Secret Army is a television drama made by the BBC and the Belgian national broadcaster BRT (now VRT) created by Gerard Glaister.
The series tells the story of a fictional Belgian resistance movement in German-occupied Belgium during the Second World War dedicated to returning Allied airmen, usually having been shot down by the Luftwaffe, to Great Britain.
It was made in the UK and Belgium and three series were broadcast on BBC1 between 7 September 1977 and 15 December 1979.
Kessler is a sequel to the series, set in contemporary times.
Series 01 (1977)
Lisa Colbert (Jan Francis) runs Lifeline, a Brussels-based resistance organisation that helps Allied aircrew to evade capture and return to Britain via neutral Switzerland or Spain. She is helped by Albert Foiret (Bernard Hepton), proprietor of the Cafe Candide, his mistress Monique Duchamps (Angela Richards) and waitress Natalie Chantrens (Juliet Hammond-Hill).
Their operations are put under further strain when the fervent Nazi, Gestapo Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kessler (Clifford Rose) is assigned to work with Luftwaffe Major Erwin Brandt (Michael Culver) and close down the evasion line.
Flight Lieutenant John Curtis (Christopher Neame), a former evader, is sent back by London as a Special Operations Executive liaison officer to coordinate its activity. At first he is greeted with hostility and suspicion; there is also romantic tension between him and Lisa.
Series One introduces the main characters and the daily risks they take to rescue the young airmen whilst under German occupation, protecting their safe houses and evading investigation. By the end of this series Kessler and Brandt are closing in on Curtis, since their investigation into a murder in France has led them to the name ‘Monsieur Maurice’, which is Curtis’ pseudonym. Brandt and Kessler pay their first visit to the Candide to locate him. Kessler’s interest in Curtis poses a significant threat to Lifeline and so it is agreed that Curtis will return to England. Kessler orders a troop encirclement of Brussels to trap him but Curtis manages to escape to Switzerland by posing as bus driver for a local Hitler Youth group that is travelling out of the city on a day trip.
Albert is having an affair with barmaid Monique Duchamps, while his wife Andrée (Eileen Paige) is bedridden, following an accident two years prior; an out-of-control lorry had ploughed into Albert’s car, with Andrée as a passenger. In the final episode of the series Andrée finds out by spotting Monique going into Albert’s bedroom. She tries to speak to Albert and gets into her wheelchair for the first time but falls down the stairs and breaks her neck, dying instantly.
Series 02 (1978)
Albert has sold the Cafe Candide and owns an upper-class black-market restaurant, called the Restaurant Candide, which is prominently located in the Grand-Place. This venture is 60% owned and financed by London, so as to enable the members of Lifeline to cater for senior German officers, to enable them to overhear indiscretions and to provide a better cover for their activities. Albert takes over the running of Lifeline when Lisa is tragically killed in the first episode by Allied bombing, whilst away travelling in occupied France.
The German officers frequent the new establishment regularly, allowing all the major characters to interact and increasing the dramatic tension. To capitalise on actress Angela Richards’ singing talents, Monique performs regularly for the diners, and this becomes a feature of the series. These scenes transform the character of Monique from a dowdy waitress to a sultry chanteuse and provide a contrast to their stressful undercover activities.
Secondary stories include Kessler’s developing romance with lonely Belgian ‘society woman’ Madeleine Duclos (Hazel McBride), whom he meets while dining alone at Le Candide and Brandt being asked to join the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Although he declines, he becomes seen as guilty by association. This, and the death of his family in a British air raid on Berlin, results in his suicide, to avoid a court-martial, at the end of the series.
The series also introduces a new character, restaurant pianist and forger Max Brocard (Stephen Yardley), whose forgery skills are required after the death of Gaston. Max is a Communist infiltrator of Lifeline, responsible for the death of Natalie’s boyfriend François (Nigel Williams). Along with other Communist saboteurs, Max is shot dead by the Germans and the civil police whilst taking part in resistance activities, their whereabouts having been tipped off by Albert after he has confirmed that Max is a Communist mole and intends to take over Lifeline. His death leads to terrible repercussions for Albert in the third series.
