“You cannot have unilateral disarmament […] It’d be national suicide” – representation of the Ban the Bomb debate in ESPIONAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Establishment men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Heroes fit for homes”: ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES… and wars hot and Cold

Series 01.06 ‘The Russians are Coming’
TX: BBC-1, Tuesday 13/10/1981

Knowing our luck, there won’t even be a bloody war…

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In 1981, Only Fools and Horses… wasn’t yet a “national institution”, or the “best-loved” British sitcom, as Samsung’s November 2017 poll indicated. (1) This first series of the sitcom averaged 7.7 million viewers and the audience’s Reaction Index had a mean of 70, increasing from the first episode’s 62: emphasising how John Sullivan’s sitcom was gradually finding its audience. (2) The finest episode of its first series was an unusually focused look at domestic implications of the Cold War.

The episode was shown in the midst of the ‘Second Cold War’; the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, while Reagan had been elected as a more bellicose US President in November 1980. In the same year, Cold War ‘doom’-pop had included Kate Bush’s ‘Breathing’, UB40′ and ‘The Earth Dies Screaming’ and The Fun Boy Three’s ‘The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)’ was due in November 1981. The BFI filmed a poetry performance at Chelsea Old Town Hall on 15th April 1981 named Poets Against the Bomb, capturing anti-nuclear poems from the likes of Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, Judith Kazantzis, Harold Pinter and a drily humorous Ivor Cutler. Panorama had addressed the subject ‘If the Bomb Drops’ very early (TX: BBC-1, 10/03/1980).

Only Fools… got to the topic sooner than The Young Ones (‘Bomb’, TX: BBC-2, 30/11/1982), or, indeed, the science-fiction spin-off from Play for Today, Play for Tomorrow – Caryl Churchill’s opening episode ‘Crimes’ (TX: BBC-1, 13/04/1982) featured Dave Hill as a mendacious seller of nuclear shelters. It also got there sooner than Q.E.D.‘s ‘A Guide to Armageddon’ (TX: BBC-1, 26/05/1982), which was followed by The Underground Test (TX: BBC-2, 28/05/1982), where two London couples each volunteered to carry out a ten-day ‘consumer test’ – underground in a nuclear shelter. The programme showed the results of this experiment, which had taken place in the cold Winter of 1981/82.

In ‘The Russians Are Coming’, the Trotter household self-assemble a nuclear fall-out shelter – using stolen lead worth £1,000. The notably all-male family dramatise arguments about nuclear weapons, with Del the voice of complacency and Rodney articulating the explicit and bleak official ‘guidance’ people were being given, as in the public information film, Protect and Survive (1976).

As with Steptoe and Son (1962-74), the lack of women is tangibly felt. We are presented with now-retrograde, then-typical dialogue outlining sexual fantasies (leading to Del describing Rodders as a “sicko” and “pervo”) and nationality stereotyping (“Paddies”). It can be argued that this roots such a sitcom in the naturalistic flavour of its times.

Both Del and Rodney question how they’d know the “four minute warning” was starting, considering that no-one had been informed what the sound was. This reflects how much of the official advice and guidance on nuclear war seemed insufficient and even pointless, considering the cataclysmic main effects of such a war.

However, Del Boy argues for the character-building nature of war, paraphrasing Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854): “Mine is not to reason why / Mine is but to sell and buy”. He argues that British youth have always needed “a decent war” and that the current younger generation are starved of a war, in this age of computerisation; “they’re doing their National Service on the Space Invaders!” Computer games provide a poor surrogate, in his view. He then speaks of “real war”, using wholly film examples: of Errol Flynn and Kenneth More.

Grandad responds to Del Boy’s claims of these film wars as “Glorious, valiant war, that!”: “Don’t talk like a berk, Del Boy”. He speaks of how, as a “nipper”, he saw soldiers marching off to serve in WW1 and how his brother George was at Passchendale. He brings in personal reminiscences and facts to challenge Del’s second-hand culturally-formed view of war: “Nigh on a half million allied troops died there all for five miles of mud”. He explains the reality of soldiers returning home as maimed, gassed victims.

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GRANDAD:
They promised us homes fit for heroes…

They gave us heroes fit for homes…

Grandad is allowed ample time to make his points here: a sign that sitcoms were willing to countenance straight, serious monologues as part of their arsenal. At no point in Lennard Pearce’s long oration does he try to elicit a single laugh. This monologue is used as a centre-piece of the episode, stating harsh truths about war in the twentieth-century. The episode’s dominant mode of fatalistic gallows humour is immeasurably strengthened by Sullivan’s decision to make the episode just not funny for such a long stretch.

Rodney, who’d silenced Del to allow Grandad to speak, presses home the assault: “I’d never wear a British uniform on principle”. This elicits the first laugh for a while, as he explains the reason; not due to high ideals, but that he’d want to avoid being shot at by Russians. However, Rodney sports a UK Decay band t-shirt; his affinity for this Luton post-punk band, with links to the radical likes of the Dead Kennedys and Crass, does connote his broad sympathies for the counter-culture. He reels off knowledge of the scarcity of resources a nuclear war would bring, and shows awareness of the effects of Strontium 90 and of radiation: causing mutations.

Rodney and Del seem to take comfort in their alone being safe; a sense of exceptionalism that rings increasingly hollow as the final shot depicts the location of their nuclear shelter as directly annexed to their tower-block. The sense that Sullivan is aiming for Oh! What A Lovely War bleakness Grandad’s “War is Hell”. Jingoism is rooted in film representations indicated to be false; the Falklands War was still half a year away. Ironically, however, both Grandad and Rodney can only recall the “War is Hell” quote as being from cinema, speculating on whether it was Alan Ladd, Audie Murphy or Rock Hudson who said it.

(1) Anon. (2017) ‘Revealed: Britain’s favourite sitcom’, Mid Sussex Times, 21st November.

