TRAITOR vi - by DENNIS POTTER - SOVIET MONTAGE

‘A writer may wish to confirm or strengthen the prevailing values of his society, or he may find that the movements of his imagination take him in the opposition direction. Usually, it is a bit of both, of course.’[1]

From Thursday 3rd-Saturday 5th September, I will be in London to chair, help and deliver a paper on Dennis Potter’s ‘Traitor’. This piece is an attempt to provide broader context for my paper – particularly regarding the issues of culture and national identities. For Adrian Harris, literature and journalism function as a stark binary, yet Potter himself was just as much the critic as the creator. His journalism provides a complement to his plays, and further clarifies his singular view of nationhood. Within the ambitious ‘Traitor’, Potter claimed he was “trying to pack a lot of things in that I’d been thinking about”.[2] His journalism reveals the gamut of his preoccupations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

‘TRAITOR’ – BROADCASTING CONTEXT AND RECEPTION

‘Traitor’ was shown on 14th October 1971 on BBC-1. Television in 1971 concerned itself with spying; to add to ‘Traitor’ is ‘Act of Betrayal’ – a BBC Play of the Month broadcast in January. There was much questioning of power structures – a documentary on The Judges, whose veneer, argued Williams in The Listener, proved resistant to the probing. In the summer, LWT had broadcast a drama serial strongly engaged with ideas: The Guardians, a 13-part epic that dramatised clashing ideologies like liberalism, fascism and Marxism. In the same series of Play for Today there were some common themes to ‘Traitor’: alcoholism (Jeremy Sandford’s Edna, the Inebriate Woman) and, three weeks later, the cruelty of the prep-school system: ‘O Fat White Woman’, an exceptional adaptation of a William Trevor short-story. This latter is one of my favourite of all Plays for Today, with its sense of evocative brutality, its Delia Derbyshire soundscapes and acting from the outstanding Peter Jeffrey – present on BBC-2 in Trial on 14/10/71 and a standout in Potter’s later Lipstick on your Collar (1993) as the mentally crumbling old War Office cove.

‘Traitor’ was followed by an insightful interview with Potter on BBC-2 in Late Night Line Up at 11.10pm with Michael Dean, in which the playwright explored his motives in writing the play. Or, rather, this followed Milos Forman’s 1967 film The Firemen’s Ball, a 70-minute Czech comedy which started at 10.10pm, ten minutes before ‘Traitor’ finished. BBC-1 had in its schedules the repeat of an appositely archaeology-themed episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from 1970 and coverage of the Tory Party conference. BBC-2 had an edition of Europa, focusing on gyspies’ changing way of life and an episode of the legal drama Trial, by future Sapphire and Steel creator P.J. Hammond.

The Firemen’s Ball is a tremendous, ambiguous film – cool, sardonically feminist, holding up an unforgiving mirror to masculine ways of seeing and leering. Forman makes a mockery of the sort of televisual spectacles that lingered on for decades in Britain; a different form of protest than the necessary sabotage at the 1970 Miss World contest. It can also be read as a satire of incompetent, corrupt communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Released internally at the end of 1967, it was only released in the UK in November 1968, following the crushing of the Prague Spring. This would have been its television debut and it surely made for pointed scheduling – overlapping with BBC-1’s Potter play, which contains explicit rebuke to the Soviet meddling. Committee and trade union ways in the town are shown as a corrupt mockery of true socialist values: “solidarity” is the loaded word used by committee leaders when on the platform and providing “help” to an old man who has ironically had his house – situated next door – burn down during this Firemen’s Ball.

THE FIREMAN'S BALL 3

The bored, listless ladies rightly do not embody any stereotypical ‘beauty’ and therefore represent an anarchic active human beauty when they scarper: an act of rebellion. They have been given a handful of words within the satirically patriarchal frame – and by the lecherous, officious committee men.

