‘The perennial lodestone of liberalism’ – BOOK REVIEW: Toby Manning’s “John Le Carré and the Cold War”

John Le Carré and the Cold War
Toby Manning

London: Bloomsbury, 2018

Toby Manning - JLC and the Cold War

le Carré’s position on communism was considerably closer to that of the British state than is critically acknowledged or popularly understood. (Manning, p.11)

This book is an important intervention in JLC studies, analysing six George Smiley-centric novels in considerable depth. Manning places the novels in historical context and employs rigorous close-reading in order to shed light on political ideology within the novels. He focuses not just on what is there, but is also what is not there; developing an argument that JLC fundamentally elides any deep discussion of communism as an ideology or cause.

Whether central or ancillary, Smiley has always embodied, contained and ‘resolved’ these novels’ ideological dilemmas: he is the perennial lodestone of liberalism. (Manning, p.183)

Where many writers in Britain ignore liberalism and capitalism as powerful ideological forces, Manning carefully defines and inteprets them. This is especially the case with liberalism: he teases out the contradictions between the individualist, imperialist and often authoritarian Hobbesian strain and milder, twentieth-century social liberalism. Indeed, he locates these as tensions in the ‘national ego’ which are embodied by George Smiley, who is contradictorily portrayed as sometimes a humanistic arbiter and at other times as a forceful, illiberal agent who brings victorious closure to the narratives. GS’s knowledge empiricism is also identified and placed in an intended binary with the unbending, ideological communist enemy, represented by Karla.

Manning makes a powerful argument that JLC’s Cold War fiction fundamentally backs the hegemonic Western Cold War position of ‘containment’, and does not, as many critics have argued, posit a moral equivalence between liberalism and communism. There is typically some acknowledgment of ‘our’ side having to do bad things, but these are invariably shown to be necessary to contain an ‘other’, alien communism. Where communism is mentioned, it is always with emotive language such as ‘evil’. Manning identifies this treatment of the communist enemy as Manichean and not all that far from Ian Fleming’s presentations of the eastern foe. In this argument, he builds on Andrew Hammond’s wide survey of British Cold War Fiction in 2013. As I have argued previously, one of the few writers to seriously question the West’s geopolitical position was Graham Greene. Manning locates Greene alongside Eric Ambler as being fundamentally influenced by their experience of the 1930s and the ‘Popular Front’.

Manning’s other advance is to find references in the texts to the contemporary domestic politics; while there is generally denigration of working-class geographies in the novels – such as the municipal blocks of flats in The Looking Glass War (1965) – Call for the Dead (1961) is said to differ. This occurs in its climactic action, where Smiley kills Dieter Frey and Smiley’s remorse is said to incorporate ideas of ‘home-grown radicalism’, with  textual quotations from an 1830 folk song. Manning describes JLC as usually endorsing ‘an essentially establishment England’ of public-school and Oxbridge; just for a brief moment, here in the first Smiley novel, are glimpses of the domestic political alternative of the Diggers, the Jacobins, John Ball, Williams Blake and Morris. This implicit alternative emerges when Smiley doubts his own ‘gentlemanly’ status, having carried out the brutal act of murdering Frey. Manning’s attention to detail has certainly made me want to go back and read this novel again; exactly what you want from any such academic study.

Manning also deftly interweaves Britain’s post-colonial angst with its Cold War geopolitics; explicitly avoiding the sort of compartmentalising that too many scholars engage in. The main novels where Britain’s colonial legacy features are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).

This book is the culmination of wide reading, with skilful reference across a range of secondary texts used to place the six primary texts in a rich historical context. There’s a precision in dating the novels’ publication and in identifying the major world and UK events surrounding them. He also utilises contemporary UK and US book reviews to highlight how JLC has previously been denied canonical status by taste arbiters.

Manning is a le Carré enthusiast and scholar who has also written popular music journalism.* He astutely situates these novels in post-WW2 cultural context while elucidating their explicit and implicit politics. Even adherents of the view that these novels are ‘just’ exciting thrillers will be convinced by Manning’s comprehensive investigation of their politics. He convincingly establishes just how wedded to the ‘establishment’ status quo these novels are, always giving us Smiley’s or other upper-class characters’ perspective and barely ever allowing working-class or communist characters a hearing.

Manning places this ‘repression’ of other voices within the context of the mid-1970s. With developments in Vietnam, Portugal, Jamaica, Laos and Angola, the West’s Cold War ‘victory’ seemed far from assured. He also identifies just how anti-American The Honourable Schoolboy is, with JLC again endorsing Smiley’s urbane, traditional but muscular liberalism as the prefered way. The Circus’s intractable bureaucracy is analogised to the Russians’, with Smiley often criticising it, only to himself ultimately steer the UK state bureaucracy to notable victories.

The careful elision of the concept of social class only proves its very power within these fascinating novels, with JLC using a ‘mythic register’ in presenting Oxford, Cornwall and spies’ training centre Sarratt as the true England and Smiley’s liberal, gentlemanly habitus as justly leading to victory in the Cold War.

* I really hope Manning gets his planned ‘folk-spy hybrid’ novel Border Ballads published! He can be heard mentioning this and discussing his JLC book here.

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David Edgar’s Play for Today DESTINY (1978) – 3-part essay on British Television Drama website

“An ideology red white and blue in tooth and claw”

I am delighted to announce that I have a three-part epic essay about David Edgar’s 1978 Play for Today, ‘Destiny’, currently being published on British Television Drama website. This is a significant TV play (currently viewable here) that dramatises the insurgent far-right and British national identity in the late 1970s. I have been researching this TV play for eight months and have included e-mail interviews with the writer and producer, as well as extensive use of the BBC WAC in Caversham (thanks to Matthew Chipping). I have strong memories of studying the original play during my English degree at Cambridge, supervised by John Lennard – among many texts on the Post-1970 unit, this was the one that fascinated me the most, and it has been wonderful to delve much deeper into how it was adapted for television.

