Currently watching (5/10/20) – Secret Army and The Caesars

Recently I’ve attempted to put a little more order into my archive television viewing by selecting ten programmes and watching an episode from them once a week, between Monday and Friday.

Currently they are –

Monday – Secret Army S2 and The Caesars

Tuesday – Special Branch S1 and The Mind of Mr J.G. Reeder

Wednesday – The Main Chance S1 and Undermind

Thursday – Upstairs Downstairs S1 and The Brothers S1

Friday – Public Eye S4 and The Biederbecke Affair

Every so often I’ll record a few brief impressions of the episodes I’ve recently watched, and possibly in the future I might want to revisit one or more of these series and examine them in more depth. So to begin ….

Secret Army – Not According To Plan (25th October 1978)

We’re five episodes into the second series, which means that  the reformatting of the series (moving Lifeline’s base of operations from a dingy café to a rather plush restaurant where Albert can conveniently overhear Nazi bigwigs chatting about important matters) is now complete.

It’s rather jarring that Natalie seems to have obtained a boyfriend, Francois (Nigel Williams), out of thin air. Surely this could have been worked into the continuing plotline a little less clumsily?

Performances are key to this episode. Jonathan Newth (one of those actors who turns up in virtually every drama series of this era) is typically solid as Jean Barsacq, a blind aristocrat who is also a member of the escape line. This might seem a little unlikely, but – as highlighted by a scene with Kessler – it’s also convenient, as he’s obviously unable to identify a suspect for the Sturmbannführer.

Valentine Dyall receives a rare character scene (Dr Keldermans is usually called upon to do nothing more than advance the plot) whilst Michael Byrne gives all he’s got (and then just a little bit more) as the hot under the collar Communist Paul Vercors.

I’ve never quite been convinced by the way that Vercors so readily decides to betray Lifeline. In exchange, Kessler agrees not to execute twenty Communist prisoners, held after a train – coincidentally carrying Natalie and Francois – is blown up.  Since the Communists are supposed to have been carrying out a lengthy reign of terror, why hasn’t Vercors crumbled under this sort of threat before?

Emma Williams catches the eye as the doomed Danielle, sacrificed – in part – to save Kessler’s reputation. It’s fascinating to see Kessler squirming under the intimidating gaze of Oberst Bruch (Leon Eagles). Bruch expresses amazement that Kessler hasn’t been able to smash Lifeline, and suggests he moves to a new position (on the Eastern front maybe).

Capturing Barsacq and shooting Danielle therefore allows Kessler to claim that he’s smashed a key part of the escape route, even if we – and Brandt – know that he’s lying. By this point in the series, Clifford Rose has really become SA‘s main performer – certainly Kessler looks to be the character with the most potential for future development.

The Caesars – Tiberius (6th October 1968)

Whilst The Caesars will always have to live in the imposing shadow of I, Claudius (1976), Philip Mackie’s six-part serial has many strengths of its own. Chief amongst these is André Morell’s wonderfully weary performance as Tiberius. It’s a world away, both in terms of writing and performance, from George Baker’s later turn.  This Tiberius is no deviant – instead he’s an icy-cold administrator, thrust unwillingly into the role of emperor.

Today’s episode (the third) chronicles the downfall of Germanicus (Eric Flynn). It plays out pretty closely to the later I, Claudius episode, with John Phillips offering a similar performance (as Piso) to that of Stratford Johns.

One notable aspect of this serial is how downplayed Livia has been – to date, she’s only had a handful of scenes although today Sonia Dresdel is allowed to bare her teeth (previously, you might be forgiven for thinking that Livia was little more than a nice old lady).

There’s plenty of strength in depth amongst the rest of the cast – Freddie Jones, as Claudius, might not be the central character but he still has a few notable moments. Caroline Blakiston glowers wonderfully as Agripinna, the widow of the unfortunate Germanicus whilst John Woodvine steps up to deliver a few lines in his trademark imposing fashion.

Secret Army – Scorpion (1st November 1978)

Major Brandt’s wife, Erika (Brigitte Kahn), is in Brussels for a brief visit. Their interactions later provide the spur which kicks the plot into gear, but before that there’s plenty of nice character development on offer.

Brandt is clearly delighted to see her (something she reciprocates, although in a rather cooler way). This is partially explained by the fact that, as a General’s daughter, she suffers from something of a superiority complex – for example, she has no wish to meet Kessler. A member of the SS is plainly a much lower form of life.

Plot-threads which pay off later in the year are established here. Erika now finds living in Berlin, which is suffering heavy bombing raids on a regular basis, intolerable. Fearful for her own life (and that of their children) she begs Brandt to move them to Brussels. This he declines to do, although he concedes that they should leave the city.

