Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Secret Army, Season 1; and book

This post has been a long time brewing. I watched the whole of the 1970s series Secret Army, and the sequel series Kessler, during what we must now call the first lockdown in the summer, and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I did not get around to writing it up at the time. Now I've spurred myself into activity by getting and reading the four novels associated with the TV stories, and I'll be writing them all up over the next few Mondays.

In case you didn't know, it's a series about Belgian resistance fighters during the second world war, specifically an organisation called Lifeline whose purpose was to get downed RAF men back to England by smuggling them through France to Spain. The first series was broadcast in September to December 1977, conteporary with the Doctor Who stories Horror of Fang Rock, The Invisible Enemy, Image of the Fendahl and The Sun Makers, and just before the first season of Blake's 7.

In terms of internal narrative, however, the story starts with John Brason's novel Secret Army. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:
It was bright and sunny when Pieter Pynas and two others were brought from the cells into the light, which made them blink and half-close their eyes momentarily. The trees, the sunny day, the twenty or thirty people, men and women, who stood around and chatted and smiled, made it all seem like a ghoulish garden party. The three men had no doubt of why they had been surfaced, nor were they disabused of the knowledge when they saw the wooden stakes and heard the tramp of soldiers' feet on the garden gravel.
Yep, it's as grim as that makes it sound. The book tells of how young Lisa Colbert loses her lover and family in the early days of the German invasion and occupation of Belgium, and then links up through her uncle, banker Gaston Colbert, and his friend Dr Keldermans, with innkeeper Albert Foiret who provides the cover that she needs to set up Lifeline. It actually has a lot more back-story than appears on the TV screen, and I think I'd recommend that the interested potential fan read the book first; it is entirely set before the action of the TV stories. (Unlike the other three books which are basically novelisations.) You can get it here.

So, the first series has 16 episodes and I am not going to write them all up here. I think for each series I'll pick the most interesting three and say why I liked them. For this series. that's the beginning, the end and one in the middle. Here are the opening titles and first scene from the very first episode.

The very first episode, Lisa - Codename Yvette, which as of this writing is available in its entirety here, sets up slightly odd expectations by including some of the action in England at the other end of Lifeline's activities - we barely go back across the channel again, though I think the intention may have been to do that a bit more. My heart was delighted by some appearances from my favourite show:
To unpack that a bit: the British co-ordinator, who does not appear again, is played by Anthony Ainley, who was to become the Master on Doctor Who for the 1980s; Dr Keldermans, one of the regulars, is played by Valentine Dyall, who would also pay the Black Guardian; Gaston Colbert, Lisa's uncle and another regular character, is played by James Bree, who had already played one of the bad guys in the 1969 Who story The War Games and would go on to have two more roles in the 1980s; and the chief baddie, SS officer Kessler, is played by Clifford Rose who turned up as leader of the slave traders in the 1980 Who story Warrior's Gate.

But this tweet misses the main characters, who instead I'll introduce via this clip from the end of the episode. Bernard Hepton as Albert and Angela Richards as his assistant and lover Monique bicker about his wife, bedridden upstairs; Yvette (Jan Francis) then brings in the purported British officer Curtis (Christopher Neame, was was also in the unbroadcast Who story Shada) to check his credentials. It's a great establishment of the characters and set-up.
The episode was written by Willis Hall, best known in the 1960s as co-writer with Keith Waterhouse of Whistle Down the Wind, A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar. He moved on from this to Worzel Gummidge. The director was Kenneth Ives, who as I noted in my tweet was in the 1968 Who story The Dominators playing junior Dominator Toba. He switched to directing in 1973. No doubt the whole thing was closely revised by show-runners Gerald Glaister and John Brason.

The second episode I'm going to call out is the twelfth, A Hymn to Freedom. It's not an especially good episode, but I found it very interesting because the central plot theme is that a minister in the puppet Belgian government installed by the Germans is planning to defect to the Allies. Now, the show claims that most of the incidents described are based on real events during the war. But in fact there was no puppet Belgian government installed by the occupiers; until the last few months in 1944, the Germans ruled through a military commander (Alexander von Falkenhausen, whose uncle had also been military governor of Belgium during the first world war and who was himself a former military advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek) and when they appointed a civilian administration it was also led by Germans. So Secret Army is lurching well into the counterfactual here. But I thought the exploration of the position of the central guest character, Hans Van Reijn (suspiciously Dutch rather than Flemish name, played by John Carson who weent on to be the archaeologist Ambril in the Doctor Who story Snakedance) was very interesting. He is a Flemish nationalist, but his assistant Hercule (Frank Barrie) is a Francophone, and I think there is a suggestion that their relationship is more than professional. Decide for yourself:Isn't that well done? I especially like the appearance of Hercule's face in the mirror. There is also an infiltrator-of-the-week plot. But (spoilers here) Van Reijn's plan is discovered by the Germans, and he learns his fate in a tense penultimate scene with SS officer Kessler, Luftwaffe Major Brandt (who is Kessler's internal antagonist) observing in the background. And I'm throwing in the final scene in Van Reijn's home as well.
This was again directed by Kenneth Ives, but the writer was Michael Chapman, his only Secret Army episode.

The first series ends on a high note, the episode Be The First Kid in Your Block to Rule the World, which is also one of those to get print treatment in the second Secret Army book (which I'll look at in detail next time). Curtis by now has been in Brussels a bit too long, and the Germans are closing in. But just as the Germans are closing in on Albert and Monique at the Cafe Candide, Albert's invalid wife intervenes dramatically (major major spoiler but great camerawork and acting):I've cheated with this because in the show it is intercut with Curtis's daring escape from the police net in Brussels by taking the place of the driver of a Hitler Jugend day trip to St-Nazaire and driving instead to Switzerland. Now, this is stretching credibility just a little bit - even the Hitler Jugend could presumably tell the difference between the landscape in western France and the Vosges, and to drive to the nearest point in Switzerland from Brussels takes five hours in a good car on today's roads (I did it in the opposite direction in July), so the young Nazis have had a lot of time to work out what is going on. But as is often the case, I willingly suspended my belief. This is the moment when Curtis escapes Brussels with his unknowing cadre. Michael Culver was off with appendicitis that week, so instead of the regular Brandt, the Luftwaffe is represented by Reinicke played by Michael Wynne. The odious little Hitler Jugend chap is played by Adam Richens and the checkpoint guard by John Peel (but not either of the other John Peels as far as I know).

This episode is credited to series creator John Brason as the writer, with Viktors Ritelis as director - the latter was production assistant, but not credited, on the Doctor Who story we now call The Crusade, and his arm was actually seen in one shot with ants crawling up it because William Russell, the regular actor whose arm it was supposed to be, refused to do it. (Sadly that episode is lost.)

Anyway, the first series is largely a variation of the basic narratives of running a resistance organisation in an occupied country - Jews, double agents, a murder in France etc, with strong ensemble character work from the regular cast. Next series, things start to take a darker turn. But that's for next Monday.
Tags: bookblog 2020, tv: secret army

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