The Secret Service is a British children's espionage television series, made as a Century 21 production for ITC Entertainment and broadcast in 1969. Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, with David Lane and Reg Hill as producers, it succeeds earlier Century 21 productions such as Thunderbirds, and in a manner similar to its predecessors features characters realised as marionette puppets in a technique known as "Supermarionation". The eighth and final Supermarionation series, The Secret Service incorporates footage of live actors for distance shots at the behest of Anderson, who wished to compensate for the inadequacies of the Supermarionation format (such as the difficulties of inducing effective movement in the puppet characters) and increase the realism of his productions.
Episodes depict the adventures Father Stanley Unwin, a character with a likeness based on real-life comedian Stanley Unwin, who also provides the puppet voice. At first glance the eccentric parish priest of a rural English village, Father Unwin works undercover as a secret agent for BISHOP, a covert branch of British Intelligence that combats criminal and terrorist threats from abroad. With junior operative Matthew Harding as his assistant, the Father answers to his superior in London — "The Bishop" — as he would in the context of his clerical profession. When faced with the challenge of infiltrating hostile situations to collect intelligence, the pair call on the brilliant capabilities of the "Minimiser", a gadget that can shrink Matthew to a fraction of his normal height and permit him to conduct secret reconnaissance.
Filming commenced at Century 21 Studios, situated on the Slough Trading Estate, in August 1968. Anderson delegated the filming of live-action sequences to director Ken Turner. Locations such as Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire are depicted in shots featuring Gabriel, a vintage Ford Model T that the character of Father Unwin uses as his primary mode of transport, which the Century 21 special effects department built from scratch. Selecting Unwin to voice the star character on account of the comedian's "Unwinese", a nonsense language used in episodes to perplex opponents, Anderson reunited actors from earlier Supermarionation series one last time to provide additional voices. Meanwhile, composer Barry Gray arranged choral theme music, to which the Mike Sammes Singers contributed the vocals.
Lew Grade, Anderson's financial backer, cancelled production on The Secret Service in December 1968 during a preview screening of the pilot, declaring that the Unwinese dialogue would preclude successful distribution in the United States. Filming ended in January 1969 upon completion of the thirteenth episode, and the series aired on Associated Television from September to December. Just two other broadcasting regions, Granada and Southern, transmitted the series, which has not been aired since 1975. The Secret Service remained Anderson's last puppet-based production until the 1980s, when he produced Terrahawks using the "Supermacromation" technique. Throughout the 1970s, he worked on the live action series UFO, The Protectors and Space: 1999.
Reception to The Secret Service has remained mixed: verdicts range from the "forgotten gem" to the "one flop" of the Anderson series. Critics have questioned Anderson's decision to recruit Unwin, arguing that the humour that the Unwinese generates is too weak to sustain interest, although the scripting of the supporting characters has been praised. The mixture of puppetry and live action has received a poor response, with descriptions including "pointless" and "uneasy", while some reviewers suggest that The Secret Service is less an independent production and more a placeholder for the subsequent series that Anderson would produce using live actors alone. It has been argued that the failure of The Secret Service is in part due to the popularity of previous Anderson series, which continued to receive repeat runs into the 1970s.
The Secret Service follows the adventures of Father Stanley Unwin, the parish priest of a rural English village. Affecting the appearance of an eccentric middle-aged cleric, Unwin moonlights as a secret agent attached to BISHOP, a top-secret British Intelligence project (in full, British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest) based in Whitehall, London. Answering to his superior, codenamed "The Bishop", Unwin resides at his vicarage with Matthew Harding — another agent who, when not assisting the Father on his missions, adopts the manner of a simple gardener. Supporting characters include Blake, a junior BISHOP operative, and Mrs Appleby, Unwin's ageing housekeeper, who is unaware of Unwin and Harding's involvement with British Intelligence.