The brass-band present throughout would strike a chord with anyone aware of the annual July Durham Big Meeting – the Gala included a ‘Durham Coal Queen’, up until 1983. The section in the film where the competition prize is ‘claimed’ by a grandmotherly figure constitutes jubilant subversion and the band plays along raucously, with the committee desperately, haplessly, trying to coax the ‘contestants’ back to the stage.

Reactions in the press to ‘Traitor’ itself were mixed, tending towards positive. Dunkley in The Times was the most positive, praising a ‘tremendous’ use of the medium, the presentation of Harris as ‘wrong-headed’, but with understandable motives.[3] In The Guardian, Banks-Smith commended the use of newsreel and Potter’s blending of ‘strongly poetic’ and popular elements, seeing the contemporary scenes as like a ‘Cagney confrontation’.[4] While regarding it as one of Potter’s ‘best plays’, T.C. Worsley of The Financial Times had reservations, criticising the ending and noting the gap between the understandable turn to the left and actual defection.[5] Holland of The Observer was similarly lukewarm, saying that while the play was technically ‘riveting’, ‘dramatically the apparent coldness towards his hero leaves a chill in the viewer’.[6] Lawrence in The Stage and Television Today was the most critical, censuring its verbosity and dependence on literary quotation.[7]

‘Traitor’ was repeated on BBC-2 on Tuesday 27th February 1973 and again on 21st July 1987, just ten days before the publication of Peter Wright’s controversial memoir, Spycatcher.[8] In May 1980, there was a radio-play adaptation, featuring Denholm Elliott as Harris – the same year Elliott featured in Potter’s other treachery-related play, Blade on the Feather, broadcast in October by LWT. This arguably improves on the original by removing the television play’s ending, which had flashbacked to the start of events: conveying the needlessly obvious detail that Harris is being bugged by the KGB.

POTTER AND NATIONAL IDENTITY

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“An understanding of what class means is a politically motivating force” – Dennis Potter.[9]

 The previous year to ‘Traitor’ was Potter’s Lay Down Your Arms (LWT), which scathingly caricatured the officer class at the time of the Suez crisis. Potter had done his own National Service in the War Office in the early 1950s – pre-Suez – alongside future collaborator Kennith Trodd, who was from a similar working-class background. They shared a socialist outlook and both had witnessed ‘at first hand the Cold War antics of the upper-class majors and colonels under whom they served.’[10] When ‘Traitor’ was discussed in BBC Board of Management meeting, the following bullet point in the minutes discussed likely government criticism of a BBC schools’ pamphlet on the history of the ‘Suez episode’, demonstrating that the power and controversy surrounding Suez remained strong, fifteen years on.

The barbed attack-dog Potter of LDYA is well represented by its telling opening shot of, post-Trooping the Colour, ‘a man shovelling up horse-shit’.[11] The best scene in the play is where the grammar schooled Potter surrogate protagonist Lt. Hawk pretends to be Lev Yashin in a London pub, to impress some of its working-class punters.

Potter’s non-fiction, much of it collected in the superlative The Art of Invective (2015), distills a striking anger towards bourgeois indifference to the poor, and he displays scorn for the militaristic, nostalgic element in British culture. He denounces the unnaturalness of the Aberfan disaster of 21 October 1966, which had been caused by the bosses’ neglect of safety, and he derides Correlli Barnett’s ‘no-nonsense’ history tome, Britain and Her Army 1509-1970. Potter seems pleased that we have lost our ‘world role’ and avoided the ‘social gangrene’ of a standing army. He mocks military decline: ‘Recruiting for the British Army now takes place in the Natural Break: busy, bang-bang scraps of film sandwiched between more pacific (and more persuasive) advertisements for tinned dog food and biological stain-removers’.[12] He argues that ‘pomp and pride’ has dwindled to ‘narrow and hateful prejudice within our own small boundaries’, which can be linked his Till Death Do Us Part review where he criticises the public’s non-ironic love of Alf Garnett.[13] In contrast to what he perceived as Speight’s pandering, a July 1971 review for The Times, Potter praised David Caute’s experimental trilogy The Confrontation for its ‘deeply honest’ use of dialectical, Brechtian techniques and for making his ‘head ache’.[14]

