Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Wish Me Luck, Series Two Review

It's almost a year to the day that I jotted down my thoughts on the first series of the 1988 ITV drama Wish Me Luck, which focused on the heroic exploits of British female SOE agents in WWII Occupied France. At the time of posting I recall saying that once I'd watched the second series I may post a bit about how I felt about it. Well, better late than never!

Series two pretty much continues where the first series left off with several characters returning such as daring agents Liz Grainger (Kate Buffery), Kit Vanston (Michael J Jackson) and Colin Beale (Jeremy Northam), alongside their dedicated and concerned superiors back in Whitehall, Colonel James 'Cad' Cadogan (Julian Glover) and Faith Ashley (Jane Asher). Only the wonderful Suzanna Hamilton as the half French, working class Jewish Londoner Matty Firman is AWOL from this point onwards, with only a couple of brief mentions that she was deployed elsewhere in the fight against the Nazis in the initial episodes. Many TV series would struggle to lose arguably its leading lady between series, but Wish Me Luck thankfully averts such fate by the consistent quality of the scripts and drama overall. 

Of course, it isn't long before we are introduced to some new characters as 'Area 7' is in trouble; an entire circuit have been captured and executed by the Nazis and SOE have to work fast to plug the gaps. Cad and Faith, aided by Liz in her new non operational desk job, are soon on the look out for new operatives to send over to help resurrect the circuit under the supervision of the region's firmly ensconced dour Scottish agent saboteur Gordon Stewart (It Ain't Half Hot Mum's Stuart McGugan) and they find them in the young and eager Emily Whitbread (Jane Snowden) and the older Vivien Ashton (Lynn Farleigh) pictured from left to right below.

Emily is your typical well meaning but naive heroine. Keen to do her bit, her appointment is initially considered impractical because her French isn't good enough to pass for a native. However, the pressing need for a new 'pianist' (ie wireless operator) and her skill in this field mean that she is ultimately too good to pass up on and she spends much of her training improving her Francais and fretting over her virginity: the latter comes to a head when she learns that an agent may have to use their sexuality in the fight and, determined not to lose her virginity to a Nazi, she elects to spend the night with her boyfriend before she flies out - a decision that will come back to haunt her when, in the field, she begins to show all the symptoms of being pregnant. Played sympathetically by Snowden, Emily is a character who the audience can easily engage and identify with. Her relationship with the Ferriers, the kindly French family (played by Gillian Raine, John Boswall and Mark Anstee) who operate the safe house she is assigned to, is especially touching and, although Snowden is sometimes a little underwhelming with some of the drama the script requires of her (understandable given that the actress was only twenty-three at the time) it somehow works for her character. Of course Snowden is also very easy on the eye, which I'm ashamed to say always helps and, in a certain light, reminds me a little of Scottish actress Julie Graham. 

Vivien is the opposite of Emily. Older, wiser, more upwardly mobile and with seemingly less patriotic zeal, she is actually the widow of one of the agents who has been executed by the Nazis that she is sent out to replace. It seems like her intentions to serve her country are deeply personal - enough to raise some initial concern and reservations from Liz at least - but Vivien is slowly revealed to have another, covert yet equally personal motive for being in France. Some years earlier, she had toured the country as a dancer and had given birth to a baby girl which she passed up for adoption. Knowing that the girl is now a young woman (played by future Capital City actress Trevyn McDowell) and still living in France, it is Vivien's intention to reunite. Farleigh was an established actress even by 1988 and, whilst I've seen her and appreciated her in several other things (she's Mark's mum in the brilliant Christmas episode of Peep Show for example), she really bugged me in Wish Me Luck. Thankfully, that irritation seemed intentional given her character and personal motivations - motivations that land her fellow agents in great danger - but it doesn't make her any less annoying I'm afraid!

