The lead role was played both by the ‘real’ live version and by a puppet version of eccentric performer and ‘professor’ of gobbledegook Stanley Unwin.
The series only lasted for 13 episodes. ATV/ITC boss Lew Grade apparently thought the Americans would have trouble understanding ‘Unwinese’.
In the next two days, I will be posting my 1980 article on The Secret Service as a two-parter.
But here, first, is a reminder of who Stanley Unwin was.
When The Secret Service was produced (it was shot in 1968), Stanley Unwin was nationally famous in the UK as the inventor and chief exponent of ‘Unwinese’ gobbledegook, an intelligible nonsense language. As the star of The Secret Service he enhanced the general air of weirdness that surrounded the ITV series.
At the time, he was 57 years old. He was born in South Africa in 1911 of English parents but, following his father’s death in 1914, his mother took him back to the UK, could not cope and, by 1919, he was living in the National Children’s Home at Congleton in Cheshire.
Unwin said he thought he had read his first science fiction story under his desk at school in Cheshire. The school master caught him and he “lost an enchanting story forever”. But he maintained his interest in science fiction and became a Ray Bradbury enthusiast after reading part of The Martian Chronicles.
He studied radio, television and languages at the Regent Street Polytechnic which, coincidentally, was where I studied a (totally different) course in radio, TV, journalism and advertising half a century later.
For ten years, he ran his own business as a wireless engineer then, in 1940, he joined the BBC as a sound engineer and part-time war correspondent in the BBC’s War Reporting Unit.
In 1947, he was the BBC technical expert chosen to go on a Royal Tour of South Africa and it was around this time that he discovered his talents for “double talk”. The story goes that he made his first, accidental, transmission, when based back at BBC Birmingham.
While testing equipment, he handed the microphone to broadcaster F.R. ‘Buck’ Buckley, who ad-libbed a spoof commentary about an imaginary sport called Fasche. Buckley then got Unwin to join in and introduced him as ‘Codlington Corthusite’. Unwin started speaking in Unwinese.
The recording was played back to two BBC producers, who added sound effects and it was eventually broadcast on the Mirror of the Month programme in 1948. This was well-received and culminated in another sketch in which Unwin, playing a man from Atlantis, was interviewed about life in the sunken city. The broadcast produced Unwin’s first fan mail, from comic performer Joyce Grenfell and this whetted his taste for showbiz.
He claimed he had developed his talent for Unwinese by telling bedtime fairy stories to his two daughters.
“I found they enjoyed the stories even more when I used double talk,” he explained. ” I was also interested in speaking like this because I had always been intrigued by the lack of communication between people when talking to each other and I realised that they listened far more attentively if you said something strangely.
“As I first used my treatment of language to amuse children to relieve the boredom of fairy stories often repeated, there was a good connection with Gerry Anderson’s puppet films”.
He claimed the reason he could talk ‘nonsense’ whose meaning could be immediately understood was because: “I prefer to think of it as garbled sense… The degree of perception depends on the listener. I believe it works partly because the sounds, inflections and rhythm seem to express ideas to the listener. There are visual components too, like facial expression and occasional hand and head movements. All these are used to communicate as in normal speech. I think a lot of it is partly heredity.”
His mother once told him that, on the way home, she had “falolloped over” and “grazed her kneeclabbers”.
Stanley, though, said: “I prefer not to get too analytical because that detracts from the imaginative side of it.”
Whatever the explanation of Unwinese, his initial broadcast for the BBC in 1948 was such a success that it led on to regular radio and TV appearances in such programmes as Beyond Our Ken and Does the Team Think?
In 1956, he ventured into the film industry in the Cardew Robinson film Fun at St Fanny’s.
He became so popular that, in 1960, he resigned his job as a BBC Senior Recording Engineer and, aged 49, began a full-time showbiz career. He appeared in hundreds of TV shows, in commercials, pantomimes, the Carry On films – Carry On Regardless – and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
In 1968, the year The Secret Service was shot, he was also invited to narrate Happiness Stan, a six song fairy tale which took up the whole of Side 2 of the Small Faces’ No 1 album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake.
When he was approached to star in The Secret Service, he saw it as a challenge to do something new: “Gerry Anderson has a wonderful imagination and I found that he and his team were in tune, so to speak, with my vehicle. This was something new. Why shouldn’t it work? It was an attempt to add a new dimension to the puppet field and the ‘all-consuming’ medium of films and TV surely needs encouragement in new ideas. It was a bit bizarre, but then aren’t many new ideas a little odd at first?”
Unwin did have some doubts about how the series would fare in the US.
“Gerry Anderson,” he said in 1980, “is a better judge of the American comprehension of Unwinese than I am, but I certainly had misgivings because of the preponderance in their population of people of non-Anglo-Saxon origins. If we assume one-third of the American population came from the British Isles, I believe that those in cosmopolitan America would largely understand.
“But it would be difficult to assess idiomatic appreciation across the States as a whole. The Secret Service never succeeded commercially. But there are some minority aspects of humour which are so strong that, in spite of their non-commerciality, they can be worthwhile. I received letters of appreciation from places like Australia, Canada and the Far East right up to last year — ten years after the series was made”.
Stanley Unwin died in 2002, much mourned, aged 90. At the church service after his death, the valediction began: “Goodly Byelode loyal peeploders! Now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle-oteedee – Oh Yes!”
He is buried with his wife Frances, who died before him. Their joint gravestone has the inscription: “Reunitey in the heavenly-bode – Deep Joy!”
… CONTINUED HERE …