Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Au Revoir

Being out at the party Saturday night gave me the best opportunity for avoiding Doctor Who. Still watching to see whether the show would nose its way past the BELOW AVERAGE mark, last week really was the time to say enough is enough and spent the time more profitably.

The problem with April 21st’s episode – Daleks in Manhattan – was that not only was the fiction appalling but the cockamamie prefix science was, as usual, the sort of witless poppycock put together by a clueless jobbernowl. Humans mutated into pig-men because...? Well, I suppose it came up in a script conference and everyone thought it would be an utterly bonzer idea whether it was relevant or not. What was this The Cold Comfort Farm of Doctor Moreau?

Worse was the “evolution” of the Daleks. Take a human, shake and bake him inside the metal pepperpot to produce a creature with... monocular vision? Surely that’s devolution, right? As we all know, monocular vision means a 25% reduction in the peripheral field of vision from normal stereoscopic binocular vision.

The decreased visual acuity impairs orientation, hand-eye co-ordination, and causes loss of manipulation and balance. Which would make a clumsy fucker, bumping into everything around it. And let’s not even talk about having the brain on the outside of the skull. Who needs a hard cranium to protect soft nervous tissue? Pathetic!

Still, Doctor Who wasn’t the only thing I was happy to avoid. The stinking turd floating in the weekend punchbowl had to be, hands down, The Return of ‘Allo ‘Allo!. Goodness knows what rage would have been unleashed if I had been indoors to catch sight of that.

I never, for one moment, saw the funny side of ‘Allo ‘Allo!. It wasn’t because I considered a WWII-set comedy filled with bumbling Nazi buffoons and the worst cultural national stereotypes to be in horribly bad taste, or even that it was little more than a sketch recycling the same tired and utterly obviously jokes ad infinitum. My bugbear was that it was an incredibly lazy rip off of Secret Army.

In the past producer David Croft had been adamant that ‘Allo ‘Allo!‘s premise was to spoof war-based films and TV dramas. I suppose on Saturday night he was wheeled out once again to gruffly state categorically that the show was in no way based on Secret Army – which is an even bigger porkie than anything that has come out of the mouth of Norman Stanley Archer.

First broadcast in 1977, and running for three series and a total of 42 episodes, Secret Army followed the exploits of Lifeline, an escape line set up by a young nurse, Lisa Colbert, to get downed RAF aircrews safely back to England. Joining her in this perilous endeavour were Brussels café-owner Albert Foiret, whose establishment, the Café Candide, became their base of operations, alongside his waitresses Natalie Chantrens and Monique Duchamps, who was also his mistress.

Carrying out their work meant keeping one step ahead of SS-Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kessler along with Major Erwin Brandt of Brussels’ Luftgau, and his successor, Major Hans Reinhardt. Although Kessler disagreed with Brandt’s methods of putting captured airmen at ease in an effort to garner information, and Reinhardt’s apparently lackadaisical approach to his work, all three were committed to breaking Lifeline and apprehending those responsible.

Such a set-up could easily have led to a rollicking Boys-Own adventure with the brave Belgians outwitting the dreaded Hun to make sure our brave boys got back to Blighty to fly another day. Instead Secret Army went to great pains to show the stress and strain exacted upon the members of Lifeline, forced to live a double life. Though skilled fliers in the air, many of the younger RAF crewmen proved to be a liability on the ground. The drama didn’t shy away from showing failed attempts at getting airmen out, or the compromises made which led to casualties on all sides.

Living under a foreign power, the resistance members had to become calculated and ruthless to keep going. When the Candide was suspected of being used by an escape line, to allay suspicions, Foiret sells out an airman refusing to return to England. Along with serving their Wehrmacht regulars, the incident resulted in the staff accused of being “Boche-lovers!” by locals unaware of the real service they provided. After their London paymasters financed the upmarket Restaurant Candide in the heart of Brussels, which allowed them to operate under the noses of the enemy while listen in on their unguarded conversations, the reprisals for catering to the officer-class nearly proved fatal for the members of Lifeline following the eventual German withdrawal from the city.

Critically acclaimed, with audiences reaching 15 million viewers, Secret Army was created by ex-RAF pilot Gerard Glaister. Having flown Blenheim bombers in the North African Campaign before switching to piloting reconnaissance Spitfires, Glaister retired from the service after the Second World War, and began working for the BBC from the mid-1950s. Becoming a successful television producer of series like The Expert and The Brothers, in the early 1970s Glaister produced the award-winning wartime drama Colditz, which followed the prisoners-of-war’s ingenious escape attempts from the notorious castle.

