Secret Army Series 2 Review
Secret Army is the story of a tight-knit, outnumbered group of patriots up against an implacable enemy bent on the slaughter of civilians. Always the heroes are tormented by the sight of their homeland in agony, and frustrated that the little they can do is so indirect. Their only weapon is guile, they live under the shadow of sudden death, and their supposed friends could be betraying them at any moment. No two ways about it: it wasn't easy being a German officer in Brussels in 1943.
And so a dedicated little band of Nazis struggle against all odds to defeat the war criminals of the RAF. At their head is Ludwig Kessler, a driven man. Even other Gestapo officers are profoundly unnerved by him. "I am not by nature a gregarious person." Can he possibly be making a human contact at this impossible time? But while Kessler's life is being built up, Irwin Brandt's is being dismantled. His family's suburb of Berlin is bombed every other night. Nothing makes military sense any more. His armed forces are being defeated: his friends in the old army aristocracy talk of treason. Kessler and Brandt nevertheless have a job to do, and their war could not be more important. If they are to beat the terror-flyers, it will take all of their ingenuity and detective-work, but every RAF pilot rounded up and put in a prisoner of war camp is another school or hospital saved from a stick of bombs.
Reading back my review of series 1 of this show, one of the all-time classics of British television, I see that I wrote it mostly from the Resistance point of view, and of course that is mostly how the script sees it, too. Still, it is much to the credit of Secret Army that it put the other side as well, even in 1978 when most viewers could remember the war - or perhaps because it was back in 1978 when most viewers could remember it. True, the difference between Kessler (Gestapo) and Brandt (Luftwaffe) is the stereotypical one between "good" and "bad" Germans, which you can find in movies right back to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). But Secret Army makes the Nazi a human, living character, genuinely engaging the audience, which is more like The Night Porter (1974) in its edginess. In that sense this is a very radical piece of television.
Kessler is not always so obviously in the wrong, for one thing. What he says sounds awfully like the voices coming out of the American garrison in Iraq: "When one is dealing with terrorists, one has to secure information by the most effective means available." But there is no real doubt that Kessler is as evil as a civilised man can be, and in a way we can barely comprehend. In the second episode of series 2, John Brason's "Russian Roulette", Kessler holds a garden party for the Brussels elite. Titled dowagers and respectable collaborators make small-talk under a cloister, but the nouveau-riche Albert Foiret has noticed something across the lawn. A firing squad assembles in the pouring rain. Noticing Albert's stricken look, Kessler murmurs amiably:
I'm sorry, Monsieur. A demonstration is sometimes necessary. We prefer those who collaborate with us, and who receive our friendship in return, to keep their membership up to date. It's so easy to fall into arrears, and yesterday's friend can so easily become today's enemy. Would you not agree?
The three civilian prisoners stare out hopelessly across the grass. Then the blindfolds go on and they are shot dead.
This is a scene claustrophobic with anxiety. Kessler takes Foiret to be just another profiteer living high on the black market, but for once he is wrong. The funding for Foiret's luxury restaurant, the Candide, in fact comes out of the false bottom of a British agent's suitcase. Albert Foiret operates Lifeline, an "evasion line" which smuggles crashed RAF aircrew out of occupied Europe and back to England via Spain. He is the most wanted man in Belgium, but in a twist of fate he slowly becomes Kessler's most accepted servant. As 1943 wears on, the Candide will quickly become the restaurant of choice in occupied Brussels, so that all of its secrets and betrayals will pile up in a single room.
A single studio set, in fact, because those were the days of multi-camera filming in a studio like a theatrical stage. Big drama shows, then as now, had one lavish set, usually alcoved and subdivided: when they dismantled the Candide restaurant after a night's filming (the old BBC always filmed in the evenings), that same space would be reconstructed the next morning as the TARDIS console room, the Liberator's flight deck, the owner's cabin of the Charlotte Rhodes, or something similar. But a restaurant suits the actors rather well, especially with a talky script, since there is always plenty of business to be done: stuff with napkins, condiments, place-laying, bill-tallying, glass-polishing, coffee-pouring. During opening hours, the cast are uniformly convincing in their cover identities: Hepton especially shines at serving the Candide's clientèle with unruffled dignity, always just the proper side of obsequiousness. The cabaret songs are live. And the diners actually eat their food, rather than pushing pasty mock-ups around with a fork. It all gives the programme a much-needed naturalism. None of that patently fake fiddling-with-dials when sci-fi casts have nothing to do with their hands. We believe the surreal and terrible events outside the Candide because we believe the small and human ones inside.
