“Spies on British Screens” Day 2: Of female agents, Gizmos, Holmes and Eminent Dragons

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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“Spies on British Screens” Day 1: Lucky eyes, communist maths teachers and the politics of quiche

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This piece is a fuller, more rambling expansion of the piece I have written here for Literary 007. I wasn’t quite sure they were so interested in the 1950s boffin, ‘Father Stanley Unwin’ and Glasgow locations standing in for Czechoslovakia (and there was a word limit)!

On a pleasant Friday morning (17/06/2016), the Spies on British Screens Conference commenced in a small lecture room, housed in a building that was less than ten years old. Most of Plymouth was suitably early Cold War in its look – plenty of concrete shopping precincts and 1950s-60s tower blocks.

Alan Burton (Klagenfurt University) provided a chronological survey of the British spy film cycle, from 1964-73. He applied genre-theorist Steve Neale’s formulation of a film ‘cycle’ to a group of films made in a ‘specific and limited timespan’, in the wake of the success of From Russia with Love (1963). The focus was initially on the 1960s; Burton quoted Alexander Walker’s description of James Bond as ‘man of the decade’. He argued that the cycle’s high-water mark was in April 1965, when Films and Feelings magazine declared a state of ‘spy mania’: the year of the stratospheric box-office success of Thunderball and the anti-Bond complexities of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Ipcress File.

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Many films in the cycle couldn’t escape the shadow of Bond: Where the Bullets Fly (1966) even promoted Tom Adams’ Charles Vine as the world’s ‘second best’ secret agent! Among the many obscure films in the cycle that Burton mentioned (and, for many, it sounded like this status was entirely deserved!), some particularly interesting ones were Where the Spies Are (1966) and Otley (1968), with Tom Courtenay as a small-time antiques dealer, left floundering and bewildered in the world of espionage. Danger Route (1967) and Innocent Bystanders (1972) were given as examples of the more violent end of this cycle, with adjectives like ‘vicious’ and ‘unpleasant’ used.

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DANGER ROUTE

The compendious Burton, who has recently had published A Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction, rounded off his enlightening survey with mention of the spy spoofs – Morecambe and Wise, Carry On, Modesty Blaise (1966) – and the anti-Bond sub-cycle of Deighton and le Carre adaptations. Despite spoofs kicking in early, and a July 1966 Guardian article which asked ‘Is the spy bubble about to burst?’ Burton was able to trace a lineage of films through to 1973, though the cycle had long since ceased to be economically or critically valued. Bond operated on a different level commercially; even if its critical acclaim dwindled from You Only Live Twice (1967) onwards.

Felix Thompson (University of Derby) effectively did the same for TV spy dramas as Burton had done for films, though his paper included analysis of how a smaller range of examples demonstrated the dissolving of national boundaries in the era of mass tourism: another popular cultural practice of the 1960s and 70s of equal significance to James Bond. He analysed series’ such as Danger Man, and mentioned how Patrick McGoohan was very critical of James Bond.

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THE PRISONER (1967-68). The Bond-like tale of ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ is revealed to be a children’s story book… with clear connotations of the yarn being pacifying false consciousness for the kiddies.

Thompson gave an overview of TV drama in the age of long series, contrastingly to today in Britain where serials such as The Night Manager dominate. He explained how series 2 of Danger Man was both a ‘panorama of cosmopolitan encounters’ and strongly connected to news discourses at the time. Even The Saint, to an extent, was concerned with Britain’s loss of Empire and the increase in globalisation, trade and migration. He explained John Drake’s unique status as simultaneously working for the UN, the CIA, MI5 and NATO, and how narratives included ones such as ‘The Galloping Major’, where the goal is to prevent a coup in a new post-colonial democracy. He analysed how Drake figures as the ‘colonial hero transforming into the tourist’. The Saint’s airport sequences – very common! – were linked to the very 1960s aspiration of jet-setting lifestyles. This show also depicted international cooperation and summitry, with Simon Templar going to a Geneva Conference in an episode ‘The Russian Prisoner’; though this was said to contain national stereotypes and paranoia.

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Thompson went on to discuss the more ‘procedural’ spy series’ like Special Branch, Callan and The Sandbaggers, set in a more everyday world and more likely to contain complaints about working conditions. Settings were again dissected: Callan with the shabby suburban controller’s office far from the world of Bond or even Smiley. He discussed Callan’s theme of class tensions and exploitative relationships, with the hierarchy of upper classes exploiting and giving Callan orders, who, in turn, exploits and gives Lonely orders. Special Branch was said to contain some focus on immigration discontent and racism and made the ‘defence of national boundaries’ into a problematic issue. Thompson concluded by tackling that most widely popular of Cold War British spy shows, The Avengers, with ‘The Charmers’ identified as a rare episode in including a Russian character: a renegade KGB officer, who trains gentlemen to be sleeper agents – something in the vein of the Cambridge Spies.

In the Q&A, Burton mentioned Tightrope (1972), a children’s spy series which included a communist take-over of a school, with a ‘particularly suspect’ Maths teacher involved! To even more amusement, there was discussion of Gerry Anderson’s The Secret Service (1969), ‘only ever shown in Birmingham’ (!), which featured the eccentric Stanley Unwin as ‘Father Stanley Unwin’, a puppet vicar secret agent!

