“Spies on British Screens” Day 3: Of Whicker, reassuring hawks and burning Londons

Sunday 19th June 2016

Plymouth

Following an enjoyable, inevitably seafood-including meal near Plymouth Harbour and drinks til late, I must admit to being very tired open entering Day 3 of the conference, but just about made it through…

Filipa Moreira (I. U. de Lisboa, Portugal) placed Bond in the context of Portuguese cultural history. She mentioned how Fleming had stayed at the Palacio Estoril Hotel – to the west of Lisbon on the coast – in 1941, also using its casino, which yielded some of his later writing. During WW2, Portugal was officially neutral, which reminded me of Rui Lopes’ paper from Spying on Spies last year. Moreira explained some further influence of Portugal on Bond, with Guincho Beach proving a setting in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).

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Moreira located Bond as ‘the most popular figure in entertainment’ with repetitive narrative structures important to how Fleming established his archetypal hero. She identified product placement as a significant part of the series’ persistent appeal. Using Galician and Bordeau’s four category model (2004) of how product placement is used in films (1. Verbal/hand placement, 2. Implied endorsement, 3. Signage, 4. Clutter), she argued it allowed the series to develop throughout time and adapt to changing tastes.

We were then treated to some revealing cultural history in the shape of the Whicker’s World ‘James Bond Special’ (TX: BBC-1, 25th March 1967). This documentary was of Pinewood Studios in the time of You Only Live Twice’s making. Whicker’s phrases – such as “a modern fairy tale”, “space age gubbins”, “the Bondwagon”, “Bondiana”, “no message to sell” and “like Kleenex!” – amounted to a smugly indulgent, supercilious reveling in the trivial nature of pop culture and Bond’s amorality.

This documentary didn’t just reveal that Cubby Broccoli’s grandfather introduced broccoli the vegetable, but indirectly showed a stark difference to 2016 in sexual mores – pre-1970s ‘women’s lib’ – with women marginalised or patronised in the show’s preferred reading. A particularly telling section saw YOLT screenwriter Roald Dahl drily responding to Whicker’s eager ‘wink-wink’ question about how Bond “gets through women”.

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Connery’s appearance showed how comparatively low-key the nature of celebrity was in 1967, compared with 2016; he comes across as down to earth and mildly embarrassed by the absurd level of media attention he was experiencing. He also focused on how the books ‘lack humour’ and how he liked how the films increased it.

There wasn’t time to watch the whole programme; then, a Q&A pertaining to Moreira’s paper and the Whicker programme. Alan ‘Gus’ Burton referred back to his own paper – the lineage of 1964-73 British spy films – and how Hammerhead included location usage of Lisbon to signify the exotic.

Mention was made of the democratising impact of brands on culture, from the 1960s onwards. This appearance of luxury could be compared to the supposed ‘privileging’ of audiences’ being able to vote for ‘talent’ on Hughie Green’s TV shows in the same era, as Joe Moran has detailed in his excellent article for History Workshop, ”Stand Up and Be Counted’: Hughie Green, the 1970s and Popular Memory’.

A delegate highlighted that items like Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green in the 2006 Casino Royale)’s necklace will set you back £2000, showing money’s lack of democracy. There was discussion, linking back to Felix Thompson’s Day 1 paper, of how the programme showed a pre-mass tourism age – with Whicker’s formulaic parade of wealthy people and foregrounding of luxury. The almost parodic silliness of Whicker’s persona perhaps chimed with the fact that YOLT was more negatively received, with many film critics discussing the formula as growing ‘stale’. Cultural change was commented on: casinos are now seen as tacky. There was juxtaposition of the worldly, urbane Roger Moore with Daniel Craig in CR – ‘the first Bond to be drunk on screen’. This was seen as influenced by the Bourne films, with Jason Bourne’s ‘grim and gritty lifestyle’ – at least in the early films – being anti-Bondian. Some anticipation was evident in the room for the new Jason Bourne (2016).

The next panel included myself and was all a little rushed, with lunch on the way! Both papers made use of video matter. Toby Manning began by showing clips from Smiley’s People (1982) and US drama series Homeland (2011 – date). His clips proved that dialogue in the latter was practically lifted from the former, eliciting belly laughs from conference goers… He contrasted the former’s advocating of détente with the latter’s anti-Iranian ‘terrorist’ hawkishness. Manning argued that the JLC TV adaptations provide a ‘source book, a template’ used by what he described as the ‘trashier’ Homeland. The adaptations reflected the ‘posh end of heritage’. He commented on the oddity of a ‘hate-fuelling’ Homeland using as its template the humanist hero Smiley and also considering that JLC was very critical of the ‘War on Terror’.

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Manning described Saul Berenson as the best thing about it: possessing probity and Smiley-like moral scruples. By season 3, JLC was being channeled ever more explicitly, as an attempt by the show to lend itself ‘legitimacy’. Enhanced by his opposition to the Iraq War, JLC is often seen as the great liberal conscience; Manning commented that Homeland gets to seem liberal while being hawkish. Saul increasingly gets given Smiley’s lines. Carrie is said to enact all of the mad and bad stuff, with Saul being scrupulous initially but ultimately endorsing her actions. Season 3 channels The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and also quoted several other plagiaristic lines. He unfavourably contrasted Berenson’s ultimate concern being with his own career with Smiley’s wider sense of duty.