Thanks go to David Edgar and Margaret Matheson for their detailed e-mails with their memories of the play and conscientious answers to my questions. Thanks also to David Rolinson for his tireless work in editing this juggernaut of a piece (originally 20,000 plus words!), as well as Mark Sinker*, Justin Lewis**, Ian Greaves and John Williams who have assisted with queries and research.

The essay can be read here:

Part 1 (David Edgar, the theatrical Destiny and British historical context) http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=7040

Part 2 (production of the TV play, its broadcast and its reception) http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=7043

Part 3 (analysis of the play and its afterlife and Edgar and Matheson’s subsequent careers)
http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=7046

*Who knows much more about English Baroque music than I.
**Who knows much more about UK chart history than I.

Tom May
Newcastle Upon Tyne

Caught in the contrived timelessness trap: THE CROWN (TV series review)

THE CROWN – series one

Netflix, released 4th November 2016

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Queen Mary to Elizabeth II, The Crown: “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty… you are answerable to God, not the public.”

Peter Hitchens: ‘it should not have been made, and should not be made for another 20 or 30 years when the actual facts are known and the papers available […] Like all such productions, it exploits the real people it pretends to portray […] I am told King George VI, that improbably decent monarch, is shown using the c-word. I doubt he did. Naval man though he was, and so familiar with the whole range of filthy language, I think he would have regarded it as impossibly crude.’[1]

Peter Morgan: ‘I could not care less about the royal family; it’s absolutely scandalous that they should still exist in an egalitarian society.’[2]

Tom Nairn: ‘During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the prime mover had to at least look like the rest of nation-state normality. Contrived timelessness was the answer.’[3]

The Crown is visually lavish; an example of expansive, spectacular television, with imperious casting and locations, which yet contains the depth that ten hours affords. A £5m per episode – or mini-movie, as Trevor Johnston has it[4] – budget augments and does not overwhelm thoughtful screenwriting from Peter Morgan.[5] Its strength is its polysemy: that it can be taken plenty of ways. And, also, that it is a television series and frankly not a series of ‘mini-movies’, whatever Sight and Sound might want us to believe…

The LRB described its total budget as £100m., but this isn’t an expensive jaunt that leaves no trace: I strongly recall images and scenes, such as the elegant foreshadowing of Prince Philip in a private members’ club with a decidedly right-wing atmosphere, watching a newsreel film about Nasser, several years before Suez. I recall Lithgow’s hunched frame and craggy features, the actor embodying that problematic national avatar Churchill.

In 2011, left-wing writer on matters of state Tom Nairn referred to how ‘the overblown came to counter-posed to an understated essence’. This phrase aptly describes the mix of absurd yet public-captivating pomp is deliberately balanced by the media image created of a ‘real’ family with dutiful, modest values. Peter Morgan’s series manages to show convincing individuals embroiled in a bizarre spectacle, following constitutional imperatives that they seem to have no control over. Nairn also described ‘Crown mythology’ as ‘an instrument for holding such a ‘united kingdom’ together’.[6] In 1961, Henry Fairlie had described it as ‘threatening to become the sole prop of the weak, the sole provider of emotional security, the sole cohesive force in society’.[7] At its best, Morgan’s series is a questioning take on what it would actually be like on a human level to have to symbolise a ‘united’ nation and its traditions. One’s daily life as a crucial part of how national ‘unity’ and ‘traditions’ are manufactured.

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Majestic cinematography is lent to depiction of a social panorama in ‘Act of God’

The strongest episode for me is the Julian Jarrold-directed ‘Act of God’, a whole hour of television based around the now slightly less obscure Great Smog of London in December 1952. This episode dramatises the political scene of the last ‘Churchill era’, a neglected area other than by your Kynastons, Bogdanors and Hennessys and places Attlee and Churchill at the centre. It reveals both just how out-of-touch Churchill was, and yet how much residual media-savvy he could deploy with his back against the wall. This is the episode which most places the monarchy and the establishment among the wider populace. Hopefully, there will be more such edgier episodes in future series’. The series is at times limited by its Great Men & Women focus on history, and many episodes feature little sense of those who are ruled over. The smog episode is the one to truly create some sense of the view from ‘below’.

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Following this and A United Kingdom, just who will don the Attlee ‘tash’ next!?

I had been convinced by Peter Morgan’s interview in Sight and Sound that this series would be worth a go: and not at all like Hallmark’s ridiculed William & Catherine: A Royal Romance (2011), which has Prince Charles saying “Puff Daddy”. There is leisurely, but often tense, character-based drama in The Crown rather than arrant stupidity. Its daring is shown in its depiction of tensions within Elizabeth and Phillip’s marriage, and Morgan’s skill in characterisation is no surprise given his previous handling of British history like The Deal (2003) and Longford (2006). In an insightful article for the LRB (15/12/16, p.15), Andrew O’Hagan acclaims Morgan’s writing for how it subversively ‘exposes the royals by undressing their silence with words’. They are made more human by their various uses of language and are thus inserted into history as actors.

They are made more human by their various uses of language and are thus inserted into history as actors.

Peter Hitchens, writing in early October – presumably without having seen the series – lays into its seeing the past through the present’s perspective. Bizarrely, he seems to think a drama series could hope to truly capture another era; historical dramas have always been just as telling about their own times they were produced in as the eras they depict. He accuses Smith and Foy of being representatives of the younger British generations he regards as essentially foreign: ‘They are too knowing about trivial things, and too innocent of important ones.’[8]

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Idea for a show: Hitchens’ People?

