Secret Army – The Big One (15th November 1978)

The RAF mount a massive raid over Berlin – the big one. But things go awry after bombs are dropped short, destroying a residential suburb on the outskirts of the city. Amongst the dead are Brandt’s wife and son ….

The Big One is an episode that could easily have centered totally around the Germans as Lifeline’s contribution is pretty negligible.  Opening with the bombing raid (stock footage mixed in with newly shot material and somewhat melodramatic music cues) we then cross to the Candide, where Brandt is dining with Oberst Neidlinger (Mark Jones).  Neidlinger is the latest oficer attempting to draw Brandt into the conspiracy to kill Hitler, but Brandt still refuses to commit himself.

The conflict between the aristocratic military (as represented by Neidlinger) and the thuggish Gestapo (as represented by Kessler) is given another airing today. Kessler, dining with Madeline, repeats his views on the subject (he’s still fuming about the way the Gestapo is treated with arrogant comtempt by the military elite). The cliché of the good German hovers in the background of this episode, but by the end the lines between Kessler and Brandt have been somewhat blurred.

Brandt travels to Berlin in order to arrange the transfer of his family to a safer location – ironically on the same day that the bombs hit. There’s some more stock footage patched in, along with a small rubble strewn set which is the only bit of desolated Berlin we see. Brandt’s collapse (after he learns of his loss) is nicely underplayed by Michael Culver.

The relationship between Kessler and Madeline inches forward (he gives her a chaste kiss).

I like the way we switch from Lifeline (listening to the BBC radio broadcast stating that 22 RAF aircraft failed to return) to Kessler and Madeline (German wireless reported 45 aircraft shot down). Both Max and Albert have a suspicion that the German figures are more likely to be correct.

Lifeline pick up one airman, Flight Sgt. Bert Lewis (Daniel Hill), but they don’t hold onto him for very long. Frankly it’s not surprising as their interrogation of him is brutal and hectoring. Plot-wise the reason for this is obvious – Lewis, believing they were German spies, later makes a run for it – but given the experience Lifeline have, it’s hard to believe that Monique and Alain would be quite so clumsy.

And this is Lifeline’s major contribution to the story. Whilst a little tension is generated (will Lewis betray any of Lifeline’s secrets?) this falls flat as Lewis doesn’t really know anything about them. So this part of the plot would have played out just the same had Lewis spent a couple of days wandering around the countryside before getting picked up by a German patrol.

Brandt returns to Brussels and is treated to a meal by Kessler. This is a fascinating scene, not least for the way that Brandt behaves (in a very jolly and hyperactive manner). Seemingly shrugging off the death of his wife and son as matters of no consequence, he then playfully begins to mock Kessler’s liaison with Madeline. The reason for doing so is obvious – it’s Brandt’s way of telling Kessler that whilst others may gossip about his totally innocent relationship, he doesn’t (and hopes in turn that Kessler doesn’t read anything into the meetings he’s had with known anti-Hitler officers).

Given that Brandt earlier confessed to being somewhat wary of Kessler, it’s strange that he decided to be quite so blunt. But maybe it’s a sign that he’s not thinking clearly.

Matters come to a head for him during his interrogation (or debriefing, as he calls it) of Lewis. It begins amicably enough, in his trademark friendly style (something which Kessler has long derided). But a still grieving Brandt eventually loses control and takes out his frustration on Lewis. The few minutes leading up to his sudden outburst of violence are mesmerising – it’s framed as a tight two-shot of Brandt and Lewis, which slowly closes in on Brandt as his anger increases.

The Big One is Michael Culver’s episode and he doesn’t disappoint.

Secret Army – Weekend (8th November 1978)

Kessler is taken hostage by two desperate American airmen whilst Lifeline are keen to get their hands on three priceless paintings by Rubens ….

Even those with only a rough working knowledge of ‘Allo! ‘Allo! will be able to spot that this episode was used as the inspiration for the long-running saga of the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies (by Van Klomp).  And whilst the later parody by ‘Allo! ‘Allo! means that the paintings subplot raises a titter (as it were), events later in this episode take a rather grim turn.

I’ve previously raised an eyebrow at some of the series’ plotting and I’ll do so again here. Kessler knows that three paintings by Rubens are stored in a convent somewhere in the country, but he doesn’t know their location. Then up pops Oberleutnant Horst (Christian Roberts) who helpfully tells him exactly where they are. Well, that’s lucky.

Not only that, Lifeline are preparing to take possession of the paintings with the full consent of the Mother Superior (Sylvia Barter) and plan to leave expert forgeries in their place. What were the odds that Kessler and Lifeline would suddenly both decide to take a great interest in art?