Prior to the events depicted in The Secret Service, pioneering scientist Professor Humbolt perfected the Minimiser, a device capable of shrinking people or objects to one third of their original size. Following Humbolt's death, it passed into the possession of Father Unwin, who conceals his deceased parishioner's parting gift inside a large Bible. The regular target of the Minimiser is Matthew, whom the Father reduces to a height of two feet (60 cm) so as to infiltrate situations to which no full-size individual could gain access. In this manner, the puppet interacts with life-size sets and live actors whose faces are excluded from the shot. The Minimiser is often used to shrink hostile agents, literally bringing them down to Matthew's size.
When miniaturised, Matthew is often transported into high-risk situations in Unwin's adapted briefcase, which is fitted with equipment such as a periscope, can store other gadgets as required, and can open from the inside. The Father's hearing aid is in fact a transmitter that enables covert communication with Matthew, who wears a corresponding unit. Father Unwin's preferred means of transport is Gabriel, a repainted and revamped 1917-issue Ford Model T that can travel at speeds in excess of 50 mph (80 km/h). If enemies or law enforcement agents challenge Father Unwin, the cleric can spout a form of nonsensical gobbledegook as a smokescreen to confuse the opposition and cover for Matthew.
The Secret Service represents a departure from most earlier Supermarionation television series on account of its non-futuristic setting: the decade depicted is the late 1960s. Supercar, produced from 1960, is set between 1960 and 1962. The events of the episodes "Errand of Mercy" and "The Deadly Whisper" are set on 3 February and 24 May 1969, respectively. However, Archer and Hearn argue that the setting is ambiguous, on the one hand suggesting that it may be "sometime in the near future", but also remarking of the set-up, "Morris Minors negotiate leafy country roads while space-age helijets patrol the skies." The biographers conclude that the production is so fantastic that it "isn't set in the real world at all."
|Episode no.||Title||Director||Writer(s)||Original Air Date (ATV)||Production no.|
|01||"A Case for the Bishop"||Alan Perry||Gerry and Sylvia Anderson||21 September 1969||01|
|When Dreisenberg agents raid the Healey Automation plant and steal the KX20 computer, British Intelligence fears that the ambassador will attempt to smuggle the machine out of Britain, invoking his diplomatic immunity if challenged to ensure no resistance on the return flight to Dreisenberg. Father Stanley Unwin and Matthew Harding of BISHOP must secure the safe return of the device.|
|02||"A Question of Miracles"||Leo Eaton||Donald James||28 September 1969||02|
|Strange explosions at desalinisation plants in Africa and Burgossa lead to an unsettling conclusion — sabotage. Father Unwin and Matthew travel to the one surviving installation at Port Trennick, only to find themselves in a race against time to prevent its destruction on account of a rigged underwater inlet.|
|03||"To Catch a Spy"||Brian Heard||Pat Dunlop||5 October 1969||04|
|George Gray, an inmate at North Exmanston prison, breaks out of his incarceration and contacts the villainous Sir Humphrey Burton, who has promised Gray a route out of Britain onboard a submarine. It is up to Father Unwin to intercept the pair at Kew Gardens and ingeniously use the Minimiser to apprehend the enemy.|
|04||"The Feathered Spies"||Ian Spurrier||Tony Barwick||12 October 1969||03|
|The secret development of the new fighter aircraft XK4 has been jeopardised by De Groot, a master of industrial espionage, who has blackmailed ornithologist John Masden into attaching miniature cameras to his domestic pigeons for the purposes of illicit surveillance. On the case, Father Unwin and Matthew uncover De Groot's final plan to use the birds to bomb Crayfield Airbase.|
|05||"Last Train to Bufflers Halt"||Alan Perry||Tony Barwick||19 October 1969||05|
|As part of an operation to seize £1 million in bank notes in transit to London, the train shipping the consignment is diverted to the disused Buffler's Halt station. Assigned to protect the notes, Father Unwin and Matthew help to subdue the criminal agents. However, on the journey back up the line, stationmaster Albert Hobson realises that he cannot stop the train, which is moving at 80 mph.|
