Tuesday, June 17, 2008



Secret Army – one of British TV’s most compelling dramas – told the story of “Lifeline”, a Belgian underground operation to smuggle Allied airmen out of occupied Europe during the Second World War (yes, it did ‘inspire’ ’Allo ’Allo). Though I wasn’t allowed to watch it in the late ’70s, the unforgettable titles montage to sombrely dramatic music still gripped me, and in 1981 9-year-old me was thrilled by the sequel following former Gestapo officer Kessler. At this moment, UKTV History is repeating the final episode of Secret Army, while at 3pm today (and 10am tomorrow) they start showing Kessler.

The Secret Army finale, The Execution, shows bittersweet endings for the surviving members of Lifeline, brings the relatively decent German officer to grief and shows the series’ most fascinating character – ruthless, murderous, fanatical, yet also clever, resourceful and human SS Standartenführer Ludwig Kessler – getting away with it rather than getting his just desserts. But this wasn’t meant to be the final episode. Another was made, ageing the cast to 1969 and focusing on a wealthy industrialist exposed as Kessler in What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Never shown because it seemed the team were unhappy with it (though copies circulate, with mine near-unwatchable), it nevertheless formed the basis for Kessler, which opens in around 1980 as ageing members of Lifeline are brought together briefly to ease us into the investigation of Manfred Dorf, a wealthy German businessman who bears an uncanny resemblance to the man who once kept Brussels in terror.

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, ‘Nazis Return!’ or ‘Hitler Alive!!’ became such a staple of adventure TV that it’s difficult to think of an action series that didn’t do its own variation (The New Avengers even launched with one, though classier than most). Come the ’80s, ex-Nazis were finally thought too wrinkly to be threatening and the younger generation had moved on from war movies, so Kessler was perhaps the last and greatest of the theme: more detailed, more serious, more thoughtful and more affecting, it’s not remotely silly. Though one of the few series not to do any ‘Fourth Reich’ tat was Doctor Who, one story borrowed ideas from the genre and twisted them almost unrecognisably; though viewers are unlikely to find it and Kessler remotely alike, they have a particular element in common that I’ve not seen in any other British TV series of the time. Points may be awarded to any reader who can guess which Doctor Who story I’m thinking of.

In this six-part series, Clifford Rose is outstanding again as Kessler, the only member of the Secret Army cast to take a leading role in the follow-up. It’s downbeat but compelling as a West German intelligence officer and an Israeli vigilante chase him in uneasy alliance across continents and Kessler’s ordered, powerful new life crumbles, against a backdrop of tensions between the Nazi old guard with the money but no drive and a fanatical new generation. The actors and story are gripping, the direction inventive and involving (much of it by Secret Army and Doctor Who veteran Michael E. Briant, who’s aged very well and is still a very charismatic, enthusiastic and incredibly friendly chap today, and who I suspect is responsible for the unsettling motif of security monitors in Part One), and most of all, the end of the series stayed vividly with me for decades afterwards before I eventually got to see it again on DVD. One well worth watching.

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The Gestapo headquarters in Secret Army was the beautiful art deco Wandsworth Borough Council building in south London.

I had an aunt who used to work there during filming (I did some years later) and she spoke of turning up for work in the morning to find Nazi troops and staff cars in the courtyard and large swastikas hanging everywhere.

It was a truly great series.
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