The unseen episode of Secret Army, and Kessler

I’ve been a bit lazy about finishing off the Secret Army project, partly because I’m a little sorry to see the end of it. (In case you missed them: Series One, Series Two and Series Three.) Before discussing the spinoff series Kessler, we need to have a look at the fourteenth episode of Series Three, What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?, which was filmed in 1979 along with the rest but has never actually been shown on TV. Samizdat copies are floating around the internets, and you can see it here.

It’s a startling break of pace with the rest of the series. It’s set in 1969, so almost 25 years after the final episode that was shown but still ten years before it was made. We have the old gang coming back together to identify Kessler’s new identity as industrialist Manfred Dorf, as part of a British TV show about the resistance. It just doesn’t work dramatically. Secret Army was about a time and a pace, and the experiment of unmooring the show from its context can sometimes work (eg the last episode of The Prisoner), but here it doesn’t.

The final scene doesn’t work very well at all, with Natalie expressing her dedication to fighting Communism everywhere; although Communists were also bad guys on the show, this conclusion doesn’t really seem to follow from the premises that we have. And the floaty effect is really awful.

Imagine if we’d been left with that rather than the dancing in the Candide as the final scene of the whole three series? So it was right, on aesthetic grounds, to keep it from the viewers of 1979.

In parenthesis, writers of big works like this often do like to do a twenty-years-on epilogue. Tolkien wrote one for The Lord of the Rings, but was persuaded to drop it. J.K. Rowling wrote one for Harry Potter, and should have taken the advice to drop it that I’m sure she was given. Often it’s better to let the story stand for itself, without the writer popping in to tell us what it all means.

So, on to Kessler, shown in November and December 1981. I didn’t watch it at the time; at 14 I think my parents would have allowed me to if I did, but I wasn’t interested. It is set around the present day (hints that it may be late 70s rather than early 80s), and starts with the reunion in Brussels from the unshown What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?, but then develops into a story of West German anti-Nazi security agent Richard Bauer and freelance Israeli Mical Rak, played by Alan Dobie and Nitza Shaul, pursuing Kessler to try and expose his new identity and his plans. They chase him to Paraguay (these scenes filmed in Spain) with his daughter, herself a convinced next-generation Nazi. After some running around, Kessler’s daughter is killed, he takes his own life and justice is served. I must say I found it minor stuff.

It does vaguely capture the fragility of the Bonn Republic, which always felt a bit more provisional than it professed to be. But it’s disappointing not to get the context for Bauer’s work; we sense that he is also freelancing in his pursuit of Dorf/Kessler, but it would have been fair to West Germany to unpack that a bit more.

There is one really outstanding episode, the fourth, in which Kessler arrives in Paraguay to face interrogation by the senior Nazis there, headed by Josef Mengele, played memorably by Oscar Quitak. In reality Mengele died in 1979 in Brazil, but this was not known until 1985, so at the time the show was made he was thought to be the senior escaped Nazi. (Martin Bormann also makes an appearance, though the consensus since the mid-1970s is that he died in 1945 and that his remains were discovered in Berlin in 1972.) The scene where Mengele and his colleagues discover that Kessler has been tailed to Asuncion by Rak and Bauer is pretty good.

But basically Kessler doesn’t quite have the heart and soul that Secret Army did, and while it’s interesting for a completist like me, I would not otherwise particularly recommend it.

There is a book as well, Kessler by John Brason, and the second paragraph of the third chapter is a solid bit of exposition:

Half-an-hour later Rückert stopped the machine playing, and pressed the re-wind as he turned to Kessler. Both men were silent and unhappy. They had watched snippets of interviews with Nazis living in comparative security in various places in South America. Pathetic, frightened creatures who lived in the bars and shadows of towns and cities from Tierra del Fuego to Buenos Aires and Maracaibo – old faces of old comrades-in-arms. Bur they thought most of all of an interview between van Eyck and the man calling himself Manfred Dorf, head of the Dorf industrial empire, a respected international industrialist being accused of false identity … the truth being that he, Dorf, was none other than Standartenführer Ludwig Kessler, one time Head of SS and Gestapo in the Low Countries, the much-feared Höherer SS und Polizeifiihrer from 1942 to 1944, a territorial leader with the corresponding significance of Gauleiter. The lack of birth papers, the absence from census, the startling likeness to the military records photographs, the coincidences, and possibly the supreme coincidence of the Belgian wife whose name just-happened to be Madeleine.

