Thursday, 2 November 2017

Wish Me Luck, Series Three Review

The third series of Wish Me Luck (you can find reviews of series one and two also on this blog) brought the exploits of our brave SOE agents behind enemy lines to a close in early 1990. The series feels rather different from the previous two and for a number of reasons.

Firstly, this series is set in the summer of 1944 around the point that the war was finally coming to a head. There's much talk of the allied invasion of France and there's a sense of desperation from the Nazi occupiers this time around. Not that such mood makes them any less ruthless - if anything, it makes them more so. The agents are bedded in with an intrepid and courageous band of Maquis resistance fighters in the fictional plateau of 'Le Crest' and the village of Couermont near the Swiss border. Their mission this time is to aid the resistance in the planned uprising against the Germans, and this is very much based on the real-life incident which saw the Maquis du Vercors' stand in making Vasssieux-en-Vercors a free republic; an act that was brutally suppressed by the Nazis.

The location for this series affords us with another welcome difference; some splendid summery location shooting at the foot of the Alps. Whilst this series continues the trend of mixing exterior with interior filming, I have a feeling series three has far more exterior scenes than any of the previous two series of Wish Me Luck and it really helps to give the drama some air and room to breathe. Granted things are still shot on videotape rather than film, but this is just a minor grumble this time around because it's hard to fault the location on offer in any guise.  

The crucial difference this time around frankly pulled the rug right from under my feet. I had always presumed that once Suzanna Hamilton left the show at the end of series one, her fellow leading co-star Kate Buffery was the star of each series. So imagine my surprise when series three commences without Buffery's character Liz Grainger! I was really worried about this at first, but there are enough new characters and enough examples of strong storytelling and high drama to lessen this potential blow to the series. Nevertheless, I was really pleased to see Liz return for the final two episodes (after penning one episode earlier on in the series with her co-star Michael J Jackson) as it was only fitting that she brought the drama to a close. 

Also AWOL for this third and final series is another crucial regular, Julian Glover's Colonel James 'Cad' Cadogan, whose absence is explained away with the information that he has now joined Eisenhower's staff. This means that Faith Ashley, his dutiful assistant played by Jane Asher, now fronts the show. This is both a blessing and a curse; a blessing in that it strengthens the show's feminist angle, but it doesn't feel all that believable to have Cad leave and not be replaced by someone of a similar military standing. Nevertheless, given how shoddy the SOE is treated this series, it's quite fitting that Faith is in charge as it makes the snooty powers-that-be's damning decision to ignore her requests that little bit more credible. But it's a shame that the character development of Cad in series two (which saw him rocked to his very foundations following the death of his son, an incident that really did occur to the SOE's chief Colin Gubbins) is so cruelly curtailed - audiences deserved to see the next step in that particular journey. Joining Asher in the corridors of Whitehall is Gordon Stewart (Stuart McGugan) who was last seen 'in the field' in series two, before  a Nazi bullet meant he had to be whisked back to England. This is a much better fit for McGugan to be fair, and his constant exasperation at the red tape he finds himself having to battle through feels suitably authentic. Also appearing this series is the Gaullist Colonel Max Dubois played by Damien Thomas whose friendship (and perhaps potentially something more?) with Asher's Faith feels palpable.

Returning for this final series are the wireless operator Emily played by Jane Snowden and resistance fighter Luc Ferrier played by Mark Anstee. Both characters spend much of the series in a seemingly endless lovers tiff, exacerbated by Luc's belief that the British are leaving the Maquis forces on the ground high and dry. Their relationship is further put to the test with the arrival of Nicole, a young French girl who is determined to prove herself to the resistance, but whom Luc has his suspicions about. Nicole is played by Felicity Montagu who later found fame as the long suffering, meek and mild PA Lynn in I'm Alan Partridge. I don't think I've ever seen her perform in a straight drama before and, without wishing to criticise her performance which is perfectly fine, she does seem to have found her natural home in comedy. 