(2) Jan Hewson (1982) Audience Research Report: ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES…, BBC WAC, VR/81/341, 22nd January

 

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

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

Sunday 19th June 2016

Plymouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does my hawkishness look reassuring in this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 18th June 2016

Plymouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie Howard.gif
That wondrous gif image of the lad Leslie

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

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

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

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

Dragon School Oxford.jpg

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

eminent dragons.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE THE BULLETS FLY

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

otley

DANGER ROUTE

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

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

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

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

Callan

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

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

Tightrope2d Secret Service

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

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

Ben Wishaw

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

1985omelette1

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

TEL

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

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

tinkertailor

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

JOHN HURT

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

Sean Connery - Vince's

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

ROOM AT THE TOP - UK Poster

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

time magazine

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

“Spying on Spies” Day 3: Of British dystopias and battleaxes

The final day of the conference began, with my delivering my paper on Dennis Potter’s ‘Traitor’ – downloadable here. It was not quite an easy task doing this first thing at 9.30am, after a fair few drinks the previous evening… but ample practice and the excellent conference facilities made it all a relative breeze.

DEFENCE OF THE REALM

Following my 21-minute ‘oratory’, was Paul Lynch (University of Hertfordshire, GB). His paper was an especially fascinating disquisition on the British conspiracy thriller: the chief instances being 1986 films Defence of the Realm and The Whistle Blower and The Fourth Protocol (1987). Lynch’s readings were in the light of ‘LABOUR ISN’T WORKING’-‘GOTCHA’ and Thatcher, and the 1982 security scandal, with ‘mini-Watergates opening up from Westminster to Wapping’. He contextualised this is an era where CND had 110,000 members and were considered an ‘enemy within’ alongside the miners. He referred to Christopher Andrew’s 2009 history of MI5 which discussed widespread fears of Soviet infiltration in the early 1980s. The film of Defence… is considered as a sort of British Parallax View for paranoid times, starring gaunt Gabriel Byrne. His Nick Mullen takes on the establishment, with London as a metaphor and a Leviathan British state, reflecting permanency, power and defiance. The film presents ‘asinine, faceless neighbours’ and a bureaucratic machine described as ‘Kafkaesque’.

THE FOURTH PROTOCOL

Lynch went into a discussion of The Fourth Protocol, focusing on the contesting of ideologies in production of this thriller, the novel of which was by Frederick Forsyth, whose politics were, as Lynch states, ‘to the right of Genghis Khan!’ He mentions that in Moscow there was a palpable sense that the early-mid 1980s Labour Party could be an ally, which fed into Forsyth’s right-wing paranoid vision of a Britain on the edge of left-wing revolution. The novel was adapted by George Axelrod, screenwriter who adapted key work of ‘First Cold War’ paranoia, The Manchurian Candidate, twenty-five years earlier. Lynch referred to John MacKenzie being very much on the other side of the political divide to Forsyth and the thriller writer being in despair when he watched a rough cut of the film in the editing suite, seeing how far MacKenzie had taken it from his vision. Odd considering that steadfast conservative Michael Caine had made the original suggestion to FF to film it, and had taken up a key role.

THE WHISTLE BLOWER

Caine also features in The Whistle Blower, which Lynch compares to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, with its central Caine and Nigel Havers characters bearing the common-sense English name of ‘Jones’. Lynch reflected on the symbolic, evocative casting of John Gielgud and James Fox. His reading of the film is that it is in part a response to the Orwell-like dystopian measures of the Thatcher government in its mid-1980s authoritarian populist pomp. He sees te film as depicting the sacrifice of British interests to get US protection and that American influence has shattered the peace of rural Britain. It should be noted that the film was released in UK cinemas in December 1986; that January had seen the Westland crisis, which had seen conservative tensions over American dominance come to the fore.

Lynch quoted the opening from Hal Hinson’s Washington Post review of this film: ‘By now an atmosphere of subdued tension, of hushed, behind-the-hand conversations and clandestine street-corner meetings, is as indigenous to British films as Wellingtons and brollies. If the cinema is any gauge, espionage, double-agenting and secrets trading are to England what baseball is to America — a national pastime and, for some, an obsession.’ Then Michael Denning was cited regarding the influence of news stories on how we think. He posed the crucial central question regarding the impact of secret service activities on nationhood: ‘Yet what sort of society is preservable?’ This paper got me wanting to urgently watch these films, a task not yet achieved, but awaiting future holidays…!

Alan Burton (Universitat Klagenfurt, AUSTRIA) opened with a question: how many in the room had seen Game, Set and Match, YTV’s 1988 adaptation of the first trilogy from Len Deighton’s triple-trilogy of novels? Of the twenty or so at least reasonably specialist folk present, only two hands went up. Burton created the sense of this series as banished to a critical oblivion, as well as obscurity. The trilogy of trilogies, featuring a new Deighton anti-hero protagonist, Bernard Samson, sold 40million books worldwide. The 13-part series was broadcast in October-December 1988, with episodes 1-5 set in Berlin, 6-10 in Mexico and 11-13 in London.

SPY STORY 1976

In terms of adapted Deighton, only lesser known now is Spy Story, a 1976 film directed by Canadian exploitation helmsman, Lindsay Shonteff, which Burton mentioned. Deighton was said to have wanted G, S & M to match the ‘quality’ of serial adaptations Brideshead Revisited (1981) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984). GS&M claimed a budget of £5million to be the most expensive British TV drama to date; it also boasted filming in Bolton, Lancashire, Nether Alderley, Cheshire and genuine locations like ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ in Berlin. Another curio was that star Ian Holm – second choice to Anthony Hopkins – boasted to have been in 709 of its total of 711 scenes. His performance and stamina were praised.