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A profound question was considered: ‘Why is there so much light-heartedness in spy dramas?’ This seemed to be the particularly 1960s mood, with more seriousness (The Sandbaggers), blandness (The New Avengers) and ‘macho’ aggression in relation to terrorism (The Professionals) characterising the 1970s. Out of the Q&A came a fascinating educational summary of the spies:

  • James Bond = public school, fee-paying, socially established.
  • Harry Palmer = grammar school, selective on ability, socially mobile.
  • David Callan = secondary modern, practically focused, socially proletarian.

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The second panel began with Claire Hines (Southampton Solent University) analysed the current film archetype of the tech geek, through the portrayal and representation of Ben Whishaw’s Q in recent Bond films. This as a mainstreaming of the ‘nerd’ character was mentioned, with the example of Whishaw’s Prada photo shoot and GQ magazine’s Bond special featuring the character heavily. The archetype was briefly located as a development of the earlier WW2 ‘boffin’ figure, a significant presence in the early Cold War, as best exemplified by Barnes-Wallace in The Dam Busters (1955).

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Next, Stephanie Jones (Aberystwyth University) gave an analysis of Bond and the ‘New Man’ – a cultural archetype recorded by the OED as first appearing in discourses around the 1982 film Tootsie. Jones explored the myths of Dalton’s Bond as being the ‘New Man’, and popular memory of him making quiche for a romantic meal with a female character. This memory is false, Jones revealed, showing the scene as actually from the late-Moore era film, A View to a Kill (1985). Jones further questioned the perceptions of Dalton as a more progressive, cultured Bond; arguing this was more to do with his persona off-screen – Shakespeare actor and partner of Vanessa Redgrave – than anything to do with his performance as Bond.

TEL

Moving on from the politics of quiche – and false memory – Matthew Bellamy (University of Michigan, not the Muse singer!) tackled the relation between Bond and Cambridge spy, Guy Burgess. He placed the defiantly “leak-proof” Bond as designed by Fleming in opposition to the more effeminate and sexually ambiguous figures in British espionage and culture from the 1920s onwards: T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom was used to contextualise the Cambridge Spies. Bond was seen as an unambiguous figure, able to redeem and refresh the establishment. The Q&A discussion revealed that recently released files show that the British secret services thought they could get Burgess not for his spying activities but for his homosexuality, in a Britain that had yet to see the liberal reforms of the 1960s. The Q&A also contained interesting discussion of where the ‘007’ of Bond came from: it isn’t just the UK dialling code for Russia, but was also seen as a lucky number by a spy of a somewhat different era: John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s spy who saw the 0s as representing eyes: “I am your lucky eyes”, as he said to the Queen. The absorbing Q&A also took in the dandyism of Roger Moore’s Bond and how the shock at Bond cooking quiche seems odd in that Bond is so often depicted cooking in Fleming’s novels.

thedeadlyaffair_7893

The third and final panel of the day began with an analysis by James Mason expert Sarah Thomas (Aberystwyth University) of the 1966 film, The Deadly Affair. This was an adaptation of the first George Smiley book, featuring Mason as Smiley, renamed, for copyright reasons: ‘Albert Dobbs’. In contrast to the exotic vistas of Bond films, this film was analysed as having ‘unromanticised’ and ‘drab’ everyday London settings such as an East End boozer. As with the other papers on this panel, the focus was on setting, use of locations and analysis of how films use mise-en-scène to create specific impacts on the audience.

tinkertailor

Douglas McNaughton (University of Brighton) used television theory to analyse how director John Irvin and the BBC production team made the acclaimed 1979 serial version Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, explaining the ‘Oratic power’ of when productions use actual locations that the audience would recognise. He gave the example of the serial’s opening shots of the Cambridge Circus, with its cinematic presentation of the actual Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road junction. The production’s ingenuity was also shown in how they used Glasgow for scenes that were supposed to be Czechoslovakia. McNaughton’s paper formed an argument that the TV version of TTSS was more writerly and more cinematic than the 2011 film version.

JOHN HURT

Jane Barnwell (University of Westminster)’s following paper focused on the 2011 film adaptation, being based on extensive interviews with set designers. She explained how the set design of Control’s messy, disordered flat helped John Hurt ‘get’ just how unhinged and crazy his character, Control, was. Interiors with their elaborately thought-out and researched period décor, were described as having a character of their own. The Q&A reflected how the 1970s aesthetic ‘look’, with oranges, browns and pinks connoting drab austerity, is now a British ‘Heritage’ look comparable in familiarity to how country houses regularly appear in Merchant-Ivory films or Downton Abbey. There was an interesting debate, which could not end conclusively, on whether places (i.e. sets or locations) in films represented people (i.e. characters in the diegesis), or whether they said more about the geographical locations represented.

Sean Connery - Vince's

The ‘Keynote’ lecture was delivered, in interactive and entertaining style, by Pamela Church Gibson (London College of Fashion), an extensively published analyst of the cultural history of fashion and cinema. She discussed Sean Connery’s early job as a model and how he bought his clothes at Vince’s Men Shop in Soho – which was also frequented by influential cultural types such as George Melly and Peter Sellers. She attacked the ‘dangerous myth’ of social mobility: of being able to move up the social class ‘ladder’, as most glaringly exemplified by the ‘insufferable’, upwardly-mobile Joe Lambton in Room at the Top (1959).