For the show's two stars to play off against each other, then, the plot would somehow have to get them into the same indoor space, and not once but over and over again. How to do it? It must have seemed a great risk when the writers first hit on the bold idea of the Candide re-opening as a plush restaurant where Kessler and Brandt would dine every night. It shouldn't have worked: it ought to have come across to the viewers as too convenient, too ridiculous - a pantomime setup. Look behind you! And yet very little disbelief needs to be suspended because Secret Army has, by this point, earned its credentials as a show in which nobody has a simple life. Albert has taken over Lifeline from a young nurse killed in an air-raid. (That is, by the very RAF she has been risking her life for.) "We have to keep it going, for her sake," says Albert's mistress, Monique. "That's just sentimental nonsense," says Albert crossly. "We have to keep it going for a very real reason." (Pause.) "The money from London." Playing Foiret was certainly the great Bernard Hepton's finest hour. Shrewd, mean, cautious, intolerably burdened, Foiret is now centre stage. Returning from Kessler's garden party, Foiret at last reaches the safety of the Candide's back room. In a wordless scene he has a panic attack of fear and collapses. The brooding, stormily tragic music swells up, and another classic run of episodes is on its way.
This is very much a series 2. The basic idea of shepherding crashed RAF aircrew to safety has now been thoroughly worked out, so we are starting to get variations on the theme. Not a crashed pilot but a brigadier-general who knows too much. Runs down to Spain on which none of the obvious things go wrong - the pilots panicking, the Germans infiltrating the line - but where freak accident strikes. Suppose the train is bombed? Or is being used coincidentally by a diamond smuggler? On any given problem the advantage lies with the resistance, the deceivers rather than the deceived. But of course they only have to get it wrong once. If the line breaks, everyone goes down with it.
It is, just about, possible to play occasional moments with a dose of comedy - the infamous episode with the fake Rubens which spawned Allo Allo, for instance. ("You know, Max, they're almost too good. We'll have to be very careful that we don't mix up the copies and the originals when we make the switch." Quick, it's the vicar! My trousers are falling down, etc.) But even that is only the B-plot in an episode, "Weekend", which shows us a chain of unpredictable events leading from the American midwest to the steps of Gestapo headquarters. Not a horror story, nor an adventure story, nor even detective fiction, Secret Army is about fear, the always-rising anxiety which could almost be called the central character. In "Scorpion", Albert and Monique jabber nervously at each other, expecting to be arrested at any moment. They are laying table settings for the day out of habit. "I wonder what will happen to this place?" "Well, we won't be here to see it." At the other end of the dining room a visiting piano tuner jabs insistently at the keys, rising by flattened and sharpened semitones, until it is all we can do not to scream.
Any risky show which has been seen and liked by the public for the first time returns with a fresh burst of confidence, and the central writers - John Brason and N. J. Crisp - now know exactly what they want to do. Out go the two most one-dimensional characters from series 1 - the plucky young nurse (complete with hat) and the English secret agent (complete with hat). In come much more ambiguous newcomers. Max, whose real name is not Max, works at the Candide as its cabaret pianist, but in fact is a consummate forger of documents. He is a deserter, except really a career criminal, though also a resistance worker, but still more secretly belongs to a Communist cell. To none of these callings is he loyal. But at least he looks like a survivor, which is more than can be said for young Natalie's new boyfriend, the earnest Francois. And then there is Madeleine, who behaves as if there were no war at all. A delicate, damaged wallflower, one of life's born victims, she becomes Kessler's girlfriend - if such a thing can be imagined. He treats her with the utmost kindness and honesty. The scope of the drama also expands, so that some episodes - notably the outstanding "The Big One", by N. J. Crisp - could be repeated today as drama documentaries: the experience of a bombing raid from everyone's point of view. These are all signs of growing sophistication in a drama which no longer feels the need to make obvious points such as that the Nazis were, on the whole, a Bad Thing.