In several journalistic pieces, he displays scepticism about the new, arty middle-class leftism. And, while he deplores the pomp and circumstance, he is somehow won over by one particular televisual spectacle of monarchy, conveying he is not so angry as to want to uproot all English traditions…

Potter was a conflicted rationalist – he adored the exacting critic Hazlitt, naming a collection of his essays as his book choice in his 1977 appearance on Radio-4’s Desert Island Discs. In a Times piece written a month before filming started on ‘Traitor’, he was critical of youths who were following post-structuralists’ lead in abandoning rational argument. [15] However, he was still more critical of older generations; who, he argues, caused this loss of faith with the aforementioned acts of war in 1968 and their construction of nuclear weapons. With ‘Traitor’ he attempted show the tension between rationalism and romanticism.[16]

Potter ‘sees this fantasy of the Past, this belief in a lost Eden, as a parallel with the communists’ hopes for a future Earthly paradise’.[17] He refers to a ‘shrivelling’ reason in contemporary society that is becoming more concerned with place than with rationalist ideas: this could be seen to anticipate such mid-1970s works as Play for Today: ‘Penda’s Fen’, Requiem for a Village and Akenfield.[18]

Potter refers to his childhood visions of Jesus Christ’s ‘presence’ on a road and King Arthur asleep in a cave in the woods. He forever associates these “gigantic, chapel-and-school taught figures” with the geographical locale of the Forest of Dean, that ‘complex tangle of woodland chimera and solidified memory between the Severn and the Wye; a place which is still to me the Holy Land and Camelot’.[19]

He refers to Arthurian myths as mourning a loss and glory that has gone, ‘yet which also convey the implicit promise of renewal, return […] the return of the dead king comes with the experience of adult love’.[20] He mentions that Ashe draws passionately on Blake, who may be seen as the poet best embodying English love. He refers to deep British antiquity as a ‘land that is in Europe yet not quite of it’.[21]

Potter’s political ideal for his “mythic England” is: “love mercy pity – peace –Blake’s Hammer like rhythm of what man is about”.[22] On LNLU, he contrasted this with the grasping individualism of Tory England, and vocally supported the miners’ calls for a strike at the recent NUM National Conference of 1971 – rejecting a 7-8% pay rise offer – and raged polemically at those he saw as the class enemy:

“Now I look at people like Mrs. Thatcher standing up in front of the cameras taking milk away from kids and saying – it’s up to parents to look after them you know, etc. etc. – all that spew that comes gushing out of these people from generations past, who are responsible for all the filth, and moral mental obscenity, of this country, as I’ve seen it and experienced it and escaped from it”.[23]

“AMERICANISATION”, MATERIALISM AND INDIVIDUALISM

Potter regarded American culture with nostalgia – film noir and much of its popular music, as evidenced in The Singing Detective and other texts – but was increasingly concerned, like Richard Hoggart and others, with its materialism and corrupting influence on local British customs and working-class solidarity. In a 1958 piece, he lauded a Forest of Dean teenager for sarcastically mocking the rock ‘n’ roll music coming from a cafe jukebox in Cinderford: ‘she showed that all was not lost, that the Brave New World had not yet won.’[24] In 1967, he bemoaned the ‘profit-driven […] horrors’ of American TV.[25] In 1974, he complained of US shows like Harry O and Ironside, in contrast to the film noirs of his youth: ‘Why don’t they write the crackling backtalk anymore?’[26] He argues that US influence has led to the British taking on ‘the mental inflections or infections of a provincial and colonialized people’.

