The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Thursday, 9 September 2010


Currently watching Secret Army c/o LoveFilm, the drama series about a Belgian escape line for British airmen in World War II broadcast by the BBC in 1977. Described as ‘The single greatest popular drama series ever produced by the BBC’ by TV experts Paul Condon and Jim Sangster (although they wrote that before the broadcast of The Deep) but which is now generally more famous for being the inspiration for ‘Allo ‘Allo.

It’s not hard to see why. Every episode of Secret Army is so remorselessly downbeat, the idea of making a parody is obvious. Plus there’s the fact that the complications of characters living double lives and bizarre escape methods is pretty much a farce generation machine; just set the engine running and add another character or another complication whenever it starts to run out of steam. There’s also the incongruity that in Secret Army Bernard Hepton has managed to get an attractive young mistress, despite having the face of a weary bloodhound; clearly a prototype for Rene Artois. (Artois being the drink they serve in the bar Candide in Secret Army. I note also from looking at the website that John D Collins will become a Secret Army regular – yes, that’s John D Collins of John D Collins and Nicholas Frankau fame. Hilary Minster is in ‘Allo ‘Allo as well, playing pretty much the same role.)

Back in the 70’s, TV drama – particularly on the BBC – was a more sedate affair. Scenes would be allowed to play out at a leisurely pace over several minutes. Characters would enter, say hellos, decant themselves a brandy, pull up a chair, discuss recent plot developments, their backgrounds and motivations, before downing the brandy, saying goodbyes and leaving.

Which sounds tedious, but it’s to Secret Army’s credit that despite this, it’s absolutely compelling because each storyline is incredibly well-constructed and full of tension – in each episode, the lead characters are making life or death decisions, and facing extraordinarily dramatic moral dilemmas – who can they trust, and, in particular, who are they prepared to have killed in order to protect the escape line.

Because with Secret Army, there’s no guarantee you’ll get out alive. In fact, having watched the first eight episodes, the escape cell have pretty much failed to rescue anyone, but have had allowed several British airmen to be killed in order to keep their secrets, or deflect suspicion, along with several civilians who have made the mistake of Knowing Too Much and being about to betray our heroes to the Nazis. I’m tempted to keep score – so far it’s about Dead British Airmen 15, Dead Belgian Civilians 7, Rescued British Airmen 0.

While most stories seem to be concerned with escape attempts that are doomed to fail and people having to make terrible moral compromises, we also follow the Nazis; Kessler, the rigid, authoritarian from the Gestapo and the Luftwaffe Major Brandt. Theirs is a relationship of simmering sexual tension and extremely poor project management; both of them constantly questioning the others’ authority and competence and blaming the other for the extraordinary number of dead British airmen that keep turning up in the backstreets of Brussels.

The cast are uniformly magnificent – it’s fun spotting the BBC character actors and before-they-were-famous-es and the oh-which-episode-of-Doctor-Who-were-they-ins. Special applause, though, for Clifford Rose as television’s greatest ever Nazi, Christopher Neame as the ever-suspicious Flight Lieutenant Curtis (he was also in Colditz in a not dissimilar role, and was in the Doctor Who story that the BBC never finished and so never broadcast. He’s brilliant, but seems to have pretty much vanished from UK telly since the early 80’s. Oh, he went to America, thank you Wikipedia.), the legendary Bernard Hepton as the bar-owning bloodhound, and the stunning and marvellous Jan Francis as Lisa Colbert who runs the escape LifeLine whose polite, calm manner belies a heart of ice and a fierce determination.

It's an incredibly predictable thing to say, but I'll say it anyway - this is exactly the sort of TV show the BBC don't make any more. But really should.

Anyway, the next four episodes have arrived from LoveFilm. Who will survive this week? Can only watch one episode at a time, though, it’s too depressing otherwise.

Unless you’re on the Germans' side, of course.

For more about Secret Army, this website is very good.