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3. Everything / History & Politics / War / World War II

Secret Army - the TV Show

A beret-clad Jan Francis as Lisa Colbert, looking scared and furtive.
There is, in the making of such programmes, a level of professionalism, and sheer patient, largely unacclaimed, hard work from producer to script editor to writer to designer to vision mixer to editor by way of sound and lighting engineers that is probably equalled only in a heart transplant theatre.
Fay Weldon, The Times, 26 November, 1979.

During World War II, as Britain began regular bombing raids on Germany, their airmen were constantly at risk of being shot down, often landing in occupied countries such as Belgium. As the Belgian inhabitants came to terms with being under German occupation, small pockets of resistance began to grow. Often, this resistance involved petty acts of defiance such as blocking the roads or railtracks, or bombing weapons silos. But a more subtle resistance existed in the form of the escape routes - Belgian-run chains of people who harboured airmen and helped them escape north into Scandinavia or South, through France, into Spain, where the airmen would be met by British agents and helped back to Britain. The lifeline volunteers risked their lives constantly - if the Nazis ever caught one of them, they would be tortured until they betrayed their colleagues, or else shot on the spot as traitors. But still they continued to help the Allied airmen escape capture throughout the war in the hope that their actions would help bring the war to an end, and their oppressors to justice. It is believed that not one RAF airman managed to evade capture and return to the UK without help from the evasion lines. Over 3,000 lives were saved thanks to the bravery of these people.

This was the setting of one of British TV's most riveting dramas - Secret Army.

Production

The Secret Army (as it was originally known) was created by Gerard Glaister1 himself a former RAF pilot who survived over 100 sorties - an incredibly rare achievement. Having already produced the hugely successful prisoner of war drama Colditz a few years earlier, Glaister was in a strong position to produce a story closer to home and, so he later claimed, he actually pitched the concept to the controller of BBC One during a journey in a lift in BBC Television Centre. By the time the lift had reached its destination, Glaister had been given the go-ahead. Glaister managed to arrange a co-production deal with Belgian TV station BRT, which gave them access to location filming in Brussels. Fortunately, the BRT executives were not granted any control over the editorial content of the show, which would attempt to depict some of the German officers almost sympathetically rather than demonising them as every other drama had done since the end of the War.

Secret Army acted almost as a sequel to Colditz, sharing some of the same writers (such as NJ Crisp), directors (including Viktors Ritelis) and actors (Bernard Hepton and Christopher Neame having played prominent roles in both series). Gerard Glaister had also worked with writer John Brason on Colditz and hired him as his script editor. It fell to Brason to flesh out Glaister's brief outline into a series.

Each of the scripts were based on real-life events and were thoroughly researched - the Season Three episode 'Ring of Rosies' was based on events that took place in Northern France in October 1944, while the events that inspired the final broadcast episode, 'The Execution', was inspired by a similar trial in Schellingwoude, north of Amsterdam in May 19452. The level of research was often to a degree of accuracy that the BBC felt was too unsettling or politically sensitive, resulting in the rejection of a few episodes during the series run. The production team were also blessed with the presence of a technical advisor, Group Captain William S Randall CBE, AFC, DFM and Chairman of the RAF Escaping Society. Randall donated his fee to charity.

The Series

  • A BBC TV Production in association with BRT (Belgium).
  • Devised by Gerard Glaister and Wilfred Greatorex.
  • Producer: Gerard Glaister.
  • Script Editor: John Brason.
  • Theme Tune: An arrangement of 'Wall of Fear', a stock track originally written by Robert Farnon.
  • Title Design: Alan Jeapes, Michael Sanders.
  • Technical Advisor: Group Captain W.S.O. Randle CBE, AFC, DFM.
  • With thanks to the RAF Museum, Hendon, and the RAF Escaping society.

Series One

Regular Cast

Bernard Hepton (Albert Foiret), Jan Francis (Lisa 'Yvette' Colbert), Angela Richards (Monique Duchamps), Juliet Hammond-Hill (Natalie Chantrens), Clifford Rose (Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kessler), Michael Culver (Luftwaffe Major Erwin Brandt), Christopher Neame (Flight Lt John Curtis), Ron Pember (Alain Muny), James Bree (Gaston Colbert), Valentine Dyall (Dr Pascal Keldermans), Maria Charles (Louise Colbert), Timothy Morand (Jacques Bol), Eileen Page (Andrée Foiret), Robin Langford (Veit Rennert, Kessler's Personal Assistant).

