Play for Today at 50: Part #2 – ‘O Fat White Woman’ (1971)

“Come on, let’s be having you! Like a lot of good military English gentlemen!”

Major Digby-Hunter (Peter Jeffrey)
Figure 1: Major Digby-Hunter cajoles his Upton Grange charges (01:25)

Fifty years ago today, a strange, divisive Play for Today was broadcast. While not quite as out-there in its narrative or visual style as, say, The Bankrupt (1972), Steps Back (1973) or John McGrath’s two-part The Adventures of Frank (1980), it is an example of Play for Today’s abrasive modernism, reflected more widely in its incumbent title sequence, the musical ident of which was composed by Delia Derbyshire. This play is written by William Trevor, an Irish Protestant writer – like Shaw and Beckett – and a renowned short story writer and novelist, who was known as exceptionally good at delineating southern English characters. Of his novel The Old Boys (1964), Peter Porter claims: ‘This story of an obsessional school feud carried on into senility combined the grotesquery of Dickens with a scalpel-sharp awareness of the persistence of snobbery, cruelty and infantilism in English life.’[1]

O Fat White Woman (4 November 1971) is a brilliant example of Play for Today’s mainstay aesthetic form: primarily video-studio-shot, with some filmed inserts. It is directed by one of the strand’s most varied practitioners Philip Saville, responsible for the first Play for Today The Long Distance Piano Player (1970) and who would soon direct Barry Reckord’s incisive script of Jamaican inequality and geopolitics In the Beuatiful Caribbean (1972) and, later, with David Rose at Pebble Mill, Philip Martin’s incredible Gangsters (1975). It seems probable that Producer Irene Shubik commissioned William Trevor to write this, which later was published as a short-story within The Ballroom of Romance and Other Stories (Bodley Head, 1972). I am assuming then, that this was first conceived for Play for Today; please inform me, if you know otherwise! Shubik’s autobiography indicates this was shot in August 1971, which fits with the hazy summery quality of the filmed sequences.[2] Actor – and now Opera director – William Relton, who plays the key role of Wraggett, recalls it being a 3-4 week project including extensive rehearsals at North Acton and three days shooting at Television Centre at the end.[3] Relton recalls the experience very fondly, and director Philp Saville as being ‘very tanned and very kind’. However, Relton was only paid a fee of £75 for his work, which compared with £25 per week for his earlier performance in The Winslow Boy in the West End – Relton’s acting breakthrough – and £100 for Douglas Livingstone’s Armchair Theatre Competition (1971).

Trevor’s story is of Major Digby-Hunter (Peter Jeffrey), who, using his wife (Maureen Pryor)’s family fortune, has opened a boys’ preparatory school, Upton Grange. This ex-military martinet is proud of producing entrants into the major public schools of England, barring Eton – which he is targeting for Wraggett (William Relton). Digby-Hunter’s methods involve psychological and physical bullying; in Maths and Latin lessons his pupils appear a drilled, dehumanised unit. Digby-Hunter’s violence to Wraggett causes his death; this jolts Mrs Digby-Hunter into questioning her marriage.

Saville and Trevor’s Play for Today is video-studio-dominated: only 10 per-cent of its duration is filmed.[4] Contrasting with Saville’s style on The Long Distance Piano Player, the videoed sequences are faster than the filmed sequences: their mean Average Shot Lengths (ASL) are 10.6 and 13.3 respectively. Saville uses film sparingly to establish Upton Grange’s languid, festering social topography. It is unmistakably in the South of England but mythically vague as to where, in line with Major Digby-Hunter’s reeling off the names of the major English public schools – which he pushes his charges to get into – near the start. Saville uses visual and auditory effects to evoke the environment’s claustrophobia and pressure. His long, aerial take omnisciently surveys a classroom space that also includes beds, conveying that work overwhelms wellbeing within this coercive space:

Figure 2: The Upton Grange classroom (14:50).
Rounded effect is mine.

When the Major orchestrates the boys’ Latin recitations, Saville’s remorseless cutting mirrors his words: ‘This room is like a machine’. The effect remains, as William Relton says today, ‘terrifying’.[5] Later, Saville zooms slowly outwards from the Digby-Hunters’ monochrome marriage photograph, conveying Mrs Digby-Hunter’s mind-set during a party. Reverb-drenched choral music merges in the soundtrack with an organ and the indistinct hubbub of voices. A 24-shot sequence, with a rapid 2.04 ASL, mimics Mrs Digby-Hunter’s disorientation: frenzied glances at party guests including Miss Rone, who her husband is talking to; a pair of distanced statues metaphorical of her marriage (34:39-35:28).

Figure 3: Subjective truths in section of montage (34:47-34:51)

Saville’s point-of-view shots of a lamp going in and out of focus evoke Wraggett’s failing vision following Digby-Hunter’s violence, underscored by Delia Derbyshire’s cold, metallic drone (35:44-35:59). Later, Saville uses flashbacks, while looped fragments of previous dialogue echo amid Derbyshire’s eerie electronic soundscape (44:38-45:23). After Wraggett stumbles down to the kitchen, out-of-focus and doubled shots of Dympna (Susannah Williams) and Sgt Wall (Martin Boddey) mimic his faltering vision, underscored by Derbyshire’s pulsing, alienated drone (45:23-45:42). As Irene Shubik details, the double vision effect as ‘achieved by putting mirrors on the sides of the camera and through the use of special lenses.’[6] These modernist aesthetics impressionistically evoke narrative crisis and Mrs Digby-Hunter and Wraggett’s tragic subjectivities.

Figure 4: Philip Saville’s modernist style (35:34-45:36)

After Wraggett tells Mrs Digby-Hunter ‘your husband takes pleasure from hurting people’, the camera imperceptibly zooms into a CU of Pryor, punctuated by a monochrome flashback to the Digby-Hunters in bed on their wedding night seen from above.

An exemplar of slow VS pacing is Mrs Digby-Hunter’s climactic monologue to Miss Rone (Alethea Charlton), who her husband is cheating with. This sedate two-hander (49:40-56:18, 56:33-61:54), with its ASL of 28.8, foregrounds the performances. Four shots exceed a minute, including a 204-second take, which zooms out and back into a violently tormented Pryor who comes to a rational realisation: ‘A boy’s been murdered… By my husband’. Derbyshire’s treated, submerged piano notes recur with finality as Pryor repeats the noun ‘death’. Daringly, Trevor historicises the Major’s brutal violence: Digby-Hunter compares her previous passivity to wives who ‘just went on knitting’ when their Nazi husbands sent Jewish victims ‘to another kind of oven’.

Figure 5: The lengthiest shot (52:13-55:37) begins…

The pacing on video slows whenever the setting shifts to Mrs Digby-Hunter’s illusory safe haven: the set of her hothouse. As Shubik explains: ‘Design, style of shooting and sound once more played an important part in conveying the inner life of the central character, who surrounded herself with fuchsias and food to obliterate the reality of the horrible goings-on around her at the school.’[7] Saville’s slower cutting pace in this set gives the viewer time to observe its details and become immersed in its sickliness as a hiding place. Saville’s use of video may be associated with Talking Heads (1988- date) or close to Gerald Savory’s generally theatrical production style. It is especially sedately paced during Pryor’s aforementioned intense monologue where she opens up about her unhappy life with the Major.