Manning began to conclude by criticising the Manichean idea that ‘the enemy’ is peculiarly inhuman and brutal. He said that it was one thing to portray Communists as barbaric – “You can argue with that and I do” – but that it was quite another to argue that Muslims are inherently barbaric and stated that there was a racist element at work in Homeland… He closed by saying that Smiley was a liberal hawk as early as in The Honourable Schoolboy; he executes Dieter Frei in Call from the Dead, is implicated in Liz and Leamas’ setting-up in TSWCIFTC and allows Bill Haydon’s death in TTSS. His ruthless pursuit of Karla is due to his loss of faith in détente. Manning’s excellent long conclusion ended with how the spy genre works to reassure us that the threat is real and to give us avatars like Berenson and Smiley, doing the job ‘as decently as possible in the circumstances’. These ‘reassuring hawks’ wring their hands on our behalf but ultimately enact the dominant ideological impulses.

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Does my hawkishness look reassuring in this?

Next was my own paper, available here. I argued, akin to Manning about Homeland, that the Christopher Hampton-scripted film version of The Honorary Consul ultimately endorses hegemonic politics, ignoring much of the notable counter-hegemonic discourse of Greene’s original 1973 novel. Unfortunately, the timings in the schedule were slightly off so there was no specific Q&A just for this panel. Though there was another good cold buffet lunch to go straight into! Wherein I discussed Greene with Felix Thompson, who mentioned how comparatively forgotten oppositional representations to the NATO hegemony now are…

Then, it was onto the very final panel of the day; this was delivered by three gents from King’s College London, with complementary papers on recent James Bond texts. Edward Lamberti began with analysis of the ‘shortest’ Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), using Judith Butler’s performativity theory and – as more of a curve-ball – J.L. Austin’s Speech-Act Theory (1955). This was the only mention in the conference of this theory that language brings things into being: “It’s a girl!” “We find the defendant guilty”. Some use was made of Sandy Petry’s Speech Acts and Literary Theory (1990) as a framework.

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He developed an analysis of Bond in QOS as conveying a sense of loss and melancholy, mentioning how Cinema Paradiso (1988) reflecting a sense of the past as better. “A newly Bourne secret agent” elicited a groan or two! This grittier Bond’s isolation and alienation was argued to contain insight into the structures of society. Lamberti asserted that a ‘productive melancholy’ on Bond’s part reflected a rebelliousness seen as a threat by M.

The next speaker Christopher Holiday (KCL) focused on recent portrayals of London on screen seem fixated on showing it battered into oblivion. Use was made of Charlotte Brunsdon’s London in Cinema (2007) to develop his thoughts on a ‘London has fallen’ cycle of films, which included some recent Bonds. The US-made The Day the Earth Was Stopped (2008) was derided. A clip was used from G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013). These films were more broadly contextualised in a lineage of British science fiction cinema: The Giant Behemoth (1959), Konga (1961) and Gorgo (1961) – the titular monster of whom was to some the ‘English Godzilla’ – and I.Q. Hunter was quoted on this tradition.

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G.I. Joe: Retaliation or Konga? I know which I’d prefer to sit down and watch!

The true ‘London sequence’ was argued to have started with the relatively politicised V for Vendetta (2005) and Children of Men (2006), though key scenes in this latter film are in the UKIP-terrain of ‘Bexhill’*, East Sussex, though the detention camp scenes were actually filmed in Aldershot. PD James-adaptation COM is a very notable film, with satirising of nihilistic post-modernist neo-liberalism and an against-type casting of Michael Caine as a romantic hippie.

London was being used more, not just for British films, but by others – as British crews were experienced, now generally non-unionised and there was greater studio space.  Mention was made of a 2013 Telegraph article by John Hiscock, who seems to have written about the subject since at least the late-90s.

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The SIS Building (1994) was used in GoldenEye (1995). Holiday discussed Craig’s Bond as being strongly aligned with London through his unveiling as Bond on a Royal Marine speedboat on the Thames on 14th October 2005. He showed this clip and it was undoubtedly powerful iconography, no doubt intended to counterbalance Craig’s more working-class, northern origins with patriotic ballast.

Ethical issues were discussed, with relation to the criticism London Has Fallen (2016) itself had received from 7/7 victims’ families for its ‘insensitivity’. Holiday referred to the most recent JB film SPECTRE (2015) as ‘haunted cinema’, a sort of prelude to the next paper.

Speaker 26, the last of the Conference, was Alexander Sergeant (again KCL) who discussed the function of the “Bond girl” as a Structuring Archetype in SPECTRE, according to Jungian spectator theory. He said he wanted to steer away from the common – in the 1970s-90s, anyway – field of Lacan/Metz/Freud psychoanalytical approaches to film. Can’t say I blamed him, really!

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His paper focused on individuation and how archetypes have roots in the collective unconscious. Dr Madeleine Swann – a psychologist working in the Austrian Alps – in SPECTRE is referred to as a contradiction to the ‘Bond Girl’ archetype, who along with Bond will have to return. Proust was referred to.

The Q&A incorporated all three KCL speakers, Toby Manning and I. Sadly, I can remember little of it but that I made a point about social class and the poacher character in Went the Day Well? It only remained for me to make my way to the station with some other delegates and go through a grueling nigh on nine-hour journey back to the north east!

Four days after the end of the conference came the Brexit vote.

*Bexhill and Battle UK parliamentary constituency is a rock-solid Tory seat, which even had a Tory majority of 11,100 in 1997, and is now over 20,000 with UKIP in second place. Both Stuart Wheeler and Nigel Farage – two of the most reprehensible influences in our body politic in the last 20 years – stood here and got in excess of 2,500 votes.

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“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.

Leslie Howard.gif
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.

Dragon School Oxford.jpg

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…

eminent dragons.jpg

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

“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.

WHERE THE BULLETS FLY

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.

otley

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.

THE PRISONER
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.

Callan

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!

Tightrope2d Secret Service

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.

Ben Wishaw

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).

1985omelette1

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.