Summary

Christopher Neame as British officer Curtis, with Angela Richards as Monique and Bernard Hepton as Albert, two of the key operatives of 'Lifeline'.

'Lifeline' was set up by a young Belgian nurse, Lisa Colbert, after the death of her parents. Using the codename 'Yvette' to ensure she cannot be traced, Lisa has conscripted café-owner Albert Foiret, along with his staff at the Candide, to help her guide rescued airmen to and from safehouses and see them 'down the line'. Foiret's wife Andrée is bedridden, crippled after a car accident some years earlier. As he and his wife have grown apart, Foiret has begun an affair with his waitress Monique Duchamps. They are helped by Dutch-born Natalie Chantrens, who works with Lisa as a guide, farmer Alain who is their radio operator and Pascal Keldermans, a doctor and Lisa's employer, who secretly looks after wounded airmen until they are well enough to be sent down the line. Unexpected help comes from RAF officer John Curtis, who is sent by the British forces posing as a travelling salesman to provide Lifeline with finance and co-ordinate the evasion lines on behalf of London.

Head of the Luftwaffe in Brussels, Major Brandt has long sought to crack lifeline and uncover the people responsible. But the SS back in Germany are not happy with his progress and send one of their most ruthless officers, Sturmbahnf¨hrer Kessler, to work 'alongside' him. Kessler is ambitious and paranoid and immediately commences investigations into his colleague.

The first series focussed on the Lifeline's constant struggle to save the airmen - often no more than teenagers - while protecting their safehouses and evading the Germans. Significantly, almost every episode of Series One deals with their failures. But as their successes grow in number, the Germans slowly become more and more aware of their existence, which of course brings them closer to smashing Lifeline. Having traced a batch of forged bank-notes back to Lisa's uncle, Gaston, Kessler interrogates the man in the belief he can lead them to the people behind the evasion lines. Lisa later learns that Gaston was shot dead trying to escape the German HQ.

For Albert, things become increasingly difficult when his wife begins to suspect him of adultery. During a raid on the café, Andrée tries to crawl out of her bedroom but ends up falling head-first down a flight of stairs, breaking her neck. As the first series draws to a close, Kessler orders a massive house-to-house search of Brussels. John Curtis has already drawn the attentions of Kessler and Brandt, so he is forced to flee Brussels and head back to London - which he manages by posing as the driver of a coach-full of Hitler Youth on their way to the submarine docks at St Nazaire, France. Curtis takes them on a slight detour and then manages to steal their coach and drive across the border to safety.

Episodes

  • 'Lisa - Code Name Yvette' (7 Sep 1977)
  • 'Sergeant on the Run' (14 Sep 1977)
  • 'Radishes with Butter' (21 Sep 1977)
  • 'Child's Play' (28 Sep 1977)
  • 'Second Chance' (5 Oct 1977)
  • 'Growing Up' (12 Oct 1977)
  • 'Lost Sheep' (19 Oct 1977)
  • 'Guilt' (26 Oct 1977)
  • 'Too Near Home' (2 Nov 1977)
  • 'Identity in Doubt' (9 Nov 1977)
  • 'A Question of Loyalty' (23 Nov 1977)
  • 'Hymn to Freedom' (30 Nov 1977)
  • 'Bait' (7 Dec 1977)
  • 'Good Friday' (14 Dec 1977)
  • 'Be the First Kid in Your Block to Rule the World' (29 Dec 1977)

Behind the Scenes

This was a five-part serial, produced by Tony Roberts for the BBC and narrated by Michael Molyneux, that, according to the Radio Times of the time, looked at how the first series of Secret Army was conceived, scripted, cast, designed, rehearsed, directed and produced.

  • 'We are not writing Hamlet' (13 November, 1977)
  • 'All those People were Heroes' (20 November, 1977)
  • 'I Enjoy it When it's Over' (27 November, 1977)
  • 'A Problem of Authenticity' (4 December, 1977)
  • 'A boy? A ten-year-old boy?' (11 December, 1977)

Series Two

Regular Cast

Bernard Hepton (Albert Foiret), Angela Richards (Monique Duchamps), Juliet Hammond-Hill (Natalie Chantrens), Ron Pember (Alain Muny), Valentine Dyall (Dr Pascal Keldermans), Clifford Rose (Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kessler), Michael Culver (Luftwaffe Major Erwin Brandt), Stephen Yardley (Max Brocard), Hazel McBride (Madelaine Duclos), Nigel Williams (François), John D Collins (Inspector Paul Delon), Paul Shelley (Major Nick Bradley), Robin Langford (Veit Rennert), Gunnnar Moller (Hans Van Broecken).