Despite the twin advents of season openers Edna, The Inebriate Woman (1971) and Dennis Potter’s Kim Philby-inspired Traitor (1971), subsequent Series 2 Plays for Today did less well. Average audiences fell to an admittedly still impressive 5.3 million. Trevor and Saville’s Play for Today received 4.24 million viewers – a 29.4 per-cent audience share – perceived as low by BBC management and ‘hindered by a poor title which few would have recognised as a quotation’ from a Frances Cornford poem.[8]

While not quite amounting to the brickbats that greeted The Long Distance Piano Player, critics mostly regarded O Fat White Woman with antipathy. Sean Day-Lewis saw it as ‘below par’ for Trevor and lacking character development.[9] Michael Le Moignan discerned a lack of compassion for the characters, bemoaning ‘seventy minutes of almost unrelieved Jacobean gloom.’[10] Virginia Ironside felt ‘a slight sense of disgust’ at its representation of sadism.[11] Alan Brien and James Thomas saw it as ‘dated’ and ‘a play for yesterday’, themselves not exactly using a fresh discourse.[12] Notably pre-echoing Dominic Sandbrook, Brien likened it to a ‘propaganda exercise’ programmatically ‘tailored to a thesis’. Thomas saw its representation of prep schools as ‘implausible’, a criticism later echoed by BBC Head of Plays Gerald Savory.[13] While Alan Brien praised Saville’s ‘allusive, melting, poetic style’, he privileges what he perceives as the ‘real’ and complex over the fantastical and polemical: a fairly typical critical discourse where Play for Today is measured, positively or negatively against the individual critic’s yardstick of realism. Similarly, James Thomas attacked O Fat White Woman on ‘realist’ grounds; though, bizarrely – and unlike Brien – he didn’t perceive any coherent ‘message’. Of course, ‘realism’ is a moveable feast, as something subjectively perceived by each viewer based on their perceptions of the world or indeed conditioned by expectations of ‘realistic’ drama based on previous TV drama viewing.

Among critics, the acting was widely praised; Pryor especially, with smaller numbers mentioning Peter Jeffrey, Alethea Charlton, Roger Hammond, Susan Penhaligon or William Relton. In her otherwise negative notice, Rosemary Say claimed that it is pulled out of the ‘banal’ by Pryor’s ‘brilliant’ acting.[14] Bernard Davies devoted a whimsical – verging on patronising – paean to Pryor’s performance as the ‘fat woman’, seeing her as akin to a subject for the seventeenth-century artist Peter Paul Rubens.[15] Davies also saw a refreshing realism in how director Philip Saville had not used ‘adenoidal cockney’ child actors to play upper-class boys, as in many other recent TV productions. Phillip Whitehead praised Peter Jeffrey for capturing the Hitler-like sadism of Digby-Hunter ‘to perfection’. Whitehead was Labour MP for Derby North from 1970-83.[16]

Oddly, Alan Brien wanted more ‘real concern for its sadistic headmaster’! This call for a more shaded, sympathetic portrayal of a violent sadist is humanism taken to a questionable extreme and totally against the grain of Trevor’s and Saville’s troubling vision, just as much as, in a different way, Virginia Ironside’s desired, Mary Whitehouse-like sanitisation would have been. More appreciative of this play’s abrasive modernism were Bernard Davies and Michael Le Moignan who specifically commended Derbyshire’s ‘remarkable’ electronic soundtrack. Mary Holland, while lamenting ‘some clichés’, joined Brien in praising Saville’s direction which evoked the palpable ‘terror and tension’ felt by the prep schoolboys. Stanley Reynolds saw Trevor ‘cleverly’ utilising clichés for a ‘subtle and difficult’ message about love while Phillip Whitehead approved of its polemical attack on ‘Horrid little prep schools’ which ‘are miniature totalitarian societies’.[17]

Among BBC managers in their Television Weekly Programme Review weekly meeting, there was minimal discussion of Trevor and Saville’s Play for Today compared with The Long Distance Piano Player, which suggests relative indifference, perhaps also linked with its being the fourth in its series rather a ‘blockbuster’ opener.[18] Gerald Savory said it was ‘perhaps dated, as some had pointed out’ but defended a ‘very good production with a fine performance by Maureen Pryor’, also stating that ‘the boys had also been excellent’. Showing the power and influence of Fleet Street in 1971, Head of Plays Savory basically synthesises recurring strands in the press comment!

Audience reaction was similarly mixed. A fairly sizeable minority thought O Fat White Woman ‘horrid’, ‘repulsive’, ‘weird’, ‘sordid’, ‘incomprehensible’, or ‘pointless’ and echoed Thomas’s ‘dated’ discourse.[19] Its audience Reaction Index score was 58, slightly below Play for Today’s higher-than-usual Series 2 average of 62.[20] While a few echoed Virginia Ironside’s moralism, more were concerned that it had ‘no plot, sense or conclusion’ and how it was characteristic of many recent plays in its open-endedness and ‘confusing flashbacks’. Of Saville’s experimental doubling and out-of-focus shots, ‘one viewer mistook the former for interference for a time’.

While some criticised the music and camera shots as ‘too clever by half’, others admired Saville’s ‘imaginative and effective camera-work’ and Derbyshire’s ‘evocative music.’ Some ‘had to admit that the play had held their attention’ and provided food for thought even if it hadn’t entertained. For ‘a quarter of the sample’, the characters, especially Mrs Digby-Hunter, were seen as ‘interesting’ and a ‘difficult’ theme was ‘well engineered and the atmosphere was perfect’. Beyond isolated claims of ‘over-acting’ there was wider agreement that the acting – Pryor, Jeffrey, the boys – was ‘excellent’. One viewer, who we might perceive as part of the Play for Today vanguard audience, claimed it was ‘great stuff’, exceeding the usual ‘trite nonsense’. 68% watched O Fat White Woman all the way through – according to BBC managers, ‘only’ 68 per-cent [my emphasis] – while 21 per-cent either switched off or viewed a bit. This, however marked an improvement from Saville’s The Long Distance Piano Player, which only 61 per-cent had watched all of – while 34 per-cent had switched off or tried just a bit.

O Fat White Woman, a modernist Play for Today of electronically-scored ‘Jacobean gloom’ was repeated on BBC1 on 16 July 1973, but has remained obscure since. This Play for Today’s occasional samizdat emergences on YouTube should be superseded by inclusion within a BFI BluRay release and/or BBC Four repeat.

The great socialist cultural thinker Raymond Williams once praised Alan Plater’s Wednesday Play Close the Coalhouse Door (1969) for its use of folk and music hall techniques to show working-class people to themselves in a way that they would recognise as broadly true.[21] This contrasted with what he saw as TV playwrights’ more detached, anthropological positioning vis-à-vis their characters: he cites William Trevor as one exemplar of this.[22] Now, Trevor is a fine conveyor of human malice, which certainly exists in some people. Williams wanted (working-class) people to be able to recognise themselves on screen; well, surely that doesn’t preclude evil among people of all classes? It’s come to a bland, limiting pass whereby certain human characteristics or groups can only be represented positively, and that surely wasn’t what Williams wanted, even if people may prefer to see their reflections on screen flattered rather than dissected. Role-model representation, with characters idealistically representing how we would like the world to be can be a false circumscription of storytelling, given all we know about humanity, past and present. After re-watching the play before we talked in March this year, William Relton perceived O Fat White Woman as an ‘interesting period piece with a very clear historical perspective on what went on then’ at prep schools and in women’s lives.[23]

Relton feels that William Trevor ‘always […] wrote fantastically good roles for women’. In addition to Pryor and Charlton, younger women cast members have vivid roles. Perhaps as a deliberate red herring, but definitely deepening the social milieu, Trevor presents two apparently sharp-tongued, spiteful young Welsh ladies Barbara (Susan Penhaligon) and Dympna (Susannah Williams), who work in Upton Grange’s kitchen and who badmouth Mrs Digby-Hunter. In their first appearance, the girls both spit in the sandwiches they bring her. Their coarse worldliness may be a rational reaction to their environment. Early in the drama, Mrs Digby-Hunter is distant and inattentive. Of course, there’s nowt wrong at all with gossip and talking about sex, as Barbara and Dympna amply do. While they do anticipate some of the bullying teenage girls at the comprehensive school in Trevor’s final, disturbing Play for Today Eleanor (1974, theirs isn’t clear-cut wickedness.

Figure 6: The irreverent Barbara and Dympna (10:56).

Barbara and Dympna’s impudent attitude is in counterpoint to far worse actions from the bullying Major Digby-Hunter. That great character actor of middle-class parts Peter Jeffrey plays Digby-Hunter as a cold, coiled man, personality totally subordinated to the role of sadistic martinet. Sadly, Barbara and Dympna aren’t deeply fleshed out; however, they appear as plausible objects within Trevor’s scheme, while Wraggett is genuinely a victim of the terrible Major. Mrs Digby-Hunter’s monologue, so unobtrusively shot by Philip Saville in the studio, conveys a harrowing subjectivity. Yes, using Williams’s words, William Trevor here was still recording ‘the weaknesses of his fellow creatures’, but with astonishing depth, imbued with heart-rending power by Pryor’s performance.

