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

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Looking Back At SECRET ARMY

Tony will say this only once…
Wartime drama is often tricky to get right, because you never want to paint your characters in the absolutes of black and white, but you need to maintain the clarity of intent between heroes and villains.

Secret Army is a show that got that balance right for three whole series, while starring a whole host of actors you’d be able to pick out of a line-up, creating complex character dynamics and interplay, and keeping you properly on the edge of your seat from the very first episode.

Shows like that don’t come around very often, and it’s something of a tragedy that Secret Army was first broadcast on the BBC between 1977-79, when usually, if you missed an episode of a show, that was it, you missed it forever, and while movies were repeated on a fairly regular basis, domestic series-long productions rarely got a second showing.

But it’s not for nothing that Secret Army is talked about by people old enough to have seen it in the same breath as the likes of I, Claudius. The quality of practically every element of Secret Army feels intensely natural, but is actually the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people.

What, then, is Secret Army?

It’s a series based in Nazi-occupied Belgium during World War II, and it particularly follows the activities of a (fictional) undercover group called Lifeline, the purpose of which is to smuggle Allied aircrew back to Britain via Switzerland or Spain, when Belgium itself is crawling with Nazis.

In essence, it takes the story of many a resistance group and coalesces the dangers, the personalities, the struggles and above all the constant attitude of fear, and the continual resolve to act in spite of that fear, that make us look back at them in awe.

The flippant response to a series outline like that is “So – full of laughs, then?” But the great thing about late Seventies and early Eighties drama series is that they never necessarily felt the need to give everything an emotional upturn towards comedy or even wryness. Secret Army is drama, drama, drama all the way, because the circumstances it depicts are intensely fraught, and there are not only individual lives on the line, but the lives of lots of others who will not get the help they need if anything should go wrong.

We’re not saying that Secret Army was in any way particularly po-faced, but you have to understand what you’re tuning in for – and what you’re tuning in for with Secret Army is drama that will make you bite your nails, that will make you breathe less frequently, and that will have you both triumphant and stricken by turns.

It was created and written by Gerard Glaister, himself a former RAF Pilot Officer during the war, and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. So he had form in terms of the period about which he was writing. He also had a couple of big hits to his name in TV terms, being the co-creator of both The Brothers – the show which first brought Colin Baker to national TV prominence – and, more specifically, Colditz, both in 1972.

Secret Army was Glaister’s storytelling follow-up to Colditz, moving the action from an inescapable prison camp and the alliances that form in that environment to a nation under domestic siege by an invader with a despicable ideology, a short temper, an efficient bureaucracy, and many, many guns.

That sense of a whole nation being a prison camp is present right from the beginning, when an ordinary Belgian family are sitting down to dinner but are suddenly joined by German officers, looking for a hidden airman, and the adults are carted away to prison for questioning.

But Secret Army succeeds by both creating that tension, that sense that at any moment the other shoe might drop and destroy everything you are working for, as well as your life and the lives of your friends, and by creating strong character dynamics, and filling the roles with superbly experienced actors.

Lisa Colbert (Jan Francis) is the nominal head of Lifeline, and she’s particularly aided in the show by Albert Foiret (Bernard Hepton), who owns the Café Candide, by his mistress, Monique Duchamps (Angela Richards), and by a waitress at the café, Natalie Chantrens (Juliet Hammond-Hill).

As the show moves on into its second series, the café becomes too conspicuous and Foiret gets himself a black market restaurant instead – with financing mostly coming from London, as Lifeline becomes less of an ad hoc operation and more of a serious outpost and network for returning airmen to Britain.

And as the third series takes us forward into the final weeks of the Nazi occupation of Belgium, other foes and issues arise – notably a Communist with a grudge, who makes it his business to bring down Foiret.

To make any of this work as edge-of-your-seat drama of course, you need two things. You need spectacularly believable performances in the roles of the Lifeline personnel, and you also need complex, believable villains in some key Nazis.

