ESPIONAGE: 4. ‘The Gentle Spies’, ITV, Saturday 26/10/1963

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“Somewhere in Northumbria, there is a herd of Guernsey cows barred from their favourite pasture because of intense radioactive contamination.”

Espionage was a 1963-64 series made by Lew Grade’s ITC; it featured a range of historical and contemporary stories. The former is represented by the Irish Easter Rising story ‘He Rises on Sunday, and We on Monday’ and the China-set period piece ‘The Dragon Slayer’. It’s an interesting mixed-bag of a 24-episode series, with no fewer than three episodes directed by the great British film director Michael Powell. ‘The Weakling’ (dir. Stuart Rosenberg) is the best of those Espionage episodes I’ve seen: Arnold Perl’s taut WW2 tale with the brilliantly cast pairing of Dennis Hopper and John Gregson.

Also good, if not quite as gripping, is the more contemporary Episode 4, inspired directly by acts of the British Committee of 100. ‘The Gentle Spies’ was shown in ITV’s prime-time Saturday night schedule at 8:55pm, followed by The Avengers at 9:50pm. Directed by 42 year-old Mancunian David Greene and written by 38 year-old New Yorker, Ernest Kinoy, ‘The Gentle Spies’ is a typically US-UK collaboration, but with a reasonably sure grasp of UK Cold War concerns; for example, there is reference to a recent protest against Polaris in Scotland. Greene was to go onto direct a mix of trashy and cult films, all rather neglected today: Sebastian (1967), The Strange Affair (1968),  I Start Counting (1970) and Madame Sin (1972). The first of those is of Cold War relevance, while the preposterous, Bette Davis-starring last is one of the most absurd of all nuclear weapons scenario films.

This was broadcast exactly three weeks after the Soviets, Americans and British signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on 5th October; this marked a certain relaxation following the Cuban Missile Crisis-related tensions in 1962. The Treaty was one of the more tangible signs of Nikita Khrushchev’s policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’.

The episode depicts a civilised, largely urbane discourse between the UK government and the anti-bomb CND insurgency. While the peace campaigners are shown as able to commit the direct action of publishing sensitive details of nuclear policy and perform sit-ins, they are also represented by Lord Kemble (Alan Webb), a Bertrand Russell-esque Nobel Prize winner. The group’s breaking the Official Secrets Act by printing details is shown as an understandable move in the campaign to stop nuclear war: “GET YER OFFICIAL SECRETS ‘ERE!”

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Establishment men

The establishment is embodied by Godfrey Quigley’s Grimsmith and he-of-the-brilliant-audio-book-voice Michael Hordern as an unnamed Conservative party ‘Minister’. They use Gerry Paynter (Barry Foster), who insinuates himself with the protesters by donning a duffle coat and a CND lapel badge.

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Baz Foster in his earlier “man from the ministry” city gent get-up…

Grimsmith says of the protesters, “I suppose they’re all communists […] beatniks, dupes, anarchists, perverts, theatre people?” Paynter responds by explaining that “a lot of them come from universities”. One amusingly RP-voiced hooligan declares: “I am a follower of Gandhi in international affairs only… In my private life, I’m as violent as the next man”. This evokes thoughts of the Mods and Rockers ‘moral panic’ that was to be stirred the following year in 1964.

However, the main spokesperson of the youth wing of the movement is Sheila O’Hare, a 23-year-old protester played by Angela Douglas 26 years before she’d play Doris, the wife of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart in Doctor Who.

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A protesters’ social is shown, wherein Sheila explains how they’re a decentralised group, without a leader: “There isn’t any head […] We’re very democratic…” Sheila also acts as lead vocalist in a jazz protest combo, singing ‘Who Cares’, a TW3-style satirical attack on the bomb: “There’s a big grey mushroom in the sky, why cry?” Its ironic sarcasm works on a different level to the more earnest folk music that you might expect from such a gathering. Other significant jazz contributions to the anti-nuclear theme include Charles Mingus’s ‘Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me’ (1961) and Sun Ra’s ‘Nuclear War’ (1982).

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Sheila’s sardonic lyrical points are supplemented by her emotional arguments to Paynter and, later, the Minister and Grimsmith. Towards the episode’s climax, she is given a scathing speech:

“All we want is a future… A future world to make something decent out of… Something that looks like our dreams, our ideas… Not a radioactive wilderness with a lot of dying politicians muttering ‘I’m sorry’…”

Her sincerity and passion is also shown in her claim she would go to jail for “ten years” for this cause. This possibility gets to Dr/Lord Kemble, the patrician reasoner, who is referred to by the Minister as having “always” been “an odd bird”, from his days teaching his son through to his current status as dogged protester. Kemble offers to be locked up himself if the others would be allowed to go free.

Sharp note is taken of changes in language brought on by the age of the Bomb; as Kemble says, “I believe it’s what you call ‘Mega-kills’. Your estimate of the number of innocent people who will perish in a nuclear attack.” Use of this compounded neologism stresses how the lexicon has been infiltrated by a violent new lexis.

The core of the debate is shown to be, unsurprisingly, between a ‘responsible’ government and ‘idealistic’ protesters (living in a “dream-like world”) with Kinoy’s drama granting neither side an outright win. However, the Ban-the-Bomb lot do gain a moral victory, as it is revealed that the Minister’s wife is the one who has leaked the sensitive material. Sara Forsythe (played by Joan Hickson in pre-Marple days) has apparently read Lord Kemble’s arguments in the Times and been swayed enough to break the Official Secrets Act. There is the implication at the end that it will all be hushed up, so as to avoid the Minister’s embarrassment.

Overall, Sara isn’t really given enough agency or characterisation to be a substantial figure in the narrative, but she does say, “I think I got quite a thrill out of it all… Very cloak and dagger stuff”. And Angela Douglas is eloquent as the Voice of Youth. The episode does enough to be a solidly dramatised time capsule of arguments in its early 1960s era: which says much about what could be expected in prime-time ITV drama then.

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