Other new characters in this series include the aforementioned McGugan as Gordon, a saboteur who initially appears very tetchy and unwilling to suffer fools gladly, but shows a warmer and kinder heart in response to Emily's pregnancy, McDowell as Vivien's flighty young daughter Yvette who is busy courting a Nazi officer much to Vivien's horror. Replacing Warren Clarke as the chief Nazi villain this series is Donald Gee, an actor famed for playing comedy clergymen in sitcoms of old and cast brilliantly against time here in a chilling turn as the ruthless Voller, whilst Carmel McSharry of In Sickness and In Health fame plays a particularly nosy and suspicious neighbour of the Ferrier family, keen to get to the bottom of just who Emily really is. It's a real nuisance, love-to-hate character, putting me in mind of a neighbour of my own who always seems to appear the minute I go up to our garage!

So, where does that leave our more established regulars? Well it's initially all change for Liz; flying a desk and working as an instructor, whilst making a go of the domestic life with her priggish husband, Laurence (Nigel le Vaillant) for the sake of their little girl. However when she's elected to form the welcome party for the returning hero and her old flame Kit Vanston, their romance is rekindled. Any guilt Liz may feel about this is soon gone when she discovers Laurence himself in flagrante with another woman. With their marriage in tatters -  and with a particularly nasty move from Laurence that sees him take sole custody of their daughter - and Colin Beale forced to return to England, Liz feels she has no option but to return to active service behind enemy lines...and Kit soon follows her too when it looks like the Area 7 circuit is about to go the same way as the last one. Once again, Buffery really impresses in her role as Liz Grainger. She's tougher now, more seasoned from her experiences of the previous series, but still vulnerable beneath this hardened, outer shell. The actress is at her best in the moments of high drama, be it during her covert activities or in her domestic life, but she also possesses a nice light tough as evinced in her great natural chemistry with Jackson as her lover Kit Vanston, who also once again convinces. However I can't not talk about Kit Vanston without mentioning how faintly ludicrous he looks in the scenes set in England where he is expected to wear a uniform. As an agent in the field, Jackson is fine. As a serving officer, he ought to at least have got his bloody hair cut! Seeing his bountiful ginger curls peeping out beneath his cap really took me out of the series and nixed some otherwise solid period detail. 

There's a little less going on in the corridors of Whitehall however, which means there's not a lot to do for Julian Glover and Jane Asher. The former at least got the opportunity to share the screen with his real-life son Jamie Glover as his character's son, called confusingly, Julian. But Asher really gets very little to do beyond appear anxious for the likes of Liz, Emily and Vivien. Tom Chadbon also briefly appears in two episodes, and I really do mean briefly - not sure what was going on there? - and a new Gaullist ally appears to work alongside them too, but is equally rather forgotten about. This is a little disappointing but on the plus side it does mean we get to see more on location filming which of course was done in France. However the series is still shot on videotape which gives these exterior scenes a flat visual style, and some of the nighttime action setpieces are presented somewhat disappointingly as a result, whilst interiors are shown up for being a little fake.

Series Two of Wish Me Luck has a few other changes to consider too. For a start, there's just seven episodes this time out, as opposed to the eight of series one and, whereas previously, the actors playing Nazis spoke English with an accent, now everyone is speaking straight English naturally; be they British characters, French characters or indeed German. One of the other changes to the series this time out is the theme tune and opening credits. Given that Hamilton departed, the titles understandably had to change and became more inclusive for the rest of the cast as we see their faces appear after a rather evocative shot of a jet streaking across a silverly bomber's moon. Denis King's series one score is also sadly gone too, to be replaced by a theme that both feels more fitting in the WWII mould and manages to cleverly incorporate Kurt Weill's J'attends un Navire, a tune that, when whistled by agents, was used as a password to identify one another. 

What doesn't change is the fact that Wish Me Luck continued to be an engrossing, gripping and suspense filled drama in its second series - a fitting tribute to those brave souls who risked - and indeed gave - their lives for our freedom.

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