Jan Francis, later Penny in Just Good Friends gives Lisa Colbert a combination of liveliness and grit as the head of Lifeline, while Albert Foiret – a man with a complex life, a sick wife upstairs, a mistress and a central role in the Lifeline operation – is played by Bernard Hepton, an actor with an impressive resume and a particular gift for playing characters with deep waters running through them. In another world, he would have worked just as well as a Nazi. In fact, in this world, he categorically worked just as well as a Nazi – he played the Kommandant in Glaister’s Colditz.

But as Foiret, he gets to show significantly more range, because we see him as a complex character, who – while still being inherently better than any of the Nazis – makes more than one decision that gives him some shade in his character.

It would be unfair in the extreme to describe Clifford Rose’s performance as Kessler, the leading Nazi of Secret Army, as his “big break” – but it would be fair to say that his performance in the role is central to the success of the drama. He delivers the creepiness of Nazism with the underlying humanity at work, too. That’s one of the main things that sets Secret Army out from any other Nazi occupation series. Rose’s Kessler shows that most terrifying thing – the mundanity of evil.

In fact, he shows it so well that by the time Secret Army got to Series 3, his struggles become one of the more central story-threads, where his fervent patriotism and Nazism – by then, most of what he has to hang onto – are thrown into conflict with the new Nazi on the block, Major Hans Dietrich Reinhardt (the equally powerful future Demon Headmaster, Terence Hardiman), who has a much more fatalistic, not to say realistic approach to the war, the occupation, and the future beyond their time and place.

While it would go significantly too far to say we sympathise with Kessler by the end, the central idea of a man who has fervently believed in a thing, dealing with the inevitable end of that thing, is a transferable human connection. The fact that what he believes in is Nazism hardens us necessarily, but the human dilemma of a belief system made aggressively rigid to withstand the coming of reality hits us hard.

And in fact, Rose’s performance as Kessler led to the creation of a spin-off show, simply called Kessler, to explore exactly that sort of question – what does a Nazi officer do after the Nazis have lost the war?

Assuming they don’t get put on trial for war crimes, or get adopted into NASA, Kessler posits the idea that they change their name and go the personal wealth route through industrialism. The show goes on to follow a press investigation into the whereabouts of prominent Nazis, and puts the now-successful Kessler on the back foot as his beliefs and crimes are brought back to haunt him.

Secret Army is a jewel of a series in terms of its writing and direction. But it also stars practically everyone you know from somewhere else at some point.

Stephen Yardley, who would go on to star in Glaister’s much more up-to-date Thatcherite drama of boats and boat builders, Howards’ Way, is here. Ron Pember, who like Yardley has the knack of being in most things that mark themselves out as quality, is here too. Ralph Bates, of Poldark and Dear John fame, takes a role in Series 3.

James Bree, Maria Charles, Valentine “Dear Gods, That Voice” Dyall, Christopher Neame, you name them, watch Secret Army and you’ll spot them popping up now and again, to bolster the strong, pared-back adventure scripts and the central players in their interpersonal character dramas.

The point we made about it being a shame Secret Army first aired in the Seventies, when shows were very frequently only broadcast the once and then disappeared into the void is valid. While, as we’ve said, the show was successful enough to get a more modern-day spin-off, and also spawned some books that allowed the show to live longer in people’s memories than many of its contemporaries, it only became available to buy significantly later – by which point, you either had to have REALLY strong memories of the show to make you invest in its discs, or you had to have a little more money than sense.

Either way worked, and we’re not judging.

But now it’s made its way to a streaming service alongside a whole lot of other extremely bingeable content, so you don’t need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Secret Army geek to justify a subscription. And once you have that subscription, you get Secret Army as well as all the other stuff that might more ordinarily tempt you into Britbox.

It’s one hell of a bonus, and it’s nervy, complex drama that’s impressive on every level. And yes, in case you’re wondering, it’s the show that ’Allo ’Allo got ten years of farce out of parodying. The point being that if the original hadn’t worked so hugely well as drama, the send-up would never have worked as comedy.

Go back to basics and check out Secret Army on Britbox. It’ll open your eyes to a way of doing drama from which we’ve largely moved away, but which still packs all the punches it needs to keep you riveted for three nerve-wracking series.

Watch Secret Army today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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