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.
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.
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.