Friday 18th June 2016

Plymouth

This day proved to be perhaps the most enlightening conference day I have yet attended in my fledgling academic ‘career’, if it can be called that. I would particularly highlight Chris Smith and Joseph Oldham’s papers for their forensic detail and historical reach. I look forward to books by Nick Barnett and Oldham respectively on ‘First Cold War’ culture in Britain and the history of the spy and conspiracy genres on British television.

The Liverpudlian Cat Mahoney (Northumbria University) began proceedings with an analysis of the TV version of Marvel’s Agent Carter – is/was Peggy a new popular feminist hero?  This ‘physically and mentally tough’ character was seen as becoming much more than just the love interest of Captain America; figuring in 1946 NYC in a Vera Lynn-like role, with an English accent. The focus given to Bletchley Park was mentioned, and Mahoney argued that Peggy was much more feminist than post-feminist, being very practical in nature. She has a John Steed equivalent in Edwin Jarvis. Mahoney mentioned the series’ ‘cautionary tale’ as regards the character Whitney Frost, pointing to a ‘Women in Refrigerator’ trope.

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This paper was a closely argued case that Peggy ‘leans towards being feminist’, without any of the internalising of the male gaze that you see with post-feminism. Yet, Mahoney acknowledged Sarah Miles’ criticism that this was a Marvel ‘version of feminism’, with Peggy as the only truly significant female character with agency and who is also white.

Next was a connected paper: Laura Crossley (Edge Hill University, Liverpool), dissecting differing manifestations of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise character, from her origins in a London Evening Standard cartoon strip in 1963 (running thirty-nine years) to novels and film and radio adaptations. Pulp Fiction (1994) was later to allude to it, with Travolta’s character seen reading Peter O’Donnell’s 1965 MB novel.

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Joseph Losey’s 1966 film was referred to as strongly ‘camp’ ‘oddity’ which has its pleasures. Crossley quoted Losey’s intent to make a film that would end all of the James Bond films – not a notably successful outcome there, Joe! She showed a few clips from the film, which looked unusual, proto-postmodernist and with some anti-imperialist political charge to it.

Crossley seemed to value the novel most highly; praising how Modesty is represented as displaying physical prowess and being better than a man: Kingsley Amis and his wife were fans of the Blaise books, and KA wrote a fan’s letter to O’Donnell – which Crossley showed. It seemed to me this was part of the cultural climate which had enabled Cathy Gale and Emma Peel to become ground-breaking televisual characters.

Crossley linked Willie Garvin – Modesty’s companion – with the previous day’s Bond – Palmer – Callan educational formulation, saying that Garvin was ‘lower’ even than Callan, having gone to a reform school. She explained how O’Donnell satirises the old-boy network, with colonialism open to some question in the strips and novel. Strip #3678 was said to include the interrogative: ‘We could appeal to the unions, maybe?’ It seems, unsurprisingly, that this was a strip from circa May 1975…

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The Q&A revealed some interesting discussion of the film Spy (dir. Paul Feig, 2015) with Melissa McCarthy, which was argued as going beyond mere jokes about MM’s unusual physicality. Yet, there was a questioning of how so many of these sort of texts depict violence and killing people as the main focus of what these female characters do and are about. Are they then that different from the Bonds, or mere female ‘versions’ of an ethically questionable normative hero?

Crossley argued that Blaise is the dominant one in the pairing with Garvin, but that it is heteronormative, though no less progressive in the context of the 1960s. Mahoney referred to Dotty in Agent Carter, who has signs of some deviancy, possibly linked to Soviet training. This may just seem to us to be part of the constraining binary of Cold War ideological thinking. The discussion included Philip’s non-heteronormative activities as Soviet deep cover agent in The Americans and Norman Pett’s significant comic-strip Jane, which ran in the Daily Mirror from 1932-59. There was an attempt to update for the early-60s with Daughter of Jane by Roger Woddis running from 1961-63. Woddis (1917-93) is an interesting figure, a writer of one of my favourite episodes of The Prisoner, ‘Hammer into Anvil’ and Communist Party member who in the 1970s-90s wrote poems for the New Statesman and Punch. Also, curiously enough, Jane was adapted for TV with Blakes 7’s Glynis Barber as Jane for two series in 1982 and 1984 respectively.

The Q&A ended with some righteous focus on how Rosa Klebb represented the ‘monstrous feminine’ and also how the recent case of Star Wars reflected a lack of progress: none of the action figures were female.

