Secret Army Review
"The good end happily, the bad unhappily," said Miss Prism, "that is what fiction means." Not in the case of Secret Army, the second and most powerful of Gerard Glaister's loose trilogy of war-time dramas, but then all three were based on fact. The first and third, Colditz and The Fourth Arm, were adventure stories of the old school, and none the worse for that. But Secret Army was a thriller, an exercise in edge-of-the-seat anxiety. We follow two parallel stories: the story of the Belgian Resistance, and that of the German security officers hunting them down. Each side has an action hero and a ruthless leader. Each is engaging enough that, in a backhanded way, we feel on the side of whoever is on screen at the moment.
Like many of his television heroes, Gerard Glaister served as an RAF pilot in the war. This is a potent reminder that though the Nazi occupation of Europe seems impossibly remote to us, it was within the memory of much of the viewing public at the time. Glaister's overwhelming theme is of civilians called up to the colours. The fall of Belgium, in May 1940, came without warning and took less than a week, with northern France soon to follow. What were the people -- outraged, frightened, disenfranchised, impoverished -- to do? As the SS had demonstrated in Czechoslovakia, to kill a single German soldier was to invite two dozen executions at random; to assassinate a Gestapo officer might mean the murder of a whole town. The smallest sign of defiance led to torture and deportation. Blowing up railway lines, a tactic favoured by Communist groups once Russia had entered the war, would inconvenience the public more than the occupiers. Besides, the Germans were wise enough to preserve the semblance of a normal civil administration. A prison can be governed only with the tacit consent of the prisoners. There was a curfew, there were papers and permits and ration tickets even down to the right to use a bicycle, the Jews were deported and so were random drafts of labourers, but for the most part people were quite at liberty to lead normal lives and grumble patriotically in the privacy of their kitchens: and this is what most of them did. Secret Army is an amalgam of true stories about the few who did more.
The Belgian Resistance was uniquely placed to contribute to the war. In France, most Resistance work was a propaganda effort, a business of secret newspapers and committees: half a statement of defiance, half a wrangle over the future political landscape. Under every government are the seeds of the next, even under Hitler's. But the Belgian people could do more because Belgium lay on the return route of RAF Bomber Command after sorties in Germany. Aircraft generally crashed on the return leg, and about a quarter of the crew could be expected to escape alive. Since almost no bomber crew survived long without crashing, this meant that about a quarter of the RAF's fighting strength would end up stranded, wounded and hungry, in the Belgian countryside. Lifeline, the fictional Resistance group of Secret Army, is based on several genuine Belgian networks which smuggled airmen back home to England via Spain or Switzerland. They returned 3500 aircrew, enough to man five hundred planes at a time when trained bomber crews were in desperately short supply. But the real point was that it was a meaningful gesture of defiance.
This is a drama with two independent casts, since the Resistance leaders and the Nazis almost never meet face to face. In series 1, at least, there are consequently too many strong characters, but leaders nevertheless emerge from the ensemble cast. Clifford Rose's reputation still rests today on his mesmeric portrayal of Ludwig Kessler, head of the Brussels Gestapo. Perhaps the most absolute anti-hero of British television (I suppose Davros, creator of the Daleks, would be his nearest rival), Kessler is incorruptible, fearless, able and in a terrible sense admirable. He regards it as useful to be the most hated and feared man in Belgium. He is not without scruple, merely without compunction. As early as episode 1, he has sent the children of some low-grade Resistance workers to the concentration camps, to make the point that he can. His mere presence raises the tension. In "Hymn to Freedom", as a Resistance courier sweats and stumbles through an interrogation, offering a hopelessly unconvincing story, the camera suddenly jumps back to reveal that Kessler is in the room after all:
Kessler: Brave words! But you are spent. Nothing awaits you but death.
Prisoner: As it does us all.
Kessler: Indeed it does. In its various forms.