Having watched all ten episodes, I don’t think this is borne out – I am convinced by their accents and the attitudes and bearings they convey. I agree with O’Hagan about royal historian Hugo Vickers’ nit-picking article in The Times; it is not important how accurate it is, it is whether it is good drama: ‘fibs are fine, so long as they tap at the human problems underneath.’ (p.16) While I partially accept Hitchens’ point that they don’t look like they’ve lived through WW2, such a deep background will be difficult for any actor to suggest without being unsubtle. And, thankfully, Smith and Foy haven’t lived through WW2, however much that might anger our Peter!

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“Erm, I say! We really rather enjoy The Crown, Peter…”

More convincing than Hitchens’ perennial obsession with an imagined 1950s are Harry Leslie Smith’s reservations, Smith having lived through the times depicted: ‘The Crown is like an expensive painting in which the only subjects in focus are the rich and privileged. Everyone else, people like me or your grandparents if they came from the working class and even the middle class, are considered no more than background scenery. We are the undefined face in the crowd waving religiously at our so-called betters.’[9] Smith accurately notes how little we get in The Crown of the struggles to establish the Welfare State. This perhaps show some commercially rooted compromise from the ‘egalitarian’ Morgan. Though I feel this lack is counterbalanced by the uniquely in-depth human picture we get of this strange family…

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A weak link is the eighth episode, ‘Pride & Joy’, which depicts Margaret stepping in and fulfilling the Queen’s duties. It also contains the utter tedium of the Queen Marm’s trip to Scotland where she ends up buying a castle. While episode #6 ‘Gelignite’ managed to capture something of the tragic in Margaret’s predicament, both episodes veered close to the blander, glossier kind of soap opera. The final episode, however, proved an enticing set-up for series 2, which will deal with the epoch-defining Suez Crisis. Morgan has discussed the similarities of Brexit vote to Suez, with ‘a country mortgaging its international respect as a stable democracy’.[10]

Margaret’s newsreel appearance at the pit is a foretaste of Diana. But Margaret doesn’t seem quite as adept at the media business, wanting to get closer to the people – in this case, the miners – and show some individuality and conscience. Phillip is something of an ally to her, as frustrated moderniser of an institution that stubbornly, imperiously demands it stay above the human fray. We get some sense that the public sympathise with Townsend and Margaret, but not nearly enough depth on the public attitudes.

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Brilliant performances include Alex Jennings, imperiously arch and acidic as the Duke of Windsor, ever ready with tart, cutting asides. Jared Harris is affecting as his brother, George VI; as Cooke argues, Harris ‘turns in one of the most subtle and weirdly moving performances I’ve seen this year, perhaps this decade’, plus he gets to use the word ‘cunt’.[11] Pip Torrens has the requisite ruthless, barbed edge as royal fixer Tommy Lascelles, who is at the heart of the heartless operation. Matt Smith does a fine job with suggesting the buffoon, the malcontent and the moderniser within Prince Phillip. At times, he comes across as like a proto-Blairite, at others he channels Bertie Wooster, or even Mr Toad. It’s an intriguing, subtle portrait of a foreigner, affected by his own experience of Greek class conflict, playing at essentially eccentric Englishness… This is one of many examples supporting Johnston’s argument that this ‘quality and prestige’ production manages to avoid being pitched to ‘a broader common denominator’.[12]

Matt Smith does a fine job with suggesting the buffoon, the malcontent and the moderniser within Prince Phillip. At times, he comes across as like a proto-Blairite, at others he channels Bertie Wooster, or even Mr Toad.

John Lithgow is magnificent as Churchill, enabling viewers to love or loathe him, often simultaneously. His personal arrogance, entitlement and humbleness towards the crown all come across, as does the sense that this is a man clinging onto office due to delusions of grandeur and personal preeminence. We see how he struggles with changing times, yet oddly there’s no mention of his preoccupation with writing history himself. The final volumes of his A History of the English Speaking Peoples were published in 1956-58 – which led to BBC’s absurdly expansive, reviled 26-episode Churchill’s People dramatization of 1975, so this infirm, drink-addled eighty year-old must have been working on these books alongside his painting hobby, not to mention the small matter of his prime ministerial duties…

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The excellent episode #9 ‘Assassins’ balances a necessary, representative picture of the Queen’s horse-racing milieu with compelling scenes of Churchill being literally depicted by his fellow but more modernist artist Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane). This shows how out-of-time Churchill has become, and how culturally divided and torn the country was between a metropolitan elite that questioned and liked avant-garde art, and the older, more traditional establishment represented by the likes of Churchill and the Queen Mother. Churchill engages in dialogue with the modernising times, in surprising ways, even if this all leads to a focus on Churchill and Sutherland’s lives and not explicitly to wider socio-historical issues. This writer hopes Lithgow has the occasional contribution to the story as it is told of the mid-50s to mid-60s…

As Peter Wilby has argued, it is ultimately an unflattering portrait of the monarchy: ‘The Crown shows something cold and inhumane – almost a moral vacuum – at the heart of monarchy. Is this really an ideal that “ordinary people” should strive towards?’[13] That hasn’t stopped a lot of the coverage and ‘criticism’ being entirely preoccupied by the show’s trinkets, trappings and costumes. It often avoids the problem with historical dramas identified by New Left Marxist Colin McArthur in 1978: that they so often entirely personalise historical events and are prey to the British culture’s cult of the individual, with Jenny (1974), Edward the Seventh (1975) and Lillie (1978) among the exemplars. McArthur stated that ‘the category of the individual is regarded as a natural structuring category in the milieu of television (historical) drama.’[14] However, this show’s title is The Crown, and this entitling does reflect its focus being on a specific institution rather than sole ‘key players’. While, as Cooke remarks, it tends to select events from 1947-55 which best ‘illuminate the personalities involved’, I would argue we get a strong sense of how it works as a systemic structure.[15] The individual stories illumine the deeper power structures.

