Thursday, August 16, 2007

British mogul set tone for 1960s cult television

Patrick McGoohan in "The Prisoner."
The copy on the book’s back cover says, “Think of any cult/fantasy television show of the 1960s or ’70s and the chances are that they were created by ITC ...”

That may be a bit of an overstatement, but just a bit.

The book in question is Robert Sellers’ “Cult TV: The Golden Age of ITC.” It’s an anecdote-filled history of one of the world’s most successful TV production companies, the Incorporated Television Company, better known simply as ITC.

Yet even if you’ve never heard of ITC, you’ve almost certainly heard of its shows, especially if you’re showing a little gray around the temples.

From the mid-1950s until its last gasp in the early ’80s, ITC produced cult classics like “Danger Man” (known in the U.S. as “Secret Agent”), “The Saint,” “Thunderbirds,” “The Prisoner,” “Space: 1999” and “The Muppet Show.”

Now it’s all coming back to you, isn’t it?

The prime mover behind ITC was its founder and chairman, Lew Grade.

A Jewish immigrant who grew up in London’s East End, Lew Grade rose to become Britain’s foremost media mogul. With his trademark cigars and uncanny deal-making abilities, Grade was a throwback to studio heads of Hollywood’s Golden Age — Britain’s answer to Louis B. Mayer (MGM) and Jack Warner (Warner Bros.).

When Britain ended the BBC’s broadcast monopoly in 1954, Grade’s ITC began producing programs for the new commercial network, Independent Television, or ITV. But Grade had larger ambitions. He wanted to make shows he could sell worldwide, and especially in the lucrative U.S. market.

So, ITC shot all of its programs on film rather than video to better compete with its slick American competition. Grade also wasn’t shy about hiring American actors.

Not everyone in Britain was happy with Grade’s approach. Some complained that ITC was making shows for Birmingham, Ala., instead of Birmingham, England. But they couldn’t dispute ITC’s success.

“Danger Man,” starring Patrick McGoohan as spy John Drake, became an international sensation. And McGoohan became such an important part of ITC that Grade couldn’t say no when McGoohan later proposed a series called “The Prisoner.”

Running only 17 episodes, “The Prisoner” is ITC’s most enduring program. McGoohan plays a former spy known only as Number Six. He is held captive in a dystopian community called The Village, where interrogators attempt to pry his secrets from him.

While superficially just another adventure show, “The Prisoner” is, at heart, a libertarian allegory pitting the individual against society, culminating in a surreal final episode that academics and fans alike are still trying to decode 40 years after it originally aired.

While ITC’s other shows didn’t attempt to reach “The Prisoner’s” artistic heights, most never failed to entertain. After “Danger Man,” “The Saint,” starring a young Roger Moore, was ITC’s signature hit. Moore followed up with “The Persuaders,” co-staring Tony Curtis, whom Grade personally persuaded to leap from movies to television.

But perhaps Grade’s most cherished accomplishment was “The Muppet Show.” When no American producer would back Jim Henson and his friends Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, Grade stepped in. And the world is a better place because of it.

Eventually, Grade shifted his focus to movies, leading both to hits like “On Golden Pond” and flops like “Raise the Titanic.” ITC’s last TV show aired in 1981. But its legacy remains. ITC programs still air on British television, and many of ITC’s best are available on DVD in the U.S.

Not bad for an immigrant boy who grew up in the bad part of town.

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