ROOM AT THE TOP - UK Poster

Church Gibson then compared Bond with the unnamed narrator in The Ipcress File (Harry Palmer, of course, in the film), saying that in the novel he possesses a cultural capital that Bond lacks, reading books and the New Statesman, stripped away in the Michael Caine film, which just leaves the cooking. She mentioned Caine’s Palmer’s ‘enormous’ appeal to women at the time, despite his use of the colloquial “birds” for women. Discussion of the film developed into the director Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys (1964) as a ‘really interesting film’ and discussion of London: St James’ Park is ‘always where spies meet’ in spy films!

time magazine

The April 1966 issue of Time magazine on London as the ‘Swinging City’ was critiqued. The associated mythical ‘silliness’ of the 1960s as Swinging London – embodied in a film mentioned in the Q&A, Smashing Time (1967) – was unfavourably contrasted with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) film, starring Richard Burton as Alec Leamas in a crumpled mac. Church Gibson contrasted this veracity with the recent BBC-1 adaptation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager, ‘which could be a fashion shoot’, highlighting the difference in backgrounds between Connery, Caine and Burton and the cast of that serial, the main three of whom – Laurie, Hiddleston and Hollander – were all ‘Eminent Dragons’, alumni of the same Oxford prep school. This wasn’t the last in SOBS that we were to hear of casting and social class: Rosie White’s paper on Leslie Howard, Tom Hiddleston and national identity was to explore this further on Saturday…

The contested politics of Graham Greene on film: the critical reception and context of The Honorary Consul (1983)

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

This article seeks to supplement my academic paper on the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s own favourite of his novels The Honorary Consul, giving more detailed attention to the critical reception it received, some further narrative history of its production and focusing on the contexts of the personnel involved.

  1. His own and others’ worst critic: Greene, cinema and adaptations

As Hand and Pursell state, Greene was one of the twentieth century’s ‘most emblematic writers’.[1] They also argue that Greene was ‘one of the first British authors to be influenced by cinema’.[2] He opened A Sort of Life (1971), his first volume of autobiography, with an amused recollection of his father’s allowing his senior boys to go to the cinema to see Tarzan, ‘under the false impression that it was an educational film of anthropological interest, and ever after he regarded the cinema with a sense of disillusion and suspicion.’[3] Unlike his father Greene was a committed cineaste and twentieth-century man par example, admiring cinema’s unique possibilities. However, as his views on films as critic and as viewer of adaptations of his own works attest, he was often aghast at the medium’s shortcomings.

The Third Man (1949) won the accolade of ‘greatest’ ever British film in the BFI’s 1999 poll.[4] While Greene liked that film – which hadn’t been an adaptation as he had written the novelisation after his inspired ad hoc creation of the script based on a visit to Vienna – it wasn’t quite his own favourite of his adaptations. In 1984, he stated this was The Fallen Idol (1948) and also expressed a liking for The Confidential Agent (1945), Brighton Rock (1947), The Heart of the Matter (1953; ‘good film, but I didn’t like the book much’!), the ‘not too bad’ Our Man in Havana (1960) and England Made Me (1972).[5] Most of these were British-made, or Carol Reed directed.

In the same live Q&A interview with Quentin Falk, Greene expressed hatred for many adaptations of his work: This Gun for Hire (1940) and its remake, the James Cagney-directed Short Cut to Hell (1957), The Ministry of Fear (1943), The Man Within (1947), The Fugitive (1947), The Quiet American (1958), Travels with My Aunt (1972; ‘no money at all’) and The Human Factor (1979).[6] There were films he quite liked but felt were spoiled by acting performances: Van Johnson in The End of the Affair (1955). He also amusingly discussed the dreadful 21 Days (1937), which he himself adapted from a John Galsworthy short story, which he even attacked himself in a review for the Spectator!

Thames’ television drama anthology series of adaptations Shades of Greene (1975-6) – to be the subject of further research and analysis – was well regarded by the writer; he only disliked four out of the eighteen episodes. He also said that three or four of these were among the very best of his adaptations, specifically naming ‘A Dream of a Strange Land’, ‘Two Gentle People’ and ‘Under the Garden’.[7]

  1. A tortuous genesis: bringing The Honorary Consul to screen

High Noon director Fred Zinnemann was the first to express an interest in directing a screen version of The Honorary Consul.[8] Peter Duffell spent five years (1973-8) trying to set up a film version.[9] In the September 1984 ‘Guardian Lecture’ at the National Film Theatre, secretly filmed by the BBC against Greene’s wishes, he expressed his admiration for the Duffell-directed England Made Me (1972) and claimed that Duffell’s first-draft script of The Honorary Consul was ‘very good’.[10] In June 1974, Greene had no objection to Robert Redford being cast as Plarr, ‘if you have to have an American’ and a year later suggested Jack Nicholson as ideal for the part.[11] Greene had even went so far as to suggest locations; however, Duffell ‘faced obstacles at every turn’, while the likes of Redford and Pacino shunned the chance to play Plarr, and, after five years’ labour, he had to give up.[12] Orson Welles, Zinnemann again and Louis Malle were linked with the project, before, at Richard Burton’s urging, Norma Heyman secured the rights in 1978, with Duffell as intermediary. Burton, prominent again following the success of Equus (1977), had been keen on playing Fortnum.[13] Duffell’s ‘literal’ script was then abandoned, in favour of a new one from playwright Christopher Hampton.[14] Heyman had thought Hampton’s play Savages ‘remarkable’ and allowed the playwright to be ‘rather radical’ with the novel.[15]

Peter Duffell (b.1937- ) – one of Britain’s most underrated directors, according to Christopher Lee.