Summary

By the second series, Albert has bought a new restaurant, which he names 'Le Restaurant Candide'. This new venture has been financed by London to enable the members of Lifeline to cater for the Germans and, hopefully, eavesdrop on their conversations. But celebrations are curtailed when news reaches them of the death of Lisa, apparently killed during an Allied bombing. While Lifeline lies on the brink of collapse, Albert steps in and decides to continue 'Yvette''s work. Albert is introduced to a forger, Max, who begins to supply the evasion team with perfect fake documents and travel permits. But unbeknownst to the group, Max is working undercover on behalf of the Communist Resistance who are intent on deposing Albert and taking over Lifeline. After Max betrays Natalie's fiancé François to protect his own Communist cell, Albert is forced to tip off the authorities and have Max and his associates shot dead.

Meanwhile, Major Brandt has found his loyalties tested when a group of old friends approach him to join them in a revolt against Hitler. Though Brandt decides not to join them, his guilt by association is enough to incriminate him. Coming so soon after his family are killed by a British bomb, Brandt decides to commit suicide rather than face a Court Martial.

Episodes

  • 'The Hostage' (27 Sep 1978)
  • 'Russian Roulette' (4 Oct 1978)
  • 'Lucky Piece' (11 Oct 1978)
  • 'Trapped' (18 Oct 1978)
  • 'Not According to Plan' (25 Oct 1978)
  • 'Scorpion' (1 Nov 1978)
  • 'Weekend' (8 Nov 1978)
  • 'The Big One' (15 Nov 1978)
  • 'Little Old Lady' (22 Nov 1978)
  • 'Guests at God's Table' (29 Nov 1978)
  • 'A Matter of Life and Death'(6 Dec 1978)
  • 'Prisoner of War' (13 Dec 1978)
  • 'Day of Wrath' (20 Dec 1978)

Series Three

Regular Cast

Bernard Hepton (Albert Foiret), Angela Richards (Monique Duchamps), Juliet Hammond-Hill (Natalie Chantrens), Ron Pember (Alain Muny), Valentine Dyall (Dr Pascal Keldermans), Clifford Rose (Standartenführer Ludwig Kessler),Terrence Hardiman (Major Hans Dietrich Rienhardt), Hazel McBride (Madelaine Duclos), John D Collins (Inspector Paul Delon), Ralph Bates (Paul Vercors), Gunnnar Moller (Hans Van Broecken), Hillary Minster (Müller), Neil Danish (Wullner), Morris Perry (Maitre Guissard), Stephen Chase (Captain Durnford).

Summary

Clifford Rose as the sinister SS Officer Kessler.

The final series is set in the final weeks of German occupation. Paul Vercours - the leader and sole survivor of the Communist cell that Max had belonged to - begins a slow conspiracy of revenge against Albert for his actions against the Communists. He lodges an accusation with the authorities that Albert murdered his wife. While Albert languishes in prison, responsibility for Lifeline falls to Monique. But after the Germans severely restrict travel to and from Brussels, and the Communists blow up the main trainline, the evasion lines are effectively closed down. The rescued airmen can now only be hidden while they all await the anticipated end of the War. Kessler, meanwhile, receives a promotion to Standartenfuhrer only to find himself in constant conflict with new arrival Major Rienhardt, a war hero whose seemingly lazy approach - at odds with Kessler's own by-the-book methods - nevertheless begins to see greater results.

With Albert away, Monique and Natalie face various accusations of being German collaborators, prostitutes and 'Black Marketeers'3. As news of the Allied Troops' imminent arrival reaches the streets, the Germans find it increasingly impossible to keep order and eventually decide to leave the Belgians to their own devices.

When the order for German withdrawal is finally given, Kessler tries to escape with his Belgian mistress, Madelaine. Realising that, should he be captured, he might risk execution, Kessler assumes the identity of a lower ranked officer shortly before he is indeed captured by British soldiers and placed into a Prisoner of War camp. Rienhardt, meanwhile, decides to visit the Candide one last time - to confront Albert Foiret of running Lifeline merely to satisfy his intellectual curiosity before handing himself over to Albert as his prisoner. But just then, Paul Vercours arrives with a gang of Communists and takes Albert, Rienhardt and Monique captive. Albert is lynched after a Communist-run kangaroo court finds him guilty of treachery though he is rescued by British troops just in time. Monique is placed in a cage where her 'fellow' collaborators have their heads shaved for the amusement of the crowds. Thanks to the determination of Natalie, Monique is saved from such indignities by Captain Durnford, a handsome British officer. Not surprisingly, Monique and the Captain fall in love and, despite having once been Albert's mistress, Monique realises that she no longer loves him and decides to marry the Captain instead.

