Wesley Britton: Spy Television


WESLEY BRITTON is the author of the book SPY TELEVISION, a detailed overview of all the espionage series ever on primetime. As part of that overview, he devotes a lot of attention to various tie-in novels, like John Tiger’s MISSION IMPOSSIBLE novels and Burl Barer’s SAINT novelization. Britton’s overview of TV Spy Tie-Ins, Novelizing TV Spies can also be found in our Articles section.

Q: In your book, SPY TELEVISION, talk in great detail about the I SPY and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE novelizations, often relying on them for missing backstory about the characters. Usually, tie-ins aren’t taken very seriously by academics like yourself. Why do you see tie-ins differently?

I can’t speak for other “academics,” but I can say Spy Television was written for a wide audience and wasn’t intended as a scholarly piece. I certainly wanted it to appeal to fans of these shows, and fans are very knowledgeable about their favorite TV series including all the tie-in products associated with them.

In terms of the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and I SPY books, I found not only potential back-story insights into the characters, but some compare/contrast concepts allowing me to use material ignored in other sources. The fact no one had discussed them much before gave me an opportunity to draw from some of these books. I admit, some discussions intended for Spy TV had to be cut, which became the basis for my “Novelizing TV Spies” article. For example, the SECRET AGENT books didn’t really offer insights into the world of TV’s John Drake, so talking about them wouldn’t help explore the show.

Why are TV tie-ins interesting? For spy fans in the ’60s, many of us were already both readers and watchers. We had Bond novels and films, Deighton, Le Carre’, Hamilton–rows and rows of titles in stores. During that time, all related products allowed fans to connect with favorite characters in between the weekly broadcasts. Before video and DVD, all we had were the board games, toys, and stories. I also think fans liked series with ongoing characters, whether 007 or Matt Helm. Having heroes both on TV in books extended the connection.

I’d add, after the series were no longer on the air, tie-in books were all many of us had to remember our youthful passions. Unlike records, we couldn’t play the songs over and over. I also think these books created what became the vogue for fanzines and the explosion of new stories on the internet and privately published. People are still writing stories about Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. They’re the heirs to the sanctioned novels. Which leads to folks wondering what is “canon” and what isn’t–does THRUSH stand for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjection of Humanity? Or not? If so, you’re drawing from popular novels that are extensions of and not exploitation of TV shows.

Q: You seem to hold the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and THE SAINT movie novelizations in high regard. What made them stand out for you?

I think the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE novelists had a rather straightforward task–to build a clever plot based on the show’s format. That’s why I quoted John Tiger’s (aka Walter Wager’s) explanation of these missions, clearly laying out the structure of the stories. Because of the show’s format, these writers didn’t have to try to work on character development, although the back-stories in the first book were interesting as they seemed to draw from what Bruce Geller (creator of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE) was trying to do.

I liked Burl Barer’s THE SAINT novelization as I thought it was written very well. It was based on a good film with a good script and Barer added depth to many of the situations. For example, I thought the first chapters were quite memorable. I’m attributing this to both good writing and Barer’s knowledge of the character. I doubt anyone knows more than he does on the subject. I wish he’d be given license to write more.

Q: In your opinion, do original novels (as opposed to novelizations) based on TV shows stand alone in a “separate reality,” so-to-speak, or do you seem them as extensions of the TV shows themselves?

Depends on the show. Like I said before, I think the MAN FROM UNCLE novels are seen as extensions of the shows as the novels, for the most part, retained the flavor and spirit of the series. You could make a case they were better than the broadcast scripts we got in the 3rd season. I think the SECRET AGENT books were more the alternate reality thing, although I doubt intentionally. If memory serves, two were badly written and one was just a rewrite of a TV episode. Mostly, I think tie-in novels are most interesting if we think of them as adventures not filmed.

Q: What qualities separate good tie-in or novelization from a bad one? Is it just the writing itself, or something more? How important is it for the author to add background or details not found in the TV show or movie?

Again, depends on the series. I really enjoyed Patrick Macnee adding in details about Mrs. Peel’s back-story–ideas we could accept as canon as who could be a more credible source? I wasn’t so sure about, I think John Danforth, adding in his own supporting characters. I think he had an assistant to Steed called George Washington, a black agent. I think this strayed a bit from the show, but, what the heck. I liked the 3rd AVENGERS book where Emma Peel became a pop star. I don’t know if Diana Rigg could have pulled that off.