Speaker 12 of the conference was via Skype, Claudia Sternberg (University of Leeds). This paper analysed whether WW1 screen espionage reflected female empowerment. Lang’s Spione (1928) and George Fitzmaurice’s pre-Hays Code Mata Hari (1931) were mentioned as films which reflected a sensationalising of the female spy as a glamour figure. Where, in fact, the female spy was subject to low-pay and low-status, with women being seen as ‘less able to feel patriotism; and being ‘prone to romantic sentiment’. Working-class women were left out of spy films. Victor Saville’s I Was a Spy (1933) was analysed as one of the key British examples of the sub-genre.

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She gave an overview of many 1930s and 40s films, and stated that the cycle came to an end in 1945, to be replaced in a few years by the Cold War. The 1991 TV Ashenden re-adapts W. Somerset Maugham and incorporated much autobiographical material, and added a homosexual romance.

Historian Chris Smith (University of Kent, Canterbury) placed the WW2-related Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films in their historical context. This was an excellent paper, limiting much analysis of the film texts and taking the films as sources among many. He made good use of Monthly Film Bulletin reviews, and placed the films’ content and reception in the wider historical context. He discussed the ‘Fifth Column’ as a moral panic before Stanley Cohen had coined the concept. I spoke to the speaker later when we were on a boat trip.

Smith referred to the government’s failed ‘Silent Column’ propaganda campaign. This encouraged the telling off and prosecution of rumour-mongers, like ‘Miss Leaky Mouth’. He mentioned a Spectator editorial criticising the wasting of time that this all amounted to.

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The combative Kent academic praised Ealing’s The Next of Kin (1942) as a superior propaganda film. When it was first shown privately, it showed the British commandos losing; Churchill insisted on the British commandos winning, so the ending was changed. Smith provided statistical detail which highlighted the importance of cinema: over 4000 cinemas were open in the UK with over 19 million cinema-goers – and the BBC, with 90% of homes having a radio.

In the Q&A, Smith had more chance to discuss left-wing Scottish historian Angus Calder’s The People’s War: Britain, 1939-1945 (1969). He argued that in Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror (1942), the people come to Holmes’ aid: that it isn’t just about the hero, it’s the British public who are agents and contributors. He made reference to Roland Barthes and myth, and said more important than debunking them is considering why the powerful are trying to create myths.

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There’s always room in life for a random image of Alastair Sim…

Among many films that got mentioned was Cottage to Let (1941) with Alastair Sim, a recommendation in itself! Toby Manning and Joseph Oldham made reference to George Smiley as being rather like Sherlock Holmes: both are essentially analysts of data, like historians. Oldham added that many WW2 spies were historians.

Second Scouse speaker and conference co-organiser Nicholas Barnett (Plymouth University) discussed the BBC’s retro spy-drama The Game (2014) and its representation of the 1970s. The cultural historian saw this 1972-set series as a period piece, and how it is looking back on the Cold War ‘with a sense of nostalgia’. The title contains the chess-like Cold War metaphor; a very blatant engagement with ‘the familiar’ by writer Toby Whithouse. Barnett referred to inter-textual references to George Cockroft’s novel The Dice Man (1971). In episodes 5 and 6, the game becomes poker. He described there being a subtler narrative of chess in the first three episodes, with its copying of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979), with the last three copying The Americans. This lack of originality prefigures what Manning was to say about Homeland on Sunday. The series becomes a game of chess between Joe and Odin, who makes himself more sinister through peeling apples.

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The clichés have to be there for it to be a spy drama, and are part of a view of the 1970s as a ‘comforting’ time: the ‘sinister Russian enemy’, the mole within MI5, a fairground scene with the protagonist having a gun, signposting dialogue like “welcome to the end of our story” (episode 6), a dead letter drop (episode 2), Russian vodka, a clunky camera, reel-to-reel tapes and open-plan committee rooms in Birmingham City Library used as a set. In the show, the 1970s are where, while it less comforting than WW2, ‘we knew where we stood with the Russians’.

Barnett went on to discuss a ‘lost politics of class in British society’. Waterhouse, the head of counter intelligence, pin-striped suited and has a servant; he was contrasted with Joe, state-school educated like Callan. ‘Daddy’ (Brian Cox) is referred to as a post-war masculine ideal: at once the war hero but also the family man – which Barnett compared with Lynne Segal’s analysis. Chloe Pirrie’s Wendy is presented as a voice of reason, and Waterhouse eventually follows her advice. Daddy talks of WW2 as a war ‘that made heroes’, feeling a nostalgia for the previous war; making the audience perhaps think that people like Daddy were heroes of the Cold War. This is described as an attempt by Whithouse to draw some lines of continuity between WW2 and the CW.

