Stanley Unwin (1911-2002)

Stanley Unwin, who died in January, aged 90, was one of Britain’s best-loved broadcasters and entertainers and the star of the 1969 Gerry Anderson Supermarionation series The Secret Service. For more than half a century, Unwin entertained radio and television audiences with his own gobble-de-gook language, ‘Unwin-ese’, which substituted similar-sounding nonsense words for regular English to create a form of gibberish that had its own internal logic. He had the distinction of being the only performer to portray a Supermarionation puppet character modelled on himself when, as Father Unwin in The Secret Service, he took the starring role as voice artist for the puppet and also appeared as the character in person for live-action sequences.

Born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1911, Unwin trained at nautical school and obtained a first class GPO Wireless Operator’s certificate. After a spell at sea as a deck hand, he joined the wireless manufacturing firm Peto Scott in London, but got the sack for accidentally blowing up his boss. For three years, he worked at a company that built echo sounding gear, before joining the Plessey Company at Ilford where he designed and built test gear for the electronics industry.

In March 1940, he was hired by the BBC as an electronics maintenance engineer and four years later, he was invited to join the War Reporting Unit at Portsmouth, where he recorded the D-Day dispatches of the war correspondents with the Normandy landings. In March 1944, he was sent to join the US Third Army in France and was then posted with the British 8th Army in Italy before finally covering the Peace Conference in Paris in 1946. Returning home, he took a mobile recording engineer’s job in the Midlands which involved him in a variety of work including the first Down Your Wayprogramme with Richard Dimbleby. As an ex-war reporter, Unwin was also selected to cover the 1947 Royal Tour of South Africa.

Over the next few years, he developed a second career as a broadcaster, using the Unwinese language that he had developed to entertain his children, but he was reluctant to leave his job as a sound engineer until he was hired to appear in a TV commercial for beer and found that his salary for the work was equal to several years’ pay in his day job. He made regular radio and television appearances in programmes such as Saturday Night On The Light, Beyond Our Ken, Does The Team Think?, Showtime and Early To Braden, before going on to appear in a number of feature films including Fun At St Fanny’s (1956), Further Up The Creek (1958), Inn For Trouble (1960), Hair Of The Dog (1961), Carry On Regardless (1961), Press For Time (1966) and the Eon production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

It was while he was completing dubbing work on the latter at Pinewood Studios that he was introduced to Gerry Anderson and invited to become the star of the final Supermarionation television series, The Secret Service. The series was written and developed specifically to showcase Unwin’s talents and featured him as Father Stanley Unwin, undercover operative for British Intelligence Service Headquarters Operation Priest (BISHOP). For the series, Unwin wrote all the Unwinese dialogue himself, translating the scripted dialogue into lines such as “Ah, yes, writey scribbly in your bookery, all uttery words speed of your penceload must defeat my eyebold.”

Stanley Unwin had continued to make radio and television appearances over the last thirty years and regularly provided voice-overs for commercials. He was also in great demand as an after-dinner speaker. In 1998, he filmed an interview for Fanderson’s forthcoming The Supermarionation Story documentary, but was forced to cancel an appearance at the club’s Century 21 convention in October 2000 when he was diagnosed with an inoperable aneurysm. He died peacefully on Saturday, 12th January at the Dantre Hospital in Daventry.

Originally published in FAB 44.