I do think the better books were written well enough for what they were trying to do. So long as they kept close to the characters we knew, we were happy. I think I Spy fans were unhappy as things in the books were far afield of what happened in the show, at least in terms of the agency Kelly and Scott worked for and the boss in the books but not in the show. So such things could be distracting. Most important, the characters had to talk and act like themselves in interesting adventures.

Q: What is the best tie-in you’ve ever read and why? What’s the best novelization and why?

Ouch. I confess a fondness for the first 10 MAN FROM UNCLE books as a group. Most of the later ones I didn’t know about until years later. I thought No. 12, “The Rainbow Affair,” was a lot of fun for all the inside jokes David McDaniel was known for. I remember finally getting a copy of his unpublished “The Final Affair,” what would have been the 24th and last MAN FROM UNCLE story. This was one unusual case where the story looked at what might have happened after the series was over.

Best novelization? I confess liking Raymond Benson’s versions of Bond movies. I think they were better than his own stories and he added material not in the films. I liked John Gardner’s GOLDENEYE, again, better than his own novels.

Q: Why do you think tie-ins and novelizations get so little respect? Or are they getting, by and large, what they deserve?

Respect? Well, if you mean from a literary stand-point, they fall into the thriller category which doesn’t earn much academic respect as a genre. They tend to be fast-paced adventures with no intent to be more than what they are. I think what many of the novels have is perhaps better than respect–affection. If you liked THE PRISONER (which might be the exception to a few things I said before), you’re likely to treasure a few of these books. I guess I’d add the graphic novels and comics that came later with new stories, again, notably the DC’s THE PRISONER. If you care about the characters, you’re interested in what happened to them. Oh–can’t believe I forgot the Avengers novel, Too Many Targets which had all five original cast members. I’ll pick that one as my favorite.

Q: You wrote: According to one source, if film director Quentin Tarantino had his way, the second U.N.C.L.E. novel, “The Doomsday Affair” by Harry Whittington, would be his source for any MAN FROM UNCLE movie he’d like to do. What was Whittington doing that the TV show wasn’t? What made his book stand apart? Can you think of other instances where the tie-ins were better than the TV show?

Well, I don’t want to speak for QT. This quote was much discussed on a MAN FROM UNCLE list a few years back, and I think the overall thought was, hey, great, QT is a fan. But his judgement? One of his favorite spy films of the 1960s was KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE, but folks who’ve seen it can’t see what QT does. I do know a MAN FROM UNCLE movie is now in the pipeline, and Tarentino isn’t on the short list for directors.

I do recall QT saying filmmakers should look to tie-in novels as many were simply good stories. “The Doomsday Affair,” in particular, was one of the darker novels which made it perhaps more plausible and gritty than others. I liked it.

I think, especially in the MAN FROM UNCLE and Avengers books, some of the stories did what couldn’t be done within the constraints of TV budgets. I think the 3red MAN FROM UNCLE novel, “The Copanhagen Affair,” dealt with UFOs in a more interesting way than the “Take Me to Your Leader Affair” with that dumb plastic spaceship. I thought the GET SMART novels were surprisingly entertaining, considering the writer had to have an extensive plot beyond the 30 minute TV constraint.

Q: It looks like you’ve been a fan of tie-ins for some time.why? What attracts you to them? What are you looking for that you can’t find just by watching the TV shows or movies?

Well, in my youth, I got very excited when I went to the bookstore and found new titles to read. I remember seeing MAN FROM UNCLE number two and going “Wow, there’s going to be more of them.” It added to the sense of looking forward to new stories to read in between the eps or during summer reruns. I’m a reader anyway, so it’s always been fun to mix “guilty pleasures” in between studying Mark Twain and Hawthorne. I liked the idea of knowing the characters better and hoping what I read gave me insights into what I watched. Mostly–it was simple fun. Most of those books you could knock out in an afternoon’s read. Unlike literary creations, you could see the characters very exactly, knew the milieu in which they worked, so could jump into the story without much preparation.

I guess I’d be curious to know if anyone ever read one of the novels and then decided to check out the show. Perhaps this is one reason for any lack of “respect”–few really stand alone on their own merits. You see the cover, see Robert Conrad on the cover, so know what to expect.

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