Cooke is perceptive on how this epic historical drama captures the addictive expansiveness of monarchical tradition:

‘Morgan explains us to ourselves. We’re all Russian dolls, products of our parents’ times as well as our own. Think of what your grandmother might have felt in 1952 on seeing three generations of queens – Mary, and two Elizabeths – in their mourning veils. The eldest of these three was born in 1867, and the youngest is on the throne still. Morgan understands that this is mind-bending and potentially revelatory, and if you don’t, that is your loss.’[16]

This stimulating reading chimes with my hope that the series will become as much a portrait of the wider public as the royals. Hopefully, Morgan will investigate how the country failed to become the egalitarian society that would have put an ornate, bloated monarchy behind it.

Liverpool Edge Hill academic Hannah Andrews has commented that ‘conflict between duty to country and to husband remains the only dramatic narrative afforded a married queen.’[17] She is right that the Queen is often sidelined. While there is a strong scene where she ticks off the public-school politicians for their Machiavellian meddling, like ‘nanny’, virtually all of her narrative seems to be based on the familial vs. national duty trope. Her hiring of a private tutor (Alan Williams), in a bid to become more informed following her unchallenging education, doesn’t really lead anywhere. Or hasn’t yet… Episode 9’s focus on her friend Porchey only really serves to highlight her alternately tense and distant relations with Philip.

As Wilby argues, the monarchy is depicted as a cold, inhuman, manipulative institution, with the Queen Mother, assorted Archbishops and Lascelles in particular as individuals perpetuating the systemic chill. Claire Foy does a good job of showing how Elizabeth Windsor is compromised and has to be crushed in favour of the unchanging, symbolic ‘Elizabeth Regina’.

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Caught in a trap…

We are given a picture of what Robert Lacey referred to in 1977 as the Queen’s ‘insistent grasp of normality’.[18] Crucially, she ultimately decides against developing her intellect beyond the limiting ‘constitutionalism’ dictated her by printed and spoken mentors Bagehot and Churchill. She opts for duty, restraint and blandness: to best preserve the institution of the monarchy; questioning is out of the question. This portrayal of the Queen gets more subtle and perceptive as the series develops. Nothing in the portrayal of the Queen Mother makes me warm to a woman I have always regarded as dodgy, an expert waver from balconies, yes, but with objectionable qualities behind the smiles.

What future instalments of The Crown need is to show more of its ‘subjects’: a wider tapestry of the ‘united kingdom’ that the institution of the crown aims to unify. However, this ‘long-form’ series does succeed in portraying the royals’ essentially trapped nature; as Morgan reflected, ‘We the people don’t know what we want from them, whether they’re our gods or our slaves, and so they’re trapped in a hellish predicament.’[19]

[1] Hitchens, P. (2016) ‘This isn’t a Revolution, it’s New Labour in a Blue Frock’, Mail on Sunday, 9th October [online] http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2016/10/peter-hitchens-this-isnt-a-revolution-its-new-labour-in-a-blue-frock.html [accessed: 22/12/16]

[2] Johnston, T. (2016) ‘Drama Queen’, Sight and Sound, December, p.47

[3] Nairn, T. (2011) The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy, updated 2nd edn. London: Verso, p.viii

[4] Johnston, T. (2016) ibid., p.46

[5] Cooke, R. (2016) ‘Arise, Sir Peter’, New Statesman, 11-17 November, p.52

[6] Nairn, T. (2011) ibid., p.ix

[7] Nairn, T. (2011) ibid., p.104

[8] Hitchens, P. (2016) ibid.

[9] Smith, H.L. (2016) ‘The Crown’s portrayal of history is an insult to my generation’s struggles’, The Guardian, 8th November [online] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/08/the-crown-portrayal-of-history-insult-to-my-generations-struggles [accessed: 23/12/16]

[10] Johnston, T. (2016) ibid., p.48

[11] Cooke, R. (2016) ibid., p.52

[12] Johnston, T. (2016) ibid., p.47

[13] Wilby, P. (2016) ‘Grammar school delusions, Labour floating voters, and why republicans will love The Crown’, New Statesman, 9-15 December, p.9

[14] McArthur, C. (1980) BFI Television Monograph 8: Television and History, 2nd edn. London: British Film Institute, p.17

[15] Cooke, R. (2016) ibid., p.52

[16] Cooke, R. (2016) ibid., p.52

[17] Andrews, H. (2016) Twitter, 7th December [online] https://twitter.com/Handrews_ [accessed: 19/12/16]

[18] Nairn, T. (2011) ibid., p.103

[19] Johnston, T. (2016) ibid., p.47

A vital corrective: A UNITED KINGDOM (2016)

Rosamund Pike: They were sitting side by side, the two of them close up to each other. It was like someone had flicked on a switch […] I felt tears streaming down my face. Something about them moved me so much […] It bore out everything I’d hoped for […] I find their story incredibly inspiring and moving, and that’s what I ask for in movies I go and see. I want to see movies like that. I want to see movies that make love heroic and the act of love courageous.[1]

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The hit Netflix’s series The Crown – in many ways admirable stuff – almost entirely omits non-whites from Britain’s story; Kenyans feature more as backdrop figures than as agents themselves. British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga has recently presented Black and British: A Forgotten History on the BBC. Oxford-born black British actor David Oyelowo pronounced: ‘People of colour have been expunged from Britain’s history’.[2] Oyelowo has acted on this imperative by starring in A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante, best known for 2013’s acclaimed 18th-century-set Belle (2013).