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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…

Conference paper: Not so ‘Special’ a Relationship? Cold War geopolitical history in the 1983 adaptation of Graham Greene’s “The Honorary Consul”

Go here to read and / or download my paper, which I delivered at Plymouth University three Sundays ago; it concerns the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul. This was part of the excellent Spies on British Screens inter-disciplinary conference, organised by Dr Nicholas Barnett and Dr Laura Crossley, which brought together many disciplines and ideas. I will be writing further reflections on this event here in the near future.

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]

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our man in the cinema: Graham Greene, popular culture, underdogs and the Left

THC

In Graham Greene’s 1973 novel The Honorary Consul, Argentinian love-interest Clara knows ‘the latest dope about a woman called Elizabeth Taylor’, while the honorary consul Charley Fortnum shows his lack of popular cultural capital: ‘a fellow called Burton? I always thought Burton was a kind of beer.’[1] In addition, Clara is represented as vain and her attention is ‘bought’ by Dr Eduardo Plarr through a pair of sunglasses, an object signifying consumerist desires and also the act of watching. Popular writer Greene’s life and work has an ambivalent relation to popular culture, and his attitudes to the political Left were rarely fixed. One of the few common threads in his non-conformist life is a concern for the underdog.

Graham Greene was a ‘child of the cinema’: as a young man he had been a cineaste; from 1935-40, he reviewed hundreds of films, inspired by the serious film journal, Close Up, which he was reading in 1922 when he started at Oxford University.[2] His tastes were for the Grierson school of British documentary, European art cinema like Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and the comedies of Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. These were examples of the relatively few films which lived up to his ideal of ‘poetic cinema’ that reflected life and had a visceral, popular appeal.

His views on British cinema were that it should depict the national character, as was observable in Will Hay films and the Grierson-style documentaries. This doesn’t necessarily clash with his status as a cosmopolitan internationalist. He tended to observe that British films were watered down by non-British influence and far less interesting or evocative of life than those which resisted this. Some of his pre-WW2 reviews seem like a cautious blueprint for Ealing’s Balcon-era output. As Matthew Sweet reminds us, Balcon’s Ealing was actually pretty left-wing – the sort of individual-respecting socialism that we can assign Orwell, Priestley and, indeed, Greene. Balcon was involved in the 1941 Committee who were lobbying for post-war opinion to be pro-Attlee instead of Churchill.[3] The Balcon children all speak of a home with a ‘political atmosphere’, infused by the ‘Left Book Club’. Sweet writes evocatively of Balcon’s protégé, Pen Tennyson, director of some earlier relatively class-conscious and politicised Ealing films: There Ain’t No Justice (1939) and The Proud Valley (1940). In his film reviewing days, Greene had seen potential in both films, but argued that it wasn’t realised; of the former, saying: ‘The etceteras – setting of bar rooms and coffee stalls – are admirable, but the whole picture breathes timidity and refinement.’[4] The latter he compared, unfavourably, with Carol Reed’s A.J. Cronin-adaptation The Stars Look Down (1940).[5] Cronin’s original novel had been loosely inspired by the March 1925 Montagu View Pit Disaster, in Scotswood, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Greene was regularly critical of and bemused by the British Board of Film Censors’ decisions: for example, to classify The Wizard of Oz (1939) as ‘for adults only’.[6] He argued, ‘Surely it is time that this absurd committee of elderly men and spinsters who feared, too, that Snow White was unsuitable for those under sixteen, was laughed out of existence?’[7] He felt it ridiculous that parents wouldn’t be able to take their children to see this ‘lavish’ film, which he liked in a pantomime vein, praising Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the ‘spinster-witch’. This shows a resistance to the wrong kind of paternalism: the BBFC’s stuffy partiality and bizarre prudery made them odd and damaging cultural gatekeepers.

BBFC

In his critic days, Greene was often scornful of ‘middlebrow’ British films preferred by the BBFC that lacked intellect or excitement and chased a form of intangible sophistication or spurious cultural cachet. He also attacked much of Hollywood as summarised by the insipid nature of a Bing Crosby song number in a film with its ‘mild self-pity, something soothing, something gently amusing’, but not much of life.[8] As opposed to the lively vulgarity he liked in British audiences, he disliked the materialistic vulgarity of Hollywood, as shown in his 1937 piece ‘Film Lunch’ where he attacked moguls like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and a system in thrall to money, with the content of films lacking in either intelligence or vivacity: ‘money for no thought, for the banal situation and the inhuman romance: money for forgetting how people live.’[9] He speaks of American capitalism utilising ‘a touch of religion, a touch of the family’ to gain respectability and cultural hegemony.[10]

He was sued in 1938 by 20th Century Fox for critiquing the ironically anti-religion and anti-family sexualisation of child-star Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie. The magazine who published his review, Night and Day, had to pay the studio and Temple damages that came to a total of £3500. Nearly £216000 in today’s money! In another 1937 review, Greene condemned US cultural imperialism that he discerned within the ostensibly Germany-focused The Road Back, referring to ‘the unformed, unlined faces and the well-fed bodies of American youth, clean limbed, prize cattle mooing into the microphone […] It would be funny if it wasn’t horrifying. This is America seeing the world in its own image.’[11]

THE ROAD BACK - 1937i

Fifteen years later, in 1952, when the House of Un-American Activities was in full swing, Greene wrote a letter to Charlie Chaplin that was published on 27th September in the New Statesman. He praises Chaplin as ‘a great liberal’, champion of the underdog whose films ‘have always punctured the bully’.[12] He suggests British personnel in Hollywood could boycott the films of those ‘friends of the witch-hunter’ Adolph Menjou and Louis B. Mayer. This letter even, as Neil Sinyard claims, partially inspired scenes in Chaplin’s anti-McCarthyist satire A King in New York from 1957. He suggests to Chaplin a scene where the tramp is resurrected and called before the House, which proposes an absurd range of indictments against supposedly politically-charged scenes from the tramp’s cinematic past. The letter shows a telling attempt by Greene to connect with the values he perceived in Chaplin’s cinematic work. Indeed, rare are the Greene texts which lack the underdog master-plot, as defined by H. Porter Abbot.