Unlike the Secret Army books, this is a straightforward novelisation of the complete TV series. (The first Secret Army book is a prequel, and the other two mix novelised TV episodes with original material.) In the days when home taping was something you did by holding a microphone up to the TV, this was the best you could get to relive the show, and it’s a faithful account; the good bits are still good, and the background exposition is still not as full as I would have liked. You can get it here. (the DVD of Kessler is no longer available, but of course it can be obtained in the usual way.)

Secret Army: Third series, third book and Andy Priestner’s indispensable guide

The third series of Secret Army is a real masterpiece of story-telling. The first series and second series had a fairly static situation, with a sort of resistance-romp-of-the-week plot, though with the extra tension that regular and semi-regular characters got killed off at fairly frequent intervals. But the last thirteen episodes are driven by the approaching Allied armies, who landed in Normandy at the end of the second series; the end of the German occupation is coming, and everyone will have a reckoning, like it or not. Even with victory in sight, the resistance is torn ideologically, with Lifeline under threat from the Communists; and Albert spends most of the series in jail on suspicion of murdering his wife, which enables the rest of the cast to show their talents.

As usual I’m going to single out a few episodes for attention. I’ve generally avoided calling out appearances in Secret Army of actors who also appeared in Doctor Who and other things that I love and follow, but for the fourth episode, A Safe Place, it was irresistible.

Yes, in only his second year as a professional actor, that is Anthony Stewart Head, later of course to be Giles in Buffy (and the leader of the Krillitane in that great Doctor Who episode School Reunion), this time the co-ordinator of the Germans’ latest wheeze to disrupt the network for crashed allied airmen. And as second German radio operator, it’s Guy Siner, memorable to Who fans of course as the young General Ravon in Genesis of the Daleks, but also later to appear in all 85 episodes of Allo! Allo! as Lieutenant Gruber.

The episode is also remarkable for the scene set in a gay bar in downtown Brussels, which I present here.

With 1970s BBC shows you can never be entirely sure, but I think it’s a scene more sympathetic to the clubbers than the Nazis.

The climax of the entire show is the confrontation in the Candide in episode 10, Collaborators, between Reinhardt of the Luftwaffe and Albert and the rest of Lifeline. But neither side realises that the Communist resistance are not far away… and because Albert’s cover has been so good, many people think that he has been too close to the Germans. In the 42nd minute of the 40th episode, we get here:

The next three episodes are almost unbearably tense, as our heroes get to grips with the new state of affairs. I’m really at a loss to think of any other show which had a fairly static (if perilous) situation informing the background of 90% of the total run time, and then threw our characters into completely new circumstances at the very end. Since so many key characters have already been killed off, we really don’t know who will live and who will die. It’s a tremendous arc of storytelling.

Some bits don’t work as well as others. I think the plotline in which Reinhardt is executed by his own side feels rather bolted on, a historical curiosity (in that there was one real execution of a German officer by his own side after the war was over, but in the Netherlands not Belgium). I think also if I’d been watching an episode a week rather than one every evening, the romance between Monique and an English officer would have seemed a bit less whirlwind. But it’s high time she got over Albert anyway. And apart from what happens to Lifeline in Brussels, the drama of Kessler’s ultimate escape, facilitated by his Belgian girlfriend Madeleine, is tremendously effective. I give you the last six minutes of the show, complete with end titles, starting with Kessler’s exit in style.

This series was first shown on Saturday nights in late 1979, after Doctor WhoDestiny of the Daleks, and then it tracked City of Death and The Creature from the Pit, concluding the same evening as Nightmare of Eden. (Spoiler: the Secret Army finale was better.)