This new film dramatizes the controversy surrounding heir to the throne in Bechuanaland getting married in 1948 to a white British woman. Oyelowo first came across the story via Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar (2006) in 2010 and began developing the idea for a film with producers Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason, who acquired the rights.[3] Oyelowo has also spoken of the film being an attempt to tackle history that educational curricula choose to ignore.[4] He also commented that the recent rise in racist rhetoric has validated the reason for making the film.[5]

The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa.

The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa. As Asante argued: ‘Why wouldn’t we show the beautiful sunsets? I remember waking up in my mother’s African village to beautiful sunrises and beautiful sunsets.’[6] The film also pays close attention to power, politics and persuasion, as in what Stables refers to as Seretse’s ‘game-changing speech’.[7] Where Peter Morgan captured some of the paranoid psychosis of Idi Amin’s Uganda in The Last King of Scotland (2006), screenwriter Hibert fashions a story containing many political tensions, but also an inexorably buoyant narrative. Such an avowed love letter to social liberalism feels embattled in ever less tolerant and pluralistic 2016. I would agree with Kate Stables in Sight and Sound that it is a ‘laudable retelling of a less than glorious chapter in British history.’[8] Sadly, far from the last ignominious such chapter…

The film ends with independence on the cards, using captions to convey the rest of Seretse and Ruth’s story. It seems it wasn’t, as some might expect, particularly sanitised. It leaves you wanting to find out more about the real situation in Botswana from the 1960s until today, which is a good thing.

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In real life, Seretse Khama took a brave gamble and renounced his chieftaincy, and stood for election, winning in 1965: leading to independence for the renamed Botswana in 1966. On that Independence Day, Queen Elizabeth II conferred a knighthood on him. He kept to Westminster style political arrangements, avoiding a one-party state. His economic policy was more free-market than socialist; as Keatley states, ‘He insisted on a strict balance of payments and a sound currency’.[9] This economically ‘Victorian’ figure was, however, defiantly anti-Apartheid and towards the end of his reign he established free universal education in his country. Keatley praised Khama’s ‘legacy of tolerance and stability that have made Botswana one of the happiest countries in Africa’.[10] One of the better researched articles on the film from Jessamy Calkin confirms the positive picture of Botswanan culture and society: ‘Historically, it was less heavily colonised than much of the continent […] Good management and wealth brought by the discovery of diamonds have ensured that its citizens are entitled to free healthcare and education, and each can claim a piece of land, 40m by 40m, once they are 21, for which they don’t have to pay. (In two days here, I have met many people who have done so.)’[11] Calkin also comments that Seretse Khama’s personality has impacted on the culture’s genteel and courteous nature today, where it is ruled by his son Ian Khama.

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Director Asante, 47, Streatham born with Ghanaian roots, has had a notable life: her parents ran a shop that sold African cosmetics and then groceries; she experienced racism in Streatham while growing up, was in Grange Hill (“it taught me that I could not act”), met Nancy Reagan as part of the “Just Say No” campaign and is a massive Prince fan who had a private meeting with him.[12] In 1998, she wrote and directed the Liverpool-set Brothers and Sisters which featured the then 22-year-old David Oyelowo. Asante has spoken eloquently on ethnic minority and female under-representation in British cinema and has claimed that the Brexit vote wouldn’t have happened without class inequality.[13]

Its 66-year-old screenwriter Guy Hibert, a veteran of 1990s BBC film-drama strands Screen Two and Screenplay, comes up with a concise, focused film celebratory of liberalism: cross-racial romance, democratic values. Seretse is conveyed as similarly eloquent in his use of rhetoric to Martin Luther King, as depicted in Selma (2014).

Acting-wise, Jack Davenport is particularly assured as Alastair Canning, a sadistically bland British government functionary who offers sherry while giving Seretse the absurd offer of a posting to Jamaica. Tom Felton is a little more cartoonish – reflecting some of the occasional unsubtlety picked up on by Stables. Jack Lowden, with Nikolai Rostov, Oswald Alving and Thomas Wyatt already under his belt at 26, gets to play a heroic, twenty-something Tony Benn. Rosamund Pike continues her specialism in enacting post-WW2 characters; following An Education (2009) and Made in Dagenham (2010) with a sensitive and humane portrayal of middle-class clerk Ruth Williams.

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Rosamund Pike, also representing the sorely lacking British conscience in Made in Dagenham…

Local and international power politics are well conveyed, as highlighted by Davis: ‘Since South African uranium was a key ingredient of the West’s Cold War nuclear arsenal, Britain was reluctant to antagonise the Pretoria regime.’[14] While Khama’s own people are won over quite quickly by the couple, the British led by Attlee are unwilling to jeopardise key economic assets in the geopolitical context of the Cold War. In the 1951 General Election campaign, Churchill – unseen, sadly and not played by John Lithgow – promises that Seretse will be allowed to return to Bechuanaland. Once in the power, the old ‘statesman’ – or is that grandiose rogue? – reneges on his promise and extends Khama’s exile. Kermode has argued it successfully blends the personal and political and is necessary in being crowd-pleasing, working well with a large audience.[15] It seems the ideal film to appeal to this critic’s liberal-left Christian sensibility.

