no expert but when was prune juice ever drunk in high society?
Image credit: http://stendek.tumblr.com/post/114096851919/man-from-uncle-adriatic-express-affair-eve-madame