I remember this BBC World-War 2-set drama series as being a big favourite of my mother’s, but it was rather too slow and sombre for my ten-year-old self – I was disappointed that it didn’t resemble the all-action WW2 I knew to be the ‘real’ thing from all those movies and comic books. Instead it’s a much more low-key drama about the stresses of operating an undercover network for helping downed RAF airmen escape from Nazi-occupied Belgium.
Later on, it would be impossible to watch Secret Army objectively because it was so completely and accurately lampooned by the sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo!. Even today, it’s impossible to watch the show without working out which character here relates to which one in the sit com, or marvelling at how even the costumes and hairstyles are so perfectly caricatured in ‘Allo ‘Allo!. You spend half an episode waiting for Arthur Bostrom to peer around the door and say “Good Moaning”; it doesn’t help that the RAF crew being helped to escape in episode 1 of Secret Army are so thoroughly thick and stupid (and loud!) that they might be a rare moment of humorous high satire completely in keeping with ‘Allo ‘Allo!, if the rest of the show wasn’t remorselessly sombre and serious.
It’s a real shame the show is lost in the fallout from ‘Allo ‘Allo!, because the concept (and the real life history and stories behind it) and the show itself are far too good to deserve being relegated to such a sad footnote state in history. It really was one of the BBC’s top shows of the day, a continuation of its international hit series Colditz by the same production team, and with many actors carried over from one to the other (although in often disconcertingly different roles – Bernard Hepton went from being the Nazi commandant of Colditz to the key figure in the Belgian Resistance.)
It’s a classic example of British TV of the 1970s – it’s all very well done, features a guest appearance from a genuine WW2 plane which was still in decent shape in the 70s, but rather slow and stagey and indeed the sets look inescapably very much like sets (with the location action quite evidently on a totally different film stock.) But this show is certainly trying some daring new techniques for the time, and a sudden switch to a hand-held camera (years before Steadicam of course) to follow a character walking from one set to another and into a prolonged dialogue scene is strikingly effective because of its innovation.
The show avoids tired wartime clichés: the Belgian civilians are as likely to betray the escapees as help them, while the show gives us a remarkably civilised, intelligent and (seemingly) kind Luftwaffe major (Michael Culver) – before then also introducing one of fiction’s greatest and most chilling fictional Nazis in the character of Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kessler, played with chilling mastery by Clifford Rose. It was a character and a performance that became so admired that it resulted in a spin-off mini-series featuring Kessler as a war criminal. The show also has other great stalwarts of British TV of the time, including two actors well known to Doctor Who fans – Valentine Dyall (Black Guardian as well as The Man in Black) as a key figure in the escape line, and Anthony Ainley (The Master) briefly guesting as a British intelligence officer commanding Christopher Neame (familiar from Colditz and later the go-to guy for US TV shows needing a British villain.)
Inevitably this first episode of the series (there were 43 in all) has to spend a long time setting up a large cast and establishing all the unusual, then-little known secret history of the escape lines in order for the show to go on and build on there. It does so remarkably efficiently in the circumstances, and while slow it’s not a programme that really encourages the mind to wander and is always doing something interesting if low-key throughout.
It really is the sort of drama that’s both high-quality and mass-audience, educational and entertaining all at the same time. The sort of thing they don’t and can’t make any more, which is a shame – but at least it’s on DVD and rerun on Yesterday now and again for people to remember it if they can but get over the spectre of ‘Allo ‘Allo! first.