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Fairly Secret Army (1984-86)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Fairly Secret Army (1984-86)
Channel 4, tx. 13/10/1984 - 22/10/1986, 13 x 30 episodes across 2 series, colour
Production CompanyVideo Arts Television
ProducerPeter Robinson
WriterDavid Nobbs
DirectorsRoy Ward Baker
 Robert Young
Theme MusicMichael Nyman

Cast: Geoffrey Palmer (Harry); Diane Fletcher (Nancy); Michael Robbins (Sgt Major Throttle); Liz Fraser (Doris Entwhistle); Jeremy Child (Beamish), Richard Ridings (Ron Boat)

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Retired army major Harry Kitchener Wellington Truscott recruits men and women to create a secret army that will make Britain great again.

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David Nobbs' distinctive mixture of long-form plotting, repeated catch-phrases and extreme comic characterisations emerged triumphantly with his first sitcom written solo, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79). The style is also well in evidence in Fairly Secret Army, which was initially conceived as a spin-off from Reginald Perrin featuring Jimmy Anderson, the militarily inclined character played by Geoffrey Palmer. The BBC rejected the show and by the time it emerged on Channel 4, Palmer's character had transmuted into the not dissimilar Harry Kitchener Wellington Truscott, a penniless, divorced ex-major determined to prove that "The British lion is no longer a dead duck", despite his lack of tact, business acumen or social skills.

If the main character and overall plot (the protagonist leaves his career behind and gathers a group of people together to lead them in a new joint endeavour) resembles Reginald Perrin, the stylistic approach was defiantly different. Structured as a serial, although in fact virtually plotless, Fairly Secret Army was produced by Video Arts, the company specialising in humorous training films set up John Cleese, who was also the first series' uncredited script editor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Army tends to look very much like one of their training films, dispensing as it does with such traditional sitcom elements as a studio audience (or even a laugh track), opting instead to shoot on location on 16mm film and using avant-garde composer Michael Nyman to write the music.

The second season revamped the format quite considerably, and begins with Truscott getting amnesia after his army's HQ (based at his girlfriend Nancy's house) is blown-up. Truscott's group is hired by British Intelligence to infiltrate a Marxist cell, which includes his estranged son Paul. It ends with Truscott successfully defeating the terrorist plot and suggests that, now that he is a media celebrity, he may go into politics.

The humour derives mainly from Truscott's deliriously mangled pseudo-military expressions, whether talking about sex ("Disturbing chap, Johnnie libido") or just making small talk ("Tricky customer, Johnnie chit-chat - never really got the hang of the blighter") and the succession of failures that meet his small band of followers. For all his pomposity and immaturity, Truscott is naïve and sincere in his right-wing beliefs, though by the end of the last series even he has softened enough to accept that he loves his son - even if he is a gay Marxist terrorist.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Hand picked (3:43)
2. Change of platform (2:39)
3. Commitment (3:04)
Complete episode, 'Operation Charm' (24:31)
Baker, Roy Ward (1916-2010)
Nyman, Michael (1944-)
Palmer, Geoffrey (1927-)
Winstone, Ray (1957-)
Channel 4 Comedy