'Napoleon Solo changed my life': John Walsh recalls the thrill of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
From the moment two men entered a secret office in a dry-cleaners, millions were hooked on the TV show. Now shooting has begun on a remake...

John Walsh Wednesday 14 August 2013

For which roles in which forthcoming Hollywood spy film were the following actors considered: George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Alexander Skarsgård, Tom Cruise, Ewan McGregor, Robert Pattinson, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Chris Pine, Ryan Reynolds and Jon Hamm? That line-up features a hefty proportion of the coolest studio dudes in the movie universe – apart, that is, from Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. And they are the ones who were finally picked to play the leads in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Major shooting starts this month, but it's been a long gestation. Steven Soderberg was originally slated in 2011 to direct it. George Clooney was signed to play Napoleon Solo, but he pulled out due to a chronic back injury. Warner Bros set the budget at $60m – chicken-feed for a full-blown spy movie on Sixties-pastiche sets. In November 2011, Soderberg pulled out and Guy Ritchie was approached to take over, but Warners abruptly cancelled the project.

It took 16 months to get it back on track, with Ritchie in the driving seat, and Tom Cruise slated for Solo. In April, Armie Hammer agreed to play the agent Illya Kuryakin. In May, they found their leading lady, Alicia Vikander (she played Kitty to Keira Knightley's Anna Karenina) but lost Cruise, who pulled out in favour of Mission Impossible 5. You could hear the groans from studio bosses. Between 23 May and 4 June, negotiations flew. After 12 days, they had a solution: Henry Cavill, fresh from Man of Steel, would play Napoleon.

The film is now going into production. But for millions of middle-aged men and women, the title alone will give them a pang of nostalgia. Because, for a generation of British baby-boomers approaching puberty in the mid-late 1960s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was their favourite show, a teenage obsession.

It played on British TV screens in summer, 1965. Viewers watched as two men, one dark and serious-looking, one flaxen-floppy-haired and cute, entered a Manhattan dry-cleaner's. Inside, they found a cubicle together. The guy behind the counter adjusted a steam press. The cubicle moved – and the men emerged into a high-tech office, all whirring machinery, gloss and efficiency. A stenographer selected triangular badges for the men – No 2 for the flaxen-haired guy, No 11 for his sidekick. There they were – a new world of spying and secret-agent drama: an organisation called U.N.C.L.E.

U.N.C.L.E., we learned, was an acronym for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Spy organisations with acronymic brand names were popular in the wake of the James Bond films Dr No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963) both of which made reference to the global badass collective that was SPECTRE, whose initials, we learned, stood for Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.

Where SPECTRE sounded ominous and scary, U.N.C.L.E. was homely and reassuring – a kind of extension of the UN with a suggestion of kindliness and good advice. Their main enemy didn't sound too petrifying: THRUSH, later glossed as meaning the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.

We didn't, at the time, know about the involvement, in this secret-agent spoof, of the man behind James Bond: Ian Fleming, who was then the hottest property in screen-based drama. In 1964, he was publishing his 11th Bond novel, You Only Live Twice; From Russia With Love was playing to packed cinemas. So when Norman Felton, the co-creator of U.N.C.L.E., set about working on the outline of the new show, he asked Fleming to act as consultant. Among Fleming's suggestions was the name Napoleon Solo.

The show's original title was Ian Fleming's Solo. But halfway through filming Goldfinger in 1964, Fleming's producers banned Felton from using Fleming's name, or the name Solo, on the TV show. Why? Because there's a Mr Solo in Goldfinger, and they didn't want him confused with a TV figure. With a pleasing circularity, Solo is the title of the newest retro-James Bond thriller, written by William Boyd, to be published this autumn.

