Saturday, 1 October 2016

Wish Me Luck, Series One Review

Broadcast on ITV in early 1988, Wish Me Luck was a series that told the story of female operatives of the SOE, aka Special Operations Executive, working undercover and risking their lives in occupied France in World War II.

Inspired by the real-life exploits of secret agents such as Nancy Wake, the series was created by Lavinia Warner and the actress-turned-writer Jill Hyem, who had previously met when Hyem contributed a good many scripts for Warner's previous series Tenko; another female-led wartime serial, about women in a Japanese POW camp. Wish Me Luck was commissioned alongside such memorable hits as Jeeves and Wooster, Inspector Morse and Poirot, all as a direct result of then ITV boss Greg Dyke's desire to make the channel more upmarket and, dare we say it, more BBC like. Made by LWT, it ran for three series from 1988 to 1990 on Sunday evenings. All three series have been released as a box set from Network DVD, which I have purchased and have been enjoying watching of late, and so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the first series with you all.

Nazi occupied France was the secret, cloak and dagger battleground of Wish Me Luck and the series followed the recruitment, training and behind-the-lines activities of espionage operatives who were expected to perform acts of sabotage against the occupying forces and relay vital information regarding the enemy across the English Channel and into the corridors of Whitehall for SOE Colonel James 'Cad' Cadogan (Julian Glover) and his trusty and faithful lieutenant, Faith Ashley (Jane Asher). Desperate to gain the upper hand in this battle of wits and wills, Cadogan and Ashley hit upon the idea of recruiting civilians to boost their numbers, and they're not about to restrict themselves to just men either - they're committed to sending women agents into the field if need be too.

Enter our two central characters, well-to-do housewife and mother Liz Grainger (Kate Buffery) and the half-Jewish, half-French working class Londoner Matilde 'Matty' Firman (Suzanna Hamilton) Both women come from obviously different worlds, but they become firm and fast friends and have one thing in common; their fluency with the French language and their familiarity with the country, combined with an overwhelming desire to do their bit.

Indeed this overwhelming desire is something that their respective families simply cannot comprehend, whilst their masters simply seize upon it. In Matty's case, she feels she has moved from job to job, never really settling, and feels she is stagnating working in a munitions factory in Stepney. Her motivation stems wholly from her first-hand experience of the jackbooted enemy, having fled the country as the Nazis moved in, a near escape that has psychologically traumatised her Jewish mother Aimee (Marianne Borgo) irreparably. For Matty, an opportunity to spy on the Nazis is both a way of exacting her personal revenge for what they did to her mother and her fellow Jews, and is a chance to ensure they do not stomp all over England as they have done in France. But this is a desire beyond the ken of her cockney grandfather, Albert (Arthur Whybrow) who, upon seeing through Matty's cover story of being a 'FANNY' (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) stationed in Scotland, cannot conceive why she would wish to return to the lion's den after the ordeal she endured leaving there in the first place. He's deeply suspicious of Matty's superiors, who he views as toffee-nosed manipulators who keep their hands clean whilst sending others, of a lower class, out to do their dirty work, so he is rather relieved when the impulsive Matty initially fails her training for being both too reckless and careless. However, it is't long before Cadogan goes to bat for Matty, believing her to be a very promising wireless operator, sending her on a mission under the code name 'Amy' alongside Liz ('Celeste') and their colleague Colin Beale (Jeremy Northam) aka 'Cyrano'.

