Monday, February 27, 2012

Secret Army

(This post is part of a series on the 14 Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen)

We’ve reached the penultimate show in The Top TV Dramas You’ve Never Seen. Number 2 is Secret Army. I’ve just rewatched the entire series (43 hour-long episodes) and its sequel, Kessler (6 hour-long episodes) and found it as riveting as when I first saw it 30 years ago. It is quite possibly the finest dramatic series ever filmed and I would have chosen it for first place, had it not been for its rather slow start in the first two hours and its last few episodes which failed to keep up with the breakneck pace established by the bulk of the series.

Set in World War II Belgium, we meet the “secret army”: a group of brave men and women who risk torture and death to sneak downed pilots out of the occupied territory and return them to their Allied homelands. The series was based on real events, which makes the courage displayed by these Belgian resisters all the more compelling. Both the Luftwaffer, in the form of  Major Brandt (Michael Culver) and the Gestapo, headed by Sturmbannfuhrer Ludwig Kessler (Clifford Rose), are entrenched in the occupied city. Brandt interrogates prisoners over drinks and cigarettes, contrasted with Kessler’s Gestapo interrogation which often leave prisoners dead after hours of torture. The threat to members of the resistance is palpable throughout the series and many do not survive.

Lifeline, the resistance is led by 24-year-old Lisa Colbert (Jan Francis), aided primarily by Albert Foiret (Bernard Hepton), proprietor of the Cafe Candide, his mistress Monique Duchamps (Angela Richards) and waitress Natalie Chantrens (Juliet Hammond-Hill), Dr. Pascal Keldermans (ValentineDyall), and farmer Alain Muny (Ron Pember). Albert must balance his attentions between his bedridden wife (he feels responsible for the accident that crippled her) and his mistress, Monique, who lives with them above the café. Albert is a fascinating character study. Is he motivated by patriotism or greed? He seems a gentle, good man but he can kill another man without hesitation — even those on his own side in the war. Monique resents her role as a mistress to a man incapable of commitment and realizes she has trapped herself in a relationship that will never end in the marriage she desires, even after Albert is widowed.

The secret army plays a dangerous game. The Gestapo, frequent patrons of the café, would torture and kill them if their underground activities came to light. They cozy up to the Germans to deflect suspicion and learn their secrets; however, they risk animosity from fellow Belgians, who view them as collaborators. As the war draws to a close, the risk from their own countrymen, and from Communist resistance groups, exceeds the threat from the Nazis.

All of the actors are compelling and convincing in their roles. Kessler is cold-blooded and his lack of humanity shows most clearly not in his actions as sturmbannfuhrer, but as a man through his awkwardness with human interaction when he begins an affair with an emotionally-scarred Belgian woman (Hazel McBride). In contrast, while Kessler lives for the Nazi cause and idolizes Hitler, Brandt is a military man first and a Nazi party man second. Like others, he comes to doubt Hitler, but does not act on those doubts. After his wife and son are killed in a bombing raid, Brandt rapidly deteriorates into alcoholism and despair.

When the Allies advance on the Ardennes after the Normandy landing, the dynamic changes. Kessler finds himself in constant conflict with Brandt's replacement, new arrival Major Reinhardt (Terrence Hardiman). As news of the Allied forces' imminent arrival reaches Brussels, the Germans flee and Belgian mobs rule the streets. Reinhardt remains behind, having deduced the truth about Lifeline and determined to prove his suspicions. Kessler is on the run and ultimately imprisoned in an interesting turnabout. Albert is lynched by the Communists and Monique is placed in a cage by the Belgian mob where collaborators have their heads shaved for the amusement of the crowd. Reinhardt ends up in the same prison camp as Kessler, who convenes a court martial against him. As Reinhardt faces a firing squad, he has an epiphany: “You’re all mad! Stark raving mad!” he tells the Germans. Reflecting on the toll of the war, he has not only summed up the men before him and the Nazi ideology they believed in, but the madness of war itself.

The final episode, "What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?" is set 25 years after the war, in 1969, where Lifeline’s survivors are interviewed about their deeds. They exhibit a surprising but understandable reticence to discuss what they endured and participated in when questioned by a younger generation that envies the “exciting adventure” of the war and seeks to glorify the conflict. This episode formed the basis for the spin-off, Kessler, which follows Kessler’s post-war rise as a powerful multinational corporate leader whose Nazi past is revealed by a documentary filmmaker. Several of the Secret Army cast members have cameos in the first episode.

Secret Army is a thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat. As you come to care for the characters, you realize no one —  not the downed pilots, the Belgians, the resistance, nor the occupiers — is safe. The war is not glorified but rather presented as an ordeal to be survived. The reality-based tales of those who do — and those who do not — make Secret Army the most compelling drama series ever to air on television.

In the clip below, a wounded Monique must perform at the Candide in front of Kessler to allay suspicion she is part of the resistance, as her fellow evasion line allies look on. All of the songs in the series were written especially for the show.

Amazon page  (you may need a multi-region player to view this). Many of the episodes are also available on YouTube.

No comments:

Post a Comment