Having been arrested by the British officers who saved Albert, Rienhardt is placed into the same camp as Kessler. To protect his new identity, and with the grudging support of the senior officers, Kessler engineers a Court Martial of Rienhardt for allowing himself to be captured and disobeying the orders of a superior officer. Despite very flimsy evidence, Kessler manages to ensure Rienhardt is found guilty. With the final, defiant words, 'You're all mad!', Rienhardt is shot dead by a German firing squad.

Any repercussions for Kessler regarding the Court Martial are, however, completely dismissed from his mind when his mistress, Madelaine, manages to 'buy' his freedom with the help of a greedy allied officer (played by John Ratzenberger, later a star of the US sitcom Cheers) and the couple escape to a new future together. For the members of the evasion line, however, the end of the War couldn't have come sooner. Their happiness is tinged with sadness as they all say goodbye to a tearful Monique, who says her final goodbyes to the Candide and Albert before leaving for a new life with her husband in London...

Episodes

  • The Last Run (22 Sep 1979)
  • 'Invasions' (29 Sep 1979)
  • 'Revenge' (6 Oct 1979)
  • 'A Safe Place' (13 Oct 1979)
  • 'Ring of Rosies' (20 Oct 1979)
  • 'Prisoner' (27 Oct 1979)
  • 'Ambush' (3 Nov 1979)
  • 'Just Light the Blue Touch-Paper' (10 Nov 1979)
  • 'Sound of Thunder' (17 Nov 1979)
  • 'Collaborator' (24 Nov 1979)
  • 'Days of Judgement' (1 Dec 1979)
  • 'Bridgehead' (8 Dec 1979)
  • 'The Execution' (15 Dec 1979)
  • 'What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?' (Not Broadcast)

'What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?' - the Lost Episode

Though 'The Execution' was the final broadcast episode of the series, it was not the last to be made. Set 25 years later, in 1969, 'What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?' was about a TV production company's documentary about the evasion lines as part of a series called In Our Time which features interviews with an elderly but dignified Albert Foiret, a wheelchair-bound Alain Muny, an embittered Natalie (now fighting the Communists in Vietnam), Monique - who returns to the Candide for the first time since VE day - and a German industrialist called Manfred Dorff who, the interview suggests, is really Ludwig Kessler of the Gestapo. The show asks the question 'Was it all worth it?' a controversial view that many found unpalatable. Pulled from the series almost at the last minute, a memo from producer Gerard Glaister offered one explanation for the withdrawal:

Owing to difficulties caused by industrial dispute, it was not possible to complete the editing required on this very complex programme. As a result, the programme has been withdrawn for the time being. The approaching Christmas holiday puts a heavy strain on the editing facilities and a number of programmes had to be remounted after the strike and edited before the Christmas holidays. In the New Year, I will let you know if there is a new transmission date on completion of the programme.

However, John Brason has since suggested that the episode was effectively banned due to its strong anti-Communist message, though the general bias and the vague suggestion that the efforts of the evasion lines had all been for nothing would have undoubtedly have been a contributing factor. The editorial comment was therefore felt to be generally a little too strong and a decision was made by Graeme McDonald, Controller of BBC One, not to transmit the episode. 'He was being absolutely correct,' John Brason would later say, admitting that it was 'one of my few things that looked better on paper than on-screen'. To this date, the episode remains untransmitted.

The Books

John Brason wrote three books, the first, entitled just Secret Army, leading up to the events in Series One as a kind of prequel, the second, Secret Army Dossier consisted of new material explaining what happened between seasons one and two (specifically the funeral of Albert's wife and the purchase of new Candide restaurant) as well as adaptations of some of Brason's Season Two scripts and one chapter, 'Phoenix', which appears to have been based on the script for a rejected Christmas episode. The last book, Secret Army: The End of the Line, covers events from the third series, based on Brason's scripts with linking material covering episodes written by NJ Crisp et al.

The Music

Au Café Candide (REC 412 Stereo), was released in 1981, containing songs that Angela Richards, as Monique, has sung in the show, accompanied by Ken Moule, the Candide's resident pianist during Series Three. Eight of the tracks were war-time favourites, while six were written by Richards herself, with help from Moule and Leslie Osborne. The front cover depicted Angela Richards and Ken Moule in character, the back sleeve a painting of a Wellington bomber in flight.