There is once again a book-of-the-series, Secret Army: The End of the Line, by chief writer John Brason. It is largely a novelisation of three episodes: the bubonic plague one, Ring of Roses, mentioned above; the raid on a V2 launch site, Just Light the Blue Touch PaperThe Execution, with linking narrative. The second paragraph of the third chapter, “Just Light the Blue Touch Paper”, is:

Monique turned to Alain. ‘And you said you thought I was being followed yesterday?’

I think if I had been advising Brason, I’d have suggested giving even more time to the climax of the story and dropping the earlier bits. The plague episode is particularly weird to watch in 2020, but I think it’s a dramatic miss as the tension of the situation is resolved in a bound at the end. The V2 episode looks great, but surely our heroes are acting somewhat out their usual mandate here? As it is, the two penultimate episodes, Days of Judgement and Bridgehead, are dispatched in about three pages. However, at the end, everyone is where they are meant to be, and the book purchaser of 1979, who would have had no idea that in forty years’ time we could stream the whole show, would have been glad to be reminded of a few key moments. You can get it here.

It would have been completely impossible to write this series of posts without Andy Priestner’s indispensable 650-page The Complete Secret Army: the unofficial and unauthorised guide to the classic TV series, which you can get here. It’s structured in a way that makes it difficult to determine which the third chapter is; this is the second paragraph of the intro to the section covering the third series.

Given that the third series is regarded as such an unequivocal success, with startling first transmission viewing figures (even for those episodes unaffected by the ITV strike), it is fascinating to discover just how much of that which made it on screen had been shaped by circumstance rather than as a result of Glaister and Brason’s original plans, and how their crucial decisions, some of which were made very late in the day, ensured that it would be a series that would come to be regarded as one of the best BBC dramas of all time.

I am spoiled by the vast amount of Doctor Who analysis out there, but it’s still gratifying to see good television subjected to good criticism. It’s a book that is definitely a labour of love, but a love that is not blind and doesn’t flinch from pointing out the show’s occasional weaknesses.

Priestner takes us through the creation process, including the nuts and bolts of filming (though I wish he’d been a bit more specific about the Brussels locations) but also the backgrounds of actors, writers and directors, and an examination of influences on the show, and also its shadow cast into the future (including a despairing section on Allo! Allo!). There’s a heart-breaking account where he gets the cast together years later to reminisce about their days on the show, and then discovers that the precious video he made of their conversation was taped over to record a family barbecue. (We’ve just been going through the video tapes in the attic ourselves, which tugs at the heartstrings a bit.) If you’re thinking of revisiting Secret Army, now that it’s easier to do so than ever, I recommend that you have Andy Priestner by your side.

I’ll do one more post in this sequence, covering the Episode That Was Never Shown, and the series and book of Kessler.

Secret Army, series 2; the second book; and reflections on Allo! Allo!

Second paragraph of the third chapter of Secret Army Dossier, by John Brason:

Albert sat, silent and morose, contributing nothing and feeling generally sorry for himself. He was still feeling pangs of guilt and self-disgust at Andree’s death. Monique bore with him, quelling her own personal mingling of sadness and relief. There was no doubt that Andree’s death changed her own situation significantly. She should be rejoicing, but the actuality proved something different. She was feeling slightly sick inside . . . just slightly . . . and even responsible for that wretched woman’s death. What purpose did it serve? There was no answer, just as there was no escape. She was standing behind Albert, her hand on his shoulder as Natalie sighed.

The second Secret Army book includes novelisations of four episodes and two original chapters. They are two from the first series, Good Friday, the grim one set in a monastery and Be The First Kid in Your Block to Rule the World (the season finale, which I wrote about last time); followed by the third chapter, Pastures New, not based on a TV episode, telling the story of how Albert moved his cafe to the Grand’ Place; and then from the second series, Russian Roulette (the one with the funny Russian escapees, with a grim ending), Phoenix (an untelevised story about a crashed British ace) and the season finale Days of Wrath (where notably the wrong regular character dies, the book having been finalised before the TV series).