In the 1970s, episodic BBC series like this one generally didn't have "story arcs": they would simply open with a scene-setting kind of script, and finish up on a loose two-parter. Series 3 was to break this rule altogether, with a convoluted, developing plot and a string of astonishing cliff-hanger endings. But series 2 is more traditionally episodic. This means it pulls in the usual round of guest actors for one episode apiece, most memorably Paul Shelley (who over-acts but will be much better when he reappears in series 3). In so far as there is an overall plot, it is achieved by the script-editor (John Brason) inserting brief but intense conversational scenes. With the weaker episodes, the resulting jump in quality is quite visible, rather the way that a painting attributed to "school of Leonardo da Vinci" is a mess except for the faces, the only part where the master pushed the apprentices aside.
But however sketchy the plot, this is not one of those endless, time-is-suspended war shows like MASH. There are well-orchestrated developments as we slowly advance through the winter of 1943 to the summer of 1944. RAF Bomber Command becomes larger and more wanton. Spooked, disoriented American pilots begin to appear. The Russian front depletes the German garrison. For Lifeline, the biggest threat is the rise of the Communist resistance now that Russia has entered the war. And the whole thing winds up to June 6, 1944. A D-Day scene, in which news of the invasion breaks, can be found in all of Gerard Glaister's war dramas, and here it comes in the closing moments of the last episode of series 2. Listening on the radio to the news of the invasion, the whole civilian people of Europe felt momentarily swept up in the grandeur of it all. (My grandmother remembers the fleet leaving Portsmouth Harbour.) Even now, when it is ancient history, the whole idea of D-Day still has dramatic flair. Here it enables Secret Army to work in the traditional BBC end-of-the-run, warm-hearted closing scene, without the falseness of something mushily sentimental or unserious. And so another classic run of episodes comes to an end.
There are criticisms to be made, it's true. A show which is so sophisticated about the German point of view is, nevertheless, shallowly closed-minded when it comes to the Communists: a sign of its times. The location filming, though wonderful in Brussels street scenes, can be a little slack out in the country. 1940s stock footage of city bombing may be used sparingly, but not sparingly enough, as it makes a joltingly poor match to the rest. The join between studio (video tape) and location (film) is not much better, for that matter, one of the few respects in which 1970s technology makes the production look dated: and the studio set designers, though first-rate on stage directions like "A prison cell. Night", are rather harder-pressed when it comes to "The ruins of Berlin. Day". Incidental music is also out of the library and a bit obvious (the opening bars of Mahler's 1st symphony represent Fate, etc.), except for the old television standby of playing the main titles music at half-tempo. Our heroes disguise themselves as hospital porters and nurses once too often, while ironically their doctor, Dr Keldermans (the magisterial Valentine Dyall), is not used quite as much as he might be. The Christmas episode "Guests at God's Table" is painfully under-rehearsed, and anyway what on earth possessed them to write a Christmas episode? (I suppose to establish the passing of the seasons, Belgian life and such, but still...) More seriously, the Germans make too little progress in breaking the line - but this omission is rectified, to put it mildly, in series 3.
DD Video give this marvellous show their customary clean treatment: how very, very welcome it is that they are taking the programme right through all three series. It is certainly in safe hands. The film quality is, as must be expected, variable in places: there is little damage (I noticed one faint crease-line for about five minutes in "Day of Wrath", but had to get close to the screen to be sure), but DVD encoding is always vulnerable to the grainy state of old video-taped footage. And video does go grainy when the studio lights are down low, and the resistance did tend to work in near darkness, so... But this cannot be helped, and if anything the overall quality here is higher than we normally get on archival releases from the period. Sound is clear throughout. I've been impressed by DD Video's output so far, and maintain my good opinion of their work.
With one exception, anyway. By way of an extra, they include a one-hour documentary called Resistance!, about British agents in France (not Belgium), resistance activity (not the evasion lines) and the Liberation (not the Occupation). An exclamation mark in the title of a documentary is nothing if not fair warning, so I suppose I deserved all I got. The analysis is shallow, the music inappropriate (I especially liked the choice of the Moonlight Sonata to represent Paris) and the footage a hotchpotch of truth and fiction: the interviews are worth listening to but the script is a catalogue of myths. The Resistance did not "cripple" German supply lines or oblige Hitler to employ "hundreds of thousands of troops defending occupied territory". De Gaulle did not "escape" France in 1940, he weighed his political options more carefully than that, and in 1944 his seizure of Paris exceeded Eisenhower's orders rather than following them. The sabotage of railway lines never much inconvenienced the Germans, nor was it meant to: it was a political act aimed at keeping the French population from getting too comfy. (In that sense, it was terrorism.) And so on.