Approached by Heyman at the end of 1981, John Mackenzie was best known for Play for Todays such as ‘Just a Boy’s Game’ and ‘Red Shift’, and films The Long Good Friday and A Sense of Freedom.[16] Some of this work can be characterised as displaying some of the popular vulgarity and politicisation that Greene wanted to see in cinema. Mackenzie had been scheduled in 1981-2 to direct the BBC’s adaptation of Smiley’s People, but for ‘various reasons’ didn’t. When profiled in the Daily Telegraph, Mackenzie mentioned The Comedians as ‘absolutely awful […] It must have been the worst’ Graham Greene film adaptation.[17]

Caine, interviewed in the New York Times to promote the film, was settled in Beverly Hills, newly-married and learning to drive.[18] Of his performance as the titular Charley Fortnum, Caine states: ‘I’m here to make you feel his humanity’, expounding upon his acting technique of listening intently to the other actors.[19] He is invariably aided in this by using his humanising ‘lizard-like peepers’, as Andrew Pulver has described them.[20]

Michael Caine1

Caine refers heavily to his working-class upbringing and puts forward the very 1980s Tory ideas of social mobility, arguing that the working-classes often instil an attitude of ‘knowing your place’, and also that ‘now, the Socialists are trying to do the same thing: You were born into the working class and you’re going to stay there.’[21] Caine is a symbolic figure in many ways: he did national service, fought in the dangerous ‘First Cold War’ conflagration, the Korean War, became the grammar-school hero Harry Palmer, became the old pro in legions of mediocre films, building up a fortune he didn’t want taxing so heavily. Thus, he moved to California; and, by 1983, he was the middle-aged ex-pat and Thatcher endorser. Educating Rita (1983) fits the narrative in terms of social mobility, though the Wilson-created Open University autodidact path isn’t so Thatcherite. Notably, Julie Walters has made recent comments criticising the dominance of public school over working-class talent, saying: ‘people like me wouldn’t get the chance today’.[22] Michael Caine hasn’t, and endorsed the Tories in the 2015 General Election; it is very easy to see Harry Brown as a UKIP and Brexit voter. Indeed, upon that film’s 2009 release, Caine suggested that Britain should ‘bring back national service to give young people a sense of belonging’ and also threatened to leave Britain again if Gordon Brown raised income tax any higher than 50%[23] While Greene himself was a tax exile in Antibes from 1966, it is difficult to see him agreeing with such views, as a more globally-minded, self-identified social democrat.

  1. Critical reception and analysis of The Honorary Consul (1983)

Reaction to the film was almost entirely negative. In America, ‘Beyond the Limit’ – as it was renamed – was seen as ‘literal’, slow paced and overly faithful to the original.[24] Variety and Boxoffice reviewers both saw it as unsubtle compared with the novel; for the former it is ‘dull’[25] and the latter questions whether the novel is too ‘internalised’ for a visual medium.[26] The exception in US criticism was Marjorie Bilbow, who generally liked it and praised good performances all around.[27] Paramount studio’s spokesman claimed to have been ‘very surprised’ when the film didn’t do well at the box office, following its extensive release as an attempted winter blockbuster.[28]

In the UK, Derek Malcolm was mixed, liking the ‘brooding atmosphere’ and raving about Caine’s performance, comparing him to Trevor Howard in earlier Greene adaptation The End of the Affair (1955) and Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana (1960).[29] Patrick Gibbs, who’d slated the Burton-Taylor film of The Comedians sixteen years earlier, is generally negative. He liked Mackenzie’s ‘admirable clarity’ of Mackenzie’s way with the story but said it lacked ‘involvement’.[30] He opened his review by spotting a trend: Hampton and Dennis Potter, screenwriter of the simultaneously-released Gorky Park, were both ‘theatre playwrights’, untrue in Potter’s case, unless one accepts the conflation of TV drama with drama per se.

Nigel Andrews was negative about this ‘cod-Latin American adventure’ and deploys the scathing adjective ‘abysmal’. He is especially disappointed, as, in the context of early 1984, he sees cinema as his main cultural refuge from the ‘relentless flood of programmes on TV about George Orwell’.[31] David Robinson was generally negative: echoing US critics regarding its unsubtlety and drawing parallels again with Gorky Park with its director and writer coming from television. Philip French is the most wholly negative, assailing it as a ‘glum movie’, with Greene’s narrative ‘reduced to a triangular affair’.[32] He comments on the leisurely restructuring of the narrative – with the kidnapping occurring more than half-way through, proportionately far further on than in the novel. His review opens with a broadside against what he sees as the BFI’s absurd and self-defeating designating of 1984 as ‘The Year of Television’.

Castell was the most positive, praising a ‘lucid script’, Greene would like its ‘implosive’, not explosive nature. ‘The themes of religion and politics, courage and cowardice, spiritual and physical love, are adroitly woven together’. Yet, the vitriol returned in Barber’s piece, a withering diatribe against both Mackenzie and Gere: ‘“Efficient thriller” is, I believe, the phrase. Not quite so efficient, actually.’[33] In the excellent publication, the MFB, Tom Milne was generally very critical but with one or two caveats. For him, it is self-parodic ‘Greeneland’, with the climactic scene referred to as a ‘reductio ad absurdum of all Greene has ever written or stood for’. ‘Hampton’s script reduces the novel to a skeleton’.[34] Milne liked the very last scene with Fortnum and Clara, which he argued conveys some of the novel’s power.