As portrayed by Suzanna Hamilton, Matty Firman is a character who comes unequivocally alive throughout this first series. Hamilton was one of the faces of the 1980s, a new breed of unabashed working class, estuary sounding actresses who routinely portrayed strong, progressive female characters with a real vitality that simply filled the screen. As such, she injects a modern sensibility in what could have been a rather fusty, stiff upper lip period drama. But it's not just down to Hamilton; you really sense the writers enjoyed creating the character of the tough, independent and downright sexy Matty Firman, exploring her strengths and her weaknesses, along with her differences compared to the more upper-class characters around her, and peppering her dialogue with the heartfelt expletive 'sod!' which becomes something of a catchphrase for Matty whenever things fail to go her way - which is quite often. Perhaps one of the strongest moments in Matty's story is the scene that occurs the night before she is dispatched behind enemy lines; taking herself off to the cinema, she catches the eye of a squaddie (James Gaddas) and takes him home for an unapologetic tension-relieving one night stand. It's something we consider normal for men to do in such fiction, but it's still quite surprising to see a woman do such a thing - and certainly in a 1940s period drama made in 1988. It hints at the progressive, feminist and forward thinking approach Hyem and Warner, along with other regular writers such as Kevin Clarke (The Bill, Doctor Who) and Colin Schindler (who penned the screenplay for Buster), wished for Wish Me Luck, and it is best exemplified with the impetuous and feisty Matty; a character who is informed by her gender and background and who is ultimately easily identifiable and easy for the viewer to relate to. It's a shame therefore that she was a 'one series wonder', and does not return for series two or three.

Liz Grainger's motivations for risking her life working in SOE are a little more oblique and understated. Liz hails from the upper middle classes, and is a married woman seemingly devoted to her husband Laurence (Nigel Le Vaillant, who went on to play the iconic Casualty consultant Julian Chapman after Wish Me Luck ended, and later starred as the GP cum police surgeon Dangerfield, before deciding he didn't like fame all that much and retreated from the spotlight) who is currently stationed in Cairo and her five-year-old daughter when we meet her, sending holiday photos of France to the admiralty to help with the war effort (which is how SOE agent Odette Hallowes came to be recruited). But there's a repressed, silent heartache to Liz, occasionally glimpsed in Kate Buffery's marvellously emotive eyes, and that's the death of her brother Jack, a pilot shot down over Germany. It is perhaps this, combined with a feeling she was being 'left behind' (a statement that could have just as much to do with how women were essentially second-class citizens chained to the stove as it does with the war effort itself) and a concern for her French childhood friend Claudine de Valois (Shelagh McLeod) - who is subjected to an uneasy alliance with the occupying force, headed up by Colonel Werner Krieger (Warren Clarke) who has taken her spacious home for himself -  that explains Liz's desire to place herself in danger, undertaking the covert activities of a messenger right under the Germans noses. 

Just like Matty however, her decision to work for the SOE is not something her family can comprehend. Her mother is literally left holding the baby, and bemused as to why Liz would leave her child behind and risk her becoming an orphan, especially when the child's father, her husband Laurence, is also on active service. Laurence doesn't actually appear in the series until we're already over half way through it and, as he pieces together the puzzling changes in his wife's behaviour and manner whilst home on leave (a marvellous scene which sees her unflinchingly putting a wounded rabbit out of its misery in the garden - a trick she learnt in training - gives him the suspicion that she is more than just a 'FANNY'), he is left utterly aghast at the realisation that she has been out there, doing what he believes to be man's work. 

Buffery's performance as Liz is just as commendable as Suzanna Hamilton's, though markedly different. It's more suitably, stereotypically in-period, but it's equally possessing a great heart and just as easy to engage with, which is no mean feat when you consider the potentially alienating trait inherent in the character of a mother who essentially puts her service to her country before her small daughter. Buffery's understated playing, combined with those incredible eyes, put me in mind of another actress working today, Hattie Morahan; like her, Buffery is capable of drawing the viewer in with her unerring sense of humanity that lifts the more emotional moments within the series, as she peels back the many layers of her interesting character. Indeed, we learn more about Liz as the series progresses, largely because France has so many real links for her; there's not only Claudette, who becomes key to her cover story as a visiting old French schoolfriend 'Celeste' and whose actions become key to the series as a whole, but also her head of section on the ground, the hardbitten, stoney faced Kit Vanston (Michael J. Jackson) who it turns out was a university chum of her late brother Jack, and with whom a mutual attraction soon develops. It's no surprise therefore that, as the subsequent series progressed, Liz became our central leading lady.

