“Somewhere in Northumbria, there is a herd of Guernsey cows barred from their favourite pasture because of intense radioactive contamination.”
Espionage was a 1963-64 series made by Lew Grade’s ITC; it featured a range of historical and contemporary stories. The former is represented by the Irish Easter Rising story ‘He Rises on Sunday, and We on Monday’ and the China-set period piece ‘The Dragon Slayer’. It’s an interesting mixed-bag of a 24-episode series, with no fewer than three episodes directed by the great British film director Michael Powell. ‘The Weakling’ (dir. Stuart Rosenberg) is the best of those Espionage episodes I’ve seen: Arnold Perl’s taut WW2 tale with the brilliantly cast pairing of Dennis Hopper and John Gregson.
Also good, if not quite as gripping, is the more contemporary Episode 4, inspired directly by acts of the British Committee of 100. ‘The Gentle Spies’ was shown in ITV’s prime-time Saturday night schedule at 8:55pm, followed by The Avengers at 9:50pm. Directed by 42 year-old Mancunian David Greene and written by 38 year-old New Yorker, Ernest Kinoy, ‘The Gentle Spies’ is a typically US-UK collaboration, but with a reasonably sure grasp of UK Cold War concerns; for example, there is reference to a recent protest against Polaris in Scotland. Greene was to go onto direct a mix of trashy and cult films, all rather neglected today: Sebastian (1967), The Strange Affair (1968), I Start Counting (1970) and Madame Sin (1972). The first of those is of Cold War relevance, while the preposterous, Bette Davis-starring last is one of the most absurd of all nuclear weapons scenario films.
This was broadcast exactly three weeks after the Soviets, Americans and British signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on 5th October; this marked a certain relaxation following the Cuban Missile Crisis-related tensions in 1962. The Treaty was one of the more tangible signs of Nikita Khrushchev’s policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’.
The episode depicts a civilised, largely urbane discourse between the UK government and the anti-bomb CND insurgency. While the peace campaigners are shown as able to commit the direct action of publishing sensitive details of nuclear policy and perform sit-ins, they are also represented by Lord Kemble (Alan Webb), a Bertrand Russell-esque Nobel Prize winner. The group’s breaking the Official Secrets Act by printing details is shown as an understandable move in the campaign to stop nuclear war: “GET YER OFFICIAL SECRETS ‘ERE!”
The establishment is embodied by Godfrey Quigley’s Grimsmith and he-of-the-brilliant-audio-book-voice Michael Hordern as an unnamed Conservative party ‘Minister’. They use Gerry Paynter (Barry Foster), who insinuates himself with the protesters by donning a duffle coat and a CND lapel badge.
Grimsmith says of the protesters, “I suppose they’re all communists […] beatniks, dupes, anarchists, perverts, theatre people?” Paynter responds by explaining that “a lot of them come from universities”. One amusingly RP-voiced hooligan declares: “I am a follower of Gandhi in international affairs only… In my private life, I’m as violent as the next man”. This evokes thoughts of the Mods and Rockers ‘moral panic’ that was to be stirred the following year in 1964.
However, the main spokesperson of the youth wing of the movement is Sheila O’Hare, a 23-year-old protester played by Angela Douglas 26 years before she’d play Doris, the wife of Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart in Doctor Who.
A protesters’ social is shown, wherein Sheila explains how they’re a decentralised group, without a leader: “There isn’t any head […] We’re very democratic…” Sheila also acts as lead vocalist in a jazz protest combo, singing ‘Who Cares’, a TW3-style satirical attack on the bomb: “There’s a big grey mushroom in the sky, why cry?” Its ironic sarcasm works on a different level to the more earnest folk music that you might expect from such a gathering. Other significant jazz contributions to the anti-nuclear theme include Charles Mingus’s ‘Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me’ (1961) and Sun Ra’s ‘Nuclear War’ (1982).
Sheila’s sardonic lyrical points are supplemented by her emotional arguments to Paynter and, later, the Minister and Grimsmith. Towards the episode’s climax, she is given a scathing speech:
“All we want is a future… A future world to make something decent out of… Something that looks like our dreams, our ideas… Not a radioactive wilderness with a lot of dying politicians muttering ‘I’m sorry’…”
Her sincerity and passion is also shown in her claim she would go to jail for “ten years” for this cause. This possibility gets to Dr/Lord Kemble, the patrician reasoner, who is referred to by the Minister as having “always” been “an odd bird”, from his days teaching his son through to his current status as dogged protester. Kemble offers to be locked up himself if the others would be allowed to go free.
Sharp note is taken of changes in language brought on by the age of the Bomb; as Kemble says, “I believe it’s what you call ‘Mega-kills’. Your estimate of the number of innocent people who will perish in a nuclear attack.” Use of this compounded neologism stresses how the lexicon has been infiltrated by a violent new lexis.
The core of the debate is shown to be, unsurprisingly, between a ‘responsible’ government and ‘idealistic’ protesters (living in a “dream-like world”) with Kinoy’s drama granting neither side an outright win. However, the Ban-the-Bomb lot do gain a moral victory, as it is revealed that the Minister’s wife is the one who has leaked the sensitive material. Sara Forsythe (played by Joan Hickson in pre-Marple days) has apparently read Lord Kemble’s arguments in the Times and been swayed enough to break the Official Secrets Act. There is the implication at the end that it will all be hushed up, so as to avoid the Minister’s embarrassment.
Overall, Sara isn’t really given enough agency or characterisation to be a substantial figure in the narrative, but she does say, “I think I got quite a thrill out of it all… Very cloak and dagger stuff”. And Angela Douglas is eloquent as the Voice of Youth. The episode does enough to be a solidly dramatised time capsule of arguments in its early 1960s era: which says much about what could be expected in prime-time ITV drama then.
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.’ Plarr questions myths of meliorism and progress: ‘we managed to produce Hitler and Stalin in one generation.’ 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.’ 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.’
Plarr’s father locks his doors against ‘military police and official assassins’ of the Paraguayan regime. 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’.
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.
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?’ 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.
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. 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’. 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.
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. 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.’ 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.’
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. 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. 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. 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.
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’.
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.’ David Crystal argues that a lack of shared language codes and understandings are a sign of trouble in Greene’s narratives.
This can be seen, for example, in Clara’s confusion of tenses when speaking English. 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. 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’ 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’. 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’. 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.’
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.’ Disloyalty, Greene suggests, ‘encourages you to roam through any human mind: it gives the novelist an extra dimension of understanding.’ 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.
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.’
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.
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. Sinyard compares the dark, early Cold War visions of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and The Third Man (1949); 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. In a 1984 interview, Martin Amis reported that ‘Greene’s accent is ‘now thoroughly European and the ‘R’s are candidly Gallic’.’
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.’ He went onto speak of wanting a ‘neutral’ Europe, which could stand up against and modify the imperialism of the US. 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.
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. 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.
 Greene, G. (1974) The Honorary Consul. London: Penguin, p.208
The blog of Robin Carmody. Liberal humanist, reformed ex-Stalinist and former anti-anti-anti-Semite, melancholy Europhile and romantic-ruralist socialist. Londoner by birth, Kentish Man by upbringing, Portlander by adoption. "More like Roy Harper than Fairport Convention" - Simon Reynolds, 2003. May be the horsiest Leftie in the Anglosphere, but there are many horsier ones beyond.