In a Live Q&A in November 2016 following a film about his diaries, Alan Bennett bemoaned Britain being a less ‘tolerant’ country than it was in the 1950s. A Britain that is now lacking in Ruth Williams’[16] – hailed by Stables for ‘her stoicism and community efforts’ – and drowning in boorish Farages and Johnsons.  A United Kingdom sketchily depicts some of the underlying racism of the late 1940s, but has a powerful sense of its romantic leads both being outsiders in each other’s cultures. It also balances the Attlee government’s compromises with ‘Anthony Benn’ figuting as a morally crusading advocate for Seretse and Ruth. As Calkin commented, the couple named one of their sons after Benn.[17] To me, it feels like empathy within British society and support for the Welfare State has eroded and we are less tolerant. Our younger British generations are generally past racism, but the media keeps fermenting it, especially successfully among older citizens, who vote more and are more susceptible to such a message.

In the context of 2016, A United Kingdom forms a vital corrective to our severely disunited kingdom, by showing and understanding the follies of the past and presenting an inspiring story of love as a progressive, necessary force.

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[1] Griffin, S. (2016) ‘The power of love’, Yorkshire Post, 25th November, np

[2] Stables, K. (2016) ‘Reviews: A United Kingdom’, Sight and Sound, December, p.89

[3] Clark, A. (2016) ‘Amma Asante: ‘I’m here to disrupt expectations’ – As her movie A United Kingdom opens the London film festival, the British director talks about her new membership of the US Academy – and why the whole industry needs to change’, The Observer, 2nd October, p.6

[4] Loughrey, C. (2016) ‘Finding love in a time of division’, The Independent on Sunday, 27th November, p.89

[5] Anon (2016) ‘Film industry is ‘doubly testing’ of women, says Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike’, The Herald, np

[6] Clark, A. (2016) ibid., p.6

[7] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[8] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[9] Keatley, P. (1980) ‘A legacy of tolerance’, The Guardian, 14th July, p.6

[10] Keatley, P. (1980) ibid., p.6

[11] Calkin, J. (2016) ‘The true story of the first president of Botswana and the English woman he fell in love with’, The Daily Telegraph, 4th November, np

[12] Jacobs, E. (2016) ‘A change of narrative’, Financial Times Weekend Supplement, 12th November, p.18

[13] Jacobs, E. (2016) ibid., p.18

[14] Davis, C. (2016) ‘THE SECRETARY AND THE PRINCE – Their relationship scandalised 1950s Britain but Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama had a happy marriage, as a new film reveals’, The Express, 17th November, p.13

[15] Kermode, M. (2016) ‘A United Kingdom review’, BBC Radio 5, 25th November

[16] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[17] Calkin, J. (2016) ibid., np

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

Friday 18th June 2016

Plymouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That wondrous gif image of the lad Leslie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A question of values: Graham Greene, Britishness, Human Rights and communication

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This, the second of three Graham Greene-related pieces for this blog, concerns itself with national identity and what that might mean in terms of values. It will consider how Greene, in The Honorary Consul and elsewhere, treats issues of Britishness – or is that Englishness? The last piece addressed culture and political ideology, this will extend the discussion into areas of language and communication, and the growing 1970s focus on human rights. Recent Greene criticism from Crystal and Sinyard will be incorporated, alongside close textual analysis and historical contexts as various as: the execution of Robert Southwell, Lord Haw Haw, 1960s defence cut-backs, 1970s eurocommunism, Harold Pinter and ‘Uncle’ Ken Russell.

In The Honorary Consul (1973), Greene’s Catholic side comes out in his concern about meta-narratives of progress; after an outline of theological perspectives, Rivas assails the power of contemporary dictatorships: ‘But now people like the General make law and order. Electric shocks on the genitals. Aquino’s fingers. Keep the poor ill-fed, and they don’t have the energy to revolt. I prefer the detective. I prefer God.’[1] Plarr questions myths of meliorism and progress: ‘we managed to produce Hitler and Stalin in one generation.’[2] It is worth recalling again that the novel was received in the context of the Pinochet coup in Chile, that brutal lesson in brute power over democratic values.

Argentinian writer character Dr Saavedra outlines a credo that is relevant to Greene’s own approach with the novel: ‘Assassinations, kidnapping, the torture of prisoners – these things belong to our decade. But, I do not want to write merely for the Seventies.’[3] However, Greene’s novel is not universal in some detached sense; as Couto argues, it is specifically concerned with exploitation within the contemporary geopolitical world: ‘To say that the location of his fiction is Greeneland is to deny the reality of the post-colonial world, of political processes, and their consequences.’[4]

Plarr’s father locks his doors against ‘military police and official assassins’ of the Paraguayan regime.[5] He later becomes a ‘political prisoner’ of the General’s regime. Aquino mentions that, unlike himself, Plarr’s father has not been tortured due to being Anglo Saxon. Yet, ‘fifteen years in a police station is a long torture’.[6]

The Helsinki Accords of 1975. Erich Honecker and Helmut Schmidt.

Torture was a 1970s and 80s preoccupation for many, as Amnesty International and the Human Rights agenda emerged, due in part to the admittedly non-binding Helsinki accords, signed on 1 August 1975. As well as Pinter’s stark representations of brutality in his 1984 play One for the Road, there was Irish writer Brian Phelan’s Centre Play ‘Article Five’ in the mid-1970s, apparently not broadcast by BBC-2 due to not being up to standard. Yet, my recent viewing of this play revealed to have visceral impact and still-relevant representations of that British habit of keeping unpleasant practices out of sight and mind. Greene’s novel leavens the bleakness of torture with intricate use of popular and literary cultural references – from Perry Mason to John Buchan to Jorge Luis Borges; the tastes of Saavedra and Plarr inform their attitudes.

