on 28 December 2013
John D Collins, one of the silly RAF men from Allo Allo, did panto at the Hackney Empire in 1997, giving me the chance to ask him if anyone from the silly French Resistance spoof had also been in the very serious drama that inspired it. He replied that he himself had; 'I was the Belgian police prefect in Series Two. Gerry Giaister was very angry about Allo Allo because it meant that Secret Army would never get repeated, and he wouldn't get any repeat fees'.
I'm sceptical to this day that that was the only reason for his annoyance; Allo Allo is light-as-air, seen-one-seen-the-lot twaddle, trotting out the same gags, same situations, week in week out, and parodying pretty much everything it can out of Secret Army. Charges of artistic turpitude would surely be rebutted with high-flown reasons of 'it is always all right', but the relentless lampoonery is not kind.
But imagine Allo Allo this way: Turn Herr Flick's fetishistic campness down a shade and let him really kill people whenever he likes with absolutely no comeback. Change Rene's name to Albert Foiret, make him, on the one hand, genuinely in danger of torture and death but almost nervelessly brave, and on the other perfectly capable of killing in cold blood, taking human life with no more thought than he'd give to wringing the neck of a chicken - and make him, on the quiet, extremely mean.
And Michelle of the Resistance; just consider her 'Pay attention, I shall say zis urnly wurnce' catchphrase, what if they are the words of a courageous patriot on which someone's life may depend?
From all this you may gather that one thing that Secret Army isn't is funny, in fact the first series takes itself so seriously that real veterans of the Resistance asked 'Where are the laughs? We laughed all the time'. It may become more inclined to smile after this, but the surrounding darkness is undiminished.
The story is of 'Lifeline', a Belgian-run resistance group dedicated to repatriating airmen (typically RAF) before the Germans catch them. While it doesn't aspire to taking on the full force of the Wehrmacht - in fact it would very much prefer to have no contact whatever with Germans - Lifelines work is important, and highly dangerous for all involved, and while the Luftwaffe Polizei are formidable opponents, the SS are considerably nastier, and seem to have finely rehearsed each nuance of calculated villainy 'And zen you snatch der cigarette from his mouth, and hit him in the face...'
It is very finely acted throughout, with Bernard Hepton, Angela Richards, Juliet Hammond-Hill and (in the first series) Jan Francis sharing centre stage as Lifeline, with Valentine Dyall lending medical support as Dr Keldermans*, and Ron Pember bringing food and providing shelter as farmer, Alain Muny.
On the side of evil (and this is not just political partisan cudgel-bearing - they are not just 'reactionary' or 'right wing', Nazism *is* evil) Clifford Rose in the once-in-a-lifetime-if-you're very-lucky role of Ludvig Kessler - ideological Nazi, and model of cold Teutonic efficiency. So much power should never be given to anybody, least of all Kessler.
He's supported, at least most of the time, by the Luftwaffe Polizei's Major Brandt (Michael Culver), who dislikes his methods, and gets better results from prisoners by being nice to them. Brandt takes his own life at the end of Series Two, and is replaced by Major Reinhardt (Terrence Hardiman) for Series Three.
The good guys are even more divided; the Communists being particularly keen to take over Lifeline for themselves, and the British Secret Service are by no means trusted - although they're generally impressive. Stephen Yardley plays sneaky Communist interloper, Max Brocard in Series Two, while Christopher Neame is daring spook, Curtis, in Series One, and Paul Shelley, Major Nick Bradley in Series Three.
One of Bradley's finest japes is to dispatch a man following Natalie by luring him to a factory, killing him with his bare hands, and hiding the body in a massive empty silo - won't be found til the place is pulled down! Curtis's final flight from Belgium is a stylish tour d'impudence, and Max's interrogation of a supposed double agent by means of chaining a weight to his feet and then drowning him in a canal lock is expressively sadistic.
Visually, the series does an excellent job of de-glamourising war. Unlike Colditz (also by Mr Glaister) this is not an extension of boarding school high jinks, nor is it Johnny Bull sporting his fives against the beastly Bosch, flying the flag, doing the right thing, playing a straight bat and the White Man. There are no brave forlorn hopes, glorious cavalry charges, daring climbs up the side of perilous crags. Quite often it's just a shabby looking little man with a droopy moustache, a revolver in his pocket, and no sense of compunction whatsoever, not just in killing Germans, but any of his own countrymen that might know too much, fall into Nazi hands, and talk - and the Germans will ensure that they do talk - that's a given. One of the most shocking aspects of this story is the absolute necessity to kill people on your own side.
The desired impression is that all the location stuff is filmed in Belgium, but the reality is that unless you recognise it as Brussels (the exterior of the Candide restaurant is a real one on the Grand Place, and presumably also quite expensive!) countryside may well be East Anglia, though Southall Gasworks features at one point, as does the Borough Market. Bradley gets killed on some stone steps that are actually on the side of London Bridge (built in 1973!).
There are some notable cameos: Paul Copley, Ian McCulloch, Peter Barkworth (dies well), Duncan Lamont, Stephen Chase, Prentis Hancock (kills well), Maurice Denham, Davyd Harries and Ralph Bates, though generally there are relatively few 'names' for a TV series of its time.
I think the most important aspect is that much of this happened - Gerald Glaister wasn't making it up - from the old man smuggling people in the specially adapted sidecar of his motorbike, to Kessler inviting all of his informants to a garden party, and then having a file of prisoners shot in front of them all - one of the very great strengths of Secret Army is that it shows just how very difficult it can be to do the right thing, and how easy to do the wrong one. It is very good television indeed.
(Incidentally, John D Collins was not the only Secret Army actor to go on to Allo Allo; others include Richard Marner, Hillary Minster and Guy Siner)
*Kessler, if you try to torture the Black Guardian, bad things will happen to you.