He mentioned the show’s depiction of working-class areas; the working-class comedian telling an Irish joke complete with a garish jacket and a comb-over, pubs with beer mugs with handles and smoking – that past that is within our memory but is just beyond us. I would have liked a bit more analysis of this, but this was no doubt due to time constraints…

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The public information film Protect and Survive is used anachronistically – it was actually made in 1976, not in 1972. Barnett quoted historian Matthew Grant’s comments about oral history interviewees’ misremembering of the past: people saying they’d seen Duck and Cover (1951), which was never shown in Britain.

Barnett finished by summarising how The Game portrays the Cold War as a simpler time with its continuities with WW2, and its noble, familiar intelligence game, but also as part of the transition towards today’s less comforting world, with a more dangerous game with increasingly endangered civilians.

Justin Harrison (Learning Commons Librarian, University of Victoria BC, Canada) gave a rare power-point-less talk. He discussed the representations of Britishness in The Avengers. He discussed the confident, optimistic national identity, as projected via the lion on the shield in the Tara King titles sequence. He emphasised the ‘mutual respect’ between the generations conveyed by the series and its core audience being young women in the 18-34 age group. This discussion of Steed as an establishment gave rise to my thought that the agent might be an attempt to redeem the public-school spy following Philby and co…

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Harrison argued that tradition and modernity co-existed; there’s the British lion, but then also Linda Thorson’s character is simply known as ‘Tara King’ without any marriage title. He discussed the inconsequential nature of much of the show’s narratives, with plot often being merely a justification for a champagne cork popping at the end. The last Tara King episode ‘Bizarre’ (TX: 22/05/1969) was used as an exemplar in its ‘preposterous’ plot. Writer on 1960s Britain Mark Donnelly was used to discuss how the show kept reality away.

Harrison concluded by mentioning the intriguing sounding ‘Two’s a Crowd’ (TX: 17/12/1965), one of very few Avengers stories to identify its villains as Soviets and thus more directly engage in the Cold War. On the long train to Plymouth and before bed following the first night of the conference, I had watched two Tara King episodes on my laptop: ‘The Rotters’, which partly fitted Harrison’s depiction of Steed as rural gent, with signifiers of ‘English oak’, ‘dry rot’ and a red-pillar box, and ‘The Interrogators’ with villain Christopher Lee backed by Chinese army uniformed helpers. This latter was rather better, and showed an at least tangential relation to the Cold War.

Joseph Oldham (Warwick University) said that his paper came out of the previous Spying on Spies conference. And reflected how little focus there had been there on the 1990s, basically between the end of the Cold War and the start of the War on Terror. This can be seen as a lost decade in spy fiction and Oldham wanted to question whether or not this was due to the lull in major geopolitical tensions. This led to his focus on Bugs (1995-99), televised in the ‘Doctor Who’ Saturday evening slot and which often gained 10 million viewers; a series which he said had been ‘written out of the academic narrative’. He focused mainly on the first two series’.

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Its focus was on the ‘miniaturized wizardry and computer cunning’ and ‘excitement of technological gadgetry for good and evil’. Even Charles Jennings’ positive review in The Observer was patronising: Jennings viewing it as ‘light-hearted entertainment and not to be taken seriously’. The Radio Times spread to promote the first series placed it in the heritage of The Avengers (1961-69), The New Avengers (1976-77) and The Professionals (1978-82). Brian Clemens had been brought on board as ‘series consultant’.

Oldham used David Buxton’s analysis of The Avengers as a ‘pop series’, a historically specific thing that could only have existed the way it did in the 1960s. He mentioned Felix Thompson’s comments on Clemens’ 1970s works being different and then how the Radio Times spread positioned Bugs as ‘we are doing The Avengers again’. The 1990s background included the nostalgia boom of 1960s adventure series being repeated on BBC-2 and Channel 4, which fed into the ‘Cool Britannia’ moment which was heavily indebted to the 1960s style. He also mentioned the exaggerated use of such imagery by Austin Powers, and how Bugs didn’t go in for this sort of iconography.

Bugs’ aesthetic has bold colours, indebted to the 1960s pop-futurism, but mixed in with glassy, chrome visuals which reflected what Oldham described as a ‘neo-liberal futurism’. By being largely shot on location in the London Docklands, formerly derelict, which had been massively redeveloped in the Thatcher era as a hub of the financial sector – the process which is incisively investigated by Andy Beckett in Promised You a Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain (2015). He mentioned The Observer’s commenting that ‘You will never see a pre-1990 building in Bugs’; Oldham said this was an exaggeration – it should have been pre-1980. The series sees this area (unnamed in the series) as ‘massively important and a key point of vulnerability’. Canary Wharf is said to appear in every episode of series 3. There’s an obsession with landmarks, and also innovations such as driver-less trains on the Docklands Light Railway.