Perry Mason

The regime’s revolutionary opponents, who include the torture victim Aquino, are led by the elusive ‘El Tigre’. Aquino says to Rivas, of this shadowy figure: ‘He is not here, Father […] He is somewhere in safety eating well and drinking well […] Is he never going to risk his own life like he risks ours?’[7] This reflects a sharp critique of top-down, distant leadership styles in some revolutionary movements – for example, the adherence to ideas of a vanguard. But El Tigre doesn’t really seem to be that; he is directing actions and not to be disobeyed, yet is far from taking a clear lead: a passive figure, staying out of the way. The revolutionaries’ creeping realisation that ‘El Tigre’ has let them down is powerfully, subtly conveyed.

Che Guevara
El Tigre – less present than this fella…

The novel is infused with the British context of the early-70s, despite Greene having moved to France in the mid-1960s. This cultural connectedness may be down to him still reading The Listener at his Antibes home, as recorded in an August 1967 letter.[8] Belfrage refers to the ‘law and order’ agenda of the Heath government, reflecting its more authoritarian early trajectory, and also draws attention to how lurid and debased the likely newspaper stories about Fortnum and Clara would be. This reflects the ever increasing sensationalism of the tabloid press as evidenced earlier in reporting of the Profumo Scandal and Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun in 1969. The British Embassy even receives a telegram reporting how a Tory MP has criticised a film ‘by some man called Russell’, which was the British entry to the Mar del Plata film festival as ‘pornographic’.[9] Presumably this is Ken Russell’s The Devils, though the festival didn’t, in actuality, run from 1971, when the film was released, until 1996 when it returned.

THE DEVILS - UK Poster 1
“some man called Russell”…

A lack of flexibility comes across in the British characters. The hidebound British diplomat Sir Henry Belfrage, an orderly planner, is scornful of left-wing ideas, expressing materialist, worldly values: saying ‘Cooperatives! What can a Cooperative know about wine?’ following his hangover from drinking wine from a Cooperative in Mendoza region of Argentina.[10] There is a legalistic and detached response from the British Minister about Fortnum’s kidnapping: ‘you are aware that this Government is making every effort to economize in the Foreign Service.’[11] Crichton explains to Fortnum his decision to have him retired and not replace him: ‘Well, for more than a year, London has been pressing for economies.’[12]

Denis Healey

The patriotic Fortnum is critical of the ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ attitude of the politicians at home, who he sees as lacking in ‘national pride’ – ironic, considering he is Argentinian-born himself.[13] The ruffled and affronted resentments of this adoptive Briton are representative of deep concerns in the British right over the decline in national status and prestige, not just following US-implicated humiliations as Suez and Skybolt, but the immediate aftermath of Denis Healey’s cuts to Civil Defence and the ‘East of Suez’ military presence in Singapore and Malaysia. Healey was ‘proud’ of his new policy to put British military policy on a more realistic footing; while cutting 20% of the size of the forces, he proclaimed that Britain’s European responsibilities had not been affected, showing where the government thought Britain’s cold war responsibilities lay.[14] Healey faced significant opposition; for example, over the Civil Defence cuts, ending a ‘First Cold War’ product of the Attlee government. Mary Currie of Raynes Park, S.W.20, wrote to The Times in January 1968 to attack the disbanding of the Civil Defence Corps, not emphasising their usefulness in the aftermath of a nuclear war, but in helping after the Aberfan disaster and the Hither Green train crash.[15] She asked, voicing the sort of anger over loss of sovereignty all too prevalent in 2016 Britain: ‘Is “patriotism” a dirty word now? Is the saving of a few million pounds worth the loss of the ability to help ourselves?’ She doesn’t refer to the realities of European obligations or American power.

OBE

The film version removes the part-absurd, part-deserved OBE that Fortnum is awarded by the British government, given to him to placate his anger over the US-trained paramilitaries’ killings of Rivas and Platt being officially whitewashed: as he says to Crichton: ‘Colonel Perez is a bloody liar. It was the paras who shot Plarr’.[16]

The novel is often deeply concerned with language and communication. As in much of Greene’s work, communication can be suspect: the telephone is described with a simile of it as a ‘venomous object which would certainly strike again.’[17] David Crystal argues that a lack of shared language codes and understandings are a sign of trouble in Greene’s narratives.[18]

crystal2l

This can be seen, for example, in Clara’s confusion of tenses when speaking English.[19] Or, in how Plarr mentions his preference for Latin, as a dead language which has no room for misinterpretation or ambiguity and which he can exert control over.[20] Fortnum and Clara’s distant relationship after Plarr’s death is shown through a lack of dialogue between them; the ending, one of, has language at its heart: ‘At last a sort of communication between them and he tried hard to keep the thin thread intact’[21] While the adjective ‘thin’ adds an uncertain, provisional note, it is one of Greene’s happiest endings; in stark contrast, say, to ‘The News in English’ (1940), which evokes a similar sad romanticism to Brief Encounter (1945).

