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Secret Army (1977-79)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Secret Army (1977-79)
BBC, tx. 7/9/1977-15/12/1979, 3 series of 42 x 55 min episodes total, colour
ProducerGerard Glaister
Script EditorJohn Brason
Writers includeJohn Brason, Robert Barr, Willis Hall
Directors includePaul Annett, Kenneth Ives, Viktors Ritelis

Cast: Bernard Hepton (Albert Foiret); Angela Richards (Monique Duchamps); Juliet Hammond-Hill (Natalie Chantrens); Clifford Rose (Stürmbannführer Kessler); Michael Culver (Major Brandt); Jan Francis (Lisa Colbert, 'Yvette')

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In Belgium, during the Second World War, members of an underground group known as 'Lifeline' risk their lives to help stranded Allied airmen escape and stay one step ahead of the Nazis and their leader, Sturmbannfuhrer Ludwig Kessler.

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Secret Army was designed by producer Gerard Glaister as a follow-up to his hit drama series Colditz (BBC, 1972-74), using a similar premise (Allies escaping Nazi-occupied Europe) and many of the same actors and production personnel.

Based on real events and people (Christopher Neame's character was based on Group Captain William Randle, the series' technical consultant), the brooding and essentially anti-triumphalist mood was immediately set each week with Alan Jeapes' striking title sequence, which displayed various escape routes and pathways before concluding with a zoom towards a dark building with a lit window, recalling the 'Empire of Light' paintings by the Belgian surrealist Magritte.

Bernard Hepton plays Albert Foiret, the proprietor of the 'Candide' café that serves as the base for the evasion group, 'Lifeline', led by its idealistic founder Lisa Colbert, the main focus of the first series. The calculating, ruthless but not uncaring Albert, torn between his invalid wife and lover Monique, increasingly came to the fore as the series progressed, especially after Lisa's death at the beginning of series two, ironically in an Allied bombing raid.

A strong anti-Communist slant became more pronounced with the introduction of Candide pianist Max, who wants the Party to take over Lifeline. This attitude does date the series somewhat, and may have been behind the decision not to broadcast the similarly inclined concluding episode, 'What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?' (prod. 1979). Instead it was re-moulded into Kessler (BBC, 1981), a spin-off capitalising on Clifford Rose's marvellously malevolent portrayal of Lifeline's Nazi nemesis, whose intense exchanges with Major Brandt (the equally good Michael Culver) were highlights of many episodes.

Secret Army made great efforts towards verisimilitude, with some location shooting in Belgium, although the scripts also tried to cram in as much drama as possible. 'Day of Wrath' (tx. 28/12/1978), for example, set against the D-Day landings, combines early close-circuit television surveillance equipment, Brandt committing suicide, Lifeline signalman Alain agonising over whether to kill his best friend and a climax featuring an air attack on Nazi headquarters!

Secret Army was admittedly deadly earnest, so perhaps it was inevitable that it would be spoofed. 'Allo, 'Allo (BBC, 1984-92) proved to be hugely successful, which unfortunately has tended to obscure the fact that, at its best, the original drama was frequently riveting and packed with incident and excitement.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Caught in the middle (2:25)
2. Field craft (2:36)
3. Exterminating rats (3:14)
4. A cool welcome (3:31)
Complete episode - 'Lisa - Code Name Yvette' (52:05)
'Allo 'Allo (1984-92)
Barr, Robert (1909-1999)
Bird, Michael J. (1928-2001)
Glaister, Gerard (1915-2005)
WWII Dramas