Running for two years, the drama benefited greatly from the technical expertise of Major Pat Reid, a former inmate whose best-selling memoirs had also inspired the 1954 film The Colditz Story starring John Mills. Wanting to bring the same high level of verisimilitude to Secret Army, Glaister contacted The Royal Air Force Escaping Society, a charitable organisation providing financial assistance to surviving helpers and dependants of those who lost their lives helping airmen escape from occupied territory.

Fortunately for the production, the RAFES’s then-chairman was Group Captain William Randle, CBR AFC DFM. During the post-war years Bill Randle had worked for AI9, the successor to MI9 which had been specifically set up to financially assist escape routes once they proved to be successful. More importantly, he also had first-hand experience of them in action. As Secret Army’s technical advisor, Randle worked closely with script editor John Brason, an ex-merchant seaman who had previously written episodes of Colditz. Lifeline was based on the Comète line and Lisa Colbert modelled on Andrée de Jongh, codename Dédée.

A young Belgian nurse, Andrée de Jongh first started helping British soldiers left behind at Dunkirk. “Then of course we began the big bomber offensive at the start of 1942 and began to lose so many planes. Bless their hearts, the Belgians wanted to help,” explained Bill Randle when I interviewed him a couple of years ago for an article to coincide with the release of Secret Army on DVD. With the help of her schoolmaster father, Frederic, the 24-year-old set up the Comète line, which ran all the way from Belgium down to the Pyrenees. Described by one air gunner as “the best travel agency there ever was,” over 800 of the 3000-plus airmen from Bomber Command that evaded capture, returned via the Comète.

A Wellington bomber pilot during the war, Bill Randle and his crew had been forced to bail out on their way back from a night raid on Essen in the Ruhr Valley – or “Happy Valley” as he called it. After being reunited with his rear-gunner, who was only seventeen at the time, and an RCAF observer at a safe-house in the heart of Brussels, Dédée personally escorted the trio to Southern France and across the mountains into Spain.

In total the journey took a couple of months. Although the Spanish government was in the main anti-British, Randle and his crew were exchanged at Algeseras for a few hundred gallons petrol each and taken to Gibraltar. Back in England, Randle discovered that, having been rescued he couldn’t go back on Ops over Europe for fear of being shot down again, captured by the Germans and revealing the information on the escape lines.

The Belgians civilians would actively search for aircrews shot down over enemy-occupied territory. Instead of facing interrogation by the Luftwaffe Polizei or SS who scoured the countryside for downed terrorfliegers, after surrendering their name, rank and serial number the RAF bomber crewmembers found themselves subjected to further questioning of an unusually personal nature.

Before their journey home could begin, the men had to supply unique information, passed back to London for verification that would confirm they were who they said they were and not an enemy agent in disguise. Determined to break this secret network of escape lines, the Germans regularly attempted to infiltrate their way in. While captured airmen found themselves shipped to prisoner-of-war camps, the Belgians patriots would be interrogated until they betrayed their colleagues and then shot.

When the Comète line was eventually broken by the Germans in 1944, Andrée de Jongh spent the final years of the war first in Ravensbrueck then Maulthausen concentration camps before being liberated. In her absence it was left to Micheline Ugeux, then aged 19 and code-named “Michou”, to re-establish the line and continue getting downed aircrews to safety. The Davuere family from Namur who had helped Bill Randle were not so lucky. Doctor Davuere was shot and his wife and two daughters were sent to Auschwitz, where Madame Davuere went into the gas ovens almost upon arrival. The girls were subjected to medical experiments that killed Mercedes. Only Madelaine, the youngest Davuere daughter, lived through it. She ended up in Belsen after having managed to survive the death march from Auschwitz.

Based upon real people who put their lives at risk as well as actual events, Secret Army was perhaps not the best drama to poke fun of. Actresses Angela Richards and Juliet Hammond-Hill, who played Monique and Natalie, were amongst the Secret Army cast members I talked to who were less than enamoured that a series they were proud of had been usurped in the viewer’s memory by repetitive knee-jerk visual humour and silly accents. Though he still can’t forgive or forget the treatment meted out to the people who had saved him, Bill Randle’s response to ‘Allo ‘Allo! was more sanguine than expected.

“I objected to it because I thought they were taking the mickey out of the Belgians,” he explained, “but thank goodness they took the mickey out of the French. There were no French escape routes because they couldn’t trust each other. All the escape routes that mattered were Belgian.”


At 8:52 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

"Clueless jobbernowls"...

Ooh, I've come over all unnecessary... ;-)

At 10:06 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I thought it summed them up perfectly. Still, it's a laugh, eh?!

At 11:20 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

Gorblimey, comedy legends, diamond geezers, mine's a pint, don't mind if I do, 'ad that Sid James in the back of me cab once, gotta love 'em...


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