WENT THE DAY WELL

A clear example of this is Greene’s 1941 short-story ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’, which became the tremendous, ‘People’s War’ myth-building film, Went the Day Well? (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942). The short-story emphasises the working-class poacher, Purves, who is in the end imprisoned for his transgression of upper-class land, despite the ironic fact that this contravention enables him to pick off most of the German platoon threatening the village. Greene’s story focuses on this absurd, class-based injustice, while the film instead has the character die heroically, leaving a more or less united social tableau at the end. Greene represents ‘Old Purves’ as a plucky underdog, embittered due to his Boer war service, who succeeds due to his illicit knowledge of the Lord Drew’s land, but yet feels some revulsion at what he has done, when finding a baby-and-hearth photo on the person of the German lieutenant he had killed.[13] With Greene’s eye for the partiality and myth-making of official propaganda, he subtitles the story: ‘An Unrecorded Victory in 1940’.

In August 1956, US Democratic Presidential candidate and ‘egghead’ Adlai Stevenson had asked Greene to write a film script to support the United Nations. Greene drily declined, saying that the UN and ‘American materialism’ combined were the ‘chief threat’ to world peace.[14] Again, these are concerns which prefigure Chaplin’s A King in New York, which features a (sometimes overly verbose) series of verbal volleys against US culture, as Jim Jarmusch has identified. Chaplin critiques plastic surgery, product placement, advertisements and the sanitisation of popular music, in often very pungent visual terms – for example, the banal, crashing noise of the scene where his bonce is ‘drummed’ by a resident band’s drummer in a restaurant.

Chaplin4Chaplin2 Chaplin3

The attempt to make the child character (played by Chaplin’s son, Michael) the underdog doesn’t work like the universal Tramp, but very perceptive points indeed about monopoly and immigration are emitted from the precocious child’s gob. The sense of Chaplin as a champagne liberal or socialist is keenly felt – he plays a King, deposed via a communist revolution, but who finds US society no better. King Shadhoff has a Shavian or Wellsian belief in social progress, speaking not just against nuclear weapons but of a ‘Utopia’, which makes a mockery of Chaplin’s off-screen claims to be non-political: ‘I have never been political. I have no convictions. I am an individualist.’[15] Chaplin would have surely been quite well disposed towards Wells, who also had a turbulent London upbringing. Greene spoke in 1983 of admiring HGW’s work ‘enormously’ and preferring him to the more canonised Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.[16]

chaplin1

Individualism for Chaplin must be rather more about non-conformity than anything dangerously Ayn Rand or as ‘social mobility’ fixated as Michael Caine. This is shown in how the film encourages the audience to think and consider collective dreams like disarmament and devolved decision-making (with, admittedly, the paternalist King pointing the way).

Chaplin5

If Chaplin can be likened to Bertrand Russell’s left-humanism, Greene might be usefully located in the context of the post-WW2 British cultural elite, with his brother Hugh Carleton Greene’s 1960-68 tenure of BBC Director General and the Wilson government influencing an incrementally more liberal cultural climate and laws. In a 1971 interview, Greene is very critical of the puritanical didacticism of the otherwise liberal Home Secretary Rab Butler’s Street Offences Act of 1960 – which he refers to as the ‘Cleaning the Streets Act’.[17] Contrastingly, Greene consistently adheres to a more ‘enlightened’, relaxed-about-vice well-healed paternalism. This is in the context of Leavisite ascendency in literature study, Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1958) and seriously engaged documentaries in cinema and television from the likes of Denis Mitchell and John Krish. Politically, this aligned with Butskellism and the consensus politics deriving from the political economies of Beveridge and Titmuss; epitomised also by films such as A Diary for Timothy (1945), with its W.H. Auden script. Greene’s own focus on the ‘promise of socialism’ was first articulated in fiction via his 1934 novel, It’s a Battlefield.[18]

In 1993, Auberon Waugh referred to Greene as a ‘left-wing social democrat’, given to siding with the underdog and who had a ‘hatred’ of American culture for its ‘vulgarity and populism’.[19] There is a strong sense in which anti-Americanism runs through the middle and upper-class left in this era, seeing Hollywood and ‘mass culture’ as threatening to long-established ways of life – for example, Hoggart’s view on Leeds. However, Couto outlined what she saw as Greene’s nuanced attitude towards Americans in The Quiet American and The Comedians, arguing that Pyle and the Smiths represented the ‘courage and good intentions of individual Americans’, yet ‘also their misplaced, ill-judged and simplistic attitudes to life and the world.’[20] Couto discerns in the latter novel a critique of well-meaning charity, with aid money buttressing ‘imperialist activity’.[21] Ultimately, the benefit of the doubt never gets given to Americans in Greene’s work, though at least the Smiths are shown to be capable of learning and gaining more wisdom.

