The Secret Service, with Reference to Last Train to Buffler's Halt

Some classic TV blogs can manage to keep their posts on track. I can't even keep on track within a single post without going off on some tangent, so it's no wonder that after posting about episode 1 of They Came From Somewhere Else, I've wandered off to write about The Secret Service, specifically Last Train to Buffler's Halt. The reason for this jumping from one subject to another is a very personal one - I find I tend to use this blog to blog about what I am actually watching, and it seems I'm having difficulty sticking to plans at the moment.
There is another totally personal thing which decides what I post about here - as you know I don't post about shows which are duds. Of course sometimes I just haven't got round to posting about a show or haven't seen it, but life is too short to start clogging up my own blog with my whinges about shows which usually get a good hammering elsewhere on the internet anyway. I'm saying this because in this post I'm going to have a go at rehabilitating a show which is usually considered a complete dud - Gerry Anderson's The Secret Service, the last of his 'Supermarionation' series of shows - and while it has been on my radar for a long time its unpopularity may explain why I have never seen it.
The whole Supermarionation thing is a bit of a touchy one in the classic TV world. Grown men can get a bit embarrassed about watching shows featuring puppets. That said, we all grew up on Thunderbirds and the other shows, although being specifically aimed at children they lack grown up themes and depths and can fail to appeal to adults. More appealing is the Gerry Anderson show UFO - I like it greatly but I'm wary of posting about it here because I just know I will get drawn into what the female and male actors are wearing under their string uniform thingies. UFO isn't lacking in adult themes which makes it different from the shows normally associated with the Anderson name, and The Secret Service straddles the gap between the two, being the last Supermarionation, which also included live action with real people.
I really don't need to elaborate what people don't like about this show, but it is in its mixture of puppets and real people that this show goes wrong. Reading the reviews on the internet it looks as if this creates real credibility problems for a lot of viewers. It seems some people like their unreality to be confirmed by not containing real actors - at least not visible ones. A lot of people finding the casting of the wonderful Stanley Unwin very distracting. I would venture to disagree with this estimation of the show completely. What I would agree with is that this show is all wrong for a children's show of the time and I suspect they would have seen it as too grown up and adults would have seen it as too childish, and I think this is enough to create its unpopularity on its own.
I keep returning to the real/unreal dichotomy in television of this time, and I think this show is firmly in the unreal camp. This episode is a very good exmaple of why. The plot - a train carrying a consignment of cash which is being hijacked, ridden by a secret agent masquerading as a vicar, and which vanishes, is a plot straight out of any of the TV shows I have on my shelves. In fact I think it may actually be very similar to the plot of a missing episode of Adam Adamant! The theme of the shady character who is one thing but is actually a secret agent is straight out of The Avengers, as is the fact of this character pretending to be a vicar. He drives a vintage car. He lives in an actual vicarage. That is indicative of the Church of England being in cahoots with the Secret Service, and that really is a plot which can only come from the Avengers.
A show which features action on a train is of course one which is always going to be atmospheric, and this one doesn't fail. The baddies are naturally locked up in the trap they have set up to get the filthy lucre, and this reversal is about as perennial as you can get.
There is relatively little use of gadgetry in this show, and that is again one of the criticisms of it, but I don't mind that. The man who changes size is again one of the things which reminds me of a certain Avengers plot, and places this firmly in the unreal genre of TV. Personally I like the casting Stanley Unwin as the vicar. If we approach this show as unreal, the fact that he periodically speaks his own brand of gobbledygook is perfectly acceptable, and the things he says are perfectly understandable anyway. I like this show and specifically this episode very much.
So what went wrong with it? These things are not really criticisms looking back but I have a few ideas. It seems too churchy in the titles. The theme music is all wrong for a children's TV show of the time. I have a feeling it would have been less noticeable at the time given what television usually looked like, but the cuts between the supermarionation and the live action shots look a little too different in light and colour to be confortable. That said, if you're a geek, the alternations in action look like a very interesting experiment at the time. It's just a great pity that it was so unpopular and this show has been seen as a low point of Gerry Anderson's output.
My own opinion is that this show really is overdue a rehabilitation. Plus points are that it is like the finaly series of The Avengers on LSD, crossed with Adam Adamant, The Champions, and Department S. Negative points are that if you don't like the mixture of shooting you will never really take to this show. That said, if you like the sort of TV I do, I really would suggest you give this show a go, as I think it is an overlooked, if rather flawed, gem.


  1. This is a test, because my computer hates me.

  2. Chicago Calling (irrelevantly):

    This has nothing to do with the show you're writing up here, which I've never seen, and which I don't believe ever played in the USA.
    Your illustration, however, leads me to a memory which I've got to share.

    Sometime in the early '70s, Burt Reynolds, who'd just broken through to movie stardom, swung a deal with NBC to do several ad-lib talk specials, for use in the Saturday Night Live time slot.

    The overall title was The Late Burt Reynolds Show; each show had a "theme" of sorts.
    One of these shows was taped in London: Burt's guests were British actors, including Michael Caine and (I think - can't really recall) Roger Moore, and one other whom I definitely can't remember (sorry).
    Also on the panel was Ryan O'Neal, a Reynolds crony of long standing.
    The 90 minutes were given over to the actors's recounting of various disasters they'd had befall them over the years. A long segment was about the bad reviews they'd all had over time.
    In the final segment, Burt Reynolds announced that since they'd all been pretty rough on the critics they were talking about, "it's only fair that we bring out a prominent critic to give his answer to us." (Quote approximate.)
    Reynolds said a name I can't recall, and out came Stanley Unwin, whom I recognized from some British comedies I'd seen on TV.
    This was a prank aimed at Ryan O'Neal, who hadn't made many trips to Britain.
    The British guests all knew Unwin, and were in on the gag.
    Unwin sat at the far end of the panel, right next to O'Neal, and directed all his comments to the bewildered Yank; always kindly and gentlemanly, smiling and twinkling, and seeming to expect some kind of answer from O'Neal.
    For his part, poor Ryan sat frozen in abject terror of having to respond to Stanley Unwin; his fellow panelists did what they could to retain straight faces, not always successfully.
    At the end of the show, Reynolds properly introduced Stanley Unwin, who recieved loud applause from the London studio audience.
    Ryan O'Neal's response was the kind of smile that carries the subtext "I'm gonna strangle you all with my bare hands as soon as possible" - so all ended well.

    As I said above, nothing to do with The Secret Service, but face it, John - you started it by putting that picture of Stanley Unwin at the top of the post.

    (Now to see if this gets through.)


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