Yesterday’s blog was a profile of eccentric British performer Stanley Unwin, star 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 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.)
“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…
… TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW …
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.
This post first appeared on John Fleming's Blog - SO IT GOES | John Fleming’s Blog: Human Interest, Humour, Humor, Comedy Blog Featuring Eccentricity, Performance, Movies And Occasionally A Few Tears, please read the originial post: here