|06||"Hole in One"||Brian Heard||Shane Rimmer||26 October 1969||08|
|When the G9 series of advance warning orbital satellites is sabotaged, the evidence leads to General Brompton, to whom Father Unwin passes on false intelligence during a golf match. Matthew intercepts two of Brompton's henchmen, Kromer and Blake, and learns that the golf balls contain recording devices. The fate of the G9s falls to Father Unwin, who must now score a vital hole in one.|
|07||"Recall to Service"||Peter Anderson||Pat Dunlop||2 November 1969||07|
|Father Unwin and Matthew investigate what appears to be a case of sabotage when the AquaTank, a computerised World Army superweapon, develops a mechanical fault. As NATO officials arrive to attend a demonstration of the AquaTank's abilities, suspicion falls on Captain Mitchell as he commands computer expert Professor Graham to program the vehicle to fire on the display bunker.|
|08||"Errand of Mercy"||Leo Eaton||Tony Barwick||9 November 1969||06|
|Suffering from heatstroke, Father Unwin convalesces at the vicarage. A newspaper article covering an epidemic in Africa prompts a surreal dream in which Father Unwin and Matthew are assigned to transport medicines to Bishopsville in Gabriel — which can fly. Abducted by natives, Father Unwin saves himself and his accomplice from ritual sacrifice with the help of his gobbledegook.|
|09||"The Deadly Whisper"||Leo Eaton||Donald James||16 November 1969||11|
|Professor Soames has invented an ultrasonic vibrational rifle which packs enough power to obliterate armoured vehicles. This attracts the attention of criminal Mark Slater and his gang, who are bent on destroying a prototype aircraft with the rifle and threaten Anne, Soames' daughter. Teaming up with the Professor, Father Unwin and Matthew rescue Anne and rush to put a stop to Slater's plan.|
|10||"The Cure"||Leo Eaton||Pat Dunlop||23 November 1969||10|
|Racing to intercept international assassin Sakov, who has appeared at Greenways health clinic on the pretence of receiving therapeutic treatment, Father Unwin is unaware that the agent has concocted a plot revolving around the new additive chemical GK2, which if mixed with water creates a compound comparable to high-octane fuel.|
|11||"School for Spies"||Ken Turner||Donald James||30 November 1969||09|
|The sabotage of multiple military installations prompts The Bishop to contact Father Unwin. Tracking down Brother Gregory, a vicar involved in a car accident near the site of the latest attack, Father Unwin enables Matthew to slip into Brother Thomas' briefcase. He arrives at Pennydridge Seminary, where he finds that the vicars are in fact mercenaries answering to their ruthless Archdeacon.|
|12||"May-Day, May-Day!"||Alan Perry||Bob Kesten||7 December 1969||12|
|Father Unwin and Matthew are assigned to guard the King of Muldovia, who is in London to sign an oil rights convention. The Prince of Muldovia plots to overthrow the King, but his hitman meets an unpleasant end while making an assassination attempt on the monarch. Desperate to succeed, the Prince conceals a bomb inside a toy bear intended for the King's son.|
|13||"More Haste Less Speed"||Ken Turner||Tony Barwick||14 December 1969||13|
|Aristocrats Lord and Lady Hazlewell and their associate Spiker greet ex-convict Mullins at their manor. The deceased Lord Hazlewell Senior bequeathed to his children one of two plates with which to print counterfeit dollar bills. When Mullins reveals that the second plate is hidden at Greenacre Farm, Lady Hazlewell turns traitor. Father Unwin and Matthew join in the madcap race to the prize.|
With the completion of Joe 90, which commenced transmission on ATV in September 1968, Gerry Anderson decided to produce another espionage television series. This would incorporate the plot device of a rural English village as the base of operations for the star secret agent, the local parish priest. Anderson selected Stanley Unwin to voice the lead character, which would be named after him, after encountering the comedian at Pinewood Studios as he completed dubbing work for the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
In the 1940s and 50s, Unwin had developed "Unwinese", a nonsense language that distorted words and phrases into a form of gibberish that sounded unintelligible but which in fact retained some fragments of meaning. The inspiration had come from Unwin's mother who, after a fall, had once announced to her infant son that she had "falloloped over and grazed her knee clapper."
