My parents were strict gatekeepers of the family television. My wife and I once compared lists of shows that were taboo to us, and she was amused at how libertine her list seemed in contrast to mine. But then she was the youngest child in her family, and I was the oldest in mine. When it came to deciding what I could watch (in contrast to my younger siblings), my parents worked with the conviction that although a child could demonstrably be exposed to too much TV, authorities had yet to ascertain such a phenomenon as too little.
As I grew from late adolescence to early adulthood, my mother vocally worried I might indeed constitute just such a case. I bought enormous compilations of TV theme songs and played the records from beginning to end while I organized my growing collection of comic books. I scrounged through flea markets and garage sales for novelizations of TV series I’d been denied. Many of these were Irwin Allen productions — Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Lost In Space, Land Of The Giants — but the crown jewel, the Holy Grail of TV series I’d never seen but nursed an obsession for was The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
As with any good obsession, the less you know about it, the more feverish the speculation. The truth was none of my friends in school knew anything about The Man From U.N.C.L.E., either. Some had older siblings who remembered the show, but it had gone in and out of vogue with an astonishing totality before I and my cronies became sentient, and it was seemingly unfit for the sort of after-school/weekend syndication that Irwin Allen’s shows received. The only exposure I had to it was deep in my grandparents’ basement, where they kept an enormous box of my uncle’s comic books.
Most of these were Scrooge McDuck adventures (I still believe Carl Barks possessed a genius for story-telling and sequential artistry greater than Stan Lee or Lee Kirby, and was capable of a nuance that might have rivaled the legendary Will Eisner if Barks had only explored the space outside the framed panel), but my uncle also had an enormous stash of MAD Magazines and a decent cross-section of Nick Fury adventures and some Archie comics. On the inside cover of one of these Archie books was a picture of a turtleneck-clad David McCallum holding the freakiest looking gun I’d ever seen, and advertising a life-size poster of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The cool menace of that one picture was all it took to cook my brain. I imagined a spectacularly violent series; something like Get Smart, with gravitas (I hadn’t yet seen James Bond). Gadgets, guns, cars, dark stove-pipe suits and beautiful women, whirling in a kaleidoscopic carnival adventure. Over the years I saw several publicity photos with that peculiarly 60s “hi-tech” look: Robert Vaughn (what’s this? looks like McCallum’s the second banana), glowering, slouch-shouldered behind a plate of glass with a sequence of bullet-holes punched into it; Vaughn and McCallum firing their weapons on the run, or talking into their fountain pens; a nifty-looking car that ostensibly fired missiles from its gull-wing doors. So long as I never saw an episode, the show’s cache of potential was allowed to grow exponentially in my imagination.
This stew of feverish imaginings came to mind when I recently encountered (and bought) The Incredible World Of Spy-Fi: Wild & Crazy Spy Gadgets, Props, And Artifacts From TV And The Movies by Danny Biederman. It seems Biederman has amassed quite a collection of props and memorabilia, which he takes on the road and displays in museums devoted to either espionage or entertainment. The pictures are good, the props legitimate cause for giddiness for freaks like Biederman (or me). And like most books Chronicle publishes, the price is in line with the subject matter: if you want a coffee-table book that does justice to the Sistine Chapel, you can expect to pay a few bills; a coffee-table book that does justice to the likes of Napoleon Solo and Maxwell Smart shouldn’t be more than $30 (and isn’t).
The book loses some of its gloss, however, once you start reading Biederman’s text. He is a collector, after all, and the tendency for collectors is to talk too much. The fiction-writer’s dictum of “show, don’t tell” applies doubly to obsessive collectors, and no-one has embodied that principle to better effect than Chip Kidd, in his exemplary Batman Collected. Kidd’s book is over 100 pages longer than Biederman’s, and has no lack of text, but Kidd (being a book designer) puts the emphasis on illustration, and shows in his delirious way why he’s so loony about things Batman. It’s also worth pointing out that Kidd doesn’t just raid his own pantry for material, but relies on the collections of others to add some truly bizarre heft to his homage. Plus, right from the opening page Kidd demonstrates a sense of humor about the absurdity of it all, sweetening the invitation for prospective readers.
As for my own U.N.C.L.E. obsession, it came to an end with the advent of the VCR. I taped a few late-night episodes at a cable-subscribing friend’s place, then witnessed for myself the wide disparity between what I hoped the show would be, and what in fact it was: a light romp, occasionally infused with cleverness – typical 60s television, in other words. Damn...
Still, these gadgets continue to hold their appeal, and I’m not by nature a gadget guy. I dislike cell-phones, haven’t purchased an iPod, and couldn’t be bothered with a Palm Pilot or Blackberry. But a phony pack of cigarettes, with a radio-dial? Va-va-voom! Which makes me think the inescapable deeper yearning is not for previously verboten TV shows, but that quiet corner in my grandparents’ basement, where I could discover clues to an exotic world that lay somewhere beyond the limits of our small town, but not my imagination.
Biederman's site is here. You can buy a lifelike replica of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. gun, here. There are a number of sites devoted to U.N.C.L.E. — a good place to start is here. And I probably read half the ACE paperbacks before I finally saw an episode of the show; they were mostly disappointing, but The Cross Of Gold Affair was indeed quite violent, and put together several weirdly disparate elements (a hippie chick falls for Solo), sustaining my hopeful expectations of the show.