Gerry Anderson’s The Secret Service
The last of the super marionation productions is actually only marginally associated with Gerry Anderson. In my previous ‘puppet puppet puppet’ articles I noted that Anderson was a frustrated director for whom the industry had yet to catch up with.
Anderson’s previous productions of Supercar, Stingray, Fireball XL-5, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet were all intended as proof on concept that he had a knack for action/adventure films that would have the Bond films shaking in their martini glasses. Unfortunately, it only got him a long line of puppet programs. By the time Secret Service came ’round, Anderson had moved on to live action with UFO, leaving the bulk of the work to David Lane and Reg Hill. Many scuttle this series as a failure which I feel is unfair. It lacks the action of Captain Scarlet and the magnificent array of machinery of Thunderbirds, but Secret Service was its own creature and in the end that’s fine.
The Secret Service follows the adventures of a somewhat unassuming priest Father Unwin who is secretly an agent of a division of the British Secret Service called BISHOP. His servant and caretaker of the grounds Matthew is not only faking a country accent but also his assistant in his missions. Through the use of as device called a minimizer (hidden in a Bible), Matthew is shrunken to the size of a marionette, hidden into a briefcase and set on the scene of the action. The part of Father Unwin was played by comedian Stanley Unwin whose skill was in speaking a mixed-up form of speech he called ‘unwinese’ and by a marionette based on him. Therefore some scenes featured Unwin filmed on location and then a similar scene of a marionette version of Unwin shrinking a marionette of Matthew into an even smaller size.
Try figuring that out and you’ll see that it demands each set be built three times meticulously to scale. The production quality appears lesser than in programs such as Captain Scarlet simply because it all looked sop plausible and real, which is a testament to its success. Aside from being primarily based on a secret agent masquerading as a member of the clergy who communicated with BISHOP through the use of an ear piece leading his maid to think that he was either delusional or devoted to his faith, the program was very comedic. Father Unwin invariably found himself in as tight spot through which he would use his nonsense-speak to confuse anyone he would meet.
Unwin’s invented speech pattern is infamous and totally amazing to watch. Even late in life, he never lost the knack…
It was the inclusion of Steve Unwin’s unique parlance that struck a cord with the distributors and that sunk Secret Service, making it the final supermarionation production.
The dramatic writing of Secret Service is definitely in the same league of previous programs. While not as dashing and exciting as Captain Scarlet, it does have a certain unique charm and while Unwin’s weird language was well-known at the time, it is an extreme oddity today, making The Secret Service a must watch for that reason alone! The soft jazz opening credits are also totally bizarre.
The plots are interesting with my favorite being a fever dream that the Father has after doing too much work on his vintage car in the hot sun. Unwin has a vivid vision that his car (which he named Gabriel) is capable of any number of feats that would make Chitty Chitty Bang Bang blush. It’s a very fun story.
A lost gem that even amongst fans of the supermarionation genre often gets overlooked, I do recommend at least a cursory glance over the Secret Service.