Series 03 (1979)
This is set during the final weeks of German occupation. Paul Vercors (Michael Byrne and Ralph Bates), the leader and sole survivor of the Communist cell to which Max belonged, begins a conspiracy of revenge against Albert. He lodges an accusation with the authorities that Albert murdered his wife. With Albert in prison for much of the series, responsibility for Lifeline falls to Monique. She becomes increasingly independent and eventually her relationship with Albert collapses, owing to his aloofness and her realising that he is more concerned about money than her. After the Germans severely restrict travel to and from Brussels and the Communists sabotage the main railway line, the evasion lines are closed. The rescued airmen can now only be hidden while they all await the end of the war. With Albert away, Monique and Natalie face accusations of being German collaborators, prostitutes and black-marketeers. As news of the Allied troops’ imminent arrival reaches the streets, the Germans find it increasingly difficult to keep order and eventually they leave the Belgians to their own devices.
Kessler, promoted to Standartenführer, finds himself in constant conflict with new arrival Major Hans Dietrich Reinhardt (Terrence Hardiman), who has been sent to replace Brandt. The pair clash because Reinhardt can see the desperate situation the Germans face, whereas Kessler remains blinded by patriotism and Nazi ideology. Reinhardt is a cynical and world-weary war hero (he has been awarded the Knight’s Cross), whose unorthodox approach is at odds with Kessler’s by-the-book methods. Reinhart begins to get results and near the end of the series succeeds in identifying Le Candide as the headquarters of Lifeline.
In Albert’s absence, Lifeline is helped by Major Nicholas “Nick” Bradley (Paul Shelley), a charismatic British agent who previously appeared during the second series. Monique resents his presence, believing he threatens her new authority, whereas Natalie has been attracted to Bradley since his earlier visit. Bradley’s job is to make sure the remaining evaders are fed and armed to protect themselves whilst they hide in the Ardennes. During his time in Belgium, Bradley succeeds in saving Alain from torture by the Gestapo, blows up a convoy, destroys a V-2 site and discovers where the Germans have laid explosives in the city. Bradley is later shot dead the day before the German withdrawal, being found in the streets after curfew.
When the order for German withdrawal is finally given, Kessler tries to escape with his Belgian mistress, Madeleine. Realizing that his capture could lead to execution, Kessler assumes the identity of a lower-ranking officer, shortly before he is captured by British soldiers and put in a prisoner-of-war camp. Rather than evacuate Brussels, Reinhardt satisfies his own curiosity and visits the Candide. As he suspects, he discovers that this has been the headquarters of Lifeline all along. He chooses not to execute Albert, Monique, Alain and Pascal but hands himself over to Albert as his prisoner. At the same time Paul Vercors and his communists arrive and take Albert, Reinhardt and Monique captive. Albert is hanged after a Communist-run ‘kangaroo court’ finds him guilty of treachery for his part in the death of Max Brocard; just in time, he is cut down and saved by British troops. Monique is captured by Brussels residents and held as a collaborator, waiting to have her head shaved in front of the angry crowds. Natalie and the newly arrived British Captain Stephen Durnford (Stephan Chase) manage to rescue her. Monique and the Captain fall in love and Monique realises that she no longer loves Albert; she decides to marry the captain instead.
Having been arrested by the British officers who saved Albert, Reinhardt is put in the same camp as Kessler. To protect his new identity and with the grudging support of the senior officers, Kessler engineers a court-martial of Reinhardt for allowing himself to be captured and disobeying the orders of a superior officer. Despite there being only flimsy evidence, Kessler arranges for Reinhardt to be found guilty and he is shot dead by a German firing squad. This scene reflects an actual incident in Amsterdam on 13 May 1945.
At the same time Kessler’s mistress Madeleine bribes Staff Sergeant Dexter (John Ratzenberger) to allow her lover’s freedom and the couple escape together. For the members of the evasion line, their happiness is tinged with sadness as they all say goodbye to a tearful Monique, who says her final goodbyes to the Candide and to Albert before starting a new life with her husband. The final episode in the series, ‘What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?’, was set in 1969 and looked at how the characters had fared after the war. It was never broadcast, perhaps owing to a strike (falsely suggesting that editing was never completed) or the episode’s anti-Communist message, or because it was significantly different in tone from the rest of the series. The main themes of the episode were subsequently incorporated into a sequel series, Kessler, which was transmitted in 1981 and explored Kessler’s fate.
Secret Army was created by Gerard Glaister as a follow-up to his drama series Colditz. Glaister was a former RAF pilot and his experiences provided the inspiration for the series. Lifeline loosely resembled Comet line. The character of John Curtis was influenced by the experiences of the series’s technical consultant, Group Captain William Randle, who escaped from occupied Europe in 1942 and was later Keeper of the Battle of Britain Museum.
