“The Secret Service” – Sometimes even a Gerry Anderson series was too weird

Yesterday’s blog described some of the oddities of Gerry Anderson’s bizarre part-puppet/part-live-action series The Secret Service starring both the real gobbledegook-talking Stanley Unwin and a puppet version of him, shot in 1968 and screened in 1969.

Here is the concluding part of the article which I wrote about it for Marvel Comics’ science fantasy magazine Starburst in 1980.

With such an out-of-the-ordinary series, it was felt that the music, too, should be something special. Composer Barry Gray told me that Gerry Anderson was originally very keen to have a title song similar to the then-popular Swingle Singers style.

So Barry “dashed over to France and got a meeting with Ward Swingle and his agent, who both spoke very poor English — as bad as my poor French — and I got a financial quote from them which I hastily phoned through to Gerry and everything was all set. I was going to sign the thing on our company’s behalf when I said to (Swingle), “Now, this is the rights for the world – tout le monde?”

And he said, “OhI Non, non! Non! Angleterre seulement!” Only for the British Isles. And the price was (going to be) fantastic.

So we had to scrap that. On the plane coming back, I just got a little theme in the style of Bach and started to write and I’d near-enough written a three-part fugue by the time I’d got to Britain. Then I got The Mike Sammes Singers and they did a very good job on it.”

Barry Gray enjoyed what he saw of the series: “I liked it very much, because it was a tongue-in-cheek comedy. And you had a hell of a job to tell which was live-action and which was puppet. I liked the series. There was some reason why it was only shown on ATV in the Midlands. (In fact, it was also screened in the Granada and Southern ITV regions.) I think there was some trouble with the other (ITV) contractors. I don’t know the story.”

Shane Rimmer (the voice of Scott Tracey in Thunderbirds and a long-time Anderson associate) wrote one the the Secret Service episodes. He told me he thought maybe it was a bit too bizarre. There was the not-so-small matter of Stanley Unwin’s famous gobbledegook speech – Unwinese.

Ironically, that is what first attracted Gerry Anderson to the project.

Gerry Anderson at Pinewood Studios, 1979

“I chose Stanley Unwin,” Gerry told me in 1979, “because you are not supposed to understand Stanley Unwin, even if you’re British. I thought if the Americans don’t understand him either what’s the difference? But, once again, it was one of those things where the distributors killed the programme, not the audience.

“The audience might well have done – I wouldn’t pretend that it would have been a runaway success. But it was never given a chance. The American distributors saw the first couple of programmes and said, Ohhhh, my gawd! and – zonk – the whole thing was killed stone dead.”

Shane Rimmer says, “It was a bizarre idea. I don’t know if it really worked or not. I think the talking got everyone confused. I can’t understand what Stanley Unwin is saying when he’s talking straight!”

So how were the scripts written?

“Well,” Shane told me, “a lot of it you just had to leave to him. You have to give him a line of patter that’s going to work with what he does. At that time, they wanted a lot of olde English institutional things like old churchyards and pubs and Dartmoor inns and London Bridge and you just twisted the story into that. They were totally outlandish. I mean, they really were. They were (LAUGHS) very unbelievable a lot of the things. Because he was such a bizarre character, you felt you could really go all the way with him: you could practically do anything. But (LAUGHS) I think we went a bit too far.”

I asked Gerry Anderson why Lew Grade of ATV/ITC had backed such a strange concept as a series. “He did it because he trusted my judgement and I wanted to do it,” Anderson told me.

Gerry Anderson’s Century 21 studios in Stirling Road, Slough, in 1968. (Image from the first episode of The Secret Service)

When I asked art director Keith Wilson what the reaction to this strange format was among the staff at Gerry Anderson’s Century 21 studios, he told me: “We had a unique set-up when we were at Slough. It really was unique. We’d do one complete series and then we’d have a holiday and go straight on to the next series. We just went from one series to another. So, when it came to a series like that, it was just an extension (of what we’d done before).

“This was just another idea that Gerry and Sylvia had thought up. How are we going to do this one? You’re in that way of thinking anyway — you’re used to it. But The Secret Service, I think, (LAUGHS) did take a little longer to grasp.”

The Secret Service episode information file

I asked producer David Lane if the series was only supposed to run thirteen episodes or if it had been cancelled in mid-shoot. He told me he had never been  given a specific series length in advance.

“Basically,” he said, “the studio was going to close down anyway. The produce had got beyond its cost. There is a certain value which that kind of production has. Once it gets beyond that, they (TV companies) might as well buy something else.

“I know Lew Grade always wanted, really, to produce a show for £10,000. He did say to me once: Can you produce me a show for £10,000? to which I said No. Not the way the system was set up at Century 21. It wasn’t possible.

“Overheads were very heavy (there were about 200 people working at the Slough studios). I can’t remember what the programmes were costing towards the end, but it was something like £20,000 which was a lot of money for a half-hour children’s show at that time (1968-1969).”

1 Comment

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One response to ““The Secret Service” – Sometimes even a Gerry Anderson series was too weird

  1. Reimer

    Ta for giving us the chance to read this article. Recall reading a lengthy GA interview in the mag in 79 or so but I don’t recall seeing ‘Starburst’ much after that in my spot in the sticks oop North. ‘SS’ was an oddity alright – one whose live/puppet/ratio changes, eccentric premise and quaintness of characterisation were hard to parse for a dopey impressionable kid.

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