Johnny Rotten?

Chris Diamond on Fairly Secret Army

First published September 2004

Some sitcoms are passed over in the minds of the public because they have no relevance to a contemporary audience. Some find themselves to be transitory because they were overtaken in the general consciousness by other contemporary examples whose subjects proved to have a more lasting resonance. Others faded because they were just bloody awful.

Then there are those that no-one watched in the first place. The reasons for that might stem from all sorts of sociological and anthropological phenomena, although being shown on a minority channel often doesn’t help. Fairly Secret Army was broadcast on Channel 4 and hardly anybody tuned in to it. Not only is it mostly forgotten now but it was at the time too, so did it deserve a wider audience or is its obscurity well earned?

In his autobiography, I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today … FSA‘s writer David Nobbs describes his post-Perrin sitcom as a “cult” show. He explains, “A cult show is a show which very few people watch, but which those few people like a great deal.” From a personal point of view I entirely agree. I watched the two series of FSA at the time of their broadcast and enjoyed them a great deal. But, as Nobbs is the first to say, not many others did.

From the very outset FSA was a troubled production. The original idea that David Nobbs came up with was for a spin-off featuring the character of Jimmy Anderson, the hopeless, hapless army officer brother-in-law of Reggie Perrin. At some stage after the production of that seminal sitcom Jimmy morphed, at least in Nobbs’ mind, into Major Harry Truscott who was to eventually become the hero of Fairly Secret Army. The name changed principally because during this period Leonard Rossiter – Reggie Perrin – was still very much alive and Nobbs knew perfectly well that to have the original character of Jimmy as-was would only leave the audience wondering, regardless of the vehicle chosen for him, when Reggie would appear. After all, the notion of Jimmy’s guerrilla group was first mooted during the famous scene with Reggie where he explains what he intends to do when “the balloon goes up” which mostly involved detailing the help of every violent misfit in society to challenge the hegemony of Chinese restaurants around Windsor Castle. Reggie rejected that notion in no uncertain terms so Nobbs very reasonably concluded that, had Jimmy remained Jimmy, Reggie would be bound to interfere at some point in some way. The result was Jimmy became Harry and Reggie was consigned to another universe.

The scripts for the nascent production were prepared by Nobbs for the Head of Comedy at the BBC, John Howard Davies. This, however, was after he had rejected a request from Tyne Tees for a spin-off series for Manuel of Fawlty Towers. Nobbs immediately (and entirely sensibly) deduced that the entire point of Manuel was that his character is put upon by the lead character, Basil Fawlty. Without that there was nowhere else for him to go: Manuel certainly was not a lead in himself. Having then talked Tyne Tees out of the idea of a spin-off based on a supporting character from a successful sitcom, Nobbs then engaged himself in precisely that – a spin-off based round the newly rechristened Harry.

Having ignored his own advice, he then persuaded John Howard Davies of the idea. Initially supportive, Howard Davies eventually became nervous about the right-wing theme (however cleverly lampooned) in the submitted scripts and demanded that all references to such be removed. Harry became an emasculated figure now devoid of the characteristics which the public enjoyed about him (or Jimmy) in the first place and which had also motivated Nobbs to want to continue writing about him. Infuriatingly for Nobbs, Howard Davies then, in the light of the re-writes, became unhappy that the new Harry was now two-dimensional, entirely leaving aside the fact that he was the man holding the filleting knife. Nobbs became disillusioned and left the project behind.

At this point the threads were picked up by two men who ran a company that produced corporate training videos, Peter Robinson and Michael Peacock of Video Arts. They knew Nobbs since they had employed him at one stage to write some videos for them and they loved the idea of a Jimmy/Harry spin-off. It was at this point that Fairly Secret Army, as it was eventually produced, finally became, in Hollywood jargon, a “go” project.

With a nice circularity in the light of the original Fawlty Towers involvement (albeit tangentially) in the saga, John Cleese – who was a director of Video Arts and had presented the training films Nobbs had written for them – became the script editor for the series. Quite contrary to what one might expect Nobbs identifies this as yet another of the problems the series laboured under. As he tells it, “… John failed me as a script editor. He liked the scripts too much. He liked Harry too much … He didn’t say, ‘Come off it, Nobbsy, this is all very well, but where’s the story?’” Despite the internal wranglings this is then the first clue as to why the finished product may have failed to register with the public.