Side One

  1. 'Je Suis Seul Ce Soir' (Noel, Casanova, Durand)
  2. 'Memories Come Gently Back To Me' (Richards, Osborne)
  3. 'Nuages'(Richards)
  4. 'Einmal Wirst Du Wieder Bei Mir Sein' (Kollo)
  5. 'Lili Marlene' (Leip, Schultze)
  6. 'That Lovely Weekend' (Heath)
  7. 'For All Our Yesterdays' (Richards Moul)

Side Two

  1. 'J'attendrai' (Sievier, Poterat, Olivier)
  2. 'Blues in the Night' (Arlen)
  3. 'I Bet You've Heard This One Before' (Richards, Osborne)
  4. 'Velvet Blue' (Richards, Moul)
  5. 'I'll Be Seeing You' (Fain)
  6. 'If This Is The Last Time I See You' (Richards, Osborne)
  7. 'When We Can Live In Peace Once More' (Richards, Osborne)

Angela Richards returned to the music of Secret Army on 26-27 March, 2006, for her one-woman show, An Evening at Le Candide at the King's Head Theatre, London. The show included Richards' own songs from the series as well as other tunes that had been popular during the war. In the packed audience for the first performance were fellow cast-members Michael Culver, Terrence Hardiman and Juliet Hammond-Hill.

Home Video

UK retailer WH Smith released an edited compilation of selected episodes in the mid-1980s, but that edition is long since deleted. John Brason, interviewed some years after the show ended, felt that for reasons he never understood, the BBC had 'taken against WWII subjects and refused to issue the series on commercial cassette'. The satellite channels UK Gold and UK Drama have, however, repeated the series, heavily edited in places, for a number of years.

The series was finally released on both VHS and DVD formats in 2003-4 by DD Video, along with cast and production crew interviews on the discs for series three.

'Kessler' - the Spin-off

Following on from the events of the untransmitted final episode of Secret Army, Kessler was a six-part mini-series made in 1981, produced by Gerard Glaister, written by John Brason and starring Clifford Rose as Kessler, still living in Germany and posing as a respected businessman called Manfred Dorff. The first episode effectively reworked 'What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?' to include the reunion of Albert, Monique and Natalie for the purposes of a TV show (again called In Our Time) but twenty-two years later on. Kessler is once again accused of being a former Gestapo officer, forcing him and his daughter Ingrid to leave the country for South America. But hot on their trail is a young Jewish woman with a score to settle.

'Allo 'Allo - the Parody

Such was the strength of Secret Army that its format lent itself very well to parody. Considering how successful the series was though, it's more than a little surprising that, in terms of popularity, a series that set out to spoof Secret Army would eventually eclipse it. First broadcast by the BBC in 1982, 'Allo, 'Allo was created by Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft (also responsible for It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Are You Being Served? and Hi De HiI/ It was set in a Parisian cafe owned by René Artois, whose tone-deaf wife Edith 'entertained' the patrons while René tried to juggle an increasing number of mistresses with his involvement with the French Resistance (represented by Michelle - catchphrase 'Listen very carefully, I shall say zis only once...'), all the while trying to distance himself from the German officers who regularly tried to drag him into their madcap schemes. The show successfully mocked Secret Army affectionately - 'The Fallen Madonna with ze Big Boobies' is directly inspired by the episode 'Weekend', for example. They also employed a number of actors who had appeared in the show, including Hillary Minster (once more as a German officer) and John D Collins (this time as a completely batty airman). Surprisingly, 'Allo, 'Allo managed to run to nine series and three Christmas Specials - a total of 10 years (longer than the actual war itself!).


1 Though some documentation credits the creation of the show to both Glaister and Wilfred Greatorex, Glaister suggests that this was a courtesy to Greatorex, who had submitted a similar, but ultimately unused, concept.
2 This trial seems to have had a major effect on the production team, having also formed the basis for an episode of Colditz in 1972, John Brason's 'The Traitor'.
3 The Black Market was a term used to describe the way some people were able to pay over the odds for special orders that were not available through the authorised rations. Technically criminals, they were often viewed as the lowest of the low, preying on their own kind for financial gain.

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Entry Data
Entry ID: A765083 (Edited)

Written and Researched by:
Jim S

Edited by:
Jeremy Harris


Date: 25   July   2002


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Referenced Guide Entries
Belgium
A596487
War and Protest - the US in Vietnam (1969 - 1970)


Referenced Sites
Robert Farnon Site
An Evening at Le Candide
The Candide - Fan Site

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