Robert Vaughn was cast as Napoleon Solo, a kind of James Bond-lite. Vaughn/Solo wasn't licensed to kill, he lacked 007's ruthlessness, and there were hints of smugness in his delivery. But he was debonair, suave with women and fleet with karate moves. Fans of Westerns knew him as Lee, the dandified but cowardly gunslinger of The Magnificent Seven (1960) while modern TV viewers would recognise him as Albert Stroller, the ageing con-man in Hustle.

For a month, in 2012, he was in Coronation Street, as Sylvia Goodwin's new boyfriend. The head spymaster at U.N.C.L.E., Alexander Waverly, was played with elderly gravitas by Leo G Carroll, best known as the chap in Hitchcock's North by Northwest who tells Cary Grant why everyone's trying to kill him. But the most memorable member of the cast was an unknown Scottish actor called David McCallum, around whose blond head a phenomenon erupted.

As the name of both show and hero implies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was designed as a solo vehicle for Vaughn. Illya Kuryakin was meant as an incidental role. But the chemistry between the two men, and the contrast between Soho's suave American directness and Kuryakin's Russian inscrutability, made the producers think again. From early on, the show was about, strictly speaking, The Men from U.N.C.L.E.

Every episode began with a member of the public falling victim to some criminal deed and requiring the help of Napoleon and Illya. They travelled the world, karate-chopping baddies and confronting THRUSH operatives, pausing for Solo to exercise droit de superspy on a pouting guest starlet.

Vaughn invariably got the on-screen chicks, but McCallum won the hearts of off-screen girls. Halfway through the second series, the tornado of adulation began. Fanmail poured into BBC1. Articles about the show's popularity appeared in the papers. In schools, French lessons were interrupted by girls swooning at any sentence beginning with the words, "Il y a un…" Scholars at my sister's Ursuline convent took a morning off en masse in 1967 to catch the train to Heathrow and wave at their hero on a flying visit to London.

David McCallum was 29 when the series started, and 31 at the height of its popularity – a little old to be the object of rock-star-like attention. What was the big deal? Well, the Illya Kuryakin blond-bob haircut and black polo-neck jumpers had a Beatle-like quality. The shoulder holster and fancy gunplay were pure James Bond. And McCallum talked in an exotic guttural accent, and seemed introverted and sly, a perfect boyfriend-fantasy.

Hero worship was in the air, even among schoolboys half their heroes' age. At 13, my friends Paul and Harry and I wrote to the U.N.C.L.E. fan club and asked to join the organisation. Through the post came a document confirming that we were all assigned to Section Two, "Operations and Enforcement", and should be available for active duty at 24 hours' notice.

It was heady stuff, though we wondered what we'd do if the call to "active duty" coincided with double chemistry on Thursday afternoons. My parents fruitlessly scoured toyshops looking for a replica of the "U.N.C.L.E. Special" – a fabulous semi-automatic, pistol-carbine hybrid with a long barrel, an extendable shoulder stock, telescopic sights and an extended magazine; it was intensely phallic in three directions. We even collected bubblegum cards that built up into a giant picture of Napoleon, Illya and Mr W.

Though conceived as a spoof of the master-spy genre, The Man from U.N.C.L.E had a style and tone of its own. It was full of action, villains in black suits, non-extreme violence, an obligatory guest starlet each week and lots of buddy dialogue that became commonplace in crime drama. In hindsight, U.N.C.L.E. took the "spoof" component too far. The plots became sillier, the wackiness button was turned up from five to nine. The show jumped the shark in Series 3, when Napoleon Solo danced with a gorilla. Ratings fell and (though a fourth series was commissioned) never recovered.

Suddenly, it was all over. Thursday evenings on BBC1 at 8pm meant re-runs of Adam Adamant Lives!, an Edwardian-stranded–in-Carnaby-Street piece of whimsy starring Gerald Harper. It was a hard lesson, learning that nothing lasts forever. By now, however, we were 15 and could handle it. And of course we still had our U.N.C.L.E. cards, confirming our willingness to battle the forces of THRUSH at a day's notice.