Tag Archives: special effects

“The Secret Service” – Gerry Anderson’s weirdest puppet/live action TV series

The ‘real’ Stanley Unwin starred in The Secret Service

Yesterday’s blog was a profile of eccentric British performer Stanley Unwinstar of Gerry Anderson’s very bizarre and mostly forgotten 1969 part-puppet/part-live-action series The Secret Service.

Here is the first half of a 1980 interview-based article about it which I wrote for Marvel Comics’ science fantasy magazine Starburst.

The real and the puppet Stanley Unwin drove a Model T Ford

The Secret Service is the story of an ordinary English country priest, Father Unwin, and his slow-thinking yokel gardener Matthew Harding. At least, to the casual observer, that’s what they appear to be. In reality, they are Secret Service agents working under orders from BISHOP (British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest). The BISHOP personnel communicate with their operatives via Father Unwin’s hearing aid.

On special missions. Father Unwin and Matthew use a remarkable electronic device hidden in a book left in Unwin’s care by a late parishioner. The device can miniaturise a person or object to one-third life size – thus enabling super-agent Matthew to carry out daredevil missions which would be otherwise impossible.

Problematic miniaturised Matthew and his travel case

When Matthew has been miniaturised, Father Unwin carries him about in a specially-converted suitcase. The case has a chair and periscope so that Matthew can sit and watch the world go by. He can talk to Father Unwin through the hearing aid and has his own hearing aid for communication during missions.

This may seem a little strange.

The series becomes even more outlandish when you realise that it starred both the real ‘live’ Stanley Unwin and a Stanley Unwin puppet (made by Terry Curtis).

Although live-action hands had been used for close-ups in previous Gerry Anderson series, this was the first time that the team had used full live-action mixed with puppets. It was even more complicated because miniaturisation was an integral part of the plot.

Art director Keith Wilson explained to me: “The whole series had special problems because, when he (Matthew) was small, you had to have large sets. When he was large, you had to have small sets. When he was small, he was a puppet and everything else was real. But, when he wasn’t small, he was still a puppet and everything else was puppet sized.”

This was further complicated by the fact that, on location long-shots, the real Stanley Unwin was seen driving a real Model-T Ford. In close-ups, a puppet Unwin was seen driving a radio-controlled miniature model-T.

The miniature Model T Ford on a real road…

Gerry Anderson explains: “For example, we had sequences where the Model-T would drive – for real – into London Airport with Stanley Unwin driving. He would stop, get out and walk into this enormous (real) departure lounge and walk up to the desk. As he walked up to the desk, we would go bang into a close-up of the puppet and they were so cleverly matched, you couldn’t tell the difference.”

Keith Wilson agrees: “It did work. It was impossible to tell the difference.”

“We were able,” says Gerry Anderson, “to do all sorts of things that we weren’t previously able to do. Again, it was an endeavour to make the puppets appear to  be walking properly.”

Executive producer Reg Hill expanded on this to me: “All that happened was that, for certain areas you’d find difficult to do with puppets, we used live-action. It wasn’t a question of a live-action film with puppets or puppets with live-action. It was a question of using whichever was more advantageous at the time. In other words, they were complementary. For ages before, we had been using live hands for inserts, for the simple reason that you can’t get puppets to move their hands, to twiddle knobs or poke buttons. So we had been half the way there previously.”

ITC produced glossy promotions but the bizarre series failed to get a full ITV network screening in UK

Keith Wilson told me he thought the basic idea was “rather good” and Gerry Anderson used exactly the same words: “It was a rather good idea”.

When I talked to the show’s producer, David Lane, he agreed: “I thought it was ingenious,” he told me. “But it was a nightmare – an absolute nightmare – because of the different scales we were using. You can imagine the problems. You’re shrinking a puppet to puppet size on a puppet set and then you’re having to build it live-action size for the puppet because he’s supposed to be a small man in a full-sized environment. And then you’re using the ‘shrunken’ puppet in a normal set. I mean, it was a very, very complicated series. We had to work it out at script stage. It wasn’t always the director who worked it out – we had to work it out at script stage.”

ITC/ATV publicity stills for the “difficult” Secret Service

And, of course, puppets are often more difficult to work with than live actors, as David Lane explains: “Everything is pre-planned in puppets. It’s no good going on (stage for shooting) and saying We’ll change that line of dialogue and we’ll do it this way because you haven’t got anyone there to change the line of dialogue. You’re stuck with what you’ve pre-recorded.”

The one thing the series did arguably have, though, was charm.

