The utter weirdness of The Secret Service
Mark Pickavance celebrates the strange Gerry Anderson series that few ever saw
As a child of the 60s, I was brought up on a rich diet of Gerry Anderson productions, from Four Feather Falls, to Fireball XL-5, Super-car, Stingray and Thunderbirds, and so on. What really excited me as a child was the scope of the ideas, and grandeur of the vision. As such I consumed each new series with a limitless appetite, tuning in at every opportunity to see repeats of all these classic series.
Most people think that the last of the classic puppet series was Joe 90, until the odd eighties retro revamp of Terrahawks, but it wasn't. Sandwiched between the acceptable face of children's reprogramming and the more adult targeted U.F.O was another Anderson series, and one that most people have probably chosen to forget: The Secret Service.
I developed a fascination to see this show when it was covered by a number of news stories, most notably in the teen-centric TV magazine Look-In. The irony was that by the time Look-In was talking about the series, it was entirely dead and buried, and circulating on only a very few ITV networks, of which mine was one.
But the more information I got on The Secret Service, the more I began to wonder if Gerry had entirely lost the plot in his unrelenting pursuit of Supermarionation productions.
The plot behind the series was odd to begin with, a parish priest who moonlights as a secret agent, working for BISHOP, a previously unknown part of the secret service. If that doesn't sound wonderfully exciting, the opening title sequences of a ringing bell and a rural parish church didn't exactly make the adrenalin flow either.
But what made The Secret Service really stand out was that it formed an odd bridge between the entirely puppet world of the previous productions, and the live action of the U.F.O. and Space 1999 to come. The characters were versions of the Joe 90 puppet technology, but often the show placed them in real locations, not expensive miniature sets. This was explained by the 'minimiser', a device that could shrink humans (and other equipment) to the size of , er, puppets - conveniently.
If that seems odd and contrived, then the choice of personality to play Father Unwin came right from the same one that thought a dog who can say 'sausages' was hilarious. The comedian Stanley Unwin, because they couldn't be bothered to think up a new name for him in the show, was famous for communicating through an entirely mangled version of the English language, 'unwinese'. It was the sort of act that 'light entertainment' at the BBC loved, as it was unlikely to offend anyone, and able to be spliced for a few minutes into any of their singer-centric productions.
The flaws in Unwin providing the pivotal character in a puppet spy spoof were cruelly exposed, when financial backer Lew Grade saw the show's pilot, and immediately declared that a US audience wouldn't understand Unwin, however funny some in the UK found him. He cancelled the show there and then, not to everyone's surprise.
Amazingly, Grade still allowed Century 21 Television them to complete the 13-episode run that had been ordered, and Gerry quickly moved on to U.F.O. and other projects.
The UK networks didn't react well to the series either, and when released in late 1969 it was only aired on ATV, Granada and Southern. While it repeated on those regions a few times, Granada showed it last, in 1975, and it was never resold. It can be found on DVD, for those who must have everything that Anderson made.
Looking back it now I can follow what Anderson was trying to do, combining a little comedic elements of 'All Gas and Gaiters', with the espionage motif of Joe 90. That said, the production just didn't have the scale of thinking or production values we'd come to expect. While the Unwin puppet was an almost complete facsimile of the man himself, most of the other puppets were borrowed from previous productions, mostly Captain Scarlet. The resulting show doesn't have the dramatic set-sequences of the previous Anderson productions, where Derek Meddings would blow everything up, in fact very little exciting happened in general. The fact that most ITV regions chose to show The Faxton Boys instead of The Secret Service, spoke volumes.
Supporters of the show point to the quirky nature of the ideas, and how in the context of The Avengers, these things had gone down well state-side.
Having reviewed what footage exists on YouTube, I can't quite bring myself to buy the complete DVD box set, which is selling for just £7.50 online. Perhaps it was one of those things that was better in anticipation, than reality.
What it did achieve was to finally convince Anderson that he needed to move to live action, and the shows that sprung from that were a much more positive development.
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