Perceptions of Greene’s hate-hate relationship with the US were strongly present in public discourse. Four days after Greene’s death, George Pitcher wrote a satirical piece for The Observer, wherein he has a ‘ghastly dream’ of the American secret-services responding to Greene’s persistent criticisms by blacklisting his works and which ends with Pitcher pointedly and sarcastically attacking on America’s ‘freedom, not money and business’ driven foreign policy.[22]

PITCHER

Greene also disliked the vast majority of the film adaptations of his work; with most American adaptations being, in his words from 1984: ‘outstandingly bad’.[23] He was particularly outraged by how Joseph L. Mankiewicz reversed the geopolitical argument of The Quiet American, making it into flag-waving, anti-Communist narrative; as Patterson argued, it might as well have been retitled ‘The Really Nice American’![24]

As well as Vietnam, many writers were radicalised by events in Chile, in the early 1970s; for example, Harold Pinter, whose turn to the left – a reverse-Kronstadt moment – was caused by the Pinochet coup d’état of 11 September 1973.[25] While writing THC, Greene wrote ‘Chile: The Dangerous Edge’ for the Observer Magazine, published on 2 January 1972, a ruefully pessimistic account of his travels around Chile and meetings with the increasingly besieged Salvador Allende. He sees Allende’s democratically-elected Popular Unity minority coalition government of six parties as an underdog ensemble, having to be wary of various threats: generals in Brazil and Bolivia and Robert Kendall Davis, American Ambassador to Santiago, who had links with the CIA in Guatemala; as well as the proud, moneyed miners of Chuqui and ex-President Frei ‘waiting in the wings.’[26]

Greene had been impressed by ‘the new class’ of Communist that he had met in Chile, who seemed to him very similar to those Czechs involved in the Prague Spring in being ‘open and experimental, with dogma as the ground of argument and not as an article of faith’.[27] In an October 1973 letter to Czech dissident writer Josef Skvorecky, he claimed that Allende was of the ‘school of Dubcek’ and expressed his horror at Pinochet’s putsch.[28] Andy Beckett has documented how Pinochet’s neo-liberal reforms – coupled with a repressive ‘authoritarian populist’ impulse, to use Stuart Hall’s terms – provided a template for Thatcherism in the UK.[29]

Greene and Torrijos

Greene moved left as he grew older, influenced by South American outlooks and his experiences visiting the continent, where liberals and social-democrats often worked with communists, uniting against the invariably US-backed domestic right-wing forces. He referred to American policy driving him ‘to be more friendly towards Communism’ than he would otherwise have been.[30] At the behest of the moderate General Torrijos of Panama, who became a personal friend, Greene was involved as a sort of maverick diplomat in many affairs in the region. For example, he attended the signing of a Panamanian treaty with the Carter-era USA, and, in 1979, he ‘helped to secure the release of British bankers kidnapped in El Salvador’.[31] His positive identification with Central and South American movements is also expressed in The Honorary Consul, as the reader is encouraged to like Leon Rivas, a former priest turned revolutionary who Greene loosely based on Father Camillo Torres, a priest who was shot along with guerrillas in Colombia.[32] Rivas quotes Che Guevara approvingly, to justify a pan-South American outlook.[33]

His support for countries faced by hostile US actions, like El Salvador and Nicaragua, became steadfast, and he refused to adopt a knee-jerk anti-communism: ‘constant economic and military aggression from the USA is the power that will drive these societies to hard-line Marxism’.[34]

In an April 1987 visit to Nicaragua, Greene acclaimed the Sandinistas as being on the frontline in a ‘war between civilisation and barbarism’, using language far more left-wing than he would have in 1950, when he visited Malaya, the one Cold War conflict zone where he found himself entirely aligned with conventional Western thinking.[35] Additionally, in a letter in early 1984 to his cousin Edward, he emphasised the Sandinista regime’s education programmes, which significantly reduced illiteracy and the productive nature of a government with Catholic priests and Jesuits working alongside Marxists like Tomas Borge.[36] For Greene, Margaret Thatcher’s giving Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua a frosty reception on his visit to the UK displayed a ‘complete ignorance of conditions in Nicaragua and Latin America.’[37] As with Chile, Greene saw Nicaragua as an underdog; Couto summarised his position: ‘every Government that seeks a degree of autonomy from American hegemony is branded a liability, its sovereignty given short shrift, its power destabilised’.[38] As Chris Mullin and Alan Plater showed with the novel and TV adaptation of A Very British Coup, a left-wing government in Britain would have faced much the same pressures. Harry Perkins is a left-wing underdog in the Greene mould, but with a Sheffield accent.

In the same year, Greene told Martin Amis: ‘I retain this sympathy for the dream of communism anyway, though I agree that the record is very discouraging.’[39] Indeed, in November 1967, before his protest efforts against the Vietnam War, Greene, along with Bertrand Russell and Herbert Read, was a signatory to the Belgian Defence of Human Rights’ letter to the Soviet Union protesting against the imprisonment of satirical writers Daniel and Sinyavsky.[40] Yet, he also told Amis: ‘I would rather end my days in the Gulag than in – than in California’, confirming comments he had originally made in the 1960s.[41] This clearly conveyed a clear preference, stopping short of support, for the Soviet side, representing a ‘lesser evil’-type judgement.

On 16th February 1987, impressed by Gorbachev’s leadership and feeling the Soviet Union was moving more towards his vision of it, Greene gave a speech to the Moscow Peace Forum, claiming Communists and Catholics were fighting together against the Death Squads in El Salvador, the Contras in Nicaragua and General Pinochet in Chile.[42] Greene often spoke of having no fixed attitude towards Communism, but it seemed, at that stage of Gorbachev’s liberalisation, as if ‘socialism with a human face’ could be realisable. It is only the sort of hindsight trafficked in by a Sandbrook or Gaddis that would claim there was an inevitability about Gorbachev’s ultimate failure to reform and transform communism.

Greene spoke of how he’d ‘rather romanticise the Left than romanticise the Right as Evelyn Waugh did’.[43] While he did show the limits of some left-wing organisations – such as the rebels in THC, who are shown to lack a seriously organised alliance with Catholicism – Greene in the détente and ‘second cold war’ eras showed his commitment to the struggles of the ‘new communism’ of Dubeck, Allende and the Sandinistas by including favourable representations of such ‘bottom-up’, underdog movements in his work.