Gerry Anderson told me, “I thought it was one of the most charming series I’ve made, but then I was in love with it. It was a beautiful country church and a vicar and young Matthew who used to help out in the garden and they had their regular Sunday services. (The title The Secret Service is a pun.) 

ITC’s Production Notes for The Secret Service

Because it was so strongly connected with The Church, of course, we made sure that the missions were always Good against Evil.”

The production notes for the series say: “Father Unwin is as conscious of his  spiritual responsibilities as any other priest. If his experiences can provide him with any material for his sermons, he conveys it to his congregation in symbolic and well-disguised terms.”

He is described in the production notes as “the sort of man who normally prefers to wear a cassock and is old-fashioned enough to go to bed in a night-shirt and night-cap.”

With such an out-of-the-ordinary series, it was felt that the music, too, should be something special…


This is the first episode of The Secret Service…

and the crime-fighting possibilities of miniaturisation and a mix of puppets and live action were further developed in Gerry Anderson’s later, unscreened pilot The Investigator. There are clips from The Investigator at the beginning of this online video.

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Douglas Adams talks. Part 3: Why he rejected Monty Python’s Terry Jones

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this 1980 interview, Douglas Adams told me about how the radio, stage and book versions of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came into being. In Part 3 (of 4), he talks about how the TV and movie versions did and did not happen.

Douglas Adams decided to turn down £50,000

JOHN: There was talk of a  Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feature film.

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice and each time I’ve backed out. I knew we were going to be doing it for BBC TV anyway and I knew we could do it all on telly. In the first film deal that was being set up, the American guy who was going to be directing it… I began to feel we were talking about different things and he wanted to make Star Wars with jokes. We seemed to be talking about different things and one thing after another seemed not quite right and I suddenly realised that the only reason I was going ahead with it was the money. And that, as the sole reason, was not a good enough reason. Although I have to get rather drunk in order to believe that. (LAUGHS)

It had got to the stage where I just had to sign a piece of paper and would instantly have £50,000 up-front, so I was quite pleased with myself for not doing that. I thought: There’s no point in doing a film at the moment. Then the whole thing re-opened when Terry Jones of Monty Python, who’s a great friend of mine, said he’d like to think about making a film of Hitch-Hiker. So I thought That sounds like a nice idea but the original idea was to do something based fairly solidly round that first radio series and I just didn’t want to do that again. I’d done it on radio, on stage, on record, in a book and was now doing it on television. It just seemed a pointless waste of time to do the same story again on film.

So we then thought it would be much more worthwhile to do a new story. But then we had the problem of having to do a story which was, on the one hand, totally consistent with what had gone before for those who knew what had happened and, on the other hand, totally self-contained for the sake of those who didn’t. And that began to be a terrible conundrum and I just couldn’t solve it. So, in the end, Terry and I just said: “It’d be nice to do a film together, but let’s just start from scratch again and not make a Hitch-Hiker.”

(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – no hyphen – movie was eventually released in 2005, four years after Douglas Adams’ death)

JOHN: I was surprised when I first heard about the TV series and the film because I  thought the radio series was un-visualisable.

DOUGLAS: Well, obviously, there are things you lose when you move onto television in that what you actually see restricts what you imagine whereas, on radio, what you hear provokes what you imagine. On the other hand, there are all sorts of things I think are worthwhile. One of the great strengths of the television series is those wonderful animated graphics. If you’d been sitting down to do something like Hitch-Hiker for television to begin with, there are all sorts of things it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do. Like having a narrator who talks all the time: you just don’t normally have that on television.

But we were committed to that because of its success on radio. Having to translate something from one medium to another, you have to find solutions to problems which normally wouldn’t have posed themselves. Finding those solutions is interesting and that’s how we got those graphics. If you were doing a BBC television programme normally, you would just not gratuitously attempt to have one character with two heads. It just poses far too many problems. But, being committed to that, we had to do it.

BBC TV Special Effects designer Jim Francis tests his radio controlled head for Zaphod.Beeblebrox. (Photograph by John Fleming)

So they built this head which is a quite remarkable construction. It’s moulded from Mark Wing-Davey’s own head and the neck movement side-to-side and up-and-down, the eye and the mouth and the eyebrow and the cheek are all radio-controlled. It’s an extraordinary feat. Something you would not have got except in the process of translating one medium to another. You’re committed to things you otherwise wouldn’t have tackled.

JOHN: Like those wonderful computer read-outs for the book.

DOUGLAS: The computer read-outs are all animated. I’d assumed one would do it as computer graphics and actually use a real computer to do it, but apparently that is incredibly expensive. So it was done by animation, which is more effective.

JOHN: I saw the completed version of the first episode at the Edinburgh Television Festival way back in August. Why was it finished so early? Because it was a pilot?