The writing is good – we have to remember that at the time, with no home video, it seemed entirely likely that nobody would ever see Secret Army again, unless it got a summer repeat, and the novel would be the only way to experience the show again. How things have changed…

In general the second series hums along with confidence. One of the regular characters from the first season is killed off at the end of the first episode, ironically by a British air raid, and the team need to reorganise themselves. New arrivals include Max the forger with very dubious connections, played by Stephen Yardley who was previously Sevrin the mutant in the great Doctor Who story Genesis of the Daleks, and Madeleine, a Belgian woman who becomes the lover of SS Stumbannfuhrer Kessler, somewhat humanising his monstrous personality (though we can never forget that he is indeed a monster), played by Hazel MacBride who I don’t think I’ve seen in anything else (though I see she wrote three episodes of The Rubbadubbers).

Once again I’m going to pick three episodes that stood out to me for different reasons. First, and most selfishly, the third episode, Lucky Piece, features location filming in my part of Brussels, the European Quarter, then the Quartier Leopold. Most Secret Army episodes include a fair bit of location filming, particularly once the Candide has moved to the Grand’Place and you then make a virtue of necessity. That also tends to mean that the locations used are downtown in Brussels, or in some cases on appropriately war-torn settings in England. (The train stations are all Peterborough, shot from different angles.) But in Lucky Piece, Natalie, played by Juliet Hammond-Hill, is dealing with a safe house out in my part of town (outside lockdown conditions), and I got a real thrill out of identifying the streets that she walks through (assisted by John Bedford and Paul Hagan on Twitter).

So, this is all shot around where the European Parliament is now. It’s well done – the shots of Nathalie walking along the street and through the park are actually the same setting twice in both cases, but you wouldn’t know unless you knew. All of the buildings are still there with the exception of the bar, knocked down some decades ago to make space for the European Parliament’s Spaak building (known as the Caprice des Dieux, because of its resenblance in shape to a cheese of that name).

In the next scene, she and her stalker are outside the cathedral downtown, instantly transported about 2 km.

It’s otherwise not one of the great episodes, notable mainly because the stranded airman of the week comes back next season as a regular character. But it’s nice to see my part of town from more than forty years ago.

On the other hand the next episode, Trapped, is tremendous. Monique, played by Angela Richards (who you will remember is the lover of Albert) is wounded in France and the Germans are closing in on her in hospital. This is a tremendous ensemble scene from the regular cast on the Resistance side as they find out and decide what to do.

In the meantime Kessler is juggling his SS duties, ie tracking down Monique, whose true identity he does not know, with his new romance with Madeleine. In a superbly intense final scene, Kessler, on his first date with Madeleine, insists that Monique (who has meantime been dramatically retrieved) must sing for him, not knowing that she is recovering from a bullet wound. This is practically my favourite scene of all three series.

One other point to make about Trapped: in most Secret Army episodes with part of the action in France, one gets the sense that there is effectively no border with Belgium (for instance, last year’s season finale Be The First Kid in Your Block to Rule the World). While it’s true that the German military government of Belgium also included neighbouring areas of northern France, I can’t really believe that there were no border checks at all. Anyway, this episode does in fact uniquely include a France/Belgium frontier post, reassuringly realistic.

Anyway. Once again, the season finale, Days of Wrath, is a hit – possibly the weakest of the three season finales, but they are all very strong. The two standout scenes are the attack on Gestapo HQ in Avenue Louise by a Belgian pilot serving with the RAF (based on the true story of Jean De Selys Longchamps). At the same time, the Allied D-Day landings are taking place, and at the same time again Luftwaffe Major Brandt is about to get some very bad news. I have not given Brandt enough coverage in my write-ups – he’s hugely important as the Good German (or at least the Not-Quite-As-Bad German) of the first two seasons. Here is how he leaves the show.

These episodes were first shown in late 1978, during the early part of the Winter of Discontent, coinciding with the Doctor Who stories The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara and the first episode of The Power of Kroll.