The retro element is more to do with narrative than visual aesthetics. The common gripe of 1990s TV drama was articulated by Brian Clemens himself in the publicity for Bugs: ‘Normally when the BBC or ITV have a free evening slot, they stick in a copper, a vet or a doctor and they’re all so downbeat and depressing’. This was the idea of there being much ‘soapification’, issue-led stuff, and there being a need to return to the adventure show and ‘rollercoaster’ viewing. Oldham mentioned how there’s little ongoing narrative in Bugs and how most episodes end with a terrible joke and they all laugh!

Unlike in the 1960s TV adventure series’, Oldham described the spies in Bugs as not working for the state but working as a ‘small-business enterprise’. He placed this in the context of the 1990s dot.com boom and Thatcherite ideology. Key was the characters’ role as ‘surveillance experts’; this was before Big Brother and CSI were on British TV. He said that Bugs was part of the gadget renaissance of the 1990s, as in GoldenEye and contrasted them with older, Orwellian British TV drama series’ like 1990 (1977-78). Their company was called ‘Gizmos’ and their use of surveillance is portrayed as quirky, small and not as threatening as the archetypal Orwellian state surveillance operation.

Oldham concluded his excellent paper by arguing that Spooks continues the glassy aesthetic of Bugs and that the neglected 1990s series represents how we got from the 1960s adventure series and the Cold War to Spooks and the War on Terror. He plausibly argued fot it as a key text right in the midst of what we might term the 1990s interregnum.

The Q&A included a question by Felix Thompson about how serious was the focus on Canary Wharf and the banking sector. Oldham commented on the uncertainty of the tone between irony and seriousness. When Barnett asked about the villains, Oldham said that eco-terrorists tended to come up a bit.

Barnett said that nostalgia is usually linked to declinism but that that doesn’t seem to be the case with Cold War nostalgia, in the context of what is generally seen as the ‘relative success’ of the Cold War.

Catherine Edwards (ICCS Manager, Birmingham University) tackled narrative beginnings in John le Carré adaptations, though this also sprouted off into discussion of In Bruges (2008) with its bickering hitmen giving the names Cranham and Blakely when they check into a hotel: inter-textually referencing Kenneth and Colin, who played the hitmen in a mid-80s TV version of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. This got me thinking about how comparatively little explored is Harold Pinter’s relation to the Cold War – despite such plays as One for the Road, and also his manifest exploration of communication ambiguities, complexities of identity in so many of his other plays which were staged in the ‘intelligence’ and ‘spy’ era.

Edwards also discussed the problematic nature of ‘beginnings’, utilising the example of Coney theatre company’s immersive methodology, with their plays existing from before, to and after the ‘actual production’, living on afterwards in minds and in its influence.

Edward Biddulph (independent scholar) was next, describing On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968) as his favourite Bond film and exploring some of the franchise’s memes. The reach and sway of JB was emphasised with the example of Allen Dulles’ claim that in recruitment he would look for people with Bond’s qualities.

Memes were defined as units of cultural selection, like genes. Among many examples were ‘Bond, James Bond’ and ‘Shaken, not stirred’. Biddulph traced the dominance of these, as well as ‘Bond Girl’: singer of Skyfall Bond theme Adele was asked in 2013 about whether she’d want to be a ‘Bond Girl’ and when interviewed used the collocation naturally herself. Biddulph used multiple examples of these memes amid newspaper and other cultural discourses from the 1960s until today.

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Biddulph extracted probably the biggest laugh of the conference with his captioned image adapting the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ ape-to-man progress for Bond, including ‘Campus Rogerus’, a Safari-suit-clad Moore among the others!

Barbara Korte (University of Freiburg) discussed the agency of the agent in SPECTRE (2015), analysing surveillance and prevention concepts in today’s supposedly ‘post-heroic times’. The meme of ‘friendly surveillance’ was located in this recent Bond film, with MI6 being shown to be more transparent. This film and Skyfall (2012), representative of the technologically reliant era, were said to display nostalgia for the days of the field agent when there was a perceived greater level of agency and inventiveness. Cold War inter-textuality was present in SPECTRE, with M using the phrase “George Orwell’s worst nightmare”. Korte linked the location of a meeting in Rome to the Italian capital’s previous status as a fascist capital in the Mussolini era.

