The debut episode of Secret Army, Lisa – Codename Yvette is required to hit the ground running as it has to introduce all of the regular characters and set up the parameters of the series within the space of fifty minutes.
Willis Hall’s script deftly achieves this, although with so much ground to cover it’s not surprising that fairly broad brush strokes are used (future episodes will begin to explore the recurring cast in more detail).
At the Candide (in its series one incarnation as a fairly earthy café/bar) Albert is in charge – caught between his bedridden and suspicious wife (Andree) and his mistress (Monique). Also on hand is Natalie whilst Alain (later established as the escape line’s radio operator) spends this episode pounding the streets.
Albert might run the Candide, but the escape line (Lifeline) is controlled by Lisa Colbert, who, as the episode title suggests, has the codename of Yvette. Why Lisa should be the only member of Lifeline to have a codename is never made clear.
Working as an assistant to Dr. Keldermans allows her to break curfew whilst the doctor’s surgery is a useful place to temporarily store airmen in transit. Lisa’s uncle and aunt – Gaston and Louise – also make an appearance. Gaston is a key Lifeline member (handling documents) whilst Louise, apparently, remains ignorant about her niece’s and husband’s extra-curricular activities.
Over in Britain, Flight Lt. John Curtis, who has knowledge of Lifeline’s work, prepares to return to Brussels in order to act as a liaison between the escape line and the airmen.
On the German side, there’s Major Erwin Brandt, the cliché of the ‘good German’ – a Luftwaffe officer who – whilst keen to capture all the British airmen he can – has a humane streak. No such humanity can be detected in Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kessler – the newly assigned Gestapo officer for the area.
As I said, that’s quite a hefty cast list (not to mention today’s guest artistes who also have to be catered for).
Particular highlights today include Bernard Hepton’s weary Albert (juggling a wife and a lover, not to mention escaping airmen, obviously isn’t good for the nerves) and the early conflict between Brandt and Kessler.
At certain points in the series, the Germans emerge as the more interesting and three-dimensional characters and we get an early taste of that here. The episode opens with Brandt and his men searching a farmhouse for a suspected evader – they find nothing, but take the farmer and his wife away for questioning (leaving two young children behind). After they’ve gone, Natalie escapes from her hiding place (those German soldiers weren’t very good then) and tells the children that their parents will be home soon. Her words seem brittle and unconvincing, but when Albert agrees it’s likely, we feel a little better.
But our optimism turns out to be misplaced as Kessler later tells Brandt that he’s shipped all four members of the family to a concentration camp. Even though it happens off screen, it still has quite an impact. This moment ties into a comment earlier in the episode where a fairly boisterous airman is told that if he’s caught he’ll be sent to a prisoner of war camp – but those who have helped him will more than likely be killed. It’s an early reminder of just how high the stakes are for every member of Lifeline and their associates.
It’s also established that Lifeline have no connection with the resistance or any other escape routes. This helps to keep them safe but also isolates them.
If anybody suffers for lack of characterisation in this episode then it’s the British airmen. They’re fairly anonymous types – although one stands out a little (because he’s played by Neil Dickson, later to portray the ultimate WW1 flying ace, Biggles).
Kenneth Ives’ direction has a few unusual touches, such as the handheld camerawork when Curtis returns to the Candide and is questioned by a suspicious Lisa (offhand I can’t remember a great deal of handheld camerawork in this era of vt drama).