Furthermore, O Fat White Woman has an ending unusually radical for a William Trevor play. After Pryor’s last words: ‘Love… can be a monster’, we cut to the dormitory-classroom, which is now empty. On the soundtrack is Delia Derbyshire’s eerie, gadding take on ‘Boys and Girls Come Out to Play’. The Upton Grange pupils enter and begin a pillow fight and upend the desks and chairs in a righteous outbreak of anarchy against a cruel, repressive system. It is left profoundly open as to what will happen next to this ‘crammer’ school.

Thanks for reading! As part of and extending beyond my PhD study of Play for Today (BBC1, 1970-84), I am gathering a range of oral histories. So, if you were involved in this or any other Play for Today production and are happy to talk about your memories and experiences, please email me at

Figure 7: Me while interviewing William Relton via Zoom.

Disclaimer: Quotations, and screenshots in Figures 1-6, from O Fat White Woman are used in accordance with the fair dealing provisions set out under Sections 29 and 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 – being for the purposes of research as well as criticism, review and quotation.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Juliette Jones for her sterling work in transcribing my conversation with William Relton.

BBC copyright content reproduced courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

[1] Porter, P. (2016) William Trevor obituary, Guardian, 21 November [online] Available at: [accessed: 01/11/2021]

[2] Shubik, I. (2000) Play for Today: The evolution of television drama, 2nd edn. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 127.

[3] Relton, W. (2021) Interview with Tom May. 15 March. Transcribed by Juliette Jones.

[4] Whereas 11.8 per-cent of TLDPP was filmed on location in Skipton. See Simon Farquhar’s historical account of the play here and my very formative analysis here from way back in 2011!

[5] Relton, W. (2021) ibid.

[6] Shubik, I. (2000) ibid, 127.

[7] Shubik, I. (2000) ibid, 127.

[8] Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 17 November 1971, 3. [BBC WAC, micro film] [accessed: 16 January 2020]

[9] Day-Lewis, S. (1971) Gifted writer’s play below form, Daily Telegraph, 5 November, 10.

[10] Le Moignan, M. (1971) Play For Today: O Fat White Woman, The Stage and Television Today, 11 November, 13.

[11] Ironside, V. (1971) Last Night on TV, Daily Mail, 5 November, 19.

[12] Brien, A. (1971) Bird’s eye viewing, Sunday Times, 7 November, 38; Thomas, J. (1971) ‘Please sir! Teach about a boarding school of fun’, Daily Express, 5 November, 17.

[13] Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 10 November 1971, 6. [BBC WAC, micro film] [accessed: 16/01/2020]

[14] Say, R. (1971) Goodbye Mr. Kops, Sunday Telegraph, 7 November, 19.

[15] Davies, B. (1971) One man’s television, Television Mail, 12 November, 18.

[16] Whitehead, P. (1971) Television: ITV 2, Listener, 11 November, 668.

[17] Reynolds, S. (1971) O Fat White Woman, Times, 5 November, 9.

[18] Television Weekly Programme Review minutes, 21 October 1970, 5-6 & 10 November 1971, 6. BBC WAC, micro film [accessed: 16/01/2020]

[19] Audience Research Department, BBC Audience Research Report – Play for Today: O FAT WHITE WOMAN, 24 November 1971. BBC WAC, VR/71/452 [accessed: 18 August 2017] All subsequent audience comments cited come from this document.

[20] From October 1970 to July 1973, no specific Reaction Index scores are specified within the audience research reports: curiously, given that all Wednesday Play reports had these percentages. However, I have calculated figures for those 1970-73 episodes which specify figures for audience responses to the same five-point opinion scale on four sets of binaries: ‘Thoroughly entertaining’/’Very boring’, ‘Very easy to understand’/’Very difficult to understand’, ‘Excellent plot’/’Poor plot’, ‘Definitely out-of-the-ordinary’/’Just ordinary’. Thus, for O Fat White Woman I have calculated a mean average for these which corresponds exactly to the A+/A-/B/C+/C- scale used from series 4 on.

[21] Williams, R.; O’Connor, A. ed. (1989) Raymond Williams on Television: Selected Writings. Abingdon: Routledge, 78-79. Williams’s piece on Plater’s Wednesday Play was originally in the Listener, 30 October 1969.

[22] Williams, R. (1989) ibid. 68-69. This was a piece in the Listener (10 July 1969) on Trevor’s Wednesday Play A Night With Mrs Da Tanka.

[23] Relton, W. (2021) ibid.

VERSION 1: published 04/11/2021, excluding material cited from the BBC Written Archives Centre, as I’m awaiting their formal approval.

VERSION 2: re-published 05/11/2021, including material cited from the BBC Written Archives Centre following their formal approval; I have used the form of words to credit this BBC content.

VERSION 3: re-published 11/11/2021, including amendment to information concerning William Relton’s pay for his acting roles following email correspondence with WR.

The Legendary Pink Dots Project Podcast

Alongside Adam Whybray, I have recently started The Legendary Pink Dots Project Podcast, version for radio of our reviews for Kitty Sneezes of the great band’s oeuvre. Join the hardy ten listening cosmonauts so far on Mixcloud here!

Be part of an audience exceeding in number that for many GB News shows and receive emissions of rather more interest, diversity and sustenance!

We are delighted to be broadcast by Repeater Radio, who have featured excellent podcasts on social class (Dan Evans’s Nation of Shopkeepers) and Wales (Rhian E Jones’s Border Country).

Philip Martin (1938-2020) Part Three: Peter Ansorge on script editing Gangsters (BBC 1976-78), plus contributions from David Edgar and David Rudkin.

Forgotten Television Drama

Introduction by Tom May

While Philip Martin’s television drama work might be justifiably termed as non-naturalistic, experimental, postmodernism orpopular modernism, his can also simply be described as a truly original voice.[i]

I only encountered Philip near the end of his well-lived life, via the technological apparatus of Zoom I conducted two interviews in the summer of 2020. Philip was born inLiverpool in 1938 and spoke with the actor’s Received Pronunciation accent he had gained during his time studying at RADA, but his voice also contained the occasional trace of Scouse.

Philip was a key player with Z Cars (1962-78), one of the few to both write and appear on the BBC’s popular and gritty Merseyside-set crime series (he wrote seven and performed in four episodes). After his successful career as an actor on stage, television and film, Philip started out writing with many lunchtime theatre plays, before gravitating to…

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Play for Today: Kisses at Fifty

My piece on Welland and Apted’s Play for Today ‘Kisses at Fifty’ for the Royal Holloway website FORGOTTEN TELEVISION DRAMA, celebrating PLAY FOR TODAY’S 50th anniversary.

Forgotten Television Drama

By Tom May

Written by Colin Welland, directed by Michael Apted and produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.25pm on Monday 22 January 1973

Bill Maynard as Harry

When leaving my last job as a lecturer in a Further Education College, I enjoyed a pint with soon-to-be former colleagues in the Town Wall pub in Newcastle upon Tyne in late August 2018. I was about to start my three-year studentship researching a history of Play for Today, while the others were about to start another year of teaching A Levels. I remember one chat with an Art lecturer born in the 1950s; I asked him which Plays for Today he most remembered. Without hesitation, he replied: Kisses at Fifty

Colin Welland was an art teacher who went into acting at the age of 26. He was one of many Play for Today writers who had initially…

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‘Tender Contempt’: Dennis Potter’s Love-Hate Relationship with Play for Today

Fascinating historical insights from John R. Cook.

Forgotten Television Drama

by John Cook

‘The television play is virtually the last place on the box where the individual voice and the personal vision is central to the experience.’[1]

‘Play for Today !  Just for today !… Something easy, undemanding.  It’s all part of the commercial !  It’s all “pass the time”‘ !