There’s an intriguing moment when she finds a photograph of an attractive young woman in his wardrobe. His mistress? Since we know that he’s a workaholic it would seem not and his protestations of innocence do appear to be sincere. And yet ….

You have to say that his explanation for its presence (the cleaning woman could have left it there) is a bit feeble.

Brandt has already tried and failed several times to infiltrate the escape line with one of his officers. Indeed, during series one it seemed like he was doing it every other week.

He hasn’t attempted it for a while, so I suppose it was bound to happen again. The way that the audience (and Lifeline) learn about it today is a touch contrived though. Brandt and Erika are having an argument in bed and he tells her the whole story (an infiltrator – accepted as genuine by London – will shortly be going down the line). But at that precise moment his cleaning lady happens to overhear the whole thing.

That’s hard to swallow moment number one. Hard to swallow moment number two is the fact she knows that Albert is the person who needs to be told about this straight away. Slightly clumsy plotting then.

Hans Van Broecken (Gunner Moller), Natalie’s uncle (and no friend of Albert), returns. As a German himself, he’s the ideal man to try and identify the spy, but given his loathing for Albert, will he agree? Yes of course, otherwise the plot would have floundered somewhat.

If he’s unsuccessful then there will be some difficult decisions to be made. With nineteen British airman in Brussels, one way out would be to shoot them all. It seems cold-blooded, but it might be necessary in order to protect the line.

Some familiar faces can be found amongst the motley collection of airmen. James Wynn (later to play Sooty Sutcliffe in Grange Hill) is one whilst Harry Fielder (someone with a list of credits longer than several arms) is another. The spy isn’t either of these though – but he’s eventually dealt with by Max, with a horrified Hans looking on.

Hans’ disgust that Max resorts to murder is a little difficult to credit. Did he think they’d just let him walk away? He might not have discovered too much about the escape route, but he still would have been able to identify a number of people (Max and Hans, for two).

As touched upon eadlier, the plotting of the episode feels a little suspect in places. We’re told several times that various airmen have been cleared of suspicion, but it’s not explained how this is done. Considering that the infiltrator appears to be, until the very last minute, a perfectly normal British officer it’s hard to work this out.

Kessler only features briefly, but his scene – a meal with Madeleine (Hazel McBride) – is still a fascinating one. There’s some light shone onto Kessler the private man (he admits to being lonely at times, which is why he’s sought the company of Madeline – he’s decided she’s a kindred spirit). And he almost (but not quite) declares that Brandt is his friend, explaining to Madeline that normally he’d be irritated by the superior attitude of Erika, but given his respect for Brandt he’s content not to make a scene.

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.

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 – Little Old Lady (22nd November 1978)

Wing Commander Kelso (Andrew Robertson) is required back in Britain as soon as possible. But it won’t be easy to move him – as he sustained severe facial burns when his plane crashed. There are ways though, but will Kelso agree?

The second series of Secret Army has already suffered from some melodramatic music cues, but there’s several in today’s episode which take the biscuit (especially the one during the opening few minutes). Rather than helping to create tension, their over the top nature somewhat dissipates the mood.

Although Albert briefly escapes from the Candide to meet Kelso, he otherwise remains pretty much rooted to the spot. But Hepton does have some decent scenes today, which makes a nice change (he’s been somewhat underused so far during this second series). Albert’s love for the Candide is displayed after someone drops a bomb into the middle of the dining room (luckily it doesn’t go off). More than helping the airmen to escape, more than his relationship with Monique, you do get the sense that Albert’s first love is the Candide – mainly because of the money it makes him.

Albert’s close fraternisation with the likes of Kessler hasn’t gone unnoticed, hence the bomb. We never discover if it was a dummy or whether it had a faulty fuse. But in story terms that doesn’t really matter as it serves to shake everyone up – especially Madeline, who is feeling isolated during Kessler’s absence.  She latches onto Monique and the pair strike up a hesitant friendship – encouraged by Albert (who can see the benefits) and despised by Max (who has no love for collaborators).

One running theme throughout the episode is Madeline’s fur coat, which she gives to Monique. She decides to wear it when taking Kelso down the line and gifts it to him as a parting present (he later throws it away). Amazingly it’s found by a German soldier and Brandt mentions it to Kessler. Could this be a clue that leads Kessler a step closer to discovering that the Candide is the headquarters of Lifeline? Presumably not, but you never know ….

Andrew Robertson gives a solid performance as Kelso. Despite notching up over fifty flying missions, Kelso eschews the aura of a hero – maintaining that he’s simply been lucky. His abrasive nature means that initially he clashes with Monique, but in a not terribly surprising plot twist they part on much better terms.