Fortnum acclaims English as ‘the tongue that Shakespeare spoke’.[22] Greene himself was deeply critical of Shakespeare in ‘The Virtue of Disloyalty’, a lecture he gave, ironically, upon receiving the Shakespeare Prize at the University of Hamburg in June 1969. In this, he uses John of Gaunt’s ‘This happy breed […]’ speech from Richard II as an example of complacency: written in 1597 when Robert Southwell had been disembowelled for ‘so-called treason’.[23] He refers to a composite character of ‘Timon-Caliban’ as the only characters voicing outrage in Shakespeare: ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.’ He argues that Shakespeare would have defected to the side of the ‘disloyal’ if he had lived a few more years, but is ultimately rueful of the path the ‘Bard’ took: ‘Perhaps the greatest tragedy Shakespeare lived was his own: the blind eye exchanged for the coat of arms, the prudent tongue for the friendships at Court and the great house at Stratford.’[24]

Robert Southwell

He develops an elegant argument of the writer being fundamentally a devil’s advocate, seeing the ‘virtues of the Capitalist in a Communist society, of the Communist in a Capitalist state.’[25] Disloyalty, Greene suggests, ‘encourages you to roam through any human mind: it gives the novelist an extra dimension of understanding.’[26] He attacks the simple utilitarianism of being ‘loyal’ to your immediate social surroundings. This can be related to how disapprovingly the abstract noun ‘duty’ figures in this key passage in his short-story, ‘The News in English’ (1940):

Duty, it seemed to Mary Bishop, was a disease you caught with age: you ceased to feel the tug-tug of personal ties; you gave yourself up to the great tides of patriotism and hate.[27]

This ultimately sad, minor tragedy of a short-story associates the RP public-school accent with untrustworthiness: ‘All over England a new voice was noticed; precise and rather lifeless, it was the voice of a typical English don.’[28]

Lord Haw Haw accents telegraph

But then, in typical Greene style, the narrative confounds the obvious expectations of treachery. The story becomes a critique of the ‘People’s War’, with ignorant, unquestioning attitudes to official propaganda being exposed. However, there is also an ambivalence about the necessity for states themselves to ‘keep mum’ about what is really going on in wartime. Greene shows how questionable the British myths of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’ are, while more strongly admiring the ingenuity of a double agent and his sophisticated, very human, coding.

N_Sinyard_3
Neil Sinyard

Greene was formed by Britain, but had no loyalty to it. He followed fellow underdog champion Chaplin to Europe: settling in France in the mid-60s – while Chaplin moved to Switzerland following his decision not to stay and fight the Un-American committee in the USA. Greene assisted Chaplin in writing his autobiography. Greene visited Chaplin during his Swiss exile in the late-1950s and he encouraged the film legend to write his autobiography, eventually published with the support of Greene by Bodley Head in 1964.[29] Sinyard compares the dark, early Cold War visions of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and The Third Man (1949)[30]; as well as describing Greene and Chaplin in his introduction as ‘two of the most universal and cosmopolitan artists of the twentieth century’, who were curiously both buried in the same region of Switzerland.[31] In a 1984 interview, Martin Amis reported that ‘Greene’s accent is ‘now thoroughly European and the ‘R’s are candidly Gallic’.’[32]

He saw political Europeanism as having potential. Again, in the 1980s, Greene said: ‘I can only hope that Europe will be strong enough to stand between the two rather similar cultures – Russia and the United States.’[33] He went onto speak of wanting a ‘neutral’ Europe, which could stand up against and modify the imperialism of the US.[34] The Ostpolitik agenda of Willy Brandt in the 1970s and French departure from NATO were examples of independent moves within the détente era and there were hopes for the Western European anti-Soviet ‘Eurocommunism’ movement, as conveyed in the Conference of Communist and Workers Parties of Europe, held in East Berlin from 29-30 June 1976. This conference featured 29 of the European Communist parties from Europe apart from Iceland and Albania. TIME magazine included a rather alarmist lead news story, highlighting the Italian influence.

ITALY THE RED THREAT 14-06-76

In November 1988, using the discouraging example of the USA, Greene claims that ‘the United States of Europe (a whole Europe) can never exist’, criticising the EU’s French, German and UK-centric nature and lack of true unity, and also arguing that judicial systems are too diverse for a united Europe.[35] Despite these criticisms of the then-European Communities, it seems impossible that Greene would have ultimately sided with the Brexiteers, given their notably anti-cosmopolitan campaign and the ‘little England’ isolationism they ignited.

boris-johnson-vote-leave-campaigner
An “underdog” ‘against’ the establishment!

[1]  Greene, G. (1974) The Honorary Consul. London: Penguin, p.208

[2] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.228

[3] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.57

[4] Couto, M. (1988) On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the novels of Graham Greene. London: Macmillan Press, p.149

[5] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.18

[6] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.248

[7] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.201

[8] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) A Life in Letters. London: Abacus, p.290

[9] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.133

[10] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.137

[11] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.214

[12] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.262

[13] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.44

[14] The Times (1968) ‘Mr Healey sees new realism in policy: proud to continue’, The Times, 26th January, p.6

[15] Currie, M. (1968) ‘Aftermath of defence cuts’, The Times, 23rd January, p.9

[16] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.261

[17] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.25

[18] Crystal, D. ‘Going Especially Careful: Language Reference in Graham Greene’ in: Gilvary, D. & Middleton, D.J.N. (2011) Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene. London: Continuum, pp.128-48

[19] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., pp.91-2

[20] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.71

[21] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.267

[22] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.45

[23] Greene, G. (1990) Reflections. London: Reinhardt Press, p.268

[24] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.270

[25] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.269

[26] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.269

[27] Greene, G. (2005) Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin, p.444

[28] Greene, G. (2005) ibid., p.443

[29] Sinyard, N. ‘Graham Greene and Charlie Chaplin’ in: Gilvary, D. & Middleton, D.J.N. (2011) Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene. London: Continuum, p.252

[30] Sinyard, N. (2011) ibid., p.252

[31] Sinyard, N. (2011) ibid., p.250

[32] Amis, M. (1984) ‘Graham Greene at eighty’, The Observer, 23rd September, p.7

[33] Couto, M. (1988) ibid.., p.211

[34] Couto, M. (1988) ibid.., p.211

[35] Greene, G. (1991) Yours Etc. Letters to the Press. London: Penguin, p.250

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