Richard_Grenier
Neo-con critic, Richard Grenier (1933-2002)

The film of THC was accused by American novelist and critic Richard Grenier of being an ideological weapon. Grenier was notable for writing a review of Attenborough’s Gandhi, which savaged the reputation of the man Gandhi, and, in February 1984, wrote a stridently conservative piece in the Daily Telegraph, laying into what he describes as Hollywood’s preoccupation with ‘public affairs’ and political bias towards the left (or, in US terms, ‘liberalism’), criticising The Honorary Consul along with its fellow 1983 films Silkwood, Deal of the Century, Daniel , Testament and the Nicaragua-focused Under Fire.[35]

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

He characterises these films as preaching at audiences and unsuccessfully so, stating each film’s low chart placing in the Variety’s annual list of films that grossed over a million dollars as evidence and then saying these films had ‘been easily identified’ by the public as ‘anti-American.’[36] This review shows a kind of neo-conservative rhetoric that greatly influenced Thatcherite and Blairite neo-liberal cultural critics in the UK in their populist attacks on films, TV programmes and music that dealt explicitly with political issues.

Hampton and Mackenzie’s film fits Richard J. Hand’s formulation of the ‘Five Creative Strategies of Adaptation’ (2010).[37] It (1) omits Doctor Saavedra and all of the novel’s literary nature. There is the (2) addition of flashbacks to torture, which are given less context; as well as the specific naming of the setting as Argentina and Corrientes, in particular, which Greene had visited while researching the novel.[38] There is the (3) marginalisation of Sir Henry Belfrage and the British context, as discussed in my paper – despite the token efforts of Gere to speak in an English accent! There is the (4) expansion of violent and sexual scenes – the novel dwells more on the psychological aspect of love-making, not in describing its physical processes. There is the significant (5) alteration of responsibility for the torture, with Greene’s many references to the CIA’s implication made to seem a domestic South American matter. As Heyman said they wanted to suggest, but not spell out, the conditions of the Argentinian dictatorship that was in place during the film’s making in 1982-3.[39] The novel had been written when Argentina was theoretically a democracy, and its focus was on Paraguay being under the American thumb. As Falk comments, Hampton’s script has too linear and sequential a narrative, in contrast with Duffell’s more layered script which built up tension more successfully.[40] When it does manage to deviate from sequential order, this is via notably unsubtle and sensationalist flashbacks.

Perhaps Mackenzie learned from the experience of this film, with its occasionally sensationalist, watered-down politics, when he came to direct The Fourth Protocol (1987). In his paper at the September 2015 Spying on Spies Conference, Paul Lynch referred to Mackenzie’s contrary ideological take on Frederick Forsyth’s original text, angering the right-wing author. To conclude, critics found the ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing’ politics of The Honorary Consul either too pronounced or not emphasised enough; it was surely the Ed Miliband of Graham Greene film adaptations, trying to straddle an impossible line without the requisite skills.

[1] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) Adapting Graham Greene. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p.17

[2] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.134

[3] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader. London: Penguin, p.xi

[4] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.20

[5] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[6] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[7] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[8] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[9] Screen International (1984) ‘’Consul’ proves a box office draw’, Screen International, 21st January, p.8

[10] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[11] Falk, Q. (2014) Travels in Greeneland: The Cinema of Graham Greene. 4th edn. Dahlonega, GA: University Press of North Georgia, p.130-1

[12] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[13] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.131

[14] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[15] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.132

[16] Hodges, A. (1983) ibid., p.15

[17] Stringer, R. (1984) ‘Profile: man who put Greene on the screen’, Daily Telegraph, 9th January, p.8

[18] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ‘Michael Caine at 50: Testing the Limits of the Actor’s Art’, New York Times, 16th October

[19] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ibid.

[20] Pulver, A. & Clarke, P. (illustration) (1998) ‘Profile: Michael Caine – Now don’t mess abaht’, The Guardian, 23rd February, p.B4

[21] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ibid.

[22] Cadwalladr, C. (2016) ‘Why working-class actors are a disappearing breed – Once we had gritty TV dramas such as Boys from the Blackstuff; now we have glossy thrillers with public school-educated stars. How did British screens become dominated by the privileged few? And does it matter?’ The Observer, 8th May, p.6

[23] Anthony, A. (2016) ‘Michael Caine: the class act who enjoys the political fray’, The Observer, 24th January, p.32

[24] Canby, V. (1983) ‘Film: ‘Beyond the Limit’, From Graham Greene’, New York Times, 30th September

[25] Cart. (1983) ‘Film Reviews: Beyond the Limit’, Variety, 5th October, p.24

[26] Summers, J. (1983) ‘Reviews: BEYOND THE LIMIT’, Boxoffice, 1st December, p.145

[27] Bilbow, M. (1983) ‘Reviews: THE HONORARY CONSUL’, Screen International 17th December, p.11

[28] Goodman, J. (1984) ‘Integrity in face of the unlovable’, The Times, 4th January, p.11

[29] Malcolm, D. (1984) ‘Our man in the savannah’, The Guardian, 5th January, p.9

[30] Gibbs, P. (1984) ‘The Honorary Consul’, The Daily Telegraph, 6th January, p.13

[31] Andrews, N. (1984) ‘When only Caine is able’, Financial Times, 6th January, p.11

[32] French, P. (1984) ‘Murder in Moscow’, The Observer, 8th January, p.54

[33] Barber, L. (1984) ‘The Wrong Gere’, Melody Maker (59)3, 21st January, p.27

[34] Milne, T. (1984) ‘The Honorary Consul’, Monthly Film Bulletin (51)600, January, p.16

[35] Grenier, R. (1984) ‘Un-American activities’, Daily Telegraph, 11th February, p.16

[36] Grenier, R. (1984) ibid., p.16

[37] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.8

[38] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

[39] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

[40] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wistful hedonist: John Le Mesurier and Englishness in the Cold War

JLM - DAD'S ARMY 03.14

Biographer Graham McCann refers to the sort of parts Le Mesurier (1912-83) played: ‘His absent minded aristocrats seemed a little envious of any less class-bound, but still subtly sybaritic, kind of modern democratic lifestyle. Few actors, in short, were better at embodying that peculiarly English brand of wistful hedonism that opened the eyes while pursing the lips.’[1] This article will discuss John Le Mesurier’s role in the 1971 Play for Today ‘Traitor’. It provides greater background and context to my paper about this TV play at Spying on Spies at the Shard on 5th September.