Things get a little odd mid way through the episode when Kelso decides, for no good reason, to hop off the train he and Natalie are travelling on. Partly this seems to have been done so that Kelso (a locomotive expert) can pinch another train and go chugging down the track. Commandeering a steam engine is not exactly the thing do to if you’re trying to keep a low profile.

Later safely ensconced with Sophie and Madeline (two old ladies who we’ve met before), Kelso is then introduced to Louis-Victor Condé (David King). An experienced actor, he uses his knowledge to instruct Kelso how to masquerade as a woman (as a female he’ll be able to use heavy make up which will disguise his scars). The scene where Louis-Victor fashions a tablecloth into a baby and proceeds to demonstrate the art of the actor is another of those odd moments. It’s certainly an unusual scene for SA.

Francois pops up again. He continues to be Lifeline’s least interesting member as either he’s fretting that Natalie’s in danger or he’s embracing her heartily once she returns.  Max doesn’t have a great deal to do, but Stephen Yardley’s aura of simmering danger is put to good use – particularly when Albert is carted off by the Gestapo. Albert returns later – shaken, but unharmed – although Max continues to brood.

Angela Richards probably comes off best, script wise. Not only does she share a fascinating two-hander with Hazel McBride which helps to bulk up both their characters, but later there’s a handful of strong scenes between Monique and Kelso (who by now is thawing somewhat).

Little Old Lady lacks many moments of real tension, but David Crane’s script is a good character piece and, apart from a few minor plot niggles, works well.

Secret Army – Guests at God’s Table (29th November 1978)

A badly wounded airman has been found and hidden by a group of street children. Desperate for food and clothing, they attempt to sell him for a handful of Christmas treats ….

Given that a sense of repetition is unavoidable (oh look, it’s another important airman who has to be returned to Britain as quickly as possible) it’s always good when the series does something a little different.

The Group Captain (played by Mark Taylor) remains mute throughout – only occasionally opening his eyes and managing a smile before slumping back into unconsciousness.  So since the focus isn’t on him (we don’t even learn his name) it can instead be directed towards the four grubby children who’ve found him.

They’re led by Wim (Keith Jayne). Easily the most experienced actor of the four, by this point Jayne had already racked up credits in a number of popular series (Upstairs Downstairs, Survivors, Angels, Rumpole of the Bailey, etc).  Marie-Clare (Rachel Beasley) is his trusted lieutenant, with both taking it in turns to look after the two younger children – Bobo and Gaby (John Nani and Natasha Green).

Throughout the story there are numerous reminders that winter is really biting – with things made especially hard by the reduced rations and lack of fuel (Albert has secured a coal supply, but only because he was willing to pay way over the odds). Even the Germans aren’t immune to these cutbacks, with Kessler doing his best to eke some warmth out of his office fire.

Despite this, Monique and Natalie remain in a festive mood – even more so when the demands of the children reaches them. The items they request – clothing, jelly, a doll, etc – are piffling (in total, about the cost of a bottle of wine). So once the reluctant Albert gives the go-ahead, they begin to assemble the box of goodies with glee (Monique even going so far as to raid the till to give them a little extra cash!).

Throughout these scenes, Albert finds himself in the role of a stern father (with Monique and Natalie as a couple of unruly children) but there’s a sign that his bark is worse than his bite.When no-one is looking, he takes some notes from his wallet and adds it to the cash already pilfered from the till.

All this is quite low-key and touching, and that’s how the first half of the episode plays out (as a nice character piece, bereft of tension). But as we reach the conclusion of the story a sense of danger and anxiety begins to build.

Key scene of the episode, in terms of character development amongst the regulars, occurs between Kessler and Brandt. Kessler is concerned about Brandt’s excessive intake of alcohol, but Brandt is more concerned about the rumours he’s heard regarding German atrocities in the East. That the pair choose to have a row in the middle of the Candide only adds a little extra spice – as does the fact that after Kessler leaves, Monique (with Albert’s blessing) shares a drink with Brandt. Albert’s smug expression makes it plain that there could be a weakness to be exploited here.

Max continues to be a mild topic of conversation, with the others wondering what he gets up to when he’s not with them. The audience has long known about his Communist sympathies, but the other Lifeline members remain ignorant – for now.

Max keeps a watching brief on the children – even after they’ve handed over the airman – much to Albert’s puzzlement. Although when it’s revealed that Max was an orphan himself, things become clearer.  The episode’s conclusion – a snow-covered Max gives the children some money before being forced by the Germans to move on – means that things end on a slightly hopeful note. Although with food and fuel becoming scarcer and scarcer, the situation still looks bleak for them.

Guests at God’s Table is a totally studio-bound story, but a well designed street set helps to give the “outdoor” scenes some depth. It’s another strong script from John Brason, SA‘s most prolific writer.