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 theNine O’Clock Newswith 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 email@example.com. 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: https://www.tvbrain.info/ [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.
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.
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 Academia.edu 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.’ 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.’ 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’. 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.’ 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).
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.’ 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.’ 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
The blog of Robin Carmody. Liberal humanist, reformed ex-Stalinist and former anti-anti-anti-Semite, melancholy Europhile and romantic-ruralist socialist. Londoner by birth, Kentish Man by upbringing, Portlander by adoption. "More like Roy Harper than Fairport Convention" - Simon Reynolds, 2003. May be the horsiest Leftie in the Anglosphere, but there are many horsier ones beyond.