How do we reconcile these two statements from the 1970s, both from the pen of Dennis Potter ?  Granted, the first is supposedly ‘fact’: the articulated views of the writer himself, addressing his peers at the 1977 Edinburgh Television Festival.  The second is allegedly ‘fiction’ – a typical angst-ridden outburst from Potter’s fictional TV playwright character Christopher Hudson (played by Keith Barron).  Hudson is venting his frustrations as he struggles to complete his latest TV play within Potter’s own self-referential Play for Today about the writing of a television play, Only Make Believe (12 February 1973).

Keith Barron…

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Play for Today at 50: Part #1 – ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ (1980)

PLAY FOR TODAY - Chance of a Lifetime TS&TT - 28-02-80

This is the first of an occasional series of posts this year to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC1 drama anthology series, Play for Today.

In 2019, the Christmas Day episode of Gavin and Stacey drew an overnight audience of 11.6 million (growing to a seven-day figure of 17.1 million). Exactly forty years ago today, on Thursday 3 January 1980, the Play for Today ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ (dir. Giles Foster) was broadcast at 9:25pm on BBC1. 27 year-old Guisborough-born theatre playwright Robert Holman’s play is set in coastal Teesside and it concerns the military recruitment of teenage lads about to leave school. It gained 12.89 million viewers, according to BBC statistics: 24.7% of the UK population. This amounted to a 70.8% share of television viewers, a remarkable figure: over seven times as many as the average for ITV programmes from 9:25-10:40pm (9.4%). (1)

It is an excellent play, well worth revisiting; however, it is not only unavailable on DVD/BluRay or the new BritBox but has only been repeated once since its first transmission (BBC1, 03/09/1981). Don Shaw and Alan Clarke’s Wednesday Play ‘Sovereign’s Company’ (BBC1, 22/04/1970), a bitterly angry piece which centres on experiences in the military is available here. In contrast Holman’s play conveys a sad stoicism and inexorable sense of tragedy in how the Troubles impact on northern lives. David Daker is superb as the single-parent widower father Andrew Saville, an ICI worker trying to look after his sons Gordon (Martyn Hesford) and Philip (Richard Tolan). Shaw’s rebellious, uncompromising earlier piece gained a more typical Wednesday Play/Play for Today audience figure of 4.44 million, but was well received, gaining a strong Reaction Index of 63% ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ obtained an even stronger RI of 69% and the BBC’s Audience Research Report quotes viewers’ praise of Daker’s performance, the locations and its overall ‘authenticity’; ‘Viewers considered it well written and absorbing and welcomed this sensitive treatment of a contemporary and controversial issue, particularly as it appeared to be realistic and true to life.’ (2)

The audience may also have appreciated the warmth and tenderness within the unconventional family – when his girlfriend Jean (Madelaine Newton) hugs and comforts Andrew when he cries, to the accompaniment of old-fashioned, diegetic light music, it is a richly emotional moment within a blended family; which contrasts with the stark anomie that Shaw and Clarke portray in the platoon. The success of this play also gives lie to David Hare’s partisan pro-film assertions in an article he published in Frank Pike’s Ah Mischief! (1982); he claimed that practically all of the Plays for Today popular with critics and audiences were shot on film, not those using video within the studio. This PFT may prove Hare’s binary; it was shot on location on 16mm film, though the copy I watched was stored on tape and was in significant need of restoration. Yet, the film doesn’t seem to utilise its medium’s more mythical, distancing potentials; it may partially be the copy I was watching, but it seemed to me to have a steady, televisual immediacy. Instead of grandiosity, Giles Foster’s more subdued visual texture fits the muted stoicism of Holman’s script. It points the way to the aesthetic of later PFTs shot on VT on location as Outside Broadcasts like Maurice Leitch and Jon Amiel’s tense 1950s and Northern Ireland-set drama, ‘Gates of Gold’ (08/03/1983). (3)

The play is austere but not entirely gloomy. The characters’ mundane interactions feel like a more subdued xerox of the worldly northern identity depicted in TV dramas by Alan Bennett, Colin Welland and Peter Terson. This is also the era where Victoria Wood had only just come to prominence with the deft, humane satire Talent (Granada, 05/08/1979), which cast a perceptive eye on the world of northern ‘turns’ culture and the entertainment industry – influenced by New Faces (ATV, 1973-78), which had given Wood her first TV appearance as early as 1974. Richard Eyre produced ‘Chance of a Lifetime’, which in its way almost as thoughtful a cultural and political intervention as Eyre’s notable Play for Today productions of works by Trevor Griffiths and Ian McEwan: ‘Comedians’ (25/10/1979), ‘The Imitation Game’ (24/04/1980) and ‘Country’ (20/10/1981).

There is an evocatively nostalgic feeling to its classically inflected score from George Fenton; its winds and brass sounds feel and signify northern while the minor-key is prevalent. Holman subtly investigates the cultural present day. A nurse, in a telephone conversation with someone who is presumably a partner or friend, muses over the cultural options for a Teesside night-out:

“I don’t fancy the pictures. I certainly don’t fancy Black Emanuelle! Well, there’s a folk club in Middlesbrough…”

From the choice available, she favours the folk club over the Italian sexploitation film (dir. Bitto Albertini, 1975): a binary cultural polarity that notably neglects television – which, from the 1960s to the 1990s (Z Cars to Big Brother?), historically exerted its greatest appeal to the British people. Other sections reveal a fascinatingly conflicted, unresolved attitude to permissiveness while the play overall seems to insist on its characters’ dual traits of gentleness and hardiness.

‘Chance of a Lifetime’ has an non-showy feel of the ‘real’ to its often seemingly inconsequential dialogues. The cheery Major Ian Anderson (David Buck) commands his young Cadet charges not to skylark about on their excursion. He later bemoans the passing of Grammar Schools, which he links to the decline in funding and social will behind the ailing Cadet groups; intriguingly, Holman has this reasonable but firm sounding man self-identify as a “pacifist”. When Stephen asks him “Why d’ you do this, then?” Anderson replies: “To give lads like you opportunities you wouldn’t normally get…!” Stephen nods understandingly, which has inevitable sense of tragedy; there’s dramatic irony given what happens later in the play.

Viewers watching the schedule as a whole would have come to ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ after the Nine O’Clock News with Richard Baker. COAL’s doom-laden latter act echoes Edgar’s Play for Today ‘Destiny’ (BBC1, 31/01/1978): Major Rolfe’s son dies in Northern Ireland. This play’s context was as fraught with geopolitical conflict as that earlier play’s was with domestic political conflict over ‘race’ and immigration: on 16/12/1979, Provisional IRA landmines in Counties Tyrone and Armagh had killed five British Army soldiers (and an ex-Ulster Defence Regiment volunteer). (3)

Eight days later, the Soviet Union ordered its troops into Afghanistan, to support its friendly secular regime the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against a fundamentalist insurgency. Exactly a week before Holman’s play was broadcast, the Soviets assassinated President Hafizullah Amin in Kabul. Much of 1980 was to be consumed by renewed fears of nuclear war – the ‘protect and survive’ culture detailed by Andy Beckett (2015) – as well as whether or not Britain should boycott the Moscow Olympics in the summer. In May, Kingsley Amis’s paranoid dystopian novel Russian Hide and Seek was published, depicting a Russian-dominated UK, due to what Amis perceives as cultural apathy and a lack of patriotic spirit. BBC2’s 20-part educational epic Russian-Language and People – which began at 7:35pm six days after ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ – was perhaps swimming against the tide, unfortunately broadcast just as the Soviet Union had commenced on its own destructive “Vietnam” against the Mujahideen. It got moved around in the schedules to a later time-slot but was also repeated in schools and colleges slots on BBC1.

‘Chance of a Lifetime’ is an especially telling play of its day in 1980, in its portrayal of working-class northerners as forming an undemonstrative, stoical heartbeat of a besieged nation; as well as fears of international entanglements, it subtly conveys internal dread at the high regional unemployment and redundancies to come. On 2 January, just a day before the play’s transmission, a national steel strike had begun, which was to last 14 weeks. While the outcome was not as conclusively preferable for the British Right as the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, it presaged some of Thatcher government’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics of that crucial dispute. On 12 September 1980, the Consett steel works in North West Durham shut for good, as the government refused to step in to save what it perceived as unproductive jobs.