For Albert the paintings mean security – at least for a little while. With no money currently coming in from London, once the paintings are sold they will allow the escape route to carry on (although not indefinitely). The shifting objectives of the war are touched upon here, with Albert unhappy at the way London are attempting to take more control (insisting that Communist spies are weeded out from the line). Although given that Albert’s first love has always been money (others in Lifeline may be patriots, Albert is much more mercenary) I’m not quite sure why he doesn’t just go with the flow.

It’s interesting to ponder what Kessler’s motives are. He tells the Mother Superior that the paintings are being taken into protective custody, bemoaning the fact that other art treasures have been looted. Is he telling or truth or does he plan to squirrel them away for his own use?

Christian Roberts gives a nice performance as the hapless Horst. Keen to impress Kessler at every turn, he nevertheless ends up a fellow prisoner after the pair are captured by Peter Harris (Paul Wagar) and Charles McGee (Vincent Marzello). The series has presented us with unpleasant airmen before, but McGee is in a class of his own.

Whilst Harris is mild-mannered and conciliatory, McGee is arrogant and reckless. Both are lucky to stumble across a friend of Lifeline who takes them in for the night – but McGee isn’t prepared to wait around to be collected the following day. Instead he ambushes a car (containing Horst and Kessler) and puts his masterplan into operation. Actually I don’t really think he’s got a plan, so it’s rather fortunate that he happens to stumble across the barge owned by Hans Van Broecken (this seems a tad contrived).

Kessler, now a prisoner on the barge, seems to be deriving a certain pleasure from the situation, confiding to Horst that he rarely has had the chance to study evaders at such close quarters. Clifford Rose, yet again, is on top form – contrast Kessler’s early (and quite informal) conversations with Horst to his later business-like persona.

Another plot oddity concerns the three Rubens. They’re in the boot of Kessler’s abandoned car which is located quite easily by Monique and Max (they swop the originals for the forgeries). How did they know where the car was, especially since it was moved off the main road and hidden?

The episode really springs into life towards the end.  When McGee and Harris finally end up with Lifeline, McGee’s sexist banter doesn’t go down well with either Natalie or Monique. Angela Richards has a mesmerising moment as Monique spells out the facts of life to McGee at gunpoint.

And for those thinking that everything has gone just a little too smoothly, there’s a late sting in the tail – Hans and his wife Lena are taken away by Kessler for questioning. Kessler is at his most chilling when he tells them that they have nothing to worry about – provided they have nothing to hide.

Lena – unable to face the prospect of interrogation – commits suicide by stepping out into the path of an oncoming car. The bitter irony is that Kessler’s questioning was (or so he says) purely routine. Hans tells him that he doesn’t realise the fear he instills in people. Kessler replies that he does ….

It’s a slight surprise that we don’t see Natalie’s reaction to the news that her aunt has died.

Weekend was written and directed by Paul Annett. It’s an unusual double for this era of British television (Annett was much more prolific as a director, his only other television writing credits being a couple of episodes of Agatha Christie’s Partners In Crime).  Apart from a few plot niggles, it’s a decent episode. Not the best the series has to offer, but still very watchable.

Softly Softly: Task Force – Woman’s World (16th February 1972)

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Woman’s World is another bleak episode. It opens with the news that a ten-year old boy called Norman Gordon has been stabbed to death.  We never actually see the body (when his mother is called to identify him, the camera lingers on Sergeant Evans instead) but this doesn’t lessen the impact.

As the episode title suggests, female characters play central roles. Two – both very different – feature. The first is Carol James (Lois Hantz). A cub reporter who gets wind of the murder, she’s desperate for a scoop. Initially treated with indulgence by Evans, his good-natured feeling doesn’t last long ….

Indeed, Carol doesn’t make many friends amongst the rest of the Task Force either. Both Hawkins and Barlow separately wonder if her parents know that she’s out so late (Hawkins also calls her a chit of a girl, whilst Barlow’s comment of “jailbait” is even less complimentary). It’s true that she oversteps the bounds on several occasions, but does this display of male ire have something to do with the fact she’s a young woman?

This was the first of only a handful of credits for Hantz. She’s very impressive, which makes it all the more surprising that her career in television wasn’t longer.

Cherry Morris plays Anthea Gordon, the mother of the murdered boy.  She’s outwardly harsh and domineering (she has to be, she says, as her husband is so weak). As with Hanz, it’s a very well judged performance.  Clifford Rose, as the weak husband in question, is his usual immaculate self.

Stratford Johns once again mesmerises.  Barlow’s confrontation with Carol and the way he can switch between cold fury and geniality with his subordinates are two examples why there’s never a dull moment when Johns is on screen.

The last ten minutes, when the truth is revealed, grips like a vice. A top-tier episode.

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