[1] Greene, G. (1974) The Honorary Consul. London: Penguin, p.71

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

[3] Sweet, M. (2006) Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema. London: Faber and Faber, p.167

[4] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.323

[5] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.380

[6] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.371

[7] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.371

[8] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.414-6

[9] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.421

[10] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.420

[11] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.227

[12] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.436

[13] Greene, G. (2005) Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin, pp.472-3

[14] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) A Life in Letters. London: Abacus, p.221

[15] Chaplin Today (Jerome de Missolz & Jim Jarmusch, 2003) – DVD: A King in New York

[16] Cunningham, J. (1983) ‘Plain thoughts of an Englishman abroad’, The Guardian, 19th December, p.11

[17] Hamilton, A. (1971) ‘GRAHAM GREENE’, The Guardian, 11th September, p.8

[18] Couto, M. (1988) On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the novels of Graham Greene. London: Macmillan Press, p.167

[19] Arena: The Graham Green Trilogy 2: ‘The Dangerous Edge’, BBC, TX: 9th January 1993

[20] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.178

[21] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.178

[22] Pitcher, G. (1991) Bottom Line: ‘Greene fingered’, The Observer, 7th April, p.30

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

[24] Patterson, J. (1999) ‘Playing the Greene card’, The Guardian, 10th December, p.B27

[25] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[26] Greene, G. (1990) Reflections. London: Reinhardt Press, p.283

[27] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.281

[28] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) ibid., p.328

[29] Beckett, A. (2003) Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History. London: Faber and Faber

[30] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.209

[31] Evans, R. & Hencke, D. (2002) ‘In life as in fiction, Greene’s taunts left Americans in a quiet fury’, The Guardian, 2nd December, p.3

[32] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[33] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.104

[34] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[35] Arena: The Graham Green Trilogy 3: ‘A World of My Own’, BBC-2, TX: 10th January 1993

[36] Greene, G.; Greene R. (ed.) (2008) ibid., p.382

[37] Evans, R. & Hencke, D. (2002) ibid., p.3

[38] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.167

[39] Amis, M. (1984) ibid., p.7

[40] The Guardian (1967) ‘Plea to free writers’, The Guardian, 28th November, p.17

[41] Amis, M. (1984) ibid., p.7

[42] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., pp.316-7

[43] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.212

“Spying on Spies” Day 2a: Of eurospy, the GDR and sensational, implausible narratives

This is the second in a series of four pieces written summarising and reflecting on the talks I witnessed at the Spying on Spies conference of September 2015.

My first panel of the long, good – but not Docklands-set – Friday – was chaired by the President of the European Language Council, Maurizio Viezzi. This panel covered a range of European Cold War films and television shows and representations of Europe.

Lorenzo Medici (Universita degli Studi di Perugia, Italy) focused on Italian spy movies in the late-1960s, with a decorous power-point that incorporated a vast array of amusing and bizarre film posters. He identified 170 Italian movies in this genre of ‘Eurospy’ – which is marked by its usually ‘incomprehensible’ plots. The genre’s heroes included: ‘Agente 077’, ‘008’, ‘Upper-7’, ‘OSS-077’ and ‘James Tont’ – ‘tonto’ being Italian for stupid! One film was entitled O.K. Connery (1967), and featured Neil Connery – Sean’s brother. From Russia With Love’s Daniela Bianchi was cast alongside These films sounded silly, lurid and surely would be entertaining, containing such tantalising signifiers as ‘booby bombs’, ‘a thermo-nuclear navel’, ‘rich colour’ and ‘Pop Art’. While, seemingly, they lacked the considered satirical intent of a Modesty Blaise (1966), who wouldn’t want to see a Eurospy film called Goldginger (1965), where action is situated at a Ginger Ale factory!?

DR GOLDFOOT
Dr Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (dir. Mario Bava, ITA/USA, 1966)

Medici pinpointed La Guerra Segreta (1965) – starring Henry Fonda and Annie Girardot – as a ‘strange film’. Secret Agent Fireball (1965) – set in Beirut, unlike the film version of The Ipcress File (1965), which excises the novel’s Beirut sequence.

Any direct mention of Communism was avoided, due to the strength of the Italian Communist party – and indeed, in the late-1960s détente had enabled these films to portray the Soviets and Americans as allies. The focus in the Eurospy genre was on Chinese villains, not Soviets. In the Q&A, Medici disavowed any sense that these films might be seen as part of the NATO or Atlanticist Cold War ‘effort’, arguing that this was an economically booming country trying to maintain a frivolous distance. In the 1960s, Italians had more leisure, which was said to be mirrored in the films’ technology, foreign locations and action sequences. Italians had money and did travel. There’s at least one 1960s episode of Steptoe and Son where Harold yearns for Fellini’s Italy – ‘Sunday for Seven Days’ (TX: 04/02/1964) – and Italian food and fashions were coveted by urban connoisseurs like Harry Palmer (unnamed in the novel) in The Ipcress File. Medici closed with a precis of the ingredients of this filmic sub-genre: ‘funny’, ‘lust’, ‘troubles’, ‘mystery’.

The forceful Rui Lopes (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) explored US filmic portrayals of espionage in Lisbon in the reign of fascist dictator Salazar, who ruled Portugal from 1933-74. Greene and Fleming had both cited Lisbon as an inspiration for certain of their writings. In Casablanca (1942), Lisbon is the gateway to freedom. The West, as ever selective with its adherence to democracy, backed Salazar and he aligned with the West, though Portugal was neutral in WW2. US films were accepted; foreign markets were deemed necessary. Lopes mentioned numerous films with Lisbon signifying a safe haven, or path to America. These included The Lady Has Plans (1942), which depicts the said lady having secret plans tattooed to her body. There was intriguing mention of Alfredson referring to espionage as the feminine version of war, foregrounding intuition and persuasion.