LIKE CARY GRANT AND GOLDEN AGE HOLLYWOOD STARS, IS LE MESURIER ‘ALWAYS THE SAME’?

According to Peter Coles, who directed him in a 1958 TV version of Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s The Makropulos Affair[2], Le Mesurier’s ‘playing was unique – but forever the same’, ‘he had depths unrealised through the mechanical pieces in which he generally appeared’.[3] Coles refers to him as playing a range of professional types; critic Philip French describes him as ‘essentially the representative of bureaucracy and officialdom but with a ‘complex […] feeling of exasperation [and] anxiety [that] lurked behind that handsome bloodhound face’.[4] French describes his role in Traitor as taking his ‘British screen persona to the point of destruction’.

John le Mesurier’s casting for ‘Traitor’ was refreshing; his wife Joan saw it as his ‘chance to get shot of the problem of typecasting’.[5] He would have been best known for playing Sergeant Arthur Wilson in Dad’s Army. ‘Fallen Idol’ (TX: BBC-1, 18/12/1970) was the last time he’d been seen as Wilson before ‘Traitor’, and, in counterpoint to Potter’s play, Captain Mainwaring is suspicious of Fraser, asking Wilson whether he might be a subversive: “You don’t think he’s a communist, do you…? I’ve noticed he doesn’t play monopoly with the other men…”

This is despite Mainwaring’s somewhat socialist claims earlier in the episode:

“This is a democratic platoon […] We’re all equal here…”

Also worth considering is series 3’s final episode, ‘Sons of the Sea’ (TX: BBC-1, 11/12/1969), a typically gentle fantasy of old men as small boys on an idyllic and absurd excursion. We have here a nation’s peculiar self-image of ‘muddling through’ amateurism – one wonders how much Croft and Perry contributed to the national myths of shambling, anti-technological improvisation that David Edgerton has critiqued. In this episode, Sergeant Wilson shows technical expertise in creating the mock-up boat, skills inculcated by his nanny. It is notable that Arthur Harris in ‘Traitor’ also had a nanny as a boy – as shown early in the play – which emphasises his similar social background to the languid Arthur Wilson. Dad’s Army invariably conveys that reflective mid-twentieth century British belief in the necessity of social consensus between classes: fostered in contrasting ways in Millions Like Us (1943), The Way Ahead (1944), In Which We Serve (1942) and Listen to Britain (1942). ‘Traitor’ shatters any sense of social togetherness, for a picture of class antagonism far more apt to the 1970s context.

Impact is increased by casting JLM as such a ‘haunted’, tormented character. Not just known for his diffident, urbane Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army, but for roles as the gently out-of-touch military man in These Dangerous Years (1957) and in the complacent Boulting Brothers-helmed colonial ‘satire’, Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1958). He appeared uncredited – mercifully – in the wretched Terry Southern adaptation The Magic Christian (1969) as Sir John, again Cambridge-associated as in ‘Traitor’. TMC makes anti-materialist points in as trivial and gauche a manner as possible; one can only imagine the extent of Dennis Potter’s basic ethical agreement but utter disdain for the execution, had he reviewed it. Le Mesurier has an excellent role as a lonely bachelor artist in the Tony Hancock vehicle, The Punch and Judy Man (1963), a melancholy and irreverent seaside comedy that is the closest British cinema got to Le Mez’s beloved Les Vacances de M. Hulot.

Le Mesurier appeared in many quota quickies like A Time to Kill (1955). In this, he is a puritanical father, blundering into the courtroom declaiming: “I am the father of the unhappy Madeline Tilliard!” as if he was in a Victorian theatrical melodrama. We don’t get to hear that much more from this character, speaking of “the devil’s brew” and his sinful daughter; a shame, it’s a mediocre film and the past-master at raising the bar within such films, Le Mesurier, does just that!

Defiantly non-mediocre was The Pleasure Garden (1954), an eccentric and idealistic 37-minute fantasia from American avant-garde director James Broughton, made amid the ruins and statuary of Crystal Palace Terraces, which had been closed to the public since 1937. This ode to sexual passion and desires, ironically features JLM – a lover of the good life and far from puritanical – as a Lord Chamberlain-like moral arbiter, an official whose job is to stamp out licentious behaviour and, basically, fun. It was intended by Broughton as “a valentine to the land of Edward Lear, Shakespeare and pantomimes” and seems to utilise the spirit of Jacques Prevert and Oscar Wilde. Rather like Powell and Pressburger, we have a subtle antipathy to such signifiers as typewriter sounds, offices and bureaucracies and city streets. However, this 1954 film has none of the stultifying, shorthand usage of these of signs – ‘grim tower blocks’ invariably included – that pervaded Britain in the 1970s as a form of anti-socialist propaganda. Lindsay Anderson appears in this film. There are characters called ‘Lord Ennui’ and ‘Lady Ennui’. It is a brilliant one-off!

