The word ‘Supermarionation’ will probably conjure up a host of images, with the results depending upon who you ask. For many, it will likely prove to be a heady mixture of explosions, rockets, derring-do, lantern-jawed heroes, high adventure, and high-tech gizmos. Very few would in all likelihood tend to associate the term with a Model T Ford-driving man of the cloth who speaks fluent mumbo jumbo.
The Secret Service is something of an oddity in the canon of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, a real curate’s egg, and a series which often tends to be overlooked or forgotten. Coming as the final puppet show to be produced by the husband-and-wife team, The Secret Service stands out as a real oddity, but perhaps in the best way. It was to end the Supermarionation age not with a customary VFX bang, but also not really with a whimper either, instead something far more akin to a clang: that of a church bell.
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It was the chance meeting in 1968 between Gerry Anderson and self-proclaimed ‘Professor’ Stanley Unwin which was to give Anderson the idea of devising a show with Unwin at the centre. Creator of a gobbledygook language that was named ‘Unwinese’ (or ‘Basic Engly Twenty Fido‘), Stanley Unwin had carved out a very distinctive niche for himself as a comedian and entertainer, and it was this nonsense lexicon which was to sit at the heart of Anderson’s new programme, as Unwin’s character’s method was to use this gibberish talk in order to baffle and confuse people to his advantage.
Father Stanley Unwin takes his orders from a higher power – but perhaps not the one you might expect for the vicar of a small country parish. Unwin answers to a rather different kind of Bishop – British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest. He has a seemingly slow-witted gardener, Matthew, who is really an undercover operative for BISHOP, and Unwin uses a secret device known as a Minimiser which shrinks Matthew to just two feet tall, so he can be secreted in a special briefcase, laden with gizmos, for spy jinks.
Most of the Andersons’ productions would use puppets for the main action, with cutaways to real hands for picking up or holding objects, working switches and controls, etc. With The Secret Service, however, some live action footage was used in addition to the marionettes, such as shots of the real Unwin driving an actual Model T Ford. The end result was to create a curious mix of the real and unreal in a manner which broke the illusion, cutting to and from the real world.
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An initial run of 13 episodes was commissioned, but when Lew Grade – managing director of Midlands ITV franchise ATV, who was bankrolling the show – saw the first episode at an early screening, he was so appalled by the end result that he knew he would be unable to sell it overseas, and he pulled the plug. This meant that only a baker’s dozen of The Secret Service was ever made, leaving it as a somewhat curious and atypical bookend to the finish of the Supermarionation era, as Gerry and Sylvia moved on to live action.
For such a remarkably distinctive programme, it required a similarly distinctive soundtrack, and the Andersons would call once again upon their stalwart music man, Barry Gray, who had scored over a decade’s worth of their output. The Secret Service’s soundtrack is the latest to see release on CD and digital from Silva Screen, who have been putting out the back catalogue of Gray’s work, with those original recordings being remastered by Fanderson, the Official Gerry and Sylvia Anderson Appreciation Society.
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Anyone familiar with shows like Thunderbirds or Stingray will have heard Gray’s music, and would be forgiven for any expectation it would tend to all be along similar lines, full of military marches, pomp and high drama. However, this sells short Gray’s range and talent, as his far more experimental side can be evidenced in the scores for Fireball XL5, with his use of electronica breaking the mould of what you might be thinking you would get from his compositions. It makes him far more than a workmanlike, journeyman musician.
With The Secret Service, we get to see Gray working from a wide palette, and what he delivers may come as a surprise to the unfamiliar, unsuspecting listener. The opening theme is a prime example of this, evoking the ecclesiastical setting of Father Unwin’s cover, using a choral sound interspersed with chiming bells, serving up something quite unlike any of his title tunes for the other Anderson series. The vocal stylings of the Mike Sammes Singers atop a Bach-inspired tripartite fugue really does manage to sell the unconventional nature of The Secret Service from the off.
The track ‘Calling Father Unwin’ perhaps best encapsulates what Gray did to creature a distinctive sound for The Secret Service’s all-too brief run. Kicking off with Gray’s typical full orchestra, it turns playful and quirky, before then revisiting the opening theme – a recurring motif in this soundtrack – with an organ bringing to mind The Secret Service’s church setting. ’Operation Intercept’ provides a demonstration of Gray’s use of electronic sounds, to accompany the use of the Minimiser device on Matthew.
Another standout track on this album is ‘The Train Hijack’, which opens with a sinister quasi-swing version of the title music, before rapidly picking up tempo to recreate the pace of a speeding train before grinding to a halt. The percussion is also used to provide the effect of the distinctive clicktety-clack noise of a train racing across jointed track for much of the piece, amping up the tension and throughout, closing things on a rather whimsical note, followed by a triumphal fanfare.
For a much-neglected and sidelined entry in the Andersons’ oeuvre, Silva Screen’s release is greatly welcomed, and will hopefully shine the spotlight a bit more on this truly hidden gem, which deserves more attention. To use one of Stanley Unwin’s catchphrases: Deep joy.
The Secret Service: Original Television Soundtrack is out on 29th July from Silva Screen Records.