Recalling Unwin's radio and television performances, Anderson thought that the self-made language would suit the character of an eccentric undercover operative, and could produce humour if demonstrated to have a confusing effect on enemies. He elaborates, "As far as I was concerned, Stanley came first and then the idea had to accommodate him. It wasn't that the story called for someone who could speak gobbledegook, it was a question of how we could fit him into the storyline."
Due to the peculiar nature of the language, the Century 21 writers would brief Unwin on episode plots and then leave space in their scripts for the actor to draft all dialogue in Unwinese himself. Shane Rimmer, who scripted the episode "Hole in One", remarks that "A lot of [the Unwinese] you had to leave to [Stanley]. You gave him a line of patter that's going to work with what he does. Because he was such a bizarre character, you felt you could really go all the way with him: you could practically do anything."
The premise of The Secret Service draws part of its inspiration from the Joe 90 episode "The Unorthodox Shepherd". This features the character of an aged, deaf vicar who conceals a money counterfeiting operation on his church grounds. Archer and Hearn comment on the wider influence of Joe 90 on its successor series, stating that The Secret Service "continues the espionage theme of Joe 90 in a range of adventures that depict a Britain under siege from despicable foreign agents intent on stealing its secrets."
Following Joe 90, Anderson had originally wished to discontinue the use of Supermarionation puppets altogether. However, due to the higher prospective production costs of filming a new series completely in live action, he decided to compromise between the advantages of both options and mix the two formats. On the nature of the puppets, which had incorporated natural human anatomical proportions since Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Anderson states that a progression in sculpting techniques had resulted in "imitations of human beings" that rendered his series "like live-action shows but with unconvincing actors."
Recording live actors for long shots solved a problem that all Supermarionation productions up to The Secret Service had entailed: that of inducing realistic movement from puppet characters. Century 21 had experimented with filming special effects in live settings for its 1968 film, Thunderbird 6. "The Unorthodox Shepherd" had incorporated similar filming techniques: a church at Harefield in Buckinghamshire doubles as the principal setting, while the villain is represented on this location footage by a human-sized mannequin based on a Supermarionation puppet. La Rivière notes the contrast between the mixing of formats for The Secret Service and the procedure adopted for earlier Supermarionation series, which had only presented live-action shots in scenarios such as the operation of machines (for which a brief shot of a living hand would be inserted).
New puppets created for The Secret Service are limited to the characters of Father Unwin (which sculptor Mary Turner based on the likeness of Stanley Unwin), his ageing housekeeper Mrs Appleby (which Christine Glanville based on the appearance of her mother) and The Bishop. Other characters are portrayed by "revamp puppets" which appeared in the earlier Anderson series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90 — for example, the Matthew Harding puppet made its first appearance in the Captain Scarlet episode "Treble Cross", while the Captain Scarlet marionette itself stars as Blake. La Rivière refers to the Unwin puppet in particular as "one of the most impressive artistic feats" produced at the Century 21 puppet workshop, describing the accuracy of the likeness as "uncanny".
With the exception of the principal star, Stanley Unwin, all voice actors cast for The Secret Service had contributed to earlier Supermarionation series. The Secret Service stars:
- Stanley Unwin as Father Stanley Unwin (aged 57), a parish priest based in rural England who carries out top-secret missions for BISHOP (British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest). Due to the realism of the costume that he wore for live-action location filming, members of the public would often confuse Unwin for a real vicar during production on The Secret Service. While driving home from one shooting session in costume, he once found himself "held up because the driver in front had stalled his caravan. Seeing my clerical garb he said: 'So sorry, Father. I'm in trouble.'"