Like in Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball, the phrase “stop this nonsense!” is uttered by censorious types. Le Mesurier’s black-clad Col. Pall K. Gargoyle seems to embody centuries of moralistic cant and soullessness: “This is indecent and PUT SOMETHING ON!” He uses verbs like “unhand”, and repeats “Dignity!” as a deadening mantra. It has a greater pungency when we consider Le Mesurier’s own laid-back personality and his love of jazz music and pubs.

Merrie Albion (Hattie Jacques) transforms some of Gargoyle’s underlings into statues and decrees “You shall be as dead as official art.” This focus on the inertness of sanctioned, propagandist art – perhaps taps into concerns over the increased role of state subsidy for the Arts, post-WW2: represented by the Arts Council in the 1940s and significantly increased Arts spending under Labour Minister Jennie Lee in the 1960s. It may, however, be a much more pointed and direct broadside against communism and ‘Socialist Realism’, which was perceived in just this way: lifeless and inert, when judged against US abstract impressionism or pop art.

Other significant roles include his appearance in David Mercer’s Flint as the wild vicar, as a rather less wild clergyman in Brideshead Revisited (Granada, 1981) and alongside Anthony Hopkins in A Married Man in 1982: this latter, remarkably, JLM on Channel 4!

Raiding my DVD archive, I have uncovered JLM as a minister of finance in a corrupt South American state vied over by the Soviets and the Americans: the very so-so early Danger Man episode, ‘An Affair of State’ (TX: 13/11/1960). There is novelty in Le Mesurier playing a man called ‘Alvardo’, putting on a truly odd accent and engaging in a spot of ‘desperate’ brawling. There isn’t novelty – in terms of British telly in the 1960s – in how the script has a grown woman referred to as “child”… A “poor child”, at that. In the night-club, Fenella Fielding gets to be objectified. McGoohan is in tame mode, compared with The Prisoner (much more on that, anon!).

Rather better is Roger Marshall’s ‘Mandrake’, a Cathy Gale era episode of The Avengers (ABC, TX: 25/01/1964).There is vaguely mournful jazz music that wouldn’t be out of place in a certain later Patrick McGoohan ITV venture… There is uneasy bliss, gallows humour and sardonic use of leftist rhetoric from Annette Andre: “Hopkins? Oh, what’s he? A fat decadent, bourgeois capitalist, exploiting the proletarian masses! No, he’s actually rather nice!” JLM is a villain, posing as a doctor, with an acolyte resembling Luke Haines – all appropriately cooking up corrupt schemes in an English graveyard. There are oddly gritty references to “children educated on Congo blood money”. There’s arsenic in the soil and literary allusions abound: to Richard III and John Donne. Honor Blackman is marvellously resourceful and unusually attractive. Patrick Macnee is one of the few Old Etonians you don’t resent. It all feels very different to the colour Diana Rigg episodes I’ve seen far more of – this is less stylised, mordant Englishness, rather than somewhat bolted-on eccentricity for the overseas market. Le Mesurier is perfect for this sort of superior hokum.

Le Mesurier gives an enjoyable performance in the Adam Adamant Lives! episode ‘The Terribly Happy Embalmers’ (TX: 04/08/1966) as the supercilious psychiatrist Velmer. This was watched by 8.2 million people, though only received an Audience Appreciation Index figure of 44, rather low.[6] It doesn’t quite have the wit of a good Avengers episode, but is a reasonably affable run-around, traversing the series’ usual ground of anachronism and culture clash. Adamant poses as an ‘Adam Smith’, who is “worrying about his tax problems” as Velmer observes. Some may see this as proto-neo-liberalism uttered by a mock-up of the Market Liberal supremo himself: “I have money enough, but not if I pay my taxes”! Le Mesurier is excellent at smugly condescending: “Still fighting your duels, Mr Smith!?” and uttering grandiose Leavisite lines like “Modern man has forgotten how to breathe…”

I also watched an episode of Jason King, an ITC adventure drama I had never seen before. ‘If it’s Got to Go – It’s Got to Go’ (TX: 16/02/1972). It was dreadful. As Dr Litz, Le Mesurier half-heartedly tries out a German accent, which is barely perceptible by the end of the episode. The pre-credits sequence at least promises garish ham: “The treatment has been successful. He is totally… utterly… INSANE!” Even that dubious promise isn’t delivered upon. Maybe it was the low-rent YouTube version I watched… But maybe it was just a dull, trivial narrative that didn’t hold my attention for a second. Taking this role was clearly an indication of the dearth of good quality scripts in the early 1970s that biographer McCann identified.[7]

Cold War-related roles on radio for JLM include: I Was A Communist (TX: 08/02/1952) and Stoppard’s espionage play The Dog It Was That Died (TX: BBC R3, 09/12/1982) – playing an MI5 doctor. Show Me a Spy from 1951, which I’ll be honest I know nowt about! I am also quite intrigued by his appearance in a presumably lost (?) take on the Sellar and Yeatman satire on reductive ‘island story’ history 1066 and All That, transmitted over Christmas 1952. He was in Val Guest’s Where the Spies Are (1965), which was playing in hospital when he was dying in 1983.