Otherwise, the reaction was generally dire. ‘A mess’ and ‘a disaster’, said the New York Times. Film director, novelist and critic Chris Petit in The Times criticised the bizarre casting, where ‘no-one is as one imagined them in Deighton’s novel’. Deighton himself ranted against this adaptation – ‘the tall become short; the brunettes blonde’ and bought back the rights to prevent any subsequent re-transmission. However, Burton noted its high IMDb average rating and that it could be seen as a last gasp of this sort of leisurely serial on British television, pre-1990 Broadcasting Act. He also noted plans – reported in 2013 – by Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy in collaboration with Deighton to bring back the ‘Bond with Brains’ protagonist Samson, with a new adaptation.

Greene - THE HUMAN FACTOR

This fascinating panel was rounded off by Oliver Buckton (Florida Atlantic University, USA), with one of very few conference papers focused on Graham Greene, or more specifically, Greene’s The Human Factor and its 1979 film adaptation. The novel, commenced in the 1960s, was finally finished by 1978. He had stayed at Fleming’s ‘Goldeneye’ residence, but refused to write a Bond intro. Buckton states that Greene mocks Bond through the Davis character, and that Maurice Castle’s childhood belief in a dragon is analogised to Bond, ‘in Greeneland, a figure of myth or mockery’. Buckton mentions how this novel was delayed due to the Philby affair coming out, though Castle is a ‘typical office worker’, with no resemblance to Philby. He notes the novel’s ‘unglamorous settings’ and sites it in context of the establishment’s ‘nightmare of scandal’, from Vassall to Philby to the Portland Spy Ring.

THE HUMAN FACTOR 1980

The film was adapted by Tom Stoppard; Buckton showed a clip with a very prosaic, mundane office setting – complete with the banality of Impega box-files. The shift to South African settings reflects a remove from dull routine. Buckton analyses designer Saul Bass’ opening credits, with the focus on an old-fashioned telephone line being severed; this is analogised to the film’s core relationship being hanging by a thread. It was left a moot question just how deeply this film reflected Apartheid South Africa and its relation to the Cold War.

Q&A:

Oldham started with a question for Lynch, on whether there was influence from Deighton and JLC on these conspiracy thrillers. Lynch argued that JLC was a strong influence, mentioning the reactions to the TTSS TV adaptation of 1979. Phyllis Lassner alluded to Deighton being described by thriller scholar and writer Julian Symons as a ‘poet of the genre’ and how Graham Greene downplayed the significance of his spy thrillers by describing them as mere ‘entertainments’. She then asked the panel whether these writers and John le Carré are now part of the literary canon. Buckton mentioned that, by the time of THF, Greene had given up the distinction between his ‘literary’ novels and ‘entertainments’, reflecting a clear change in critical mood. Burton mentioned that there’s often been a critical distinction: between Greene and JLC, seen by critics as having ‘credibility’ due to being involved in the secret services, and Deighton and Eric Ambler, who weren’t involved. This was memorably described as a ‘degrees of MI6-ness’ test fallen back on by critics to a perhaps problematic extent. I referred to Le Mesurier’s Adrian Harris being described by Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian as his ‘Hamlet’ – showing how the spy is the pivotal tortured modern figure analogous to Shakespearean heroes. As well as that Le Mesurier was viewed in the lineage of the literary and theatrical canon.

Reference could have been made to TTSS’s secure position within the TV canon, alongside I, Claudius, the aforementioned Granada adaptations of Waugh and Scott, and challenging works such as Boys from the Black Stuff (1982), Edge of Darkness (1985) and The Singing Detective (1986). No one dissent from, say, Matthew Sweet’s view that Alec Guinness’ Smiley is a great and tragic creation.[1] This canonical TV drama was to feature in the conference’s final keynote.

Lynch quoted the noted Greek-French director Costa-Gavras – “You don’t catch flies with vinegar” – saying that conspiracy films often come in for a lot of criticism as they conclude by saying: “it’s all a conspiracy; we don’t really know who to blame”. He quoted film critic John Hill on how this perception undermines these films and the depth of political comment they often make. He again quoted Hill – “A film that isn’t seen is not a film” – to explore how these films are caught between the imperative to make political points and the need to find a mainstream audience.

HIGH TREASON

On this subject, I could’ve mentioned Boulting Brothers’ High Treason (1951), as an early, ‘first Cold War’ instance of the conspiracy thriller. This film is one of the clearest British examples of the ‘red plot’ narrative, with communist conspirators planning to hijack power supplies and bring the British economy to its knees. This film, insightfully analysed by Tony Shaw, was a sequel to Seven Days to Noon (1950), which I have yet to see![2]

There was a question for Buckton on the ideological dimension of the South African sequence – the character in the book not being a communist but an anti-colonialist. Buckton referred to personal loyalties being foregrounded, with Connolly not taking political sides. Anti-Bondness is there throughout Greene’s career, and his association with Philby. In the film of THF, Castle’s reasons for espionage get occluded, in comparison with the novel. There’s more focus on his relationship with Sarah and a glamorised.

Toby Manning made the point that often there’s a lack of focus on the issue of motivation. He referred to JLC’s critique of Greene’s writing a foreword for Philby’s autobiography and then that Greene wrote a sort of Philby novel without going into the political motivation. He mentioned the extreme lengths to which many go to deny communism was a genuine ideological motivation for betrayal – e.g. it’s omitted as a motive for Bill Haydon in TTSS – and asked me whether this was also glossed over in ‘Traitor’. I mentioned Raymond Williams’ review, saying that the play denies the 1930s international context, with Potter focusing on the domestic politics of unemployment and class. There was further discussion about Castle and Haydon both being anti-American rather than explicitly leftist; I commented on this issue in relation to Potter here.

