The Secret Service: Countdown - 1971
The Secret Service still remains Gerry Anderson's least known series. Despite a complete video release by ITC in the early 90s, and a DVD release in the US, it has still only been shown in three of the local television regions in the UK (Southern, ATV Midlands and Granada), and then reputedly only once. It is therefore something of a minor miracle that a strip relating to it appeared at all.
The other surprise comes from the fact the first strip, appearing in issue 2 of Countdown, actually presents the previously untold story of how Father Unwin is given the Minimiser from his long-time friend Professor Wilhelm Humbert, just before he dies. Origin stories were not entirely unknown - both Lady Penelope and the Angels had been presented before their television appearances - but this was the first to come after the series. An assumption can be made that the limited screenings made some form of introduction necessary. Following the format of the first UFO strip the previous week in issue 1, black and white art (again by Jon Davis) interspersed with photos, it's a pleasant little tale that explains how Father Unwin comes to work for the 'BISHOP'.
Promoted on the cover by a small yellow and blue flash, the text asked mysteriously 'A Priest... A Strange Book... and a SUITCASE! What have they in common? The answers would become clear in that week's complete story. From the suitably atmospheric opening, to Unwin's clever (but still entirely ethical) solutions, this makes a much better pilot, without having to resort to the cod adventure that sits so badly in the first television episode. The brevity of the strip also neatly sidesteps the need for 'Unwinese', and is all the more better for it.
If there is one faux pas, it is the naming of Matthew as 'Adam'. It could be speculated that 'Adam' is actually the character's real name, and 'Matthew Harding' is simply a cover. But it is more than likely just a mistake, which is a pity as it is the only flaw in an otherwise perfect tale.
The Secret Service strip guide
Writer: Unknown. Artist: Jon Davis. 5 pages, b/w and photos.
Issue 2, week ending 27 February 1971
In the early hours of a dreadful March morning, a telephone bell rings urgently in a darkened, country vicarage...
Father Unwin is called out by a doctor to the bedside of his old friend Professor Wilhelm Humbert. Before he dies, he passes a large book on to him, and makes him swear never to part with it. It is not until the following morning that Unwin finds a letter within its pages marked for his attention:
I hope good friend, that you will forgive me for passing on the nightmare which it has been my misfortune to create. The machine you will find inside the book is my 'MINIMISER'. Anything you expose before its rays will be reduced to a miniaturised form. For a short time it will, no doubt, be just a fascinating toy as it was to me. But put in the wrong hands you will soon realise its dreadful implications. Therefore, my friend, I entrust my devil box to you, in the hope that you may find a way of benefitting mankind, where I have failed.
After reading the instructions, Unwin successfully reduces a wine glass to a fraction of its size, and realises Humbert is right. As his old friend George Lomax has recently been made a Minister at Whitehall, Unwin journeys to London but is refused access by a number of civil servants. Luck or providence provides an opportunity, as Sir George Lomax arrives by chauffeured Rolls, which Unwin is able to follow into the car park. A while later, Unwin is brought before Sir George when his Rolls and chauffeur are reported missing. Behind locked doors, Unwin briefly returns the car and unwitting dozing occupant to their original size for the benefit of the minister. Having convinced Sir George, Unwin still resolves the Minimiser stays with him until it can be used for the benefit of the nation.
The next day however, a visitor arrives at the vicarage under the pretense of applying for a gardener's job, ties up Mrs Appleby and ransacks the study. Father Unwin strangely assures the local police that nothing will be found missing and, under the impression he is being watched, hatches a plan...
In the evening, Unwin leaves for the vestry with a package and places it in the belfry. The stranger steals in, believing himself to be unseen, only to be locked in and subjected to the full repertoire of the local bell ringers!
The following day, Unwin is urgently summoned by chauffeur driven car to a meeting at Lambeth Palace. There, he is introduced to 'the BISHOP', and told his record in occupied France has been investigated. An offer to work for them is made, and Unwin accepts, revealing he had the Minimiser all along, having reduced it with the aid of a mirror to reflect its rays.