THE CONSPIRATORS

Lopes commented that the dictatorship, if portrayed at all, is seen as saviour, not, as many Portuguese would have seen them, as torturer and persecutor. The Conspirators (1944) was seen as a key film – not just featuring Hedy Lamarr, the “little man” (Peter Lorre) and the “fat man” (Sydney Greenstreet), but with the Dutch Resistance hiding out with the Portuguese fishing community, and a rallying anti-Nazi speech that implied there is no parallel between Nazism and the Salazar regime. In several 1950s and 1960s films, the pattern continued: of avoiding comment on the Salazar regime in favour of Lisbon as site of ‘romantic allure’, seen through the prism of espionage. As Lopes comments in the programme: ’Hollywood’s formulaic narratives – in some cases combined with Washington’s propaganda strategies – resulted in a depiction of Portugal that ultimately dissociated Salazar’s dictatorship from its fascist origins and practices.’

DAS UNSICHTBARE2

Then, Sebastian Haller (Danube University Krems) was the first of two conference speakers who addressed Das unsichtbare Visier (1973-79), an espionage TV series from the GDR. This was a story of the Stasi, over sixteen episodes, covering the period of the late-1940s to the end of the 1960s. Episodes 1-9 focused on one agent (‘an East German James Bond’), before a more ideologically apt focus on a collective of agents from episodes 10-16! It featured its Stasi agent heroes in a fictional world which encompassed far-flung locations as various as West Germany, Argentina, Portugal, Italy and South Africa.

DAS UNSICHTBARE3

Socialist Unity Party and GDR leader from 1971-89, Erich Honecker, was quoted in terms of how the series depicted nationhood in terms of class. It represents West Germans as an out-group, and their country as associated with an unemployment crisis, in contrast with the stability and security offered by the GDR. The series’ rhetoric was said to incorporate anti-imperialism and anti-fascism and depicts a peace-loving state. A bit of a contrast, then, to its British contemporary, Brian Clemens’ The Professionals (1978-82)! West German NATO membership and reinstatement of former Nazis is critiqued; the building of the Berlin Wall is commended and contextualised. This was all in response to the late-1960s, early-1970s rapprochement and Ostpolitik, with both Germanys moving away from the policies of reunification: an easing of tensions but also a need to establish distinct identities. To end a particularly fascinating paper, Haller referred to the series as ‘popular culture’s contribution to the establishment of a Socialist nation’.

Q&A

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET

When asked, Medici scotched any question of their being significant residual fascism in post-WW2 Italy, and restating his point that the country didn’t really want to be involved in the Cold War. Lopes referred to Italian director Sergio Corbucci as being an outspoken leftist, and Medici accepted that most in Italian cinema held communist or socialist beliefs, but these views did not shape the content of the films. Sergio Grieco was mentioned as another Italian Communist, who had made films in the Soviet Union, working as assistant to Vsevolod Pudovkin. There was discussion of how Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) was edited for West German and Italian release, to remove communism from its plots, to avoid losing a large section of the audience with communist sympathies; Medici referred to the Communist Party’s regular 30% support in the polls. Haller made the point that the 1970s was the one time where the GDR could plausibly present itself to be on the right side – with Portuguese and Spanish fascist regimes collapsing and anti-imperialist movements growing in Angola and Mozambique. Haller also stated that most people in the GDR would have known Bond, and that it would have been perceived as an imperialist fairy tale – in effect, James Bond fuels wars, the Stasi spy in the series ends them.

As a curious complement to the Eurospy films, Lopes discussed maritime imagery in Mexico-set films made in Portugal, and made droll reference to a sardine cannery featuring as a villains’ HQ in one WW2 era film. There was reference to transnationalism in the sense of co-productions, which made me think of Hammer and how much of British horror wasn’t quite so pure in its ‘Englishness’ as is supposed, in production and funding contexts, at least. I was curious what the audience sizes were, for both the Italian Euro-spy thrillers and the GDR’s Cold War epic narrative, but didn’t get the time to ask.

A line from this marvelous panel that stayed with me as encapsulating the self-image of Italians was Medici’s quote – “I’m neutral. I’m Italian!” – from a scene of a Europsy thriller, when an Italian ‘hero’ character is menaced by a Chinese spy.

James Chapman

Experienced popular culture academic James Chapman (University of Leicester)’s Keynote Lecture focused on the neglected spy films of Alfred Hitchcock, who made more in the genre than many others. He placed the twelve films – 5 UK, 7 US-made – into ideological and historical context, while also providing notable points on recent archival research at the Margaret Herrick Library, California. He quoted Peter Wollen on Hitchcock’s films being about a ‘disruption of the surface normality by forces of anarchy and chaos that lurk beneath that thin crust, that thin protection of civilisation’, which Wollen had misquoted from John Buchan’s The Powerhouse (1913).

Chapman placed Hitchcock’s British films in the context of the 1927 Cinematograph Act, a protectionist measure which required a quota of British films, alluding to ground fascinating covered by Steve Chibnall and Matthew Sweet among others: the “quota quickie”, a type of film cheaper than historical epics or the like. Regarding 1930s British cinema, he made the salient point that Edgar Wallace was the most adapted author, not the more ‘important’ figures such as A.J. Cronin or J.B. Priestley. 350 British crime films were made in the 1930s, Chapman reported, with about 10-12 spy films per year. The BBFC was very against “American style gangsterism” with its tommy guns, and the spy film grew as a result. The W Plan (1930), a WW1 spy film, and the contemporary Rome Express (1932) started the cycle and 1936-9 saw the peak in the numbers of British espionage films, and he situated Hitchcock’s films in context of the rise of fascism and appeasement. He begins with discussing The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) as a concise, fast-paced spy thriller about an ‘anarchist threat’, suggesting to me certain Conrad and Chesterton texts.