- Gary Files as Matthew Harding (aged 28), a BISHOP agent paired with Father Unwin, who serves as his accomplice on assignment and as gardener of the vicarage in public life. Files retains fond memories of his time on The Secret Service, stating that he enjoyed voicing the character of Matthew more than the character of Captain Magenta on Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. He made significant contributions to Matthew's characterisation, conceiving the rural accent of Father Unwin's assistant himself: "It just seemed so right for the character. Then once I had the voice, the rest of Matthew followed."
- Sylvia Anderson as Mrs Appleby (aged 55), the housekeeper of Father Unwin's vicarage, who remains ignorant of the Father and Matthew's secret double life.
- Jeremy Wilkin as The Bishop (aged 52), a high-ranking figure in British Intelligence, director of BISHOP and superior to Father Unwin, who resides in Whitehall.
- Keith Alexander as Blake, a cautious junior agent of BISHOP, who has speaking roles in three episodes ("A Question of Miracles", "Last Train to Bufflers Halt" and "The Cure").
Supporting character voices are provided by all the regular cast (except Unwin) in addition to David Healy and (for one episode, "More Haste Less Speed") David Graham.
Filming commenced on 20 August 1968 after a summer of pre-production. Director Ken Turner, the location unit director, recalls that The Secret Service became a complex series to shoot because it incorporated three design elements (studio puppet filming, studio special effects filming and live-action location filming). In a reversal to the practice used for earlier Supermarionation series, location filming wrapped first before work commenced at the Century 21 Studios. Turner elaborates, "We felt that somebody had to take the location stuff by the balls, get it shot and then hand it over to the director to fit his puppet stuff in. I suppose that seemed a bit back to front but with that programme it was what worked out best."
On the complications that emerged from filming, producer David Lane remembers his experience on the series as "an absolute nightmare" due to the various scales used: "You can imagine the problems. You're shrinking [the Matthew Harding puppet] to puppet size on a puppet set and then you're having to built it in 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 full set."
Locations used in filming include a manor house at Burnham in Buckinghamshire, which doubles as Father Unwin's residence. Centre Point, a tower building located on Oxford Street in London, appears as British Intelligence Headquarters, while the base of BISHOP is Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall. The hospital at which Father Unwin visits Brother Gregory in the episode "School for Spies" is in fact Wexham Park Hospital in Slough. The exterior of Century 21 Studios themselves, located on the Slough Trading Estate, appears as the Healey Automation plant in the pilot episode, "A Case for the Bishop".
Due to the 1960s setting of The Secret Service, Derek Meddings and the technicians in the special effects department received few commissions for scale models of vehicles that appeared futuristic. This left Father Unwin's vintage Ford Model T, Gabriel, as their main project, in addition to rendering vehicles and settings common to the decade in miniature and producing the optical enlargement and miniaturisation effects for the character of Matthew. Wag Evans manufactured both a full-size and two miniature versions (the last of differing scales), fitting the larger car with belt-driven electric motors, a folding roof, upholstered interior and a remote control mechanism.
Evans remembers that the location filming involving Gabriel, conducted in and around Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire in the autumn of 1968, proved to be arduous due to the low levels of light. On occasion, just two minutes of new footage would be recorded in each session. On the subject of remote-control steering, he states, "I remember standing out of shot and having to 'drive' [Gabriel] down the road while it was out of view. Often I didn't know where it was, or where and when it had stopped." A location unit member would be on hand to stop the car with a large cushion if it went out of control.
Composer Barry Gray's opening theme music, which emerged as his first Supermarionation contribution since Stingray to include vocal cues, is a chant with church organ and percussion accompaniment. Imitating the nuances of Bach, Gray developed his initial concept into a three-part fugue. He first approached the Swingle Singers to provide the chant, but the fee demanded in return would have placed considerable strain on the music budget. Seeking out an alternative, Gray hired the Mike Sammes Singers, who had provided vocals for the Supercar theme and produced an impression of the Swingle Singers's tones under the composer's direction. Archer and Hearn cite the opening and closing theme music, recorded in a four-hour studio session on 16 October 1968, as "a glorious piece of choral lunacy".