Concept sketch of Marvin  by Jim Francis for the TV series.

DOUGLAS: Well, a sort of pilot. ‘Pilot’ can mean several things. In some cases, a pilot episode is made and broadcast to see how the audience reacts to it. This was a different sort of pilot. The BBC had said: We’re committed to doing the series. But we want to do the first one separately so we can see we’re doing it right. And then we have the opportunity of changing things. In fact, that isn’t quite how it worked out. When the bills came in for the first programme, there was a certain amount of stunned shock and back-peddling on whether or not they were going to do the rest of the series. Then they said: Yes, we will go ahead, but try to be a little more careful. (LAUGHS)

JOHN: One of the most popular characters is Marvin the Paranoid Android. I believe he came from a specific…

DOUGLAS: Yes, Andrew Marshall. He’s one of the writers of The Burkiss Way and End of Part One. He co-wrote the radio series Hordes of the Things with John Lloyd, which was a sort of parody of Lord of the Rings. Very silly.

JOHN: You’re really part of a third generation of Cambridge comedy writers. There was the Beyond The Fringe and TW3 lot. Then the I’m Sorry I’ll Read That AgainThe Goodies and Monty Python lot. And now there’s The Burkiss Way, End of Part One, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Hitch-Hiker and so on lot. The generation after Monty Python.

DOUGLAS: I suppose so. But in that previous generation one major programme sat on the top of the pile, which was Python. I think all my way through Cambridge I desperately wanted that to happen all over again. I wanted to function as part of a group of writer-performers. But, you see, a radical change had come over the way things were organised.

The Cambridge Footlights’ ADC Theatre in 2005 (Photograph by Andrew Dunn)

In those days – the time that produced Python – the writer-performer was the kingpin. That was true in the Cambridge Footlights and in the shows that those guys then went on to do. So it was the guys themselves who were doing it and they came together and a producer was given to them just to get it onto the screen and make it work. By my day. The Footlights had become a producer’s show. So a producer is there to say what the show is going to be – a student producer or, more likely, someone who was at Cambridge two years previously who’s come back to do it. He says I want so-and-so in it and I want so-and-so to write it and they’re appointed and the producer calls the tune. I think that’s wrong.

That’s what’s true in Not The Nine O’Clock News. I’ll get into trouble for saying this but I think that’s wrong: it just makes it slightly too artificial. My year in the Cambridge Footlights was full of immensely talented people who never actually got the chance to really work together properly, because they were all working for somebody else rather than getting together. So it was very fragmented and you get on the one hand Hitch-Hiker, which is written by one person with actors employed to do it, and on the other hand Not The Nine O’Clock News, which is a producer’s show being sort of driven from the back seat. And there’s nothing central that has come out of my Cambridge generation.

JOHN: How many years of your life have you spent on Hitch-Hiker now?

DOUGLAS: Four. The first time it actually crept into my life was the end of 1976.

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no.


‘Dish of the Day’ concept sketch by Jim Francis for BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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IMF managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, dressed up in babies’ clothes and sucking on a large dummy

What is wrong with the managing director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

That man needs serious PR counselling. He looked guilty and dodgy in the New York court. Probably with good reason.

I do like to be lazy and not shave for a bit myself (I had a beard, aged 25-50) but, really, if you are going to be in court charged with attempted rape and you know there will be TV cameras there, then do shave, wear a tie and try to look innocent, not like a rather down-at-heel caged wolf.

It’s enough to give bankers a bad name.

When I was a researcher on The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross TV show, as a possible interviewee, I once chatted to a woman who ran an infantilist business, Her market was grown men (allegedly not paedophiles…) who liked to dress up in babies’ clothes. Giant nappies, the whole caboodle.

If you are an American, for “nappies” read “diapers”.

And they had parties.

Apparently the sort of men who like this tend to be men in very straight, responsible jobs like bank managers. It makes you wonder about Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

I have never had much respect for authority figures anyway but, when you imagine them dressed up in giant nappies sucking on over-sized dummies sitting in specially-made giant-sized cots, it tends to make them seem less authoritative…

If you are an American, for “dummies” read “pacifiers”.

The woman who ran the infantilist business was, at that time, the girlfriend of a now-deceased special effects man who worked on Hammer horror films. I knew him slightly. He was brought up in Kent and, as a child, used to dig up the skeletons of Napoleonic prisoners of war buried in the Kent marshes. He didn’t like his girlfriend to eat food in front of other people.

There are some interesting people around. I am comparatively dull.

Mark you, compared to some of these people, Arnold Schwarzenegger’ sex life would be dull.

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