In 1988, Hebdige commented on how cultural debates in the 1930s-60s ‘tended to revolve, often obsessively, around two key terms: “Americanisation” and the “levelling down process”.[27] He starts with discussing an example from Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen and discusses Waugh and Nancy Mitford as right-wing High Tory traditionalists recoiling from the culture’s leftwards movement during and post-WW2. However, he also identifies the liberal socialist Orwell and the social democrat Hoggart as sharing scepticism towards the ‘shiny’ ‘mass culture’ created in the UK by perceived ‘Americanisation’. Potter may also be identified in this lineage, and he refers approvingly to J.B. Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes’ concept of ‘Admass’, coined in 1955 to describe the conjunction of advertising and mass communications.

The American is named ‘Blake’, perhaps to chide and goad Harris about the perceived cultural imperialism and political and economic dependency of Britain upon the USA. Harris describes American culture as “irredeemably vulgar”. As Potter said that he put some of his own thoughts about England into Harris’s mouth, it may be inferred that he shares his character’s resentment at the American influence – placing him closer to the writers literary academic Andrew Hammond describes as most seriously critical of US hegemony: the likes of Graham Greene and John Berger.

Much of Potter’s own loathing of materialism and consumerism finds vent in Harris. He describes the journalists’ use of the word “conscience” as “vulgar and adulterated” after they have criticised his views on “necessary murder”. He says they make “conscience” sound “like a peppermint with a hole in the middle”.

As well as its consumerist blandness, Adrian mocks Western culture’s central tenet of “individuality”. This powerful idea was forged through Cold War propaganda: from the more clear-cut, CIA-backed film of Animal Farm (1954) to a 1970s British TV dystopian series like 1990 (1977-78), which starred Edward Woodward as a crusading journalist hero, opposing a British that has degenerated into banal socialist bureaucracy. As Harris argues, Western claims of enshrining “freedom of speech” are undermined by the role of sub-editors; we can extend this to the Murdoch influence – Potter was writing this play just over a year after Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun, which he had previously written articles for. However, Potter undermines Harris in showing most of the journalists to be ethical and willing to speak against both the Vietnam War and the crushing of the Prague Spring. Through Harris, Potter voices many of his usual reservations about Western culture, but does not reject it outright. In his LNLU interview he explicitly yearns for a democratic socialist future – ideally fusing Blakean idealism with some Hazlitt-style rationalism – though hasn’t worked out how we might arrive at such a future.

ANALYSIS OF ‘TRAITOR’

Characters in the play – chiefly Harris’ Arthur and Adrian – posit dialectical binaries, clear divisions that give meaning to their lives and outlook. Interestingly, the play doesn’t establish any Burgess and Maclean style association of sexual deviancy with treachery – sexuality doesn’t feature in this play. (Nor do women, other than Harris’s mother in flashbacks) Potter makes clear the tension in some of the binaries that feature:

BINARIES TABLE

Harris associates Romantic poetry with twentieth century rebellion – “there was a time when poets exploded like bombs”- and his allusion to Auden evokes the active agency of poets in the Spanish Civil War. It is surprising that amid the many poets mentioned, Shelley is not included.

Another Blake can be brought into this story: the defector George Blake! His mystical Christian idealism was replaced by Communism as he felt only it could bring about ‘heaven on earth’.[28] Blake defected as he claimed that he felt he wasn’t on the right side when he fought in the Korean War and witnessed the brutality of the US-backed Rhee regime; he saw the Communists as stirred by the ‘same noble motives’ as Dutch and other freedom fighters in WW2.[29] When considering such ‘traitors’, Graham Greene’s critiqued the standard reflex moral judgements: ‘He sent men to their death’ is the kind of stock phrase which has been used against Philby and Blake. So does any military commander, but at least the cannon fodder of the espionage war are all volunteers.’[33] He has no sympathy for the defecting spy Volkov, but rather more for Philby. George Blake is different to Harris and Philby in being from a relatively lowly social class and a Jewish background. Potter can be said to have rejected GB’s path from Christianity to Communism, having strong faith in ‘gentle’, liberal and democratic socialism.