Further to the titles, Gray recorded incidental music for individual episodes in three additional four-hour sessions. For the first, held at the Olympic Studios in London on 12 November 1968, an orchestra of 29 musicians played tracks to feature in the pilot episode, "A Case for the Bishop". Recording for "A Question of Miracles" ran on 11 December, at Gray's private studios and with eight musicians. The final session wrapped up soundtrack work on The Secret Service on 10 January 1969. Since production on The Secret Service ended sooner than anticipated, the soundtrack has received no commercial home entertainment releases, although since 2007 it has been available on CD exclusively for members of Fanderson, the official Gerry Anderson fan organisation.
Both the opening and ending credits sequences incorporate shots of The Church of St Michael and All Angels in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, which doubles for the parish of Father Unwin. A zoom shot establishes a backdrop of fields in the opening credits sequence, after which the superimposed title descends onto the screen in a movement inspired by traditional images of angels descending from Heaven.
Lew Grade, the ITC Entertainment financier, ordered Anderson to cancel production on The Secret Service during a test screening of the pilot episode, "A Case for the Bishop", in December 1968. Objecting to the concept on the grounds that audiences in the United States would be perplexed at the Unwinese, Grade capped the production at the thirteen episodes that either had been completed or in production at the time of the screening. Anderson has countered that a nonsense language such as Unwinese is inherently incomprehensible, and questions Grade's rationale for cancellation, responding "I chose Stanley Unwin 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?"
However, the creator concedes that Grade "was not a man you could argue with. If he said "No", you had to accept that he wouldn't change his mind." Of Grade's decision, La Rivière conjectures, "No one knows what was running through [his] mind ... but given the ease with which the 'Unwinese' element could have been removed the series, it seems probable that he simply didn't like a lot of what he was seeing." In a move that would lead to the shelving of the Supermarionation format, Anderson and Grade coordinated to transfer most of the production staff from the Century 21 base at the Slough Trading Estate in Berkshire to Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire for the commencement of filming on UFO, the Andersons' first full live-action series.
Having wished to discontinue puppet work and move into live-action, Anderson greeted the cancellation of The Secret Service with optimism, remarking of live actors, "I started to think: 'It's amazing! They speak! Their mouths are in synch with their words! And they can walk! And they can pick up things!'" Once the Century 21 puppet studios had closed down on 24 January 1969 on completion of the final episode of The Secret Service, "More Haste Less Speed", the special effects department expanded its workshops to fill the disused rooms in anticipation of new projects for UFO.
In the United Kingdom, The Secret Service aired only in the ATV, Granada and Southern broadcasting regions on its original run, appearing on Sunday afternoons on ATV at the regular time of 5.30 pm. Although repeats ran until 1972 on ATV and Southern, and until 1975 on Granada, the series has not been transmitted since and remains unsold to new broadcasters.
Critical reception of The Secret Service has for the most part been negative. However, Gerry Anderson ranks it as a favourite of all the series that he has produced. Leo Eaton, a director, remembers The Secret Service as "just a bit weird", and did not consider Stanley Unwin's humour effective. Production manager Desmond Saunders refers to it as "strange. I suppose it was the gobbledegook and the mixture of live action with puppets. It never seemed to me to be a very good idea." Laurence Marcus, in an Anderson retrospective on the Teletronic website, describes the use of Unwin as "an awful concept and made for an equally awful series", while Simon Wickes, examining the production of the series on the TVCentury21 site, deems the idea "very strange" and suggests that, as its main purpose, The Secret Service bridged the transition between Anderson's Supermarionation series and his subsequent progression into live action. Kif Bowden-Smith of the Transdiffusion site concurs with the latter point, referring to the set-up mixing puppetry and live action as an "experimental format for the following live action series".