The Q&A included discussion of the anticipation before texts are released and reaction to texts after release, alongside a focus on the precise rhythm and timing of phrases in the Bond films. This, again, got me thinking of Pinter, with the precise, metronomic focus on pauses inherited from Beckett. Korte’s power-point slide of still images from SPECTRE was much focused on, with Craig’s Bond conveyed as a Romantic hero, bare-chested within sublime landscapes. One of them resembled Caspar David Friederich’s 1818 oil painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.

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There was additional focus on how SPECTRE had a conservative ideology in how security is provided by the state, with the ‘responsible’ presentation of M. Someone mentioned the ‘disconcerting’ role of Lucas North character, played by Richard Armitage in seasons 7-9 of Spooks (BBC-1, 2002-11). This show interestingly involved firebrand leftist writer Howard Brenton in its early series’.

Rosie White (Northumbria University) was the conference’s 20th – and the day’s ‘Keynote’ – speaker. White gave an interesting talk, comparing and dissecting the screen personae of Leslie Howard in the title role of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine. Power-point included an evocative use of a gif animated image of Howard that showed his expressive quality and eyes. She spoke of being both seduced and discomfited by early 2016’s ratings success The Night Manager, with its narrative of the arms trade mingling with cinematic glamour. Mention was made of how JLC’s ethically engaged tone was downplayed in this BBC international co-production which marketed itself as ‘Quality British Television’ and encouraged press discourses of Pine being an audition for the role of James Bond.

White was eloquently uncomfortable at the ‘exotic, saturated colour contrasts’ and what she saw as the fetishisation of the lives of the “super-rich”. Indeed, I would support this – remembering how much The Guardian in a Saturday edition played on the series’ popularity to pitch its locations as holiday destinations: for its presumably more affluent readers. While I did enjoy the series, its pleasures were somewhat out of place in the light not just of the arms dealing narrative, but also the Austerity Britain we are living through.

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That wondrous gif image of the lad Leslie

She spoke of the contrast between the mythical Englishness shown in Howard’s gentle features and Hiddleston’s more studied and manufactured projections of English identity, which showed a lot more conscious ‘work’. White argued persuasively that the myth of Englishness today is spread via more globalised cultural industries, and is increasingly hollow. Howard was once the subject of an old Jeffrey Richards Listener article I chanced on in the British Library; Richards portrayed him as a national phenomenon comparable to Priestley and Churchill. White alluded to this same idea of the Howard as a powerful myth, even more so due to his premature death.

She referred to the film’s use of John of Gaunt’s ‘This Sceptred Isle’ speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. As I mentioned elsewhere, Graham Greene was intensely critical of how this speech omitted reference to Robert Southwell’s execution and the turmoil experienced by Catholics in England.

Pimpernel Smith (1941) was analysed for how it demonstrated Richards’ description of the national characteristic of the English ‘sense of humour’ as a ‘redoubtable bulwark against tyranny.’ Smith, in rebuke to our present-day ideas, always has a book on him – rather like Niven’s jovial renaissance-man Peter Carter in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Another consciously ‘elegiac’ Jeffrey Richards essay from the Aldgate-Richards collection Britain Can Take It was quoted from: ‘a mystic England’, ‘an England of the soul’ and so forth…

With the ethereal gif of Howard playing, I thought of how indexical the two terms “English” and “gentleman” always seem to be… I also thought of ‘The News in English’, Graham Greene’s story of a Lord Haw Haw figure, but who has the tones of ‘a typical English don’. I thought also of how excluded the working-classes have been; an area Greene touched on with Purves, the poacher, getting a key role in his short story, ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’. Interestingly comparable to Howard is David Niven, not least in The Elusive Pimpernel – a Powell and Pressuburger curio that I have never seen and is damnably tricky to track down.

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White reflected on just how dominant the Dragon School in Oxford and its ‘Eminent Dragon’ alumni have been in British politics and culture: Alain de Botton, John Betjeman, Hugh Gaitskell, Rory Stewart, Tim Henman, Dom Joly… This was followed, of course, by reference to the casting of Eminent Dragons Hugh Laurie, Toms Hollander and Hiddleston in TNM. She referred to Laurence Fox’s defensive reaction (“Shut up!”) to Julie Walters’ comments on the now-entrenched class divisions in British acting. White finished pointedly with an oppositional image that made an unarguable case for the situation of the advantaged vs. the disadvantaged in the British arts today… During the Q&A, Laura Crossley helped tie some of the threads together by saying she’d read that Hiddleston had been quoted saying he’d love to play the Scarlet Pimpernel…

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Thus, Day 2 concluded; relaxation ensued, but ghosts and images of the past and present stayed very much in mind.

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