Torture is tastefully left off-screen in Secret Army, but we are under no illusion about it, and it is not the comic-book sadism of wizard devices like Goldfinger's laser beam but the ugly ordinariness of the real thing. Klaus Barbie, head of the Gestapo in Lyons, did most of his best work with door-jambs. Kessler is loosely based on Barbie, but whereas there is considerable evidence that Barbie was a sadist, Kessler sees it rather as a regrettable but absolute duty. "All governments have to face terrorism, and I expect they always will." This is not a rationalisation, because there is no level on which he does not believe it. Michael Culver gives an engaging portrayal of Irwin Brandt, the Luftwaffe officer working alongside Kessler who is, in a strange way, one of the action heroes of the show. Brandt gets more lines than Kessler, and (in series 1) has more to do. But though intelligent he is too amiable, and one always feels that here is a man with whom one could cut a deal, come to an understanding. With Kessler, the embodiment of the Nazi doctrine of the triumph of the will, there could be no dealing. As a result Brandt seems little more than a foil, a sidekick.
This sometimes happens in television when an actor becomes too good for the writers to resist. (Margot, in The Good Life, was originally only going to make occasional appearances, until the writers saw how funny Penelope Keith was.) It also happened on the Resistance side of the cast list. Christopher Neame, as the British liaison officer behind enemy lines, and Jan Francis, as the French girl leading the Resistance, are both very watchable -- their love which Can Never Be, etc. But both actors were written out in subsequent series. In part this is because they come over as stereotypes, which is curious since both were modelled on real people: Francis on the nurse who led the Comète escape line, who ended up in Ravensbruck concentration camp (but, incredibly, survived); and Neame on an RAF intelligence officer who did indeed masquerade as a fertiliser salesman. (He, too, survived the war and ended up as Group-Captain Randle, the technical consultant to the television series, meticulously correcting every script for factual accuracy.) Jan Francis was always more of a comedy actress (best remembered now as the lead in the sitcom Just Good Friends), and here she was a little miscast. But Christopher Neame was a survivor of Glaister's previous series, Colditz, and the writing team knew how to get the best from him. In "Guilt", by N. J. Crisp, he has to decide whether or not to murder an English expatriate novelist played by the great Peter Barkworth. The viewer of Barkworth's scenes will not be surprised to learn that in between appearances he was teaching a course at RADA on how to command the stage. But Neame's finest moment in Secret Army comes in the finale episode, "Be The First Kid In Your Block To Rule The World" (a title whose length gives the DVD menu designer a taxing moment, given that the other episodes have titles like "Bait"). This is an episode about being trapped in an impossible situation. In any other show, you would always know deep down that he would escape, because the good guys never lose. Here the unease is palpable.
These two characters became unnecessary because of Bernard Hepton. He gives the finest performance of his career, which is saying something, as Albert Foiret. Foiret is the penny-pinching owner of the Candide, a cheap bar with a clientèle of workers, German soldiers and tarts. His crippled wife is bedridden upstairs, his mistress of a certain age (Angela Richards) serves the drinks and sings cabaret songs. Like Kessler, Albert is capable of total ruthlessness. You would not last five minutes in their war if not. In series 2, Albert's insalubrious bar is reopened as a plush restaurant for German officers and collaborators. Taking a huge risk, producer Gerard Glaister thereby contrived a situation in which Albert and Kessler frequently met, and also showed us Kessler's human side: his rather moving relationship with a fragile Belgian girlfriend. Series 3 reinvented the show once again, this time as the story of the shambolic collapse of the German occupation and the growing anarchy in its wake. Week by week, the Allies get closer to Brussels, but Kessler and his new associate -- Reinhardt, a war hero who loathes him, spectacularly played by Terence Hardiman -- become dementedly determined to break Lifeline before Brussels is abandoned to the advancing armies. Can they possibly survive? The cliff-hanger endings are among the most nail-biting ever broadcast, and the story takes astonishing turns.
