1968’s Joe 90 ran for only one season of thirty episodes, after which came the traditional meeting between Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade from which came the traditional commission for another new series from Century 21 Productions. This time, however, the concept of that series was to be in part inspired by Anderson’s chance meeting with the man who would ultimately star in it; Stanley Unwin.
Anderson had encountered Unwin at Pinewood Studios in 1968, during production of his fourth and final feature film Doppelgänger (released in the United States and other territories as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun in 1969). Unwin had been visiting the studio to dub dialogue for a film he had recently worked on, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, and Anderson was keen to work with a man he had long admired for his comedic talents.
Born on June 7th 1911 in Pretoria, South Africa, Stanley Unwin had found fame in various British film and radio comedies thanks to his creation of ‘Unwinese’, a corrupted form of English that reinterpreted familiar words and language in playful and humorous ways. In his biography What Made Thunderbirds Go, Gerry recalled the process that led to the creation of the series; “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.” Unwin was contracted for twenty-six episodes of the new series, and would receive a fee of £250 for each.
Wanting to make good use of the qualities his leading man was best known for Anderson began to consider scenarios in which Unwinese might prove an advantage, at least from a storytelling perspective. Recognising how confusing it must sound to those unfamiliar with it led to the decision that Stanley Unwin’s character in this new series would be some kind of secret agent, and his Unwinese a weapon capable of befuddling any opposition he may encounter.
The Andersons were relatively late to hop onto the spy series bandwagon, as although the character of Lady Penelope in Thunderbirds had been a globetrotting secret agent (with several episodes of the series focusing on her adventures) the series was initially more focused on the exciting (and dangerous) possibilities that new technology might offer to humanity in the near future. It was only with Joe 90 that the Andersons embarked on a full spy series, but by this time the spy craze was beginning to wane – both on television and at the movies. The decade that had seen a plethora of Cold War-era thrills, kickstarted by the phenomenal success of the James Bond movies and fully exploited in television shows on both sides of the Atlantic, was fast coming to an end and the pop culture spy craze had by this point just about burned itself out. Hit shows like Danger Man/Secret Agent, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers and I Spy were coming to an end, and Sean Connery had (or so he believed) just played James Bond for the final time in You Only Live Twice. At a time when the viewing public had lost their love for spy adventures, it seemed almost crazy for Gerry Anderson to create yet another spy series – but realistically, his options were becoming more and more limited.
By 1968, inflation meant it was becoming increasingly expensive to produce a ‘typical’ Supermarionation series, a matter not helped by the slowly diminishing revenue being brought in by post-Thunderbirds merchandise sales and the increasing lack of interest from broadcasters. Creating a complete world in miniature, where every single element had to be specially constructed, was a costly challenge that live action shows didn’t have to worry about as much (even with plenty of existing sets and props still hanging around from previous productions). The Century 21 team were being forced to consider how best to scale their operation back without drastically compromising the quality of their shows, and a spy series set in the present day would seem the only realistic way to deliver the same action-adventure storytelling that had made Thunderbirds so popular without the (expensive) need for masses of high-tech vehicles and equipment. Indeed, Joe 90 had proven that a lower budget series with a more contemporary real-world flavour could still succeed – and one particular episode provided a blueprint for the format of the new series.
The Unorthodox Shepherd, the eighth episode of Joe 90 to be produced, had told the story of a parish priest blackmailed by counterfeiters operating beneath his church. With the life of the verger at stake, the Reverend Joseph Shepherd chose to pretend to be deaf whenever any awkward questions were asked that might endanger his friend, causing much confusion for those around him. While Anderson never went on record that this episode was a definite inspiration for The Secret Service the similarities are almost impossible to overlook, as Stanley Unwin’s character would also be a vicar with a secret or two. One of these would be a shrinking device called the Minimiser, used to reduce church gardener Matthew (in a reality a highly trained secret agent) to one third his normal size and thus enable him to go where most other spies couldn’t. This also (in theory) allowed for a little more money to be saved on the creation of puppet-scale sets, since the minimised Matthew could simply be filmed in the ‘real’ world when necessary.
A further element of The Unorthodox Shepherd that would be incorporated into the new series was one that was also tied closely with Anderson’s continual desire to be shooting with live actors rather than puppets. Since the story revolved so much around Reverend Shepherd’s church the decision had been taken to shoot as many of the church scenes as possible on location at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Harefield rather than construct a church to puppet scale or in miniature. Several scenes were filmed inside the church, including a shot of a mannequin dressed as Mason, one of the episode’s villains. Exterior shots of the building seen throughout the episode culminated in a beautiful shot of the snow-covered church that slowly panned up towards the sky, accompanied by the sounds of carol singers, bringing the Christmas-themed story to an appropriately spiritual conclusion.
The Secret Service, however, was to take this approach one step further. Over the last ten years the puppets that the Andersons and their team had been working with had been becoming increasingly sophisticated, but the one thing that they would never be able to do convincingly was walk. Always looking for a way to overcome this problem, while perhaps also looking to make the most of their new leading man, the Andersons decided that such shots in The Secret Service would have Stanley Unwin himself performing as much of the walking as possible in live-action film sequences.
Live action insert shots had been a tradition of the Supermarionation series going back to the monochrome days of Supercar and Fireball XL5, and were most often used for close-ups of human hands doing things that a puppet would struggle to achieve convincingly. These close-ups usually amounted to a few seconds that served to move the story forward, were always done with the same care and attention that went into every shot in the series, and somehow managed to never be distracting for the viewer. On the rare occasions that something different was attempted with these inserts (such as shots of real human eyes looking through holes in both Thunderbirds’ Vault of Death and Captain Scarlet’s The Trap) it was purely as an experiment, and if it was deemed unsuccessful it was very quickly abandoned. Combining more extensive live action shooting with the puppet filming was certainly new and different, but clearly nobody involved saw any reason not to give it a try – especially since the correctly-proportioned Captain Scarlet era marionettes appeared as close to lifelike as it was possible to get with a puppet. As Gerry remembered; “They had now become imitations of human beings and therefore the shows were rather like live-action shows but with unconvincing actors.” Why not take a chance and try to bring an even greater realism to the new production?
While all this may have sounded a good idea at first, the results would soon prove anything but. As the rushes started to come in and the first episodes were being cut together, it was clear to everybody that The Secret Service would require its audience to suspend their disbelief more than any other television series the Century 21 team had yet produced…