The point missed by romanticised nonsense like Resistance! is that an invaded country has two choices. Countries with a strong sense of nationhood play ball, using their own policemen and mayors on behalf of the invaders. People with a wider cultural allegiance, like Iraqis or Palestinians today, are more willing to go for the other option: anarchy. For France in 1940 that would have been unthinkable. And so a country with a population of 41 million was held down by a handful of Wehrmacht units. Except in big cities and strongholds defending the Atlantic coast from external attack, the soldiers scattered thinly across Hitler's France were mostly convalescents, had an average age well into the thirties and were east European conscripts as often as Germans. It is true that SS divisions could always be called in to murder a whole village, and abominable acts were performed in the slums of Lyons and Marseilles. But if the French resistance had been anything like the Palestinian intifada, the occupying forces would have been cut to pieces. Instead resistance groups mostly bided their time and waited for their king across the water, rather than seriously kicking out. This is not meant as criticism: they were incredibly brave and many were tortured to death simply for circulating newspapers. It is just to say that captivity is a more complicated idea than it looks. You will get no notion of this from Resistance!, which mentions neither the Vichy government nor the division of the Occupied from the Unoccupied Zones. "Simplify me when I'm dead" - a mistake that Secret Army itself never made.
In a better world, the documentary on these discs would have been the BBC's unique Behind The Scenes, a 5 by 25 minute programme about how television was made. It followed Secret Army throughout all its production stages and was broadcast as a companion-piece to it in November 1977. Maybe this doesn't survive, maybe there are insuperable rights issues, certainly it would be asking a lot of a hard-pressed DVD issuer which is doing us a favour by releasing the show at all; and all I know about these documentaries is from a website which reproduces their Radio Times billing, so maybe I overestimate them; but it would have been a peach of a DVD extra. (The BBC's own DVD releases are just as hit and miss: we did finally get to see Whose Doctor Who? on the discs for The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but the companion documentary for I Claudius, about Roman life, was left off the otherwise wonderful IC release except for maddeningly few clips.)
It is with some relief that I turn to Andy Priestner's booklet, once again a useful companion and adding real value, though inevitably most of what could be said was covered in the series 1 booklet. His essay reminds us of the quaint ways in which the BBC decided whether a show was any good. Audience ratings, although collected and scrutinised, were surprisingly unimportant. Instead the BBC made a qualitative survey of how much those people who did watch the program enjoyed it: this led to a number called the Reaction Index (RI). Mr Priestner records the steady upward progress of Secret Army's RI until it peaks at 80, a figure corresponding to almost universal approval. He has the advantage of being able to find this numerical data, however bogus, in the files: in fact, though, a still more paternalistic arrangement held sway. Right through the 1970s, and for all I know this still goes on, an open meeting of senior BBC executives - almost all men, of course - came together once each week to review the latest output, using the previous week's Radio Times as an agenda. For some of the moguls, now promoted far above actual programme-making, it was the highlight of their week. To impress this peer group was the aim of every ambitious producer, whereas a show which the meeting rubbished would disappear, RI or no RI. We shall never know exactly what they said about Secret Army (or anything else for that matter), but they must have given it the thumbs-up. It was run right up to the top drama slot of the week - the Saturday night slot alongside Grandstand, Doctor Who, The Generation Game and Parkinson, a lineup whose strength can be judged by the fact that every one of those shows is in production today. In this solid wall of variety there was one and only one slot open for serious popular drama, and Secret Army eventually got it.
There is probably nobody reading this who hasn't seen at least snippets of all of those programmes, but there must be plenty of people who have still never seen Secret Army. (For one thing, it has never been available before, not counting a W. H. Smith's own-brand VHS digest of odd episodes.) Series 1 is probably the better place to start, but if you are only going to buy one of the three series then this is the definitive one to go for, series 1 being the setting-up and series 3 the demolition of the format. Either way, don't miss this.
Last updated: 23/06/2018 10:10:41