I was then asked by Christa Van Raalte about the parallels between Philby and Harris in ‘Traitor’; for her, the differences stood out, with Harris being wistful, lonely and isolated, in comparison to the garrulous descriptions of Philby, post-defection. I quoted Williams again on Potter’s ‘cold, alienated method’ in showing Harris as insular and isolated, in a shabby flat in Moscow… I mentioned the key scene where he argues with the journalists about materialism in his bare flat – stating that his setting is unimportant and that they’re imposing western bourgeois value judgements on him. I concluded by that Potter ultimately isolates him in an attempt to discredit the Philby-type character. And this finished a panel that, irrespective of my own involvement, I found the most fascinating of any at the conference.

30-40 people were left by near-lunchtime on Saturday for the final speaker: Rosie White (Northumbria University, UK) gave a paper on women, ageing and espionage. This used useful initial stimuli, from Sontag’s essay on ageing as a ‘moveable doom’ to Dan Gibson cartoons, to introduce and contest the idea of older women as property of depreciating value. The ideal cover for being a spy. White spoke of the Melita Norwood case, where she was unveiled as a Soviet spy in 1999, aged 87; this was depicted in the British media as an almost Ealing comedy-esque ‘harmless eccentricity’, which may seem oddly appropriate given Matthew Sweet’s argument in Shepperton Babylon that Ealing was actually rather radical and left-wing in a lot of ways. She mentioned an interesting sounding biography and novel about Norwood.

Rooney - RED JOAN

Gilman - THE UNEXPECTED MRS POLLIFAX

Another long-lived old lady, Dorothy Gilman, a New Jersey, wrote 14 novels featuring Mrs Emily Pollifax, a 60-year old spy. Gilman is argued to depict this older woman figure as a disrupter of certainty; she is eccentric and unstable as well as drawing on great resourcefulness and experience. The character has featured in two adaptations: the Rosalind Russell-starring and scripted film Mrs Pollifax-Spy (1971) and, for television, The Unexpected Mrs Pollifax (1999).

MRS POLLIFAX - SPY 1971

TTSS - Beryl Reid

White extended the thesis by analysing Connie Sachs in the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy . Sachs as a human archive, ‘the memory of the Circus’, based on the real-life MI5 operative Milicent Bagot (1907-2006). Bagot had been the first person to warn MI5 about Philby’s previous membership of the Communist Party, and had also written an account of the ‘Zinoviev Letter’ scandal of 1924 that had unseated the first ever Labour government.

White showed a clip from TTSS – later acclaimed by Toby Manning as the ‘best scene ever on British television’. White analysed Reid’s roles ‘problematised typical gender roles’: eccentric performances in The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954) and The Killing of Sister George (1968) – and could surely have added the bizarre Psychomania (1973) to this litany. There was discussion of how ‘queer’ used to be associated with counterfeit: ‘queer money’, referenced as early as 1740, according to the OED. White spoke of how Sachs is all Smiley is not: she is fit, engaged and utterly vindicated by the narrative; representing a model of how we might want to age. The depiction in Smiley’s People has shifted to chair-bound, weaker and more deeply aged. White mentioned she liked the Alfredson version of TTSS, and that Kathy Burke’s Connie was more pathetic and less angry than Reid’s.

Q&A:

Judi Dench’s Q in Bond films and Nicola Walker’s Ruth in Spooks were compared, as strict head-girl types, and are later placed in the context of Stella Rimington, DG of MI5 from 1992-96.

There was mention of cultural pressures to ‘keep young’ and the disturbing sense that pensions are being reduced and downgraded. There was a reference to how no-one has done ‘Old Bond’, which got me thinking about the melancholy, slow-burning Play for Today: ‘The General’s Day’ (1972), with Alastair Sim as its fading old reprobate of a titular protagonist. This tallied with a later comment: ‘not to be sexual in the twentieth century is a bit queer’. If women married, they would be stricken from the BBC and the British secret service. Gender re-appropriations include Salt (2010) with a married woman protagonist, and Ed Brubaker’s comic series, Velvet (2013- ), with Bond reimagined as a female secretary.

VELVET

Questioning led to a return to James Chapman’s concern with The Lady Vanishes: Miss Foy being more than just a ‘little old lady’. There was mention of strong elder character in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) – Marjorie Fielding? – and I inevitably also thought of the remarkable Katie Johnson performance in that vital British film The Lady Killers (1955). White pertinently mentioned a Guardian article by Lucy Mangan published on the day before this conference started: ‘Whatever happened to the Great British Battleaxe?’ wherein Mangan elaborated upon Alan Bennett’s recent comments bemoaning the cultural loss of this archetype.

The concluding remarks were brief and warm; there was a giveaway of Charles Cumming’s novel A Foreign Country; Manning not being especially complimentary about the writer, when comparing him with John le Carré! There was much talk of doing another such conference in 2016, which would be a fine prospect.

List of literary, film and television works referred to in the conference talks I attended:

LITERATURE: FICTION

Akunin, Boris – The Turkish Gambit (1998)
Boyd, William – Restless (2006)
Boyd, William – Solo (2013)
Bridge, Ann – A Place to Stand (1953)
Brubaker, Ed – Velvet (2013- )
Buchan, John – The Powerhouse (1916 – written 1913)
Buchan, John – The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
le Carré, John – The Russia House (1989)
le Carré, John – The Spy who came in from the cold (1963)
Childers, Erskine – The Riddle of the Sands (1903)
Conrad, Joseph – The Secret Agent (1907)
Cumming, Charles – A Foreign Country (2012)
Cumming, Charles – A Spy by Nature (2001)
Deighton, Len – The Ipcress File (1962)
Fleming, Ian – Casino Royale (1953)
Fleming, Ian – Dr No (1958)
Fleming, Ian – Goldfinger (1959)
Gilman, Dorothy – The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966)
Greene, Graham – The Heart of the Matter (1948)
Greene, Graham – The Human Factor (1978)
Greene, Graham – Our Man in Havana (1958)
Herge – The Adventures of Tintin: Red Rackham’s Treasure (1943)
Herge – The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun (1946-48)
Herge – The Adventures of Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls (1946-48)
Kipling, Rudyard – Kim (1900-01)
MacInnes, Helen – Above Suspicion (1941)
Maugham, W. Somerset – Ashenden (1928)
Moore, Alan – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999- )
Oppenheim, E. Phillips – Miss Brown of X. Y. O. (1927)
Pamuk, Orhan – The New Life (1997)
Pamuk, Orhan – My Name is Red (2001)
Pamuk, Orhan – The Black Book (1994)
Pynchon, Thomas – The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Pynchon, Thomas – Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
Ray, Satyajit – Feluda: A Bagful of Mystery
Ray, Satyajit – Feluda: The Criminals of Kailash
Rooney, Jennie – Red Joan (2013)
Schreyer, Wolfgang – Die Suche oder Die Abenteuer des Uwe Reuss (The Search) (1981)
Stoppard, Tom – Hapgood (1988)
Stoppard, Tom – Jumpers (1972)
Thürk, Harry – Der Gaukler (1978)