Finally for today, the elephant in the room whenever we discuss Secret Army is the comedy spoof Allo! Allo! which riffed off many of Secret Army‘s themes – the innkeeper with a moustache who is cheating on his wife, the young women in charge of the resistance, the invalid in the upper room, German officers including a sinister guy whose glasses have small round lenses. In fact Secret Army lasted only half as long as the real occupation, while Allo! Allo! lasted twice as long. It was a much bigger hit in terms of popular culture – when I worked in Bosnia, my much-missed assistant Danijela used to introduce herself in the mornings with “It is I, Leclercq.” But in the end, Secret Army is actually good drama which stands the test of time. I suspect that Allo! Allo! does not. And in any case, there is something pretty awful about having funny Nazis. Secret Army does not make that mistake.

Secret Army, Season 1; and book

This post has been a long time brewing. I watched the whole of the 1970s series Secret Army, and the sequel series Kessler, during what we must now call the first lockdown in the summer, and thoroughly enjoyed it. But I did not get around to writing it up at the time. Now I’ve spurred myself into activity by getting and reading the four novels associated with the TV stories, and I’ll be writing them all up over the next few Mondays.

In case you didn’t know, it’s a series about Belgian resistance fighters during the second world war, specifically an organisation called Lifeline whose purpose was to get downed RAF men back to England by smuggling them through France to Spain. The first series was broadcast in September to December 1977, conteporary with the Doctor Who stories Horror of Fang Rock, The Invisible Enemy, Image of the Fendahl and The Sun Makers, and just before the first season of Blake’s 7.

In terms of internal narrative, however, the story starts with John Brason’s novel Secret Army. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

It was bright and sunny when Pieter Pynas and two others were brought from the cells into the light, which made them blink and half-close their eyes momentarily. The trees, the sunny day, the twenty or thirty people, men and women, who stood around and chatted and smiled, made it all seem like a ghoulish garden party. The three men had no doubt of why they had been surfaced, nor were they disabused of the knowledge when they saw the wooden stakes and heard the tramp of soldiers’ feet on the garden gravel.

Yep, it’s as grim as that makes it sound. The book tells of how young Lisa Colbert loses her lover and family in the early days of the German invasion and occupation of Belgium, and then links up through her uncle, banker Gaston Colbert, and his friend Dr Keldermans, with innkeeper Albert Foiret who provides the cover that she needs to set up Lifeline. It actually has a lot more back-story than appears on the TV screen, and I think I’d recommend that the interested potential fan read the book first; it is entirely set before the action of the TV stories. (Unlike the other three books which are basically novelisations.) You can get it here.

So, the first series has 16 episodes and I am not going to write them all up here. I think for each series I’ll pick the most interesting three and say why I liked them. For this series. that’s the beginning, the end and one in the middle. Here are the opening titles and first scene from the very first episode.

The very first episode, Lisa – Codename Yvette, which as of this writing is available in its entirety here, sets up slightly odd expectations by including some of the action in England at the other end of Lifeline’s activities – we barely go back across the channel again, though I think the intention may have been to do that a bit more. My heart was delighted by some appearances from my favourite show:

To unpack that a bit: the British co-ordinator, who does not appear again, is played by Anthony Ainley, who was to become the Master on Doctor Who for the 1980s; Dr Keldermans, one of the regulars, is played by Valentine Dyall, who would also pay the Black Guardian; Gaston Colbert, Lisa’s uncle and another regular character, is played by James Bree, who had already played one of the bad guys in the 1969 Who story The War Games and would go on to have two more roles in the 1980s; and the chief baddie, SS officer Kessler, is played by Clifford Rose who turned up as leader of the slave traders in the 1980 Who story Warrior’s Gate.

But this tweet misses the main characters, who instead I’ll introduce via this clip from the end of the episode. Bernard Hepton as Albert and Angela Richards as his assistant and lover Monique bicker about his wife, bedridden upstairs; Yvette (Jan Francis) then brings in the purported British officer Curtis (Christopher Neame, was was also in the unbroadcast Who story Shada) to check his credentials. It’s a great establishment of the characters and set-up.