The series followed the timeline of the war to show how it affected Belgium. Filming took place in Belgium, with the assistance of BRT. Other locations were in London and Norfolk. The aircraft type that featured throughout the series was the Westland Lysander.
The title sequence was created by Alan Jeapes, whose credits include EastEnders. The theme music was by Robert Farnon.
The serious tone of the production led it to be parodied in the BBC comedy series ‘Allo ‘Allo!, with a few cast members appearing in both series.
John Brason wrote a prequel novel entitled Secret Army, and two novelisations of his episodes entitled Secret Army Dossier and The End of the Line.
An unofficial guidebook to the series is available entitled The Complete Secret Army. This features reviews of every episode, information on the real-life events that inspired the series, behind-the-scenes production material, a location guide, and reminiscences and photos from cast and crew. The book is written by Secret Army fan Andy Priestner, and was published by Classic TV Press in December 2008.
In 1991 the retailer W H Smith released an exclusive double-tape compilation of seven selected episodes between – and including – the first and last of Series 2, running to 326 minutes in total.
The complete three series set of Secret Army is available on DVD (Region 2, UK) from DD Home Entertainment. This also carries interviews with cast members Angela Richards (Monique), Clifford Rose (Kessler), Juliet Hammond-Hill (Natalie), Terrence Hardiman (Reinhardt) and Hazel McBride (Madeleine). It does not include the final unscreened episode (see above).
The songs performed by Angela Richards and pianist Ken Moule in the series proved so popular with the audience that a BBC soundtrack album entitled Au Café Candide was released. Long since deleted, the songs are now available on a new CD recorded some 25 years after the first, entitled An Evening at Le Candide. Tracks include Richards’s own compositions such as “Memories Come Gently” and “If This Is The Last Time I See You”, together with popular Forties numbers such as “Lilli Marlene” and “J’attendrai”.
- 43 episodes of Secret Army were produced; however the final episode “What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?” has never been aired in the UK.
- A boxed set of all three series was released on 8 November 2004.
Secret Army Series
- Series 01 Overview (1977).
- 16 episodes.
- Series 02 Overview (1978).
- 13 episodes.
- Series 03 Overview (1979).
- 13 episodes (plus one unaired).
Production & Filming Details
- Creator(s): Gerard Glaister.
- Director(s): Viktors Ritelis (11 episodes, 1977-1979), Paul Annett (7 episodes, 1977-1978), Michael E. Briant (7 episodes, 1978-1979), Kenneth Ives (5 episodes, 1977), Terence Dudley (5 episodes, 1978), Tristan de Vere Cole (3 episodes, 1979), Roger Jenkins (2 episodes, 1978), Roger Cheveley (2 episodes, 1979), and Andrew Morgan (1 episode, 1979).
- Producer(s): Gerard Glaister.
- Writer(s): Gerard Glaister (creator) (43 episodes, 1977-1979), John Brason (12 episodes, 1977-1979), N.J. Crisp (9 episodes, 1977-1979), Robert Barr (4 episodes, 1977-1979), James Andrew Hall (4 episodes, 1977-1978), Willis Hall (2 episodes, 1977), David Crane (2 episodes, 1978), Eric Paice (2 episodes, 1979), Michael Chapman (1 episode, 1977), Simon Masters (1 episode, 1977), Arden Winch (1 episode, 1977), Paul Annett (1 episode, 1978), Michael J. Bird (1 episode, 1979), Lloyd Humphreys (1 episode, 1979), and Allan Prior (1 episode, 1979).
- Music: Robert Farnon.
- Cinematography: David South.
- Editor(s): Robin Sales (12 episodes, 1979), Sheila S. Tomlinson (11 episodes, 1977), M.A.C. Adams (5 episodes, 1978), Alistair McKay (5 episodes, 1978), Alan Goddard (4 episodes, 1979), Sam Upton (4 episodes, 1979), Malcolm Banthorpe (3 episodes, 1979), Howard Billingham (2 episodes, 1977-1978), Steve Murray (2 episodes, 1977-1978), Peter Bird (2 episodes, 1979), Graham Dean (1 episode, 1977), Richard Trevor (1 episode, 1977), Les Filby (1 episode, 1978), Ross Archer (1 episode, 1979), and Sue Wyatt (1 episode, 1979).
- Production: Belgische Radio en Televisie (BRT) and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
- Distributor(s): BBC.
- Release Date: 07 September 1977 to 15 December 1979.
- Running Time: 50 minutes (per episode).
- Rating: 12.
- Country: UK and Belgium.
- Language: English.