The contested politics of Graham Greene on film: the critical reception and context of The Honorary Consul (1983)

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

This article seeks to supplement my academic paper on the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s own favourite of his novels The Honorary Consul, giving more detailed attention to the critical reception it received, some further narrative history of its production and focusing on the contexts of the personnel involved.

  1. His own and others’ worst critic: Greene, cinema and adaptations

As Hand and Pursell state, Greene was one of the twentieth century’s ‘most emblematic writers’.[1] They also argue that Greene was ‘one of the first British authors to be influenced by cinema’.[2] He opened A Sort of Life (1971), his first volume of autobiography, with an amused recollection of his father’s allowing his senior boys to go to the cinema to see Tarzan, ‘under the false impression that it was an educational film of anthropological interest, and ever after he regarded the cinema with a sense of disillusion and suspicion.’[3] Unlike his father Greene was a committed cineaste and twentieth-century man par example, admiring cinema’s unique possibilities. However, as his views on films as critic and as viewer of adaptations of his own works attest, he was often aghast at the medium’s shortcomings.

The Third Man (1949) won the accolade of ‘greatest’ ever British film in the BFI’s 1999 poll.[4] While Greene liked that film – which hadn’t been an adaptation as he had written the novelisation after his inspired ad hoc creation of the script based on a visit to Vienna – it wasn’t quite his own favourite of his adaptations. In 1984, he stated this was The Fallen Idol (1948) and also expressed a liking for The Confidential Agent (1945), Brighton Rock (1947), The Heart of the Matter (1953; ‘good film, but I didn’t like the book much’!), the ‘not too bad’ Our Man in Havana (1960) and England Made Me (1972).[5] Most of these were British-made, or Carol Reed directed.

In the same live Q&A interview with Quentin Falk, Greene expressed hatred for many adaptations of his work: This Gun for Hire (1940) and its remake, the James Cagney-directed Short Cut to Hell (1957), The Ministry of Fear (1943), The Man Within (1947), The Fugitive (1947), The Quiet American (1958), Travels with My Aunt (1972; ‘no money at all’) and The Human Factor (1979).[6] There were films he quite liked but felt were spoiled by acting performances: Van Johnson in The End of the Affair (1955). He also amusingly discussed the dreadful 21 Days (1937), which he himself adapted from a John Galsworthy short story, which he even attacked himself in a review for the Spectator!

Thames’ television drama anthology series of adaptations Shades of Greene (1975-6) – to be the subject of further research and analysis – was well regarded by the writer; he only disliked four out of the eighteen episodes. He also said that three or four of these were among the very best of his adaptations, specifically naming ‘A Dream of a Strange Land’, ‘Two Gentle People’ and ‘Under the Garden’.[7]

  1. A tortuous genesis: bringing The Honorary Consul to screen

High Noon director Fred Zinnemann was the first to express an interest in directing a screen version of The Honorary Consul.[8] Peter Duffell spent five years (1973-8) trying to set up a film version.[9] In the September 1984 ‘Guardian Lecture’ at the National Film Theatre, secretly filmed by the BBC against Greene’s wishes, he expressed his admiration for the Duffell-directed England Made Me (1972) and claimed that Duffell’s first-draft script of The Honorary Consul was ‘very good’.[10] In June 1974, Greene had no objection to Robert Redford being cast as Plarr, ‘if you have to have an American’ and a year later suggested Jack Nicholson as ideal for the part.[11] Greene had even went so far as to suggest locations; however, Duffell ‘faced obstacles at every turn’, while the likes of Redford and Pacino shunned the chance to play Plarr, and, after five years’ labour, he had to give up.[12] Orson Welles, Zinnemann again and Louis Malle were linked with the project, before, at Richard Burton’s urging, Norma Heyman secured the rights in 1978, with Duffell as intermediary. Burton, prominent again following the success of Equus (1977), had been keen on playing Fortnum.[13] Duffell’s ‘literal’ script was then abandoned, in favour of a new one from playwright Christopher Hampton.[14] Heyman had thought Hampton’s play Savages ‘remarkable’ and allowed the playwright to be ‘rather radical’ with the novel.[15]

Peter Duffell (b.1937- ) – one of Britain’s most underrated directors, according to Christopher Lee.

Approached by Heyman at the end of 1981, John Mackenzie was best known for Play for Todays such as ‘Just a Boy’s Game’ and ‘Red Shift’, and films The Long Good Friday and A Sense of Freedom.[16] Some of this work can be characterised as displaying some of the popular vulgarity and politicisation that Greene wanted to see in cinema. Mackenzie had been scheduled in 1981-2 to direct the BBC’s adaptation of Smiley’s People, but for ‘various reasons’ didn’t. When profiled in the Daily Telegraph, Mackenzie mentioned The Comedians as ‘absolutely awful […] It must have been the worst’ Graham Greene film adaptation.[17]

Caine, interviewed in the New York Times to promote the film, was settled in Beverly Hills, newly-married and learning to drive.[18] Of his performance as the titular Charley Fortnum, Caine states: ‘I’m here to make you feel his humanity’, expounding upon his acting technique of listening intently to the other actors.[19] He is invariably aided in this by using his humanising ‘lizard-like peepers’, as Andrew Pulver has described them.[20]

Michael Caine1

Caine refers heavily to his working-class upbringing and puts forward the very 1980s Tory ideas of social mobility, arguing that the working-classes often instil an attitude of ‘knowing your place’, and also that ‘now, the Socialists are trying to do the same thing: You were born into the working class and you’re going to stay there.’[21] Caine is a symbolic figure in many ways: he did national service, fought in the dangerous ‘First Cold War’ conflagration, the Korean War, became the grammar-school hero Harry Palmer, became the old pro in legions of mediocre films, building up a fortune he didn’t want taxing so heavily. Thus, he moved to California; and, by 1983, he was the middle-aged ex-pat and Thatcher endorser. Educating Rita (1983) fits the narrative in terms of social mobility, though the Wilson-created Open University autodidact path isn’t so Thatcherite. Notably, Julie Walters has made recent comments criticising the dominance of public school over working-class talent, saying: ‘people like me wouldn’t get the chance today’.[22] Michael Caine hasn’t, and endorsed the Tories in the 2015 General Election; it is very easy to see Harry Brown as a UKIP and Brexit voter. Indeed, upon that film’s 2009 release, Caine suggested that Britain should ‘bring back national service to give young people a sense of belonging’ and also threatened to leave Britain again if Gordon Brown raised income tax any higher than 50%[23] While Greene himself was a tax exile in Antibes from 1966, it is difficult to see him agreeing with such views, as a more globally-minded, self-identified social democrat.

  1. Critical reception and analysis of The Honorary Consul (1983)

Reaction to the film was almost entirely negative. In America, ‘Beyond the Limit’ – as it was renamed – was seen as ‘literal’, slow paced and overly faithful to the original.[24] Variