The Secret Service (1968)
The Secret Service is somewhat of an enigma, being the last Supermarionation show that Gerry Anderson produced. It was poorly received not only by critics but also by its own financier, Sir Lew Grade and was therefore given a limited broadcast upon its initial release. However, it marked the end of an era for Century 21 productions as they turned their creative attentions to film and live action TV after a decade of puppets shows. Subsequently, The Secret Service fell into obscurity over the following years and never gained the same degree of attention from the public, as previous Supermarionation shows had.
Having recently caught up with the entire series and being a consummate Gerry Anderson fan, it is hard for me to be excessively critical of the show. I have a lot of love for his earlier work, especially Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. The Secret Service has many of the aspect that made previous shows enjoyable and unique. There are quirky and amusing characters, a rich and detailed production design and superb miniature effects by the legendary Derek Meddings. Once again, the score and ambient sounds created by Barry Gray play an integral role in the show. Yet even I must admit that two major flaws standout and validate why this final series was Anderson’s weakest.
Firstly, from Four Feathers Fall to Joe 90, there had always been an element of substituting human footage for material that puppets could not do. This was usually limited to shots of hands. However in The Secret Service this technique was greatly expanded upon. There are long shots of characters walking into building, along with footage of them driving vehicles down country lanes. The central character Reverend Stanley Unwin, is directly modelled on its voice actor Stanley Unwin. Furthermore, live footage of the said actor is frequently intercut into each episode. Although it can be argued that this innovative approach covered some of the puppets technical deficiencies, it also breaks the shows immersion. Is this a puppet or live action drama?
Secondly, Stanley Unwin himself was a comedian who became well known for his use of “Unwinese”, a faux comic language of his own creation. It was an odd choice to cast such an actor with a uniquely English comic trait, namely our love of linguistic humour and word play, into a television show destined for international distribution. Gerry Anderson’s argument was that Stanley Unwin’s occasional lapse into this verbal slapstick was to purposely confound all viewers. However, I think that rather than amuse the viewers it simply perplexed them. It was sufficient for Sir Lew Grade to lose confidence in the production and pull the plug.
If like me you have been raised on Gerry Anderson’s back catalogue, The Secret Service, despite its shortcomings, is still engaging and quality entertainment. It is yet another example of Century 21 Productions refining their process. However, for the more casual viewer, who is broadly familiar with Thunderbirds, this may be a little too niche market and obscure. The show also seems to have a somewhat nebulous view on Christian denominations. Stanley Unwin seems to frequently alternate between the Anglican and Roman Catholic faiths. Therefore, I can really only recommend The Secret Service to hardcore Anderson fans and those who are simply curious and forgiving.
Historically, the failure of The Secret Service although marking the end of Supermarionation ultimately led to Century 21 productions first live action TV series, UFO. A show that was a possibly five years ahead of its time. With regard to The Secret Service, after a consistently successful decade, the concept of the puppet series had run its natural course by the late sixities. One of Gerry Anderson’s great strength from this era was his capacity to experiment. The Secret Service shows us that not all experiment work, but even those which are deemed failures can still be or merit and quality.