Ultimately, ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ is just as much a play for today, 3 January 2020. Its foreign policy and domestic concerns seem pressing on this day when our ’emboldened’ Prime Minister is on holiday and has left Dominics Raab and Cummings, unelected adviser and fetishist of scientific “weirdos” and Mafioso mavericks, in the hot seat. On a day when the US has assassinated a powerful Iranian general. Then, the threats were a new Cold War, possible nuclear war, the Troubles and concentrated unemployment. Now, there is the central threat of climate change, the rise of a populist right, possible nuclear war, the challenges posed by “Brexit” to the UK, as well as intense regional inequality within the UK following project austerity (2010- ).

Now, we don’t seem to have a topical drama strand like Play for Today to dramatise important contemporary issues that are stake, to include dissenting voices and portray all manner of viewpoints – as in Edgar’s ‘Destiny’ (1978); see my three-part article on that PFT here. We don’t just need panoramic Plays for Today like ‘Carson Country’, ‘Destiny’ and ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ made publicly available; we need Play for Today itself back as a going concern, to help us make sense of our evolving, threatened world; it is one of the BBC’s crown jewels, along with Match of the Day, dinnerladies and Doctor Who.

If you have memories of experiences working on this fascinating production, or have any memories of watching it, please post below, or get in touch – my email is I’d be very interested in hearing from you! If you are from BBC Enterprises or BritBox, please consider enabling more people to see this successful but neglected highlight. Many thanks to the BFI and Kathleen Dickson who supplied me with a viewing copy of this play, the North East Film Archive who kindly housed my viewing in earlier 2019 and James Leggott and Northumbria University who enabled it all. 

(1) It is worth noting, however, as W. Stephen Gilbert (1980) did, that the opposition was five minutes of ITV’s news and then from 9:30pm HTV’s 125-minute studio production by the Welsh National Opera Company of Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Don Pasquale. As WSG notes, perhaps Play for Today could only ever be hegemonic when its social realist aesthetic was the only alternative to Welsh-inflected high culture. Or, indeed, BBC2’s Peter Ustinov and Natalie Wood at the Hermitage – in which, according to the Guardian (03/01/1980: 20), ‘Witty Mr U and Pretty Miss Wood’, both of Russian ancestry, visited the famous Leningrad museum to open the channel’s Russian season. This, and the following first-half of a celebratory concert for French-Italian jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, gained an average of 3.6 million viewers, more than double ITV’s figure.

(2) Graham, Clive – An Audience Research Report: PLAY FOR TODAY – CHANCE OF A LIFETIME, 28 January 1980, VR/80/10 [BBC WAC Caversham]

(3) In originally specifying that ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ had been shot on videotape (and, in particular, 625 line PAL colour 2” videotape) I hadn’t been 100% certain and had been relying on TV Brain, Available [online] at: [accessed: 03/01/2020] and the Kaleidoscope Guide to BBC Drama (2011) – both of which claimed its ‘source format’ was 2″ VT. Billy Smart has kindly pointed out that ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ was in fact shot on 16mm film in a Loachian vein, but was edited on 2″ VT – correction made 03/01/2020.

(4) CAIN: Chronology of the Conflict – 1979′ Available [online] at: [accessed: 03/01/2020]


Beckett, A. (2015) Promised You A Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain. London: Allen Lane.
Gilbert, W.S. (1980) ‘The Television Play: Outside the Consensus’, Screen Education 35, Summer, 35-44
Pike, F. ed. (1982) Ah! Mischief: The Writer and Television. London: Faber and Faber.

“Spying on Spies” Day 2b: Of welfare capitalism and sunglasses indoors

Friday of Spying on Spies continued with a panel I chaired, on Len Deighton – which saw a mix of socio-cultural, literary and film studies approaches to the writer’s work.

First up was Laura Crossley (Edge Hill University, Liverpool, UK), whose research preoccupations have included nostalgia and fashion in film, as well as British identity; while her PhD concerned notions of nation and identity in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. She has written a paper, available on that I really should read:‘Indicting Americana: how Max Ophüls exposed the American Dream in Caught (1949) and The Reckless Moment (1949)’.

Her paper on the film of The Ipcress File (1965) sought to analyse how Harry Palmer’s flaw in vision reflects how the knowledge that vision yields is flawed, and how this calls into question perception and interpretation, and ‘exactly who is in a position to control the mechanisms of power becomes less clear and more sinister’. In the programme, Crossley declares her debt to Foucault’s 1977 theories on Bentham and surveillance, exploring how surveillance, knowledge and power are articulated and interrogated through the film’s visuals and themes.


Crossley referred to the cimbalom, the Hungarian hammered dulcimer used in Barry’s soundtrack, signifying ‘foreign’ and which ‘hints at the idea of the Cold War threat lurking on the edges of this otherwise ordinary scene’. Which she later contrasted with the ordinary, innocuous muzak used elsewhere in the key supermarket scene: complementing bright colours and largely female shoppers. Crossley mentions the Campbell’s soup tins in the scene, conjuring links to Warhol and the pop art aesthetic of the mid-1960s era. This linked in my mind with the ‘long front of culture’.

Crossley quoted Jean-Louis Baudry on how the cinema apparatus ‘works to situate the spectator within predetermined parameters, with the camera carefully guiding our viewing: it is the camera that chooses what we see and how and so interpretations are made for us – it is, arguably, a subtle form of mind control.’[1] And then she identified several occasions where we get an unexpected perspective and also that one key reveal – the identity of the secret services’ traitor – is made manifest to the audience first. This brought to my mind how cinema itself has a role in the original 1962 novel: the early and mildly seedy Soho sequences, which were entirely excised from the film.

I pondered the question: how does the brainwashing in this British film differ from that in that Cold War paranoia exemplar, The Manchurian Candidate (1962)? Maybe the proto-psychedelic pop art aesthetic on display reflects a slight thawing, and the marginally less front-line nature of British engagement in the Cold War during the Wilson era?


Crossley identified it as an inherently conservative text, citing Toby Miller (2003) on how espionage narratives are trapped in a ‘cage of capitalist normalcy’. Colonel Ross dislikes the supermarket, Palmer is comfortable and shows connoisseurship there; capitalism ultimately prevails. Crossley referred to the live nature of the ideological struggle in the Cold War and that, in this narrative, ‘despite Colonel Ross’ dislike of American-style supermarkets, capitalism – and so the state and its attendant ideologies – must prevail. And, for this very British story of spies, that includes maintaining the hierarchies of class and the Establishment.’[2] She expanded here upon Miller’s characterisation of espionage cinema and TV as pro-state and pro-capital, whatever Palmer’s apparent rebelliousness. By the end, he has been put in his place, saying he could have been killed or driven insane, and then the more dominant Ross replies, stating that is what he is being paid for.

Janice Morphet (University College London, UK) has specialised in infrastructure planning, local government and public policy; as well as researching the relationships between the early fiction of Len Deighton and John le Carré and spies in the suburbs. She was also on the Planning Committee for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Her paper was an absorbing investigation of social and generational differences. To combat the ‘social in-breeding’ of the elite, she mentioned the 1950s attempt to enlist new working-class or grammar school educated young men – who had undergone national service – with the powerful older generation coming under question following the defections of Burgess and Mclean. The nepotistic ‘knowing someone’s people’ means of vetting was in doubt. She focused on the aspirational working-class literature like Look Back in Anger (1956) and Room at the Top (1957) but not in as simplistic a way as Dominic Sandbrook. She mentions in the programme the protagonists’ opposition to ‘clinging to the past’ and their need to ‘be characterised as anti-establishment’.

This all set the context for her discussion of ‘internal, but anti-establishment outsider heroes’ in the fiction of Deighton and JLC, with the generational worlds colliding. Harry Palmer and Alec Leamas are ‘both northern working-class finance administrators within MI6’ who become the means to show ‘the internal workings of the machine’. Their outsider status gives them greater insight into bureaucratic and self-serving systems. Yet their expendability, as working-class agents, also serves to reinforce the status quo.