Back at the vicarage, Mrs Appleby is told by Unwin he has accepted 'a special position' but she is more concerned he now wears a hearing aid. In the privacy of his study, Unwin opens his case to reveal 'Adam' seated within. Shortly, 'Adam' becomes the vicarage gardener, and renovates Gabriel. Father Unwin tells him they are truly ready for their 'secret service'...
An interesting start, in more ways than one, and the question has to be asked... why was something like this not made as the first episode of the television series?
Matthew is referred to here as 'Adam' by mistake.
Writer: Unknown. Artist: Peter Ford. 1 page, b/w.
Part 1, Issue 4, week ending 13 March 1971
Eccentric, reclusive industrial tycoon Adrian St. Cyr dots on his cat Cyril, and discusses his financial decisions with him. This is exploited by Marcus Fleming, who sends him an exquisite model of a spitfire for his collection, and a bugged cat collar. Within a short time, St. Cyr is losing millions as the information is exploited, and his threat to leave the country could bring national bankrupcy. As he refuses any direct co-operation, the mission is given to Father Unwin...
Part 2, Issue 5, week ending 20 March 1971
The BISHOP takes Unwin and the Minimiser to an air force base where they are shown the new FS783 strike fighter. Ensuring no-one is to enter the hangar again until they return, Unwin departs for St. Cyr's home, where the recluse has refused to make any more financial transactions. But Fleming is sure this will not last long. Unwin is allowed to see St. Cyr with the 'model' of the FS783, which the millionaire is sutably impressed with. More so, when Matthew starts flying the plane around the room...
Part 3, Issue 6, week ending 27 March 1971
St. Cyr is enthralled with the fighter, and wants it for his collection but Unwin states the 'owners' won't part with it. As a favour, he allows him to keep it for a few days. That night the minimised Matthew is able to trace radio signals to Cyril's collar, and entices the cat to play until he can free the collar. Using hover jets and a grab, the fighter is able to take the bugging device back to Father Unwin in Gabriel, and the hunt is on...
Part 4, Issue 7, week ending 03 April 1971
The next day, Unwin takes the minimised jet with Matthew inside, and visits Rex, a friend who runs a country inn. Rex's talent for impressions
The first part of the story clearly refers to St. Cyr's first name as 'Adrian' but all subsequent parts call him 'Julius'.
The FS783 is minimised down to the size of a toy, which would make Matthew less than a centimetre high.
Countdown Annual 1972
Writer: Unknown. Artist: Peter Ford. 6 pages, duotone.
Father Unwin receives a call from the BISHOP. Microdots are being held at the Ravallain Embassy, and it is vital they are obtained. The only clue from an agent on the inside is the phrase 'It's child's play'. Unwin takes a minimised Matthew to the Embassy, where he is able to gain access to the nursery of the ambassador's five year old son. When the boy sees him and thinks he is a goblin, Matthew hides in a cupboard. The nurse brings the ambassador, who Matthew sees continually glancing at a corner. An envelope has been concealed under the carpet, and Matthew is spotted when he retrieves it. As he tries to escape,the ambassador gives chase...
Notes: Peter Ford's art is simpler here than his work on the regular strip, possibly due to the addition of spot colours, and there is little explanation of the format to those who hadn't seen the series.
Matthew's size also seems slightly variable, ranging from doll-sized, to only a few inches high.
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Only two more strips followed - a four part story in Countdown itself, and a complete strip in that year's annual. Both were drawn by Peter Ford, who was better known for work on comedy orientated strips like The Perils of Parker and The Munsters in Lady Penelope and TV21. Ford gave the strips a more whimsical look that was not entirely out of place with the tone of the scripts.
The multi-part Secret Service strip, in line with the other single page series such as Captain Scarlet and Joe 90, were constrained by a high frame count, averaging 15 per page. This limited it to five exacting horizontal strips, and it is to Peter Ford's credit that his work never seemed as crammed as the other two 'adventure' strips.
The Secret Service strip was as short lived as its television counterpart, giving it little time to develop beyond the physical limitations of the series. And as equally difficult to ascribe whether it was a success or failure with its short life.
The Gerry Anderson Complete Comic History would like to thank:
and Colin Lane
- for their help with this feature.
Version 1.1 - 01.05.05
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