LITERATURE: NON-FICTION

Andrew, Christopher (2009) The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5
Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition
Baker, Brian (2012) ‘”You’re quite a gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?” : masculinity and food in the spy fiction of Len Deighton’, Yearbook of English Studies, July, 42, pp.30-48
Burke, David (2009) The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op: Melita Norwood and the Ending of Cold War Espionage
Burton, Alan (2016) Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction
Chapman, James (2007) Licence to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films
Denning, Michael (1987) Cover Stories: Narrative and Ideology in the British Spy Thriller
Greene, Graham (1980) Ways of Escape
Haffner, Sebastian (2000) Defying Hitler: A Memoir (*written 1940)
Halberstam, Judith (2011) The Queer Art of Failure
Hinson, Hal (1987) ‘The Whistleblower (PG)’, The Washington Post, 19th August [online] [accessed: 29/11/15]
Lanza, Joseph (2007) Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films
Mangan, Lucy (2015) ‘Whatever happened to the Great British Battleaxe’, The Guardian, 2nd September [online] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/02/battleaxe-alan-bennett-matriarch-extinction  [accessed: 29/11/15]
Moran, Christopher (2013) ‘Ian Fleming and the Public Profile of the CIA’, Journal of Cold War Studies, (15)1, p.119-46 (Winter)
Said, Edward W. (2000) – ‘Introduction’ to Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Penguin Classics
Sellers, Robert (2008) The Battle for Bond: second edition
Sontag, Susan (1972) ‘The double standard of ageing’, Saturday Review, 23rd March
White, Rosie (2007) Violent Femmes: Women as Spies in Popular Culture , Routledge

FILM

Above Suspicion (dir. Richard Thorpe, USA, 1943)
The Belles of St. Trinian’s
(dir. Frank Lauder, GB, 1954)
The Boston Strangler (dir. Richard Fleischer, USA, 1968)
A Bullet for Joey
(dir. Lewis Allen, USA, 1955)
Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, USA, 1942)
The Conspirators (dir. Jean Negulesco, USA, 1944)
The Defence of the Realm (dir. David Drury, GB, 1986)
Dr Goldfoot and the Girlbombs
(dir. Mario Bava, ITA/USA, 1966)
Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (dir. Jerry Paris, GB, 1968)
Double Indemnity (dir. Billy Wilder, USA, 1944)
Flight to Hong Kong
(dir. Joseph M. Newman, USA, 1956)
Foreign Correspondent (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1940)
Four Flies on Velvet (dir. Dario Argento, 1971
The Fourth Protocol
(dir. John MacKenzie, GB, 1987)
Goldginger
(dir. Giorgio Simonelli , ITA/SPA, 1965)
La Guerra Segreta, aka. The Dirty Game (dir. Christian-Jaque, Werner Kilinger, Carlo Lizzani & Terence Young, FRA/ITA/WGER/USA, 1965)
The House on 92nd Street (dir. Henry Hathaway, USA, 1945)
The Human Factor (dir. Otto Preminger, GB, 1979)
I Deal in Danger
(dir. Walter Grauman, USA, 1966)
I Was a Spy (dir. Victor Saville, GB, 1933)
International Lady
(dir. Tim Whelan, USA, 1941)
The Iron Curtain (dir. William A. Wellman, USA, 1948)
The Killing of Sister George (dir. Robert Aldrich, USA, 1968)
The Lady Has Plans
(dir. Sidney Lanfield, USA, 1942)
The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, GB, 1938)
The Lavender Hill Mob
(dir. Charles Crichton, GB, 1951)
The Leather Boys (dir. Sidney J. Furie, GB, 1964)
Liberation (dir. Yuri Ozerov,  SOV.U/EGER/YUG/ITA/POL, 1970-1)
Lisbon
(dir. Ray Milland, USA, 1956)
A Man Could Get Killed (dir. Ronald Neame & Cliff Owen, USA, 1966)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, GB, 1934)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1956)
Le mépris,
aka. Contempt (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, FRA/ITA, 1963)
Mission Bloody Mary
(dir. Sergio Grieco, ITA/SPA/FRA, 1965)
Mrs Pollifax-Spy (dir. Leslie H. Martinson, USA, 1971)
Modesty Blaise (dir. Joseph Losey, GB, 1966)
Night Train to Munich
(dir. Carol Reed, GB, 1940)
North by Northwest
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1959)
Notorious
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1946)
Operation Kid Brother
, aka. O.K. Connery (dir. Alberto Di Martino, ITA, 1967)
One Night in Lisbon (dir. Edward H. Griffith, USA, 1941)
A 008, operazione Sterminio (dir. Umberto Lenzi, ITA/EGY, 1965)
‘The Palace of a Thousand Lies’ (1941 – scenario)
The Parallax View (dir. Alan J. Pakula, USA, 1974)
Pickup on South Street
(dir. Samuel Fuller, USA, 1953)
Psychomania (dir.
Rome Express (dir. Walter Forde, GB, 1932)
Sabotage (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, GB, 1936)
Saboteur
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1942)
Salt
(dir. Philip Noyce, USA, 2010)
Secret Agent
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock, GB, 1936)
Secret Agent Fireball
, aka. The Spy Killers (dir. Luciano Martino, ITA/FRA, 1965)
Skyfall (dir. Sam Mendes, GB/USA, 2012)
The Snake Woman
(dir. Sidney J. Furie, GB, 1961)
The Spy in Black
(dir. Michael Powell, GB, 1939)
Spy Story
(dir. Lindsay Shonteff, GB, 1976)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
(dir. Martin Ritt, GB, 1965)
Superseven chiama Cairo
(dir. Umberto Lenzi, ITA/FRA, 1965)
36 Hours (dir. George Seaton, USA, 1964)
The Secret Door (dir. Gilbert Kay, USA/GB, 1964)
State Secret (dir. Sidney Gilliat, GB, 1950)
The Thirty-Nine Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, GB, 1935)
The Thomas Crown Affair (dir. Norman Jewison, USA, 1968)
Topaz
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1969)
Torn Curtain
(dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1966)
The W Plan
(dir. Victor Saville, GB, 1930)
The Whistle Blower
(dir. Simon Langton, GB, 1986)
Wonderful Life (dir. Sidney J. Furie, GB, 1964)
The Young Ones (dir. Sidney J. Furie, GB, 1961)

