Looking Back At THE SECRET SERVICE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s talking gibberish.
“Never work with children and animals” is a long-established showbiz axiom, handed down through the generations by performers and directors with that slightly haunted look in their eyes. That look that says “Trust me, kid, I’ve been there and done it, so that you never have to.”

If The Seret Service, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s last Supermarionation TV show, made and shown in 1968-9, can teach us anything, it’s probably that we need to add “Never base an international espionage thriller around a novelty comic performer and his most well-known piece of nonsense.”

No, really – we know you’re tempted, but in the words of the Grange Hill crew, just say no.

To explain the premise of The Secret Service, you sort of have to understand the career of a man named Stanley Unwin.

That in itself is no mean feat, but strap in, we’re about to try and explain it.

Stanley Unwin was an actor, writer and comedian, whose most enduring ‘bit’ was his invention of a nonsense-language called “Unwinese.” This had at least some underlying linguistic logic to it, but ended up making a scramble of any sentence, adding in similar-sounding but nonsensical phrases, to overextend and ‘Unwinify’ a line, a paragraph, or a whole explanation.

If you’re not getting the audio picture, the best thing to do is to listen to some.

This was all very well in its way – reasonably interesting light entertainment for anything up to five minutes at a time.

What it isn’t, and what it arguably should never have been, is the basis for a great international espionage show with puppets.

Gerry Anderson loved Unwin’s work, and after the two met on a film studio, Anderson was convinced that Unwin and his Unwinese schtick could work as the central plank of the last Supermarionation show of the Sixties.

Coupled with his desire to make the Supermarionation process ever more realistic and lifelike, that determination to put Unwin front and centre is what powered the development of The Secret Service.

Weirdly enough, because this is after all the Andersons we’re talking about, the fundamental concept of The Secret Service absolutely could have worked.

The concept is that a harmless local British vicar – with a sidekick from an intelligence agency named BISHOP (British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest – yes, we know…) is actually a superspy, foiling the machinations of other spies from powers that want to destroy or take over the world as we know it.

While there are significantly fewer super-vehicles in The Secret Service than in almost any other Supermarionation series, there’s a good in-universe reason for that – it was the only such series set in the contemporary world of the viewers, rather than (usually) a hundred years in the future. So, really speaking, you could argue that The Secret Service is the Andersons going gritty and realistic – guns, tanks, planes, you name it. Most of the time it was down to earth and identifiable in the world of the watchers.

Undercover vicar, though? That could totally have worked as either a Supermarionation show, or come to that a live action ITC show around the turn of the Seventies. What’s more, Matthew Harding, the BISHOP operative, spent a lot of the time shrunk to about one-third normal size because of the one piece of super-kit the vicar had – a miniaturiser!
Let’s briefly ignore the fact that a miniaturiser could work perfectly well to solve all spy problems if (as Doctor Who’s Master would do, just a handful of heartbeats after The Secret Service was broadcast) it was used as an offensive weapon.

And while it was contemporary show, the vicar also had a buttercup-yellow roadster that served the same sort of function as Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls-Royce. (Again, in terms of the fundamentals of the show, the Andersons were just a little ahead of the earthbound Jon Pertwee Doctor Who series, as the Doctor in that era pootled around the English countryside in a bright yellow roadster).

Could that have worked as an ongoing show? Absolutely, it could have. Bear in mind that people watched Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) – where one of the two detectives in the title was…well, deceased… so there’s no reason the concept couldn’t have worked.

But there were a handful of catastrophic decisions that blighted The Secret Service.

Firstly, with Gerry Anderson always wanting to make shows that were more realistic, The Secret Service acted as a half-way testing ground, with scale models and actual building shots combining in a single program.

The Secret Service also mixed models and live action – again, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with that idea, but it has to be done with a degree of subtlety or the audience gets scene-sick, chopping and changing between live action and model work. The only circumstances in which the two can really work in the same shot is when you have miniature Matthew interacting with real world environments, but again, this often looks like it took far more effort than it was ultimately worth in terms on on-screen impact.
But by any standard, the fatal flaw in The Secret Service is its fundamental raison d’etre, and the fact that it was pushed beyond breaking point.

Stanley Unwin had acted in films – there was no good reason why he couldn’t have played a spy-vicar perfectly straight, with the vicar given a suitably Supermarionation name, and Unwinese removed from the concept altogether. Then you would have had a reasonably gritty, contemporary offering from the Andersons, bringing their trademark invention home to the real world around the viewers.

But Stanley Unwin played a vicar named…erm…Stanley Unwin. And of course, to have that make annnny sense to the domestic British audience, the puppet of the vicar had to LOOK like…Stanley Unwin. Which in turn meant you could cut between the puppet-Unwin and the real Unwin, standing in for his own puppet when anything as complicated as…well, walking…was required.

And the point is that Stanley Unwin was best known – crucially, IN THE UK – for his performance of Unwinese. If you’re going to cast Stanley Unwin for his recognition factor, and then he DOESN’T deliver some Unwinese, the reason people recognise him evaporates almost immediately.

And in credit to the Andersons, there’s at least a semi-reasonable in-world use to which the Reverend Stanley Unwin puts his garbled gibber-speak – when interrogated by toughs, he can pretend to be speaking either a non-English language, or the burbling of someone who’s not entirely in the room, all the while transmitting coded messages to Matthew and activating the forces of BISHOP.

All of that, however, breaks down if and when a) you don’t know or don’t care who Stanley Unwin is, or b) you don’t at least subtitle the Unwinese for any audience that more than likely won’t have a clue what it means.

With unease growing even within Century 21, the production company, The Secret Service was only shown in a limited number of UK regions. And when the company’s owner and financial backer the legendary Lew Grade (Google is your friend, O Children of the Millennium) saw test footage of the show, he capped it at an unresolved 13 episodes, rather than the full 26 for which it was originally destined.

Grade’s concern was for more than the quality of the combination of the live action and puppet sequences. While even in the UK, there was no guarantee that audiences across the country would have heard of Unwin and his Unwinese, and certainly none that they would enjoy it in this otherwise fairly straight espionage puppet thriller format, the chances of selling it in the US seemed cataclysmically miniscule.

Was that a conversation that should have been had before production got started?

With hindsight, probably. But it’s worth remembering that the Andersons had built a powerhouse of national and international success from unlikely premises – after all, who ever would have dreamed that a ‘sub-aqua’ puppet show would have worked? And yet, Stingray was syndicated across the United States. So The Secret Service experiment carried on much longer and went much further than it probably should have, buoyed on a good track record of delivering hits, and a premise that, at least on paper, seemed a lot less complicated to deliver.

It also proved to be a disheartening end to the Supermarionation era. Again, it was an era that had grown from strength to strength, always increasing the scope of its ambition and skill as it went. When Grade pulled the funding plug on The Secret Service, he gave Gerry Anderson the go-ahead to begin his first fully live-action show – UFO. But the relatively ignominious failure of The Secret Service also meant that Supermarionation as such died with it. That brought redundancy to the puppeteers – some of whom had worked on lots of the greats of the genre. It was not the ending anybody wanted to see.

On the other hand, the very fact that practically no-one saw it when it went out means The Secret Service has achieved a kind of cult status – it hasn’t been repeated since the 1970s (that’s 50 years and counting, Supermarionation fans!), so now that it’s made the leap across to Britbox, there’s a chance for a whole new generation to take a look at it and assess its place in the Anderson catalogue – and for those who still dimly remember it from its first, patchy broadcast to try and follow the plots.

Just don’t try to follow the Unwinese – it’ll drive you up the wall.

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Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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