His first film role following ‘Traitor’ was Au Pair Girls (1972), also directed by Val Guest; according to Graham McCann: ‘a cheesy nosegay of pendulous breasts, drooping bottoms, and flaccid jokes accompanied by the sound of clinky-clank guitars, patty-pat bongos and dozy saxophones, which obliged John to stroke a prostrate young woman’s bare chest: a task that he exerted with all the enthusiasm of someone searching for something edible on a tray of soggy canapes.’[8] Truly, symbolic for the state of mainstream British cinema at that time that Adrian Harris was followed by Mr Wainwright…

“WHAT IS GOING TO BECOME OF US ALL?” – FAMILY, POLITICS, CHARACTER…

When they were married, Hattie Jacques pushed John into doing “the odd active thing” for the Conservative party and voting the ‘right way’ on Equity matters when they were married, but he was, as his widow Joan has said, generally a moderate ‘One Nation’ conservative.[9] Joan: “I’ve always been left-wing so he got no encouragement from me at all! I remember one time in the 1970s, Saatchi and Saatchi called, trying to get him to do some commercials for the Conservative Party in a lead-up to a General Election […] I told him, “John, you can’t possibly do that! […] No, you mustn’t!” He was far from as parochial, and his favourite film was Jacques Tati’s exquisite comedy Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953). His good judgement extended to an incident Joan recounts in her afterword to his autobiography. They are in Margate, waiting for their bus to Herne Bay, and John sees a giant billboard with Jimmy Savile’s face on it and utters a single “Cunt”.

Le Mesurier is an evocative figure in British culture, and dabbled in other areas than TV and film. In theatre, he was in Moliere and Ayckbourn; Priestley as well as Coward. He also released a wonderfully titled LP, What Is Going to Become of Us All? (1977) that is seemingly almost impossible to find! In this, he was assisted by Derek Taylor, who was press officer for The Beatles and The Beach Boys in the 1960s and worked with Vivian Stanshall, Nilsson and George Melly in the 1970s. Taylor turned him onto the writings of Stephen Leacock, some of which he recorded. It may be an album worth hearing, from an era of actor interventions in recorded sound: Richard Harris, Patrick Cargill, Peter Wyngarde and David Hemmings, to note just four. ‘There’s Not Much Change’, recorded in 1982 – with Clive Dunn – however, is dreadful, but was at least fun for those who made it. Not by many though; Joan commented that it “enjoyed the dubious distinction of being one of the lowest selling records of the year”.

He son Robin toured with Rod Stewart in his rather ghastly late-70s era. His other son Jake was intriguingly involved in playing and writing material with The Dream Academy, Yazz and The Orb: contributing more of worth than a good many more prolific musicians. This “lovely guy”, as he is described in Graham McCann’s JLM biography, was found dead in a squalid London flat in October 1991, heroin in his body.

STARRING IN DENNIS POTTER’S ‘TRAITOR’

He worried to Joan that there were ‘too many words’ in ‘Traitor’, yet he got down to work with Potter’s complex, verbose script and turned up for the rehearsals word perfect.[10] He doesn’t so much break his typecast image as use its diffidence and gentleness to produce a richly textured, troubling Adrian Harris, who you can empathise with. Gentleness and socialism go as well together as gentleness and Burkean Tory paternalism – Le Mesurier’s normal mode, which he imbues with diffidence. He plays Harris with a troubled edge, which suggests the fusion of gentle idealism with hard Marxist ideas.

While Le Mesurier was understandably miffed that the Radio Times cover with his image failed to include his name, he would have been pleased by just how universally acclaimed his was performance was. Here is a sampling of the major broadsheet TV critics’ comments:

DUNKLEY (TIMES): ‘Mr Potter’s traitor, obsessively tidying his depressing Moscow flat in a high-rise block, rather like some shabby old owl marooned in an eyrie’.

BANKS-SMITH (GUARDIAN): ‘the part of the traitor was a formidable aria for John Le Mesurier […] This, his Hamlet, was well worth waiting for’.

HOLLAND (OBSERVER): ‘a part at last worthy of his serious talents’.

WORSLEY (FINANCIAL TIMES): ‘What held us was [John Le Mesurier’s] marvellous performance’.

JLM’s 1972 BAFTA award for ‘Traitor’ was handed over by Princess Anne, under the roof of the Albert Hall. “I don’t get much time to watch TV”, Anne said to him.[11] It is inconceivable somehow to imagine what her thoughts would be had she actually watched ‘Traitor’! Patricia Hayes also won an award for her role in ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’, which Le Mesurier comments wryly on: “it was, like ‘Traitor’, a remarkable play, but not too strong on laughs”.

CONCLUSION

Le Mesurier ‘never hid from the fact that he worked in order to live rather than lived in order to work’.[12] Few British TV and film actors managed to achieve as much, in as deceptively effortless a manner as ‘Le Mez’. From the 1950s until his death in 1983, he embodied a laid-back, sophisticated and gentle Englishness. The Le Mesurier archetype knows how to enjoy life – and is also, crucially, open-minded. Therefore, all the more powerful to see him tackling an edgy role like Adrian Harris, countering his usual embodiment of non-boat rocking English steadiness and serenity.

[1] McCann, G. (2010) Do You Think That’s Wise? The Life of John Le Mesurier. London: Aurum, p.ix

[2] The Times (1958) ‘Broadcasting Programmes’, The Times, 7th March, p.6

[3] Coles, P. (1983) ‘The quiet man of comedy’, The Guardian, 16th November, p.9

[4] French, P. (1983) ‘Mesurier’s multitude’, The Observer, 20th November, p.34

[5] Le Mesurier, J. (1985) A Jobbing Actor. London: Sphere, p.119

[6] Pixley, A. (2006) Adam Adamant Lives! DVD booklet, 2 Entertain

[7] McCann, G. (2010) p.274

[8] McCann, G. (2010) p.275

[9] McCann, G. (2010) p.331

[10] McCann, G. (2010) p.270

[11] Le Mesurier, J. (1985) A Jobbing Actor. London: Sphere, p.121

[12] McCann, G. (2010) p.ix