TV

The Americans (USA, FX, 2013- )
Brideshead Revisited (GB, Granada, 1981)
Callan
(GB, ABC/Thames, 1967-72)
Game, Set and Match(GB, YTV, 1988)
Homeland (USA, Showtime, 2011- )
Indian Summers
(GB, C4, 2015- )
The Jewel in the Crown (GB, Granada, 1984)
The Sandbaggers (GB, YTV, 1978-80)
Smiley’s People (GB, BBC, 1982)
Spooks (GB, BBC-1, 2002-11)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
(GB, BBC, 1979)
The Unexpected Mrs Pollifax (USA, CBS, 1999)
Das unsichtbare Visier (GDR, 1973-79)

[1] Sweet, M. (2005) Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema. London: Faber and Faber, pp.185-8

[2] Shaw, T. (2006) British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus. London: I.B. Tauris, pp.40-5

Dominic Sandbrook: Cameron’s Panglossian optimist

Review: Let Us Entertain You

(TX: 9pm, BBC-2, Wednesday 04/11/2015 – 25/11/2015)

Dominic Sandbrook3

‘A band, or a brand, that was quintessentially British’.

We can start with discounting this utter nonsense about The Beatles; for Dominic, a ‘quintessentially British band’ actually formed through Scouse, German and American influences, and whose art apparently can be reduced to export figures and business jargon: ‘brand’.

Several reviews of this unaccountably BBC-promoted historian’s book and TV show spin-off have been ill-informed. No, Daisy Goodwin, Sandbrook doesn’t ‘ingeniously’ find a link between the region’s metal-work industry and the growth of heavy metal. Jeremy Dellar has previously made exactly the same link but did not use it to make a simplistic and convoluted neo-liberal argument.[1] He also, as Matthew Cooper states, uses ‘the foundries of the West Midlands to stand for all industry in the area, much of which was far lighter work’, and that of the band only Tony Iommi worked in engineering.[2]

For Julia Raeside in The Guardian, it was an ‘enjoyable gallop through Britain’s pop-cultural output’.[3] For ’Andrew Billen in The Times, it was ‘the brainiest clip show ever’.[4] For Matt Baylis, ‘Dominic does us proud’.[5] Sally Newall in The Independent said that she ‘enjoyed the focus on the business side of things’.[6] Well, that’s just as well as that is all that Sandbrook is ultimately concerned with – his materialistic analysis gives Adorno’s ‘culture industry’ thesis a positive spin.

The TV show only has a very brief segment on Catherine Cookson, which Sweet regards as the most perceptive section of the book. This inspires Sweet to say that her work ‘may one day be rediscovered, as a portrait of a world as grindingly cruel as anything experienced by Winston Smith.’[7] This should have figured much more deeply in what was a scattershot TV series. Sweet implicitly critiques Sandbrook’s focus on money being the primary driving force behind culture by using the example of electric shock-baton technology, worth £59m a year to the British economy, just £18m less than the cultural industries (£76.9m.) as was reported by the government in January.[8] Far be it from Sandbrook to face our significant export, not of Harry Potter, but of cluster bombs and arms. Cooper explains that even on Sandbrook’s stat-based terms, he is wrong to state the economic case so strongly. While creative industries have been an increased percentage of our economy and exports since 2008, they are significantly exceeded by manufacturing areas such as aircraft, machinery and pharmaceuticals, while computers, gaming and advertising are the ‘creative industries’ sector’s strength.[9]

Boyd Tonkin ruefully sees Sandbrook’s work as neglecting the Port Talbots of this world, siting it in the context of current steelworks closures.[10] Sandbrook is even criticised by Charlotte Heathcote in the UKIP-supporting Express for his parochialism: ‘Early on he suggests that France has offered nothing to “the global imagination” aside from Asterix and Le Petit Prince.’[11] He is defended by Simon Copeland of The Sun, who laps up the smug nationalism of Sandbrook’s argument: ‘there is no French equivalent of The Beatles. No Jean-Paul, George and Ringo, if you like’.[12] Heathcote, however, acidly critiques Sandbrook’s tendency to ‘measure artists’ worth by how they would stand up to the values espoused by Victorian writer Samuel Smiles’.