Arthur Harris, Adrian’s father in ‘Traitor’ compares strongly to Philby’s father: St John Philby. We get some sense in the play of Arthur’s eccentric martinet politics, which aren’t dissimilar to the Arabist adventurer St John. Perrott refers to his progress from being a ‘Socialist of a highly individual sort’[30] to becoming first candidate to stand for the far-right British People’s Party in the July 1939 by-election in Hythe, Kent, losing his deposit in this Tory-held seat with a pitiful 2.6% of the vote.[31] The British People’s Party was against war with Germany and its secretary John Beckett was interned in May 1940.[32] St John was interned himself briefly. The BPP had a strain of anti-semitism, which can be linked to when Harris refers to in the play, with a journalist quoting Hillaire Belloc, who Harris puts down as “a sweet, fey anti-semite”.

CONCLUSION

Overall, Potter’s view of the Cold War can be inferred as somewhere between critical friendship of the USA and outright non-alignment. His scorn for backward-looking patriotism very understandably knows no bounds. He is a writer whose views were partly informed by the Suez debacle and also had a contempt for Churchillian myths, which I will analyse in another blog post…

REFERENCES:

[1] Potter, D., Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.211

[2] BBC WAC (1971) Late Night Line Up transcript, 14th October, p.7, file 09151/2041

[3] Dunkley, C. (1971) ‘Traitor: BBC-1’, The Times, 15th October, p.12

[4] Banks-Smith, N. (1971) ‘TRAITOR on television’, The Guardian, 15th October, p.10

[5] Worsley, T.C. (1971) ‘Period Promises’, The Financial Times, 20th October, p.3

[6] Holland, M. (1971) ‘Coming back to class’, The Observer, 17th October, p.29

[7] Lawrence, J. (1971) ‘Play for Today: Traitor’, The Stage and Television Today, 21 October, p.14

[8] The Times (1973) Broadcasting, The Times, 27th February, p.27

[9] BBC WAC (1971) ‘Late Night Line Up’ transcript, 14th October, p.2 file 09151/2041

[10] Cook, J.R. (1995) Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.10

[11] Gilbert, W.S. (1996) Fight and Kick and Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis Potter. London: Spectre, p.183

[12] Potter, D. (1970) ‘Britain’s Natural Break Army’, The Times, 25th April, p.5

[13] Potter, D, Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.128-30

[14] Potter, D. (1971) ‘Busting the categories’, The Times, 22nd July, p.12

[15] Potter, D. (1971) ‘The perpetual awakening’, The Times, 4th March, p.12

[16] BBC WAC (1971) Late Night Line Up transcript, 14th October, p.11, file 09151/2041

[17] Jones, D.A.N. (1971) ‘Playing Potter’s traitor: the best part I ever had on TV‘, Radio Times, 7th October, p.6

[18] Potter, D. (1971) ‘King Arthur and a vision of childhood country lost’, The Times, 18th January, p.8

[19] Potter, D. (1971) p.8

[20] Potter, D. (1971) p.8

[21] Potter, D. (1971) p.8

[22] BBC WAC (1971) ‘Late Night Line Up’ transcript, 14th October, p.11, file 09151/2041

[23] BBC WAC (1971) Late Night Line Up transcript, 14th October, p.8, file 09151/2041

[24] Potter, D., Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.17

[25] Potter (1967) ‘TV literature and the two that got away’, The Times, 4th November, p.21

[26] Potter, D., Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.152

[27] Hebdige, D. (1988) Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things. London: Routledge/Comedia, p.47

[28] Storyville: Masterspy of Moscow – George Blake (2015) BBC Four, TX: 23rd March https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rutcvpJdyKE [accessed: 26/08/15]

[29] Hermiston, R. (2013) The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake, London: Aurum Press, p.89

[30] Perrott, R. (1963) ‘Philby: all we know’, The Observer, 7th July, p.17

[31] The Times (1939) The Times, 21st July, p.14

[32] The Times (1940) The Times, 24th May, p.6

[33] Greene, G. (1968) ‘Our man in Moscow’, The Observer, 18th February, p.26

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