Morphet’s paper was less the critical close-reading style deployed by Crossley; it was more a deeply contextual approach, placing the novels and characters into history, with many legal and cultural landmarks highlighted. She began by discussing the security services’ need to find new blood, following Philby: the 1944 Education Act had enabled some increase in working and middle-class entrants to Oxbridge, and these graduates were deemed a fertile recruiting ground. The other means of recruiting was national service, and she mentioned that ‘Those who were already destined for Oxbridge were identified and offered the opportunity to learn Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists’.[3] These included many important forces in post-WW2 culture, including Alan Bennett, Peter Hall, Michael Frayn and Dennis Potter.


Some did national service when even younger, which made me think of the fascinating 1956 film, A Hill in Korea (about which I am certain to write more). This film focuses on a unit in the Korean War fighting with a majority being sixteen years old; it also, aptly for this panel, includes the very first film appearance of Michael Caine.

She mentioned the need for the establishment to win the debate on revising its recruitment policy; key was Henry Fairlie’s 1955 Spectator article on ‘The Establishment’, which ended by arguing that the establishment was even stronger than ever and implied that a Cambridge Spies scenario could easily happen again. Noel Annan – himself recruited over lunch – was mentioned as arguing for a high percentage of grammar school boys being allowed in, to widen the establishment pool; he had taken steps in his role at King’s College, Cambridge to accept more grammar school candidates. Furthermore, Anthony Sampson, in his Anatomy of Britain (1958) argued about the vast inefficiency of our privilege-based system. Michael Shanks’ The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) was mentioned as making the economic and political case, as was C.P. Snow’s novel The New Men (1954) in its recommendation that new blood was needed in establishment decision-making.

The Sandys defence review of 1957 was described as leading to the end of National Service in 196; Davenport Hines (2014) was quoted on the perception that its most significant legacy for servicemen was that it taught them ‘how to duck and dive, break rules and subvert authority…and (this) chipped away at the law-abiding respectful traditions of the Britain before peacetime conscription’. She mentioned that this coincided with the rise in popularity of James Bond, with Fleming’s narratives depicting Britain winning abroad but that ‘this was not so useful in the heightened tensions of the cold war and increasing evidence of spies embedded in English suburban society such as Klaus Fuchs (1950), the Krogers in a suburban bungalow as part of the Portland spy ring (1961) and George Blake (1961) who passed information on the platform of Bromley station.’[4] This was key context for what Morphet defined as the ‘neighbour as spy’ school of espionage fiction.

On this theme of suburban spies, Morphet then referred to a Thursday paper I didn’t see by Shaun O’Sullivan, who pointed out ‘that after the Radcliffe Report on national Security in 1962 a working party was established to consider ways of alerting the public to potential cold war neighbours and this included reference to the role of Fleming together with TV series including Danger Man […]’ It is a curate’s egg to consider what influence the fictions of Bond and Drake may have been able to exert in this context!

She referred to the new realist fiction’s working-class heroes not being especially patriotic but valuing hard work and social advancement. Morphet quoted David Cameron-Watt (1990) on how the intelligence authorities themselves had most likely shaped the change in style seen in espionage fictions from the 1960s onwards, and that all such texts would be vetted. Then she referred to JLC and Deighton as writers emerging at exactly the same time with no prior experience and as having independent dispositions – suggesting that their new, updated style had been directed by the secret services. She identified this as greater realism, as their work depicts ‘foreign spies in suburbia’ and traitors being internal to the security organisations.

Deighton’s background led him to be a typical NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) while doing national service. JLC’s parents were middle-class but outsiders and non-conformists, along with his father’s debt. This all contrasted with the older establishment who ‘went to very good schools’ and have the trappings of office and cigars. The milieu of JLC’s fiction reflects his more upper-middle class background, having been to Oxford and taught at Eton – though Smiley is not referred to as an ‘old man’, in Snow’s terms. She identified a ‘new school’ approach in Call for the Dead (1960), which chillingly portrays the spy as hidden among the mundane suburban settings and using ‘suburban regularity’ to hide his crimes, as George Blake did. Deighton’s protagonists are much more clearly ‘anti-establishment’; she quotes The Ipcress File’s unnamed narrator’s sardonic thoughts: ‘He’d been to one of those very good schools where you meet kids with influential uncles. I imagine that’s how he got into the Horse Guards and now into WOOC(P) too…He had the advantage of both a good brain and a family rich enough to save him using it.’ (TIF, 8).[5]

THE IPCRESS FILE - novel cover

Morphet, in analysing the text, found that Palmer is a truer patriot than those higher than him within the establishment: ‘Palmer is critical of those who are his seniors because they are more interested in the trappings of their office, including the opportunity to have expensive meals and cigars, rather than to serve the state that is funding this lifestyle. It is the criticism of the ultimate patriot.’[6] Morphet also referred to him as being caught in the middle between Communism and the Establishment. While she does refer to Deighton’s sure grasp of London locations, she makes the salient point that Deighton locates Palmer as from Burnley but nothing at all in the novel indicates any real familiarity with Burnley.


The Spy who came in from the cold (1963) was described as the only JLC novel with a working-class hero: Alec Leamas. Morphet said that this was influenced by Deighton: like Palmer, Leamas is from the north and did not go to a public-school. However, she focused on many differences – alluding to a Life article Deighton had written distinguishing himself from JLC. She stated that Leamas is given faults that somewhat stereotypically relate to his Irish and northern background: drinking, going on to argue that JLC shows less empathy for Leamas than Deighton for Palmer: ‘Whilst recognising that the establishment has used Leamas he also appears to be critical of Leamas for allowing himself to be in position where he can be used.’[7] She then mentioned how the film version’s closer relationship between Leamas and Liz has shifted how people have interpreted the novel. She was also somewhat critical of JLC in being less exact in his use of London locations, referring to him as having gleaned them more from reading Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) than from real experience.

the film’s ‘closer relationship’ between Liz and Leamas

Morphet said that The Spy was written while JLC was still a serving officer in MI6 and the text had to be approved before publication, which was only done after some ‘lengthy soul-searching’, as JLC recounted in the introduction to the novel’s 50th anniversary edition. The same introduction was said to refer to the book’s reception in 1963 as a ‘message from the other side’, with many in the US expressing anger at the book’s content and publication. This reflected the risk but also the necessity from self-interest of the secret services’ backing a new kind of spy fiction: enrolling ‘the anti-establishment to the establishment.’

Pasquale Iannone (University of Edinburgh, UK) has an interest in the history and theory of post-war European cinema; in particular, he has written on Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece (1974) and Pietro Germi as progenitor of the Italo-Western, and sound, music and the car journey in Hitchcock’s films. He regularly contributes to Sight and Sound and is also currently working on a BFI book on Jean-Pierre Melville’s resistance drama L’armée des ombres (The Army of Shadows) (1969).

Film Studies scholar Iannone focused on widescreen aesthetics within the Harry Palmer trilogy: The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). His focus was on how they made use of the 2.35:1 widescreen frame and the programme says he was going to draw comparison with other spy films of the mid-60s era: Thunderball (1965) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966), though this wasn’t significant in his paper as delivered.

He opened by stating that his paper was developing in accordance with the new-fangled Video Graphic Film Studies – mentioning In Vision, a new journal on this academic area. He demonstrated this new field of study through showing the openings of all three films in the HP trilogy simultaneously within power-point. This pointed up differences, but, more significantly, strong similarities between them.

Young Canadian director of TIF, Sidney J. Furie’s biggest initial successes were the Cliff Richard vehicles The Young Ones (1961) and Wonderful Life (1964), both in 2:35:1. Iannone used six frames from these two films to show him as a filmmaker ‘aching to take more risks with widescreen’. Furie allegedly delved into many different filmic styles: The Leather Boys (1964) and The Snake Woman (1961) representing social problem picture and horror, respectively.

“an Italian Morecambe and Wise”

In a link back to Lorenzo Medici’s earlier Friday paper, Iannone mentioned Goldginger as featuring Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingarassia, an ‘Italian Morecambe and Wise’. This film was shot in Techniscope, a flexible Italian equivalent to Cinemascope. He described the extensive use of 2:35:1 Cinemascope by directors in the western, historical and globe-trotting spy genres, and that Thunderball was the first Bond film in Cinemascope.