Anderson biographers Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn note a sharp contrast from earlier Supermarionation television productions that stems from The Secret Service being less "American-orientated" and containing fewer action sequences. The series is referred to as the "most eccentric" of all Anderson's series up to 1969, and the fusion of puppets and live actors the "natural conclusion" to the Supermarionation technique. The writers bestow particular praise on the characterisation of the supporting character of Mrs Appleby, whose ignorance of Father Unwin and Matthew's commitments to British Intelligence leads to moments of humour: for example, when Father Unwin speaks into his communications device disguised as a hearing aid, the housekeeper deduces that the apparently senile vicar is muttering to himself. The episodes "A Question of Miracles", which sees the miniaturised Matthew dwarfed by articles of food and drink from a picnic basket, and "Last Train to Bufflers Halt", with its plot about an unstoppable train, are also lauded. Stephen La Rivière, author of Filmed in Supermarionation: A History of the Future, favours "More Haste Less Speed": describing the series finale as "wonderfully quirky" and "glorious", he views the plot concerning counterfeiting as reminiscent of the "gentler, earlier days of Supercar", also praising Keith Alexander for his impression of an aged woman while voicing the character of Lady Hazlewell.
However, considering The Secret Service as a series, La Rivière goes on to suggest that the premise of a secret agent masquerading as a priest in an antiquated car did not appeal to child viewers, and that older audiences did not see the "traditional espionage format" as original. For La Rivière, the blending of puppetry and live action "simply doesn't work. It requires more than the audience can give in terms of acceptance." For example, in the case of "More Haste Less Speed", he notes that the character of Lady Hazlewell is portrayed in live-action distance shots by a stunt actor dressed in drag — an "unintentionally hilarious moment that illustrates beautifully why the live-action inserts didn't work." It is further argued that the contrasting light levels of shots alternating from one format to the other shatter the illusion of "artificiality" that previous series had been able to produce due to the absence of live action.
La Rivière finally cites external influences that to his mind did not work in favour of The Secret Service, including the sustained viewer interest in previous Supermarionation productions as far back as The Adventures of Twizzle (1959) and the frequent repeat runs that such series received on ATV throughout the 1960s: "... as with anything that is phenomenally popular, the time must come when the audience is satiated and drifts away to something else." On the other hand, it is argued that, in light of the release of the 1969 film Doppelgänger, a live-action production preceding the television series UFO, the Supermarionation format had become outdated. Archer and Hearn express similar concerns on the falling demand for new Supermarionation series in 1969, stating that Anderson and his team has become "a bit too successful" in producing a winning format.
Science-fiction author John Peel, in his episode guide to the Supermarionation productions, labels The Secret Service "dismal", deeming the mix of puppetry and live action "completely pointless" and Stanley Unwin's recruitment not just "bizarre in the extreme" but also ill-considered, since his Unwinese "was hardly funny to most people (let alone children)." Addressing Lew Grade's concern that an American audience would be left baffled by Unwin's mannerisms, Peel argues that the character was equally incomprehensible to British viewers. As with La Rivière, he perceives a lack of inspiration in the core premise, and also refers to the Minimiser as the "single gimmick" of the series, which as a whole "marked the death knell of Supermarionation." It Peel's his opinion that each Supermarionation series following Thunderbirds "had made one mistake after another", so that "From the heights of Thunderbirds, the Anderson team had slipped to the depths with The Secret Service.
Supermarionation historians Chris Drake and Graeme Bassett suggest that "On paper, at least, the premise seemed irresistible", but still describe the combination of puppetry and live action "uneasy". Prior to his death in 2002, Unwin himself praised the off-beat nature of The Secret Service, defending the inclusion of such elements as the Unwinese as "an attempt to add a new dimension to the puppet field ... It was a bit bizarre, but then aren't many new ideas a little odd at first?" On the subject of the cancellation, he suggested that "maybe it was a little bit before its time." Running contrary to La Rivière and Peel, John Walsh of newspaper The Guardian challenges the notion that the gobbledegook devalued the series, arguing that American audiences aside, "British audiences quite like not understanding things."