Sandbrook’s series does not dissect the ‘conservative anarchism’ that Alwyn W. Turner identifies as a focus of the book.[13] Indeed, the series tends to venerate a buccaneering capitalism with minimal if any focus on the more chaotic consequences of business values, and co-opts all manner of texts in the service of a docile ‘traditional’ Britishness rooted in Victorianism. Turner rightly focuses on how Sandbrook’s hatred for John Lennon leads him into a simplistic biographical reading of ‘Imagine’, not allowing for how audiences may interpret it, as with a recent pro-democracy usage of it in Hong Kong protests.

Ekow Eshun notes Sandbrook’s avoidance of more ‘serious, popular and contentious’ currents in British culture – from Nick Drake to Peter Greenaway to Pop Art to Brutalism to rave to Madchester – along with an ignoring of black and Asian creative figures.[14] Eshun identifies Sandbrook’s privileging of a bland, exclusive culture: ‘It’s a picture of Britain the Victorians would surely approve of’. He also tellingly chides Sandbrook’s price of everything, value of nothing attitude: ‘The impact of the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ is dismissed because it was outsold by Rod Stewart’s ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ in the summer of 1977, as if chart position is the inviolate marker of cultural influence’.

Erstwhile Euston Manifesto signatory Nick Cohen mounts a persuasive critique of Sandbrook’s neglect to mention the dearth of quality theatre today: ‘The post-war generation produced three great playwrights in John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Now, Britain has no great playwrights.’[15] He also criticises Sandbrook as ‘he does not explain why the hunger has disappeared from so much of television or worry that we are becoming mediocre and predictable.’ Sandbrook is indeed Panglossian in his populist optimism, with Cohen pointing out that of Sandbrook’s ‘success stories’, only J.K. Rowling is contemporary and producing original work.

Dominic Sandbrook1

In LUEY, a vast range of examples is shoe-horned into a banal, wrong-headed argument: from J. Arthur Rank to Twiggy to Chris Blackwell to T.H.White to McGoohan’s The Prisoner to Monica Ali to that purveyor of an ‘outstandingly pessimistic view of human nature’, Agatha Christie. All are pressed into the service of The Argument. Fictional characters from Billy Bunter to Billy Fisher are cajoled into daft concert, into discordant tune. Indeed, schoolboys Brown, Bunter, Jennings and Potter are all conflated, as if there is basically little difference between them. Episode 2 doesn’t even have an argument, just a fawning admiration for the public school and country house in British culture. There is much to be said on the entrenched conservatism of British intellectual culture, 1945 onwards, with Waugh, Smedley, Hayek and others keeping alive the old Conservatism or forging new Liberal Right tendencies. But Sandbrook doesn’t say it. You may just want to consult Robert Hewison or Dick Hebidge on such issues, as DS simply shows a fan’s adulation for the Granada Brideshead Revisited.

He entirely glosses over the serious tensions there have been between Burkean, nationalistic conservatism and the sort of free market, anarchistic capitalism unleashed by Thatcher. There is no focus on conservative anarchism, beyond a weak reprise near the end of episode 2 of Jonathan Coe’s arguments in the LRB about satire.[16] Thatcher-favoured historian Martin J. Wiener’s arguments around the loss of the technological and industrial spirit from 1850-1980 are neglected, other than a reference to Tolkein’s negative portrayal of factories corrupting the Shire at the end of Lord of the Rings: “their [the Hobbits’] pastoral Eden has gone”.[17] David Edgerton’s counter-argument that we were technologically advancing, but only in the direction of a bloated, militaristic ‘Warfare State’, are ignored to an even greater extent.[18]

He misses the vast debates this country has seen over Americanisation. His examples of British success stories, the games Grand Theft Auto and Elite, are, as Cooper has noted, far from being culturally British, unless that it is to say that British has been Americanised. Another major shadow cast is the influence of Europe, which may as well have had no impact in terms of food and fashion; for example, no reference to the Beatles as wearing German or, indeed, American fashions.

Dominic Sandbrook2 - THE BEATLES

No, for Sandbrook, it’s all ‘quintessentially British’. He does not face the impact of Suez, or of Britain’s becoming a country uneasily adapting to its status as a de facto satellite of the USA, with war debts not to be paid off until 2006.

Sometimes, he does focus on significant moments; he rightly hones in on the Rolling Stones’ landed gentry aspirations and business acumen. And he highlights the 2002 Jubilee event at Buckingham Palace, where the likes of Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams and Madness in effect genuflected before monarchy. He rightly identifies that this was not monarchy debasing itself but pop neutering itself. However, typically, Sandbrook celebrates this ‘triumph of privilege over pop’. It is a fitting he does, such is his fetishizing of data and blandness; such is his utter neglect not just of global contexts but also of the less comfortable, edgier nature of British culture. He simplifies what he likes; he ignores what he doesn’t.

Regional, class or gender identities are all neglected in favour of Sandbrook’s adherence to the myth of the mighty, autonomous individual. You could have a drinking game based on how many references there are to Richard Arkwright and Samuel Smiles. You could also do serious damage to your health by taking a drink every time he brings up a tenuous connection or misses the point entirely about a cultural item: to say the Beatles saw things entirely in business or monetary terms is idiocy, to discuss Bob Marley’s music without reference to ideology is grotesque.

There is no sense of the idiosyncrasies of different eras – there’s a somewhat Marxist sense of historical inevitability about his narrative of us as a nation perennially defined by popular culture and hard graft, with any uncomfortable contrasts kept out of the story. He misses the richness of British culture. For Sandbrook, subcultures may well never have existed. You will wait in vain for the following: pre-1910 music hall, post-punk, the music print culture around Melody Maker and the NME, early Channel 4, Play for Today, social realism on TV and film, besides tokenistic reference to Billy Elliot and Trainspotting (both used in service of The Argument). Art schools are tellingly downplayed by their only mention in a critical broadside against his bête noire, John Lennon. There is no sense that we might have produced artifacts as interesting as The Ipcress File, 7-Up or Rock Follies.

Dominic Sandbrook - KATE BUSH AND THE BRIT SCHOOL

Sandbrook absurdly associates Kate Bush with the BRIT school; the soundtrack crassly uses Nick Drake over footage of the country house and public school ‘ideal’. He claims that 1970s audiences preferred Upstairs, Downstairs to the 3 Day Week, without analysing why this latter political event occurred, or acknowledging that LWT’s period drama is a lot more nuanced and complex than the traditionalist Toryism he takes it as embodying. This was a series which took in the bleakness of WW1, as well as issues like the General Strike in its final 1920s-set series. Its heart is closer to Hampstead liberalism than Grantham conservatism, yet Sandbrook seems to assume that it is more Hudson’s story than Rose Buck’s story, which is simply not the case. The preferred reading is increasingly critical of Hudson as the series develops and is not uncritically supportive of social hierarchies.

He takes Doctor Who and the Doctor to represent ‘liberal interventionism’, as if the mercurial Patrick Troughton or the often countercultural Sylvester McCoy can be so easily pigeonholed… Even Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is rather more a haughty, clubbable conservative than a Tony Blair-style crusader-come-shyster… The Third Doctor’s preaching is more varied than DS allows; he knows Mao Zedong as well as Francis Drake and an overarching tendency to moan about bureaucracy in that very 1970s way. Philip Sandifer has identified the 1977 Tom Baker serial ‘The Sunmakers’ as ’punk’; heaven forbid that Sandbrook considers fringe or subcultural influences![19]

And, oh, is Sandbrook proud of his ‘facts’; he would have done better to focus his study of British culture on the very obsession with empiricism and mistrust of ideas he shows. Yes, one third of the population visit a country house; however, unlike a Perry Anderson or Raphael Samuel, he doesn’t go on to interrogate the myths or quite why there is such a cult of the old in the UK. LUEY isn’t so much the ‘history of great men’ or ‘history from below’, as history from the wallet. Or, from the noggin of Thomas Gradgrind.

He relishes phrases like ‘like all good populists’ and ‘missionary spirit’ and contestable assertions such as ‘we make stories better than anyone else’. While only offering that we have one basic story that is grindingly banal: social aspiration and hard work pays off for the individual. Mantra-like, this Daily Mail narrative pervades not just Conservative party neuro-linguistic propaganda but four full hours of BBC TV ‘history’ here. This programme may as well, as David Lichfield has said, been commissioned by David Cameron. For an organisation that has Adam Curtis, Jonathan Meades and Matthew Sweet at its disposal to allow this is genuinely saddening. It is a long way from Ways of Seeing (1972) and The Shock of the New (1980) to here.

At one stage in episode 4, he raises a salient point – ‘the growing power of individualism has come at a cost’ – but then doesn’t go on to say any more on the matter, like the Torian he is. For this historian equivalent of Cameron in politics and Cowell in entertainment, it always returns to the theme of a ‘land of opportunity’, British culture represented as a Smilesian Opportunity Knocks.

 

[1] Goodwin, D. (2015) ‘Britain’s got talent – How the ‘workshop of the world’ turned into its most successful purveyor of popular culture’, The Sunday Times, 4th October

[2] Cooper, M. (2015) ‘Telling Stories? Popular culture as the new British Empire’, We Need to Talk About Dominic, 10th November [online] https://weneedtotalkaboutdominic.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/telling-stories-popular-culture-as-the-new-british-empire/ [accessed: 20/12/15]

[3] Raeside, J. (2015) ‘Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You review’, The Guardian, 5th November, p.21

[4] Billen, A. (2015) ‘For popular culture, Britain’s the cat’s whiskers’, The Times, 5th November, p.10

[5] Baylis, M. (2015) ‘Dominic does us proud – Matt Baylis on last night’s TV’, The Express, 12th November, p.43

[6] Newall, S. (2015) ‘Sandbrook’s social history went beyond the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll clichés’, The Independent, 5th November, p.41

[7] Sweet, M. (2015) ‘The Great British Dream Factory by Dominic Sandbrook review – intellectual snobs beware’, The Guardian, 14th October

[8] Department for Culture, Media & Sport and The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP (2015) ‘Creative Industries worth £8.8 million an hour to UK economy’, Gov.UK, 13th January [online] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/creative-industries-worth-88-million-an-hour-to-uk-economy [accessed: 20/12/15]

[9] Cooper, M. (2015) ibid.

[10] Tonkin, B. (2015) ‘As old jobs die, the march of the makers of dreams goes on’, The Independent, 24th October

[11] Heathcote, C. (2015) ‘Downing of the culture vulture’, The Express, 25th September

[12] Goodwin, S. (2015) ‘The Great British Dream Factory: Review’, The Sun, 5th December

[13] Turner, A.W. (2015) ‘God save the anarchists’, The Daily Telegraph, 14th October

[14] Eshun, E. (2015) ‘A Case of Mistaken Identity’, The Independent, 3rd October

[15] Cohen, N. (2015) ‘The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook – review’, The Guardian, 23rd September

[16] Coe, J. (2013) ‘Sinking Giggling into the Sea’, London Review of Books, (35)14, 18th July http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n14/jonathan-coe/sinking-giggling-into-the-sea [accessed: 20/12/15]

[17] Wiener, M.J. (1981) English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[18] Edgerton, D. (2005) Warfare State: Britain 1920-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[19] Sandifer, P. (2014) Tardis Eruditorium: An Unofficial Critical History of Doctor Who, Volume V: Tom Baker and the Williams Years. Eruditorium Press, pp.34-44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE CONSPIRATORS

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

DAS UNSICHTBARE2

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

DAS UNSICHTBARE3

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

Q&A

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET

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

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

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

James Chapman

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

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

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

THE LADY VANISHES

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

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

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

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A:

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

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

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

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