Unquestionably series 2 is better than series 1, and series 3 better yet, but that still does not make series 1 anything less than excellent and this is an unmissable release. Location filming is plentiful -- most of this took place in East Anglia, showing the low countries as a maze of undrained marshes, canals and locks: a place where water is something frightening in itself. In one scene an airman is nearly drowned in quicksand. But the show also went to Brussels, thanks to being a co-production with Belgian TV, and the streets and squares can be very convincing. Some of the shots are of filmic quality, especially those in the unique episode "Growing Up", by Willis Hall, which tells the war through the eyes of a small boy whose father was killed on its first days, and ends with a great set-piece scene of a traditional Belgian funeral. So there is much to value here, and I have not even mentioned Valentine Dyall, always a treat, who plays Lifeline's doctor; or the deeply fanciable Juliet Hammond-Hill, as Natalie, the gravely spoken waitress and courier; or Ron Pember, who plays the wiry radio-operator Alain. And the playing of the RAF evaders -- frightened, spooked, naive, fatally light-headed -- is always solid. But for the outstanding moment of series 1, and one of the most ambitious drama episodes of the 1970s, I would single out "Good Friday", by the show's script editor John Brason. This is ostensibly a story about monks sheltering a crashed airman, but divided among themselves about whether or not to tell the authorities. On another level, it is a retelling of the passion, not from the point of view of Christ but of Simon Peter. On still a third, it explores the Nazi fantasy of embodying a new Roman Empire. The climactic moment comes when Kessler questions the abbot, whom he knows to be guilty. It is not expedient for Kessler to execute such a man. Instead he exacts his own unique punishment: he forces the abbot three times to deny his executed friend. To see himself as a Roman centurion is an affirmation of Kessler's own faith.
This gives a flavour of the subtlety of the writing. Secret Army makes great play of finding ambiguity in what seems clear-cut. Brave young nurses versus Nazi torturers, what could be clearer than that? And yet. By 1944, the saturation bombing of dormitory towns in Germany had given up any pretence of choosing military targets. This always happens with long drawn-out bombing campaigns (compare the end of the Kosovo war), but in 1944 we went further and began attempting massacres. We only really succeeded at Dresden, but not for want of trying. So when Brandt and Kessler say they are fighting terrorism, and their desks are piling up with photographs of bombed schools and hospitals, surely they have a point? Are Lifeline trying to win the war, or to help stranded men? (You do nobody any favours by returning him to Bomber Command.) Is Belgium at war? It depends what you call Belgium. And is Albert really a Belgian patriot, or in it for the money from London? Would Brandt be Kessler's friend, if push came to shove? Is Albert's choice between his crippled wife, who tyrannises him, and his obliging mistress really so easy? Is Kessler's passion for Hitler, or for Germany? What happens when these conflict?
I had better also mention the other two things we all remember about Secret Army. First is unfortunately Allo Allo, a slapstick parody of the original, imitating all of the visuals and literally every character, one for one. There is something uniquely English about the offensiveness of this -- with our customary tact we showed it as the first programme on the European satellite "Superchannel", at a launch party given by Mrs Thatcher for Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. Specifically, the sitcom was stolen from an episode of series 2 of Secret Army to do with a forged painting, immortalised in Allo Allo as The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies by Van Clomp. (This was also the episode in which a very young Anthony Stewart Head, of later Gold Blend advert and Buffy fame, made his first television appearance, playing a faintly camp German art buff.) It was often said to be taboo-breaking, but even this was unoriginal, because Herr Flick of Allo Allo could not have existed if Kessler had not been a genuinely human character first.
The 1982 pilot (appropriately enough) of Allo Allo was witty and entertaining, one of Lloyd and Croft's best. It got a number of funny routines out of the convention used in Secret Army that the Germans have German accents -- a device intended to convey the sense of cultural difference, and un-belonging, of the invaders. Allo Allo took this further and equated accents with languages, rather as the Asterix books use Gothic type for the speech bubbles of Goths. All knockabout fun, but the correct number of episodes for a parody is one (1). Two if you push your luck, as the brilliant Comic Strip take-offs of the Famous Five did. But not I think eighty-five. Allo Allo just would not stop, trading endlessly on Benny Hill sketches, homophobic jokes and cheap stereotypes. I think the point is amply made by this plot summary, from an Internet episode guide, of show 25 of series 5:
Rene [i.e. Albert] is planning to escape with Yvette [i.e. Lisa] and the gold, but just then the town is sealed by Von Klinkerhoffen [i.e. Brandt], as he starts searching for the Enigma machine throughout the village. Michelle [i.e. Natalie] arrives to hide the Enigma in the cafe, in preparation for smuggling it to Britain in the two-man sub. To do so, Michelle directs that Rene put the machine in a small barrel of wine and drop the barrel down the sewer. At a pre-arranged time, everyone in Nouvion [i.e. Brussels] will flush their toilets, and the resulting wave of water will wash the barrel out the sewer to the waiting sub. To distract the Germans, the British have ordered an air raid, but it is too successful -- they bombers hit the pumping station, and water service is cut off before the big flush can happen. Luckily, Edith [i.e. Monique] comes up with a plan to use barrels of wine in the place of the water. Unfortunately, Leclerc [i.e. Max, a character from series 2] has put the wrong box in the barrel -- so it is Yvette's underwear making its way to England, while the Enigma machine is still hidden beneath the table.
When parody fails it becomes dreary imitation of the original, and this ghastly ordeal is in the end not a parody of Secret Army so much as a very poor episode of it. "Yvette" is also Natalie, because two French maid's uniforms are obviously better than one. Actually three, because there was also "Mimi", and... For a while Allo Allo totally eclipsed the original, running until 1992 when Secret Army was all but forgotten, and it even reached DVD first. But it is about time we recognised that whatever success it had was built on the profits of theft.
A happier subject is the stunning title sequence of the original. Secret Army has one of those instantly vivid orchestral overtures that everyone thinks must be a standard, but in fact isn't. (People say it is based loosely on Django Reinhardt's "Nuages", but I'd give the credit solely to the BBC's composer, Robert Farnan.) This plays over an animation of photo-realistic landscape paintings in which we journey down a canal, a farm track, a railway line, always pursuing a chink of light in the centre of the screen which is also the focus of perspective -- compare the blue time vortex of Doctor Who, or the enigmatic black and white photographs of The Tomorrow People. We end outside one lit window in a dark, cobbled town: but is this sanctuary, or are we still hopelessly looking for help? The combination is of sound and image is potent and was once used as an example in an Open University programme about the psychological effect of music, which ran the same titles against a sunny tune to conjure up a jolly day out in the country. Farnan's music, on the other hand, is an exercise in claustrophobia, the danger of being out in the open.
This is the second major release of autumn by DD Video, previously known as an issuer of minority-interest documentaries, but who look like becoming a major player in the newly flourishing TV-drama market. If so they are a very welcome arrival. Their other offering is the almost equally recommendable series 1 of Survivors, Terry Nation's drama of a post-apocalyptic England after plague has killed almost the entire population. In both cases the pictures and sound are good, the menus are cleanly and attractively designed, and the whole thing a handsome addition to the shelf. In the case of Survivors, two episodes have commentaries and there are also a few interviews. Here we just have the episodes, but on the other hand we do have 16 of them, not the usual BBC run of 13, which means each disc runs about 3 hours 40 minutes. Though these boxes are priced slightly above budget level, one can hardly argue with a price of £2.50 per episode. In any case though the discs themselves may not have extras, the DVD set comes with an excellent 40-page booklet. Written by Andy Priestner, it gives a detailed behind-the-scenes account of the making of the show and its historical background, together with rare photographs, trivia on each episode and the character sketches used by the writers. Essentially a fan website bound up as a booklet, it adds a sense of real archival quality to the release.
It is greatly to be hoped that DD Video, having made an excellent job of getting both Secret Army and Survivors under way, will go on to the subsequent series -- two in each case: and especially of Secret Army, which develops in so unique a way. In the case of series 3, the ultimate extra would be the filmed (and still archived) final episode which was discarded and never shown (but still, did I mention this?, survives in the BBC archives): an episode elaborated and reshot as a short series called Kessler, following the post-war life of our anti-hero. It will not spoil any surprises if I reveal that Kessler is never going to be caught and hanged by the Allies. Secret Army is not the kind of show where the villain gets his comeuppance just because he is the villain.
Secret Army is about what people do when they are very afraid, about war and being a bystander, about nationality and how complicated that can be, about salvation and betrayal. Sensitive direction, excellent acting and humane writing combine to produce one of television's greatest serials.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 14:56:29