In an episode review published in the Andersonic fanzine, Paul O'Brien suggests that the AquaTank plot of "Recall to Service" is "an obvious allegory about the hazards of complete automation", writing that the depiction of a military weapon gone rogue relates to instalments of earlier Supermarionation series such as Thunderbirds for its subtext, which warns of the dangers of over-reliance on technology. The crucial plot development of the episode occurs, according to O'Brien "when Matthew switches the advancing AquaTank back to manual control — in other words the machinery is now subordinate to its creator once again, as it should stay." O'Brien directs criticism at the limitations of the puppet cast, arguing that the recurring absence of female characters leaves Father Unwin and Matthew members of an "all-male club". On the subject of Mrs Appleby, he writes that the one regular character of the opposite sex "contributes precisely nil to the plot."
Exploring cultural influences, historian Nicholas J. Cull cites The Secret Service as an "idiosyncratically British product" and, in reference to BISHOP, remarks that the series honours "the 1960s vogue for stories set in secret organisations with extravagant acronyms." He identifies inferences to the Cold War, noting that Sakov in "The Cure" is Russian and concluding that The Secret Service is one of many Anderson series that "unashamedly capitalised on the Cold War cult of the secret agent whose skills defend the home from enemies unknown." Cull labels The Secret Service in general as Anderson's "one flop".
In 1969, author John William Jennison wrote two original novels based on the series — The Destroyer and The VIP — under the pseudonym "John Theydon".
A&E Home Video released the series as a two-disc Region 1 DVD box set in on 30 December 2003. While the picture and sound of the episodes have undergone digital remastering, special features include an audio commentary with producer David Lane for the pilot episode, "A Case for the Bishop". The AllMovie website gives a feature rating of three and a half stars out of five. Network DVD followed with a Region 2 release on 20 June 2005. Bonus material includes audio commentaries from creator Gerry Anderson and PDF transfers of original script documents.
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- Archer, Simon (1993). Gerry Anderson's FAB Facts. London: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-006382-47-8.
- Archer, Simon; Hearn, Marcus (2002). What Made Thunderbirds Go! The Authorised Biography of Gerry Anderson. London: BBC Books. ISBN 978-0-563534-81-5.
- Archer, Simon; Nicholls, Stan (1996). Gerry Anderson: The Authorised Biography. London: Legend Books. ISBN 978-0-099781-41-7.
- Bentley, Chris (2001). The Complete Book of Captain Scarlet. London: Carlton Books. ISBN 978-1-842224-05-2.
- Bentley, Chris (2008) . The Complete Gerry Anderson: The Authorised Episode Guide (4 ed.). Richmond, London: Reynolds and Hearn. ISBN 978-1-905287-74-1.
- Cull, Nicholas J. (2006). "Was Captain Black Really Red? The TV Science Fiction of Gerry Anderson in its Cold War Context". Media History (Routledge) 12 (2): 193–207. ISSN 1368-8804. OCLC 364457089. doi:10.1080/13688800600808005. Unknown parameter
- La Rivière, Stephen (2009). Filmed in Supermarionation: A History of the Future. Neshannock, Pennsylvania: Hermes Press. ISBN 978-1-932563-23-8.
- Marriott, John; Rogers, Dave; Drake, Chris; Bassett, Graeme (1993). Supermarionation Classics: Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. London: Boxtree. ISBN 978-1-852839-00-0.
- Peel, John (1993). Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet: The Authorised Programme Guide. London: Virgin Books. ISBN 978-0-863697-28-9.
- The Secret Service at the Internet Movie Database
- The Secret Service at TV.com
- "A Case for the Bishop" stills gallery with production information
- The Gerry Anderson Title Sequences includes The Secret Service title sequence
- The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History includes The Secret Service 1960s comic strips