When the first episode of Fairly Secret Army was screened by Channel 4 on Monday 22 October 1984 it was clearly not a run of the mill show. This may have fitted in with the channel’s own “alternative” image quite comfortably since its other comedy products up to this point had included the likes of The Comic Strip Presents … features and the frankly bizarre Chance in a Million (admittedly alongside more homely fare as Cheers and A Fine Romance) but it didn’t comfort those who had come across from the BBC seeking more of the same from a Perrin spin-off, names changed or not.

Nothing about FSA made it particularly friendly to potential viewers lured from the mainstream. The theme was a Michael Nyman concoction which continues to haunt those who heard it on a regular basis to this day and was quite different from the oeuvre of Hazlehurst and Grainer that was more usually employed at that time to signpost a sitcom. Additionally the graphic over the title sequence of a sketched Kitchener-esque poster with Harry Truscott’s face glowering out with a finger to his lips was also – at the outset – a little off-putting. Subsequent to all this the production was very different to Harry’s previous incarnation of Jimmy hanging around Reggie’s studio-bound living room or Grot Towers. Much of the filming (and it was filmed, rather than taped) was done on location in the large rambling house used as the HQ of the secret army or either on urban streets or in the country. All in all it was an alien environment to those not used to such things and reinforced the notion that it was all very – well – very Channel 4.

What was instantly recognisable though, for those who had survived past Nyman’s strings, was the leading man himself, since Major Harry Kitchener Wellington Truscott of Fairly Secret Army as played by Geoffrey Palmer was quite clearly still precisely the same as Major Jimmy Anderson of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin as played by Geoffrey Palmer. The character remained a joy and Palmer’s playing of it superb. As Nobbs is prepared to concede, the show registered enough so that those who did stick with it soon adopted Truscott’s jargon and phrases, and comments such as “treacherous chaps, women” were enough to induce hysterics amongst those in the know. As anyone with a passing interest in comedy will confirm, the transference of adaptable catchphrases to daily life is usually the hallmark of success. But that success avoided the first series of FSA assiduously. Could poor script editing have been entirely to blame?

Well, perhaps it was to begin with. Based upon my own recollections I can think of hardly any actual storylines from the first series. I can bring to mind characters such as Peg-Leg Pogson (played by Paul Chapman) who claimed to have lost a leg in combat but merely tied it behind his back when he was on duty. Or Sergeant Major Throttle as played by the great Michael Robbins, principally because as a child one can hardly forget any character called Throttle. James Cosmo played Crazy Colin Carstairs a maniacal ginger Scotsman, a character I recall for precisely the same reason as Throttle, and other actors of note such as Ray Winstone also took prominent roles, although I remember hardly anything of them. But of actual plotlines I can conjure up few until series two when there was a definite storyline concerning the infiltration of a Marxist cell intent on overthrowing the government.

Perhaps, after all the problems detailed above, the scripts for series one were a little strained by the effort (at least in structure). But series two also had its own set of problems. The first episode (of seven, as opposed to the six episodes of series one) was aired on Monday 1 September 1986 and in the intervening period the house which had been used as HQ had been demolished. The first shot therefore involved Truscott marching up to the building only for it to explode in front of him. David Nobbs for himself admits that the storyline for series two was also hardly believable (it hinged on Truscott conducting an affair with the character Jill, one of the enemy played by Diana Weston, in order so he could listen to the secret information she passed on whilst asleep in bed) but that at least there was one. Satisfyingly, compared to series one, there was a discernible story arc and it climaxed with the secret army finally preventing the Marxist coup which was indeed, despite the gainsayers of officialdom, just on the very cusp of being successfully carried out. This left the show able to close on a pleasing (but, in retrospect, a little troubling) scene in which Truscott’s disparate band has now been swelled to a massed rank of eager, intelligent looking young recruits ranged in front of him ready to tackle enemies of law and order whenever that balloon does eventually go up … again.

Taken in comparison with series one, the later episodes were a marked improvement and may even have left the viewers watching eager for more. But there was never any suggestion of a third series. If anything, the success of Major Truscott and his secret army actually mitigated against it, success not really being the point of Harry. The thing died a natural, if peaceful, death.

A combination of an already minority audience, combined with the lack of an evident plot at the outset and an atmosphere that did not make it conducive to a casual viewer may have mitigated rather fatally against the lasting impact of Fairly Secret Army. The problems that worked against it at the time did not help its struggle for life during its years of inception and production, and sadly time has not awarded the show a tinge of nostalgia but rather a thick covering of moss only recently and briefly scraped at by retrospective documentaries. Fairly Secret Army, it seems, will remain a secret for some time to come.

Tricky cove, Johnny sitcom.