Joining the series are two new SOE operatives, the aristocratic Virginia Mitchell (code name 'Dominique') and the flamboyantly homosexual and former drag queen Lewis Lake (code name 'Antoine') played by Catherine Schell and Jeremy Nicholas. In keeping with previous series of Wish Me Luck, these characters are somewhat based in fact. The gay SOE agent and sometime theatrical Denis Rake is clearly the inspiration for the Lake character, whilst Virginia Mitchell owes a debt to both Polish aristocrat Christine Granville and the American Virginia Hall, to the extent that it's rather strange that the programme makers insist that the Hungarian born Schell play the role as an Englishwoman. Jeremy Nicholas brings some much needed light comic relief to the proceedings as the witty and charming 'Antoine', but (and this being the late '80s/early '90s) the programme seems a little shy of addressing his sexuality; in Catherine Shoard's 2010 restrospective article on the series for The Guardian she applauds the 'pioneering' manner of the series, incorrectly claiming that the character was a "bisexual operative (who) saved lives by coaxing secrets from SS officers on the pillow". Quite apart from Lewis clearly being gay rather than bi, the only example of him using his sexuality to gain secrets from the Nazis is in one scene where he befriends a lonely German soldier in a bar to elicit valuable information. If made today there would be so much more scope for the character of Lewis/'Antoine' that would arguably be fitting recreation of the real-life exploits of Denis Rake (who was briefly imprisoned after an affair with one German officer) but then Wish Me Luck never really explored the 'sleeping with the enemy' angle even with its female characters. If I had any complaint to make regarding Schell and Nicholas it's that, being both in their forties, they seem a little long in the tooth for the action.

Perhaps the most notable new characters this series are Trevor Peacock's tenacious Maquis leader Renard and the Jewish girl Sylvie, played by an incredibly young Shirley Henderson. Both characters have much to do with Michael J. Jackson's Kit Vanston; Renard is a fine comrade in arms and confident, almost replacing Liz in that respect, whilst Sylvie is essentially a surrogate daughter for the agent who lost his family in the blitz. When Kit describes what Sylvie means to him, that she represents the hope of something better if and when the war comes to an end, Jackson delivers the line with real conviction, reminding us that the whole notion of family could be a tragically precarious thing in times of conflict. It also serves to remind us that, as the war and the series progresses, Kit is getting older and wearier and, as such, it is understandable that he would place so much stock in someone who unequivocally represents youthful optimism. Henderson shows that she was a talented actress right from the start with her performance here, but it is Trevor Peacock who impressed me the most. To many, he is crusty old Jim in The Vicar of Dibley, but here he really convinces as a staunch socialist and French patriot, willing to sacrifice all for a free France.

The other significant newcomer in this series is the chief villain, the Nazi General Stuckler played by Terrence 'The Demon Headmaster' Hardiman. There's arguably a touch of déjà vu here as Hardiman had previously played a Nazi in the BBC's classic WWII resistance drama Secret Army in the 1970s, but his Stuckler is a worthy and unsettling adversary to our heroes by virtue of both Hardiman's icy portrayal and the more active role played by the Nazis in this series. Interestingly, the Teutonic accent previously dispensed with in the last series returns here with Hardiman's clipped, accented delivery. 

The tone of the series becomes progressively darker, and the desperation our heroes and heroines feel is really palpable. As previously alluded to, the plot of the series is based on the situation at Vasssieux-en-Vercors, so there's a real bedded-in feel to the series and equally a sense of being cut off and of characters trading in hopes and fears. The uprising at Vasssieux-en-Vercors was pivotal to the allied success at Normandy; the British using its stand as a tactical diversion which saw some 20,000 German soldiers busy quelling this lesser known third front made up of around 200 villagers, 600 Resistance fighters and a further 4,000 volunteer force soldiers. They were vastly outnumbered of course and the drama of this series plays on this frustration with Jane Asher and the powers-that-be in London repeatedly making promises of support that ultimately they fail to keep. As a dramatic tactic, this can get pretty tiring; it seems that every episode has London promising supplies, weapons and parachutists to the relief of the villagers on the ground, only for them to go back on their word at the last minute as one by one the British, American and French refuse to play ball, leaving them isolated and alone to face the music in the action packed final episodes.

On reflection, I'd argue that series three is probably better than series two and, in terms of quality, is on a par with the first series. The writing is good, although it is often prone to the dramatic (in inverted commas) soliloquy which rather dates it in terms of TV production. This is best exemplified by Bryan Pringle's warrior priest and his crisis of faith. Having been rescued by his comrades from a Nazi prison cell, he is horrified to learn that his freedom came at a price; as the village is hit by reprisals. Even more dated is the manner in which Sylvie's mother, played by Fiona Walker, is handled. Traumatised by the death of her husband at Nazis hands back in Vienna, Walker's character's mind is rapidly deteriorating which means she spends the series wandering aimlessly around burbling to herself. The intention is clearly to earn audience sympathy, but its so clumsily handled as to be rather irritating, almost as if Walker has literally walked in from a different show with a performance at odds with those around her. Nevertheless, this series provides Wish Me Luck with a fitting send off, and the icing on the cake is the return of Liz in the final pair of episodes. It would have been strange not to have her appear.

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