The Secret Service was the last “Supermarionation” series from the Gerry Anderson stable produced in the 1960′s, probably the hey-day of the legendary producer’s TV output. It is a little remembered, rarely shown series that only stretched for 13 episodes, less than half the length of the typical runs for his previous shows. And that’s probably a good thing! I am not convinced the format could have stood up to another batch of stories. The show has often been described as Anderson’s “most charming” series, but to be honest, what there is of the “charm” doesn’t make up for the real weakness inherent in the basic concept. It is certainly Anderson’s “simplest” show without a doubt.
Unlike all the previous Anderson shows (Stingray, Thunderbirds, Joe 90 et al), rather than being built around a concept, The Secret Service was based on an actor: Professor Stanley Unwin, or as he is known here, Father Stanley Unwin. For anyone not familiar with this actor’s “talents,” he was best known for speaking in a bizarre self-created language called “Unwinese” which took basic English and twisted it into gobbledygook. You certainly have to give Unwin credit for being able to speak continuously in this odd tongue, but it’s a pretty thin act and certainly not enough to build a TV series around, even one aimed primarily at children. The show is also devoid of the other standard element of the Anderson programmes that made children watch: The gadgets and vehicles. Father Unwin does have use of The Minimizer, which is contained in a large book and has the ability to shrink humans. In every story, he shrinks his agent partner Matthew down to size, and then secretes him in a high-tech suitcase from whence Matthew starts his crime solving. But that’s just about it. With the exception of a couple of futuristic helicopters, everything else in the show is contemporary to 1960′s Britain, including all the vehicles. The exception being the Father’s own car, which is a bright yellow, vintage Model T Ford. With all the lack of merchandising opportunities the series gave, it’s no wonder it didn’t catch on in the public imagination.
Starting production immediately after the somewhat disappointing and lacklustre Joe 90, The Secret Service is a major departure in terms of production from that and other earlier Anderson shows. Typically, the puppets performed on fabulously detailed and painstakingly accurate miniature sets. The Secret Service is lacking in much of this, and you’re left wondering why it was made with marionettes at all. At least half of each episode is filmed in live action, in real locations, with Stanley Unwin playing himself in most scenes. These are then inter-cut with the small amounts of miniature work for the puppets. It is a very disconcerting effect and the jarring switches between the two techniques makes the series hard to watch. Instead of bringing some reality to the show, which I assume was the intent; it actually makes it less credible. There is also a cheapness about the entire production that I didn’t like. Many of the puppets featured are simply redressed and repainted characters from earlier shows. From Captain Scarlet, both Colonel White and Captain Scarlet make regular appearances, as do other puppets recycled from Joe 90. It all leaves the impression that the show was rather hurriedly put together, with little serious forethought and then produced in a slap-hazard manner. Even the opening titles and music, normally such an integral and exciting part of an Anderson show are desperately bland and lame, and indeed are made completely in live action.
It’s such a shame because there certainly is some “charm” here that just failed to be exploited. It’s obvious that Anderson had tired of the puppet genre and wanted to move into live action TV, which indeed he did with the adult The Protectors and U.F.O., which followed. It wouldn’t be until 1983′s Terrahawks that he returned to producing marionette shows, by which time The Secret Service was long since forgotten. At least this DVD set (digitally recreated on two discs in very high quality and presented in an impressive box set), gives us the chance to see the series again at last, but I doubt it’s going to lift the show out of its gone and forgotten status.
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‘The Secret Service’ was a transition for Gerry Anderson, going from “supermarionation” ala ‘Thunderbirds’, ‘Captain Scarlet’, et al, to live action like ‘UFO’ and ‘Space:1999′. This sort lived series had a creative mixture of puppets and people. Witness the opening credits with the real “Father” Stanley Unwin. At several points in the episodes, the real Unwin could be seen from a moderate distance, entering buildings, driving ‘Gabriel’ his car, etc, while the real acting was performed by his manufactured counterpart. Equally interesting is the use of the ‘minimizer’, which would shrink his partner, Matthew, to make him conveniently two feet tall.
There was much charm, imagination, wit in this series. Standout episodes include “Errand of Mercy”, “Recall to Service” and “More Haste, Less Speed”. Also, keep an ear open for an occasional sample of “Unwin-ese”, the humorous doubletalk jibberish for which Stanley Unwin was famous, to confuse the bad and good guys alike!
One drawback to the show was the dreadful theme song. A combination of Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Ella Fitzgerald, it made me cringe before and after each episode.
Although no direct contribution was made by Gerry Anderson (Derreck Meddings actually did the production work), the Anderson influence is unquestionably there, even with Sylvia Anderson providing the voice of Mrs. Appleby, the short-lived housekeeper (she was absent from the last few episodes).
This series, the last of the ‘supermarionation’ process after ‘Captain Scarlet’ and ‘Joe 90′, is definitely recommended for fans of the genre, young and old alike. Those who are new to this type of entertainment should look toward ‘Captain Scarlet’ and ‘Thunderbirds’, or even ‘Stingray’, first.
The Secret Service, Gerry Anderson’s final Supermarionation series, sounds so odd that it might put off fans, but that would be a pity. This 13 episode series combines numerous Anderson trademarks, with both Supermarionation and live action, in a daring and delightful show. British comic Stanley Unwin voices Father Unwin, a priest (or is he?) and secret agent. Factor in Matthew Harding as the faithful operator, a shrinking ray, and the good father’s odd eccentricities: talking in an offbeat language called “Unwinese,” driving a 1919 flivver, and you’ve got the makings of a quirky Anderson classic. For some reason the opening recalls the British cult series, The Prisoner, with all sorts of other “anglo echoes” throughout. As a fitting finale to Anderson’s Supermarionation series, The Secret Service is last but not least.