The episode was written by Willis Hall, best known in the 1960s as co-writer with Keith Waterhouse of Whistle Down the Wind, A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar. He moved on from this to Worzel Gummidge. The director was Kenneth Ives, who as I noted in my tweet was in the 1968 Who story The Dominators playing junior Dominator Toba. He switched to directing in 1973. No doubt the whole thing was closely revised by show-runners Gerald Glaister and John Brason.

The second episode I’m going to call out is the twelfth, A Hymn to Freedom. It’s not an especially good episode, but I found it very interesting because the central plot theme is that a minister in the puppet Belgian government installed by the Germans is planning to defect to the Allies. Now, the show claims that most of the incidents described are based on real events during the war. But in fact there was no puppet Belgian government installed by the occupiers; until the last few months in 1944, the Germans ruled through a military commander (Alexander von Falkenhausen, whose uncle had also been military governor of Belgium during the first world war and who was himself a former military advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek) and when they appointed a civilian administration it was also led by Germans. So Secret Army is lurching well into the counterfactual here. But I thought the exploration of the position of the central guest character, Hans Van Reijn (suspiciously Dutch rather than Flemish name, played by John Carson who weent on to be the archaeologist Ambril in the Doctor Who story Snakedance) was very interesting. He is a Flemish nationalist, but his assistant Hercule (Frank Barrie) is a Francophone, and I think there is a suggestion that their relationship is more than professional. Decide for yourself:

Isn’t that well done? I especially like the appearance of Hercule’s face in the mirror. There is also an infiltrator-of-the-week plot. But (spoilers here) Van Reijn’s plan is discovered by the Germans, and he learns his fate in a tense penultimate scene with SS officer Kessler, Luftwaffe Major Brandt (who is Kessler’s internal antagonist) observing in the background. And I’m throwing in the final scene in Van Reijn’s home as well.

This was again directed by Kenneth Ives, but the writer was Michael Chapman, his only Secret Army episode.

The first series ends on a high note, the episode Be The First Kid in Your Block to Rule the World, which is also one of those to get print treatment in the second Secret Army book (which I’ll look at in detail next time). Curtis by now has been in Brussels a bit too long, and the Germans are closing in. But just as the Germans are closing in on Albert and Monique at the Cafe Candide, Albert’s invalid wife intervenes dramatically (major major spoiler but great camerawork and acting):

I’ve cheated with this because in the show it is intercut with Curtis’s daring escape from the police net in Brussels by taking the place of the driver of a Hitler Jugend day trip to St-Nazaire and driving instead to Switzerland. Now, this is stretching credibility just a little bit – even the Hitler Jugend could presumably tell the difference between the landscape in western France and the Vosges, and to drive to the nearest point in Switzerland from Brussels takes five hours in a good car on today’s roads (I did it in the opposite direction in July), so the young Nazis have had a lot of time to work out what is going on. But as is often the case, I willingly suspended my belief. This is the moment when Curtis escapes Brussels with his unknowing cadre. Michael Culver was off with appendicitis that week, so instead of the regular Brandt, the Luftwaffe is represented by Reinicke played by Michael Wynne. The odious little Hitler Jugend chap is played by Adam Richens and the checkpoint guard by John Peel (but not either of the other John Peels as far as I know).

This episode is credited to series creator John Brason as the writer, with Viktors Ritelis as director – the latter was production assistant, but not credited, on the Doctor Who story we now call The Crusade, and his arm was actually seen in one shot with ants crawling up it because William Russell, the regular actor whose arm it was supposed to be, refused to do it. (Sadly that episode is lost.)

Anyway, the first series is largely a variation of the basic narratives of running a resistance organisation in an occupied country – Jews, double agents, a murder in France etc, with strong ensemble character work from the regular cast. Next series, things start to take a darker turn. But that’s for next Monday.