The Thirty-Nine Steps’ (1935) political meeting scene is highlighted, along with a reference to Michael Denning’s analysis of Hannay’s navigation of the class system by assuming different guises. Secret Agent (1936), a Maugham adaptation was referred to briefly as a somewhat denigrated film and not one of the most interesting. Sabotage (1936) – confusingly, the adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) – is placed in Denning’s lineage of the ‘existential thriller’. He is said to combine and move between the Buchan-James Bond and Graham Greene-John le Carré schools of spy story.

THE LADY VANISHES

Of the British films, The Lady Vanishes (1938) received deepest analysis, Chapman describing it as ‘the most English of Hitchcock’s films’. He made amusing reference to there being a paper waiting to written on the mythical landscapes of central Europe: he theorised that The Prisoner of Zenda’s Ruritania becomes Bandrika in TLV, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then Vosnia in the post-WW2 State Secret (1950), also by Launder and Gilliat. He analysed the key scene where, following a blunt critique of pacifism on the train, Mr Todhunter (Cecil Parker) gets out of the train, raises a handkerchief in the air and is shot and killed; critics have described this as an allusion to appeasement. Chapman explained that the film was in the can before the Munich conference, though it was in British cinemas by September 1938, so definitely had cultural topicality that affected its reception.

Hitchcock’s American films were glossier; Foreign Correspondent (1940) cost four times that of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Chapman stated. He noted that Hitchcock was equally against the grain in 1940 America with FC’s pro-interventionism stance as he had been in 1938 Britain with TLV’s anti-appeasement stance. Reflecting on research from the Margaret Herrick archive, he discussed a minor character portrayed by George Sanders: “In the first draft, he’s not called Scott Foley…” He paused for several seconds. “He’s called Ian Fleming” – a pay-off that elicited much amusement. A likeness he then analysed with Foley being a journalist with an effete manner and sporting of suede shoes…

Saboteur (1942) was discussed as a somewhat overlooked, interesting film, containing a post-Pearl Harbour speech and an ‘enemy within’ threat; Notorious (1946) was not analysed in depth but was described as a precursor of the moral ambiguity of the Cold War spy films. Hitchcock went on to make four Cold War films. There was discussion of the ‘genre upscaling’ of the more ‘leisurely’ US The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

North by Northwest (1959) is referred to as an ‘exemplary paranoia thriller’ and the best instance of Hitchcock’s distinctive combination of the sensational thriller with the moral ambiguous Cold War drama. He dissected its sense of absurd masquerade, impersonation and fluidity of identity. Chapman entertainingly reeled off a litany of the film’s ‘bizarre and dangerous predicaments’:

“He’s mistaken for a spy… A spy who it turns doesn’t exist. He’s kidnapped in broad daylight in a crowded hotel lobby. He’s forcibly plied with alcohol and put behind the wheel of a car. He’s suspected of murdering a diplomat at the United Nations. He’s lured out to the middle of a prairie and attacked by a crop-dusting plane. Now, at the end of the film, he finds himself scrambling over the Presidential monuments at Mount Rushmore, clutching a blonde in one arm and an Amazonian statuette containing a secret microfilm in the other. This is a sensational, adventure, implausible narrative!”

Developing on Notorious’ narrative, Eva Marie Saint’s heroine has to prostitute herself in the supposed service of her country. Cary Grant is given the line to US secret service types: “If that’s the kind of tactic you guys use, then maybe you ought to try losing a few Cold Wars…” Chapman reflected that there couldn’t have been a piece of dialogue like that five years earlier, amid McCarthyism.

He discussed the influence of NBNW – a spy parody in itself –on Bond films, with the crop-duster scene as ‘far superior’ to the rip-off in Dr No (1962). Hitchcock was interested in directing the James Bond with the Secret Service film, scripted by Fleming, yet it didn’t happen as Fleming and others wanted to retain control. Hitchcock is said to have admired The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), the key film of the more ambiguous school along with the Deighton adaptations.

Defector story Torn Curtain (1966) was described as ‘perfectly passable’ and ‘underrated’, but one that fell between stools and did not match the seriousness of TSWCIFTC or the wild excesses of a spoof like the same year’s Modesty Blaise. Pauline Kael is quoted on his final spy film, the so-so Topaz (1969): ‘the same damn spy movie that he’s been making since the thirties, but it’s getting longer and duller’. Chapman concludes with describing Hitchcock’s spy films as a paradigm of the genre, displaying the full range of narrative types open to the spy film.

Q&A:

When asked further about the ideologies, he said that Ivor Montagu may have had much to do with some of the anti-fascism of Hitchcock’s films. Post-war, ideologically, he was said to lean perhaps towards JFK and the Democrats, due to his wife’s influence. The original script to the 1956 TMWKTM is said to very specifically include references to the Russians, written out at a later stage.

peter-lorre-man-who-knew-too-much

In the British TMWKTM, he identified a ‘marvellous ambiguity’ in Frank Vosper as Ramon, the Spanish-sounding assassin and the none-more-sinister European Peter Lorre playing a character with the Abbott, a traditional English surname. This is in the context of the film’s anarchists – with “our cause” – being international and not rooted. In NBNW, he makes it clear there’s no specific Soviet villainy – more a generic Eastern European one, and vague references to “over there”.

When asked regarding spy-craft and Hitchcock’s ’amateur’ spies, Chapman contrasts this tendency with Topaz – a ‘flawed film’ – is said to be the most focused on ‘realistic’ spy-craft, and there is a sequence set in Cuba including bugging techniques. Other questions elicited interesting responses: on how Sabotage shows much fidelity to Conrad and how the 1979 version of The Lady Vanishes was ‘far better’ than often credited but that the recent BBC TV was much closer to the book but that ‘just wasn’t as good!’