THE IPCRESS FILE - technoscope

Iannone said that we might have the expectation of a more restrained, sober aesthetic for a film with the more realistic content of The Ipcress File (1965). He mentioned Furie’s use of split-screen as being innovative – three years before The Thomas Crown Affair and The Boston Strangler: both 1968. He mentioned Sidney J. Furie’s DVD commentary to TIF as not just being insightful, being very frank in its language. I would make a further aesthetic and content link, going beyond the obvious example of The Manchurian Candidate: to the psychedelic torture scenes in The Avengers episode, ‘The Wringer’ (ABC, TX: 18/01/1964). This ‘Steed tortured’ escapade includes a psychedelic light-show and uses extremely bizarre electronic sounds, directly anticipating TIF.

Fritz Lang in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris (1963) was quoted about cinemascope being ‘only good for snakes and funerals’. Furie gets around this, Iannone argued, by using partitioning of the screen and careful use of unconventional high and low angles. Furie was said to use very few extreme close-ups, unlike Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. He mentioned how Furie often inventively places significant objects in the extreme left and right parts of the widescreen frame. The film’s influence was seen, for example, in how Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) referenced a particular TIF shot.


Funeral in Berlin director Hamilton was seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, not likely to engage in as much visual experimentation as Furie. Panavision was used in FIB and BDB, though less in FIB, which was said to include a naturalistic depiction of Berlin locations and more traditional full-length shots of actors than the other films in the trilogy. Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain was rightly described by Iannone as the ‘ripest’ of the trio, visually – with a ‘gloriously characteristically overwrought style’. Russell’s previous Monitor films for the BBC on Elgar and Debussy were mentioned as being ‘stylistically daring’. Iannone cited Joseph Lanza’s point that Russell wasn’t impressed by Deighton’s novel and that he felt that the genre had been ‘exhausted’ and re-wrote a lot and embellished the story.


This film’s screenplay was written by John McGrath, playwright of several BBC Play for Todays and founder of the political theatre group 7:84. McGrath clearly latches onto and exaggerates any left-wing strain in Deighton – playing up the radicalism by dramatizing General Midwinter’s gathering as a surreal, nightmarish and grandiose McCarthyite rally. His Palmer seems to adhere to the ‘Neither Moscow nor Washington’ position identified by Morphet, even if his ultimate allegiance is to his own unassuming brand of British patriotism.

The frames from BDB that Iannone used on his power-point were ‘chilling’, connoting horror and WW2: these were described as ‘extraordinarily powerful central images’. The camera was also much more mobile than the previous films. Also, in contrast to the urban settings of the first two films, Russell is faithful to the BDB novel with his extensive use of Finnish and Eastern European landscapes. The Midwinter’s army sequence was compared to silent cinema historical epics.


I announced that we would have seventeen minutes of Q&A. The first question saw Iannone asked about the relationship between the cinematography and the content of the films, but said that deeper focus on the content was beyond the remit of his paper.

Phyllis Lassner questioned Crossley on having positioned capitalism in opposition to communism, as Lassner saw capitalism as purely an economic system, with communism being an economic, political and ideological system. Lassner advised it as better to talk about liberal democracy or social democracy. I responded that surely these were areas within capitalism? Lassner contradicted: no, capitalism is restricted to being an economic system.

In response, Crossley argued that the books were speaking to a welfare state-type ideology, with TIF’s novel at least fundamentally concerning itself with institutions of the state. She made the interesting point that Deighton is critical of how the establishment is taking advantage of the welfare state for ‘pleasurable ends’: which we could see as abuse of those in power of their power, not looking after the welfare of all in the Beveridge manner. I would add, to counter Lassner’s distancing of capitalism from politics, that it isn’t for nothing that Alan Sinfield has summarised the hegemonic ideology of the 1945-79 era as ‘welfare capitalism’. Clearly, there are sub-categories and contrasts within this, but it holds as the best umbrella description of the ‘Butskellite’ era.

Another question concerned whether the panelists thought there was a limit to the everyday and the comic in the genre; if the comic element was pushed to the extreme, then could the genre dissolve? They don’t expect a lot of humour with this genre, Iannone argued. He reflected that there is humour to a degree in the novels, but that Furie and Russell added much more humour. Crossley stated that genres aren’t pure and are so often hybridised. Iannone mentioned new audiences and Austin Powers. Crossley, to laughs: “I think we should do the dance on the way out!”

There was some further discussion of Ross’ dislike of US shopping methods. I would link this with the 1960s development of the ‘long front of culture’ that Robert Hewison has documented. The older generation’s more ‘Little Englander’ scepticism towards both European and American cultural influences – represented by Ross – being supplanted by the more open-minded grammar-school generation represented by Palmer. Food – the connoisseurship in the novel, is as Brian Baker has said, much more pronounced than in the film.[8] Though the film has often been lauded for its scene of Palmer cooking for a lady friend – a scene not specifically in the novel. Deighton’s Observer food columns, where he seemed to exhibit a northern preoccupation redolent of his decision to set the novel in Burnley.

The spy genre itself was gradually to become part of an expanded ‘long front’ of culture, with genre fiction accepted as worthy of study and ascribed as having ‘value’. Yet it is still amorphous and not demarcated in the way ‘Classics’ of fiction are: Morphet commented on the curiosity that if you’re looking for spy fiction in a bookshop, it’s difficult to know whether it comes under crime, ordinary fiction or military and that that is part of its essential character, its slippery nature.

Friday’s early evening Plenary session was commenced by Adam Piette (University of Sheffield, UK), writer of The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam (2009). He analysed John le Carré’s The Russia House (1989) – a novel of ‘mystery and companionship’ – in the light of Glasnost and British perceptions of Russia. Piette explained that Gorbachev had revived what had been a dissident term, denoting openness to public scrutiny. Piette mentioned Solzhenitsyn but it wasn’t the scope of this study to discuss him much. He discussed the perceptions of some at the time that Gorbachev’s moves towards liberalisation may have been a clever ploy, the reforms bogus. Much of Piette’s focus was on protagonist Bartholomew Scott Blair, aka. ‘Barley’, head of a modest, family-owned British publishing company. Katya, the beautiful young Soviet woman, represents ‘mystery’, ‘companionship’ and a politically-charged romance for Barley.


The amateur, drunk and lazy Barley was argued to have a ‘Shelleyian liberalism’ and a ‘Wordsworthian passion for the people’. Expansive transnational sociality was referred to, as was a love of the Russians; Piette quoted the novel: “Their huge heart beating beneath a huge shambles”. Barney identifies a libertarian, romantic political identity as being his ideal of pre-Cold War Englishness. An England, in his perception, that was freer before the Cold War.

To contrast with Barney was the grey, bureaucratic narrator Harry Palfrey, incidentally the title character played by Alec McCowen in Storyboard: ‘The Traitor’ (TX: 23/08/1983) and Mr Palfrey of Westminster (1984-85). The TV Palfrey was a mild, balanced middle-aged civil servant and the style of the series is rather JLC-esque in its lack of action, its deliberate pacing and focus on character.

Graham Greene was referred to as a ‘mentor’ for JLC. JLC’s focus here on the motif of the telephone preserves what Greene would call the human factor, as well as the voice’s subjection to power and surveillance. It provides Katya and Barley with their only way of communicating.

There was said to be a political and erotic love of country and partner, an ‘erotics of politics’, at play within the novel. He said that JLC took a ‘left-liberal’ ideological line and that there is a sense of a potentially ‘transformative’ left-liberal politics tangible in the post-Glasnost and pre-Yeltsin days. The character Goethe – named with an eye to European transnational culture – is a Soviet nuclear physicist whose reforming radicalism was born of experiencing the 1968 Prague Spring. He referred to Barley as very much a 1960s romantic and progressive individualism, noting the unlikelihood and frisson of JLC associating with hippie culture here. A transnational progressive liberalism is JLC’s ideal, which seems possibly within grasp at this time. Katya represents this ideal in an enigmatic way. This novel sounded a significant late-1980s contextual read; to supplement it would be the 1990 film adaptation, plus a 1994 radio version featuring Tom Baker as Barley.