There are eight episodes in the series and each of them are really immersive, gripping stuff. The entire series was directed by Gordon Flemyng, a seasoned film director with experience both here in the UK and in Hollywood, and contains an effective, very real and palpable sense of danger that the brave operatives whom the characters were  actually based on faced on a daily basis. As Matty and Liz undergo their tense covert activities, the threat of capture, torture and execution is cast like a shadow over their every move, with the Nazis led by Krieger worryingly depicted as always being just around the corner, generating huge nailbiting suspense as their clandestine activities could be discovered at any moment, the repercussions of which do not bear thinking about and when the show seeks to depict them they do not flinch away from it. With that in mind, it's easy to be utterly compelled across the series - Wish Me Luck is not a predictable watch, you really can't guess if our heroines and their colleagues will survive. The series also boasts on location filming in rural France which adds to the authenticity of the story.

It's not completely perfect though. Given that Wish Me Luck is now almost thirty years old, its production is a trifle dated. The first issue is that the entire series is shot in flat videotape which has not aged as well as it ought to have. Back in the '80s, videotape was considered the way forward; a cheaper and less cumbersome alternative to film. The period saw the TV industry shed the irritating half video/half film look (with video being used for studio interiors, and film being used for exterior location work) to go for a complete videotape production. Ten years later however, and everything would be shot on film. The DVD offers a somewhat muted, soft transfer which is ironically particularly obvious in the interior scenes, and it's also worth pointing out that some of the sets look a little shabby and shoddy compared to the superior period production detail the BBC would conjure up. Another example of the series showing its age is its use of music; Denis King's score - principally his title theme, which accompanies a rather lovely credit sequence which features Buffery and Hamilton's faces against an inky black backdrop looking straight out at the viewer and in profile (see the photo at the top of this review) and which I feel sure was later stolen by the BBC's House of Eliott  - is really beautiful, evoking the jazz and big band style of the day, but it is sometimes laid on a trifle thickly, making it a rather ill advised distraction in several scenes of high drama.

But most of the negatives are all to do with these aspects of the series, rather than the actual narrative itself. The only flaws I can find in the way the story is told is that the first episode suffers a little with a rather disorientating flashback structure - not a good idea when you're trying to introduce your tale to viewers - and there is the occasional step towards some soap operatics given that Liz and Kit develop feelings for one another, as do Matty and Colin, and even Faith holds an unrequited torch for the married Cad. There's also that thing of everyone wandering around France speaking in an obvious English accent, including the French natives, whilst the Germans speak in an accented English (Warren Clarke in particular delivers a very good reading of this) whilst at home, foreigners employed within the SOE such as John Challis' Victor Travussini and Schweder played by David Swift (a great actor who I recently learned passed away in April this year - RIP) spoke in obvious 'foreign' accents. It does make it a little tricky to remember that Matty, Liz etc are actually supposed to be speaking in perfect Francais whilst undercover, but there's no real way around doing this kind of thing, even now. 

Still, this are just minor flaws in what was a very enjoyable, entertaining and involving series. I managed to polish off all eight episodes in just a couple of day, having found myself hooked enough to go through the first four episodes in one marathon session. Wish Me Luck is a series that I absolutely recommend to anyone with an interest in WWII, espionage and good period drama. I'm about to commence watching the second series and I hope that it, and the subsequent third and final series, is just as good as this one.


  1. Great memories. We loved WISH ME LUCK back then. I may have to get that boxset. Kate Buffery was lovely, and of course Dame Jane of Asher.

  2. That would make a great Forties double bill series with HOME FIRES, oh and YANKS too.

    1. I'd been watching old films like Carve Her Name With Pride and Odette so it seemed natural to follow up with this.

  3. I saw some of this a few years ago when Yesterday re-ran it, mainly to see Suzanna Hamilton. I was a bit disappointed to be honest; I thought it was rather flat compared to say Secret Army, especially the scenes between Glover and Asher. As you've noted, the all VT approach doesn't do it any favours.

    1. I tried to watch the 1st ep on Yesterday or Drama, whatever channel re-ran it a couple of years back, but it was so heavily edited the ep - already as I say a bit disorientating due to flashbacks - actually made little sense!

      I rather like Glover and Asher but I completely agree there is something really sapping in their scenes, largely because they're the least dramatic and also because they're virtually always stuck in doors in rather unconvincing sets on shoddy VT.

      Like you, I watched for Suzanna Hamilton, but I come away really impressed with Kate Buffery too, and S2 and 3 won't be such a hardship sans Hamilton now to know that she is still there.