Christine Berberich (University of Portsmouth, UK) has co-edited These Englands: Conversations on National Identity (2011) and written The Image of the English Gentleman in Twentieth Century Literature: Englishness and Nostalgia (2007), which Toby Manning said he could ‘heartily recommend’, in his introduction.

To begin, she quoted Fleming in 1963: “I am not ‘involved’ […] my books are not ‘engaged’.” His claims to be apolitical are questioned by Berberich, who claimed they were ‘highly charged and problematic texts’. Michael Denning, a conference-quotation mainstay, was cited in terms of spy fiction constituting ‘cover stories for our culture, collective fantasies and imaginations in the Western world’. She mentioned certain crucial moments: the unveiling of the Cambridge Spies in 1951, showing that patriotism was no longer a given. In the context of this, Fleming wanted to create an English ‘super-spy’. Also mentioned were Suez 1956 and Acheson 1962: ‘Britain has lost an empire; she has not yet found a role’.

She quoted James Chapman on how Fleming’s Bond is a ‘nationalist fantasy in which Britain’s decline as a world power did not really take place’, and Bennett and Woollacott’s discussion of Fleming’s ‘mythic conception of nationhood’, with England invariably taking the leading role, even above Britain. I thought about how much research has been done into how the average reader of the books (or the films) has interpreted them – presumably a lot with the focus on fandom, audiences and reception in much Media, Film and Television academic.

Ian Fleming - Goldfinger

Berberich analysed Goldfinger (1959) for its Orientalism: Goldfinger’s Korean minions are described as ‘apes’ with ‘flat yellow faces’. They are animalised. Oddjob was referred to as appropriating that classic marker of Englishness, the bowler hat. The novel was quoted: ‘In his tight, almost bursting black suit and farcical bowler hat he looked rather like a Japanese wrestler on his day off. But he was not a figure to make one smile.’ Bond has a personal vendetta towards the ‘racialised Other’ Oddjob. The ‘vitriolically singled-out’, ‘presumably Korean communist minions’ with Fleming referring obliquely or otherwise to the ‘clearly defined ideological war’: the Korean War, 1950-53.

Berberich argued we can’t just view these novels as entertainment. She quoted the excellent literary and cultural critic Alan Sinfield: ‘Literature is involved in the process of self-understanding in the past and present. These are inevitably interpretations and evaluations of perceived possibilities in the real world. These constructions are not just responses, but interventions. Publication feeds back possible images of the self in relation to others, helping society to interpret and constitute itself. The social identities formed in recent history dominate our current perception.’ She then referred to Fleming’s personal bewilderment at the changing times amid de-colonisation and multiculturalism. She said he had been trying to find a place for his own values and his vision of the country. She concluded that Fleming’s novels are ‘deeply problematic as they are rooted in a racialist and imperialist code that, in the wake of the Second World War, Britain should well and truly have left behind’.

Patrick Major (University of Reading, UK)’s most notable Cold War publications seem to be his co-edited Britain, Empire, and Intelligence since 1945 (2009) and Across the Blocs: Exploring Comparative Cold War and Social History (2004), co-penned with Rana Mitter. He is currently working on an interesting research project on Anglo-American and German film depictions of the ‘Bad Nazi’ and ‘Good German’ figures. Major gave an urbane talk about East German fictions, literary and televisual. He had planned to focus on Das unsichtbare Visier, discussed earlier in the day by Haller. Due to this unexpected overlap, he reduced the amount on that series and discussed two key neglected thriller writers of the GDR who he had discovered in second-hand bookshops in Berlin instead: Harry Thürk and Wolfgang Schreyer. Both were born in 1927 and from petit-bourgeois; Schreyer had Nazi connections, being a part of the Wehrmacht from 1944-45. HT had connections with the Stasi, WS was heavily surveyed by them. The GDR Ministry of Culture did much vetting of books. The thriller was seen as a primarily Western genre, and the adjective ‘hard-boiled’ was used pejoratively and as being associated with the West and Mickey Spillane. Like Bond thrillers, these writers’ works had a partial function as tourism substitute.

Harry Thurk - DER GAUKLER

Thürk’s novels were popular in Eastern Europe; for example, being translated into Hungarian and Czech. Many of his novels were set in exotic South-East Asian locations. Der Gaukler (1978) portrayed Solzhenitsyn as a CIA tool in its conspiracy narrative; even the Ministry of Culture said he’d went too far with this and asked him to tone it down. Major discussed the 1963 film For Eyes Only, which Thürk scripted, depicting a Stasi agent undercover in the West, though it was without The Lives of Others’ domestic focus. This film depicted stereotypical Americans to undermine perceptions of the West, showing them wearing sunglasses indoors!


Schreyer’s narratives tended to use more Caribbean and Cuba type settings. Most GDR thrillers, Major argued, tended to be set in the West and attempted to discredit life there and remove its allure. They never wanted to dwell on internal GDR affairs.

Wolfgang Schreyer - DIE SUCHE...

Schreyer’s plots generally elicited more suspicion than Thürk’s in the GDR; his Die Suche oder Die Abenteuer des Uwe Reuss (The Search) (1981) had a mind-reading machine being used by the protagonist to chat up women. This story was, Major indicated, even published in Playboy.


Next, Major turned to the 1973-9 series DUV, which he argued was intended as an antithesis to James Bond. The Stasi commissioned the series in the 1960s and informed their own portrayal in it: as ‘explorers for peace’, rather than ‘spies’. They saw it as a means of creating role models for East German youth, as well as more broadly to undermine the Ostpolitik developments of 1969-74 and portray the Bonn-based West German regime as unchanged in its regressive and aggressive nature. The Stasi had also insisted on having Armin Mueller-Stahl as the star. In the series, Western spies are associated with putsches and counter-revolution. There was a focus on the ‘contaminating’ and ‘titillating’ aspects of Western influence, in strangely staged depictions of the West. Western agents are constantly depicted in the milieu of strip bars, as in the DVD excerpt that Major showed. To round off, Major referred to AM-S’s quitting the show in 1978 when he left the GDR for West Germany, along with other disaffected actors.


A questioner posited the idea of James Bond as a contemporary knight; a Galahad in contrast to other characters representing other knights. Berberich answered that Alan Moore undermines the ideas of mythic heroes in his The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with Bond as a thoroughly bad egg. Piette was questioned further on the ideologies in TRH and mentioned Russia’s divergent left tradition of anarchism; which related to his earlier identification of a left-libertarianism in JLC and characters’ perspectives.

Major was asked several questions on DUV, which enabled him to reveal that plots featured neo-Nazism being used as a cover and the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof). He mentioned that many of the supposed Western-set scenes were filmed in Bulgaria. He was able to discuss the show’s oddly ‘out of time’ foregrounding of ‘anti-fascism’; 1930s ideas and rhetoric lingering into the 1970s. Expanding upon his discussion of For Eyes Only, Major mentioned that DUV often featured Americans as the enemies, with many larger-than-life roles. The last question mentioned how East German films were very popular in the USSR and then asked Major why DUV wasn’t shown in the USSR; a question Major couldn’t answer, given his focus on GDR archival material. He finished with mentioning the many transnational co-productions of the time; for example, the 445-minute WW2 epic, Liberation (1970-1), which was co-made by the Soviet Union, the GDR, Poland, Yugoslavia and Italy.


Day 2 completed, the majority of delegates went on a scenic riverside walk, followed by a drinks reception and tapas-style meal at a Zorita’s Kitchen, Broken Wharf, a restaurant near the Embarkment tube and overlooking the Thames. Appropriately Eurocentric cuisine following a day of so much Deighton.

[1] Crossley, L. (2015) ‘‘Do You Always Wear Glasses?’ Vision, Knowledge and Power in The Ipcress File (1965)’, [online] [30/12/15]

[2] Crossley, L. (2015) ibid.

[3] Morphet, J. (2015) ‘Enrolling the anti-establishment: working class agents in the early spy fiction of Len Deighton and John Le Carre’, [online] [30/12/15]

[4] Morphet, J. (2015) ibid.

[5] Morphet, J. (2015) ibid.

[6] Morphet, J. (2015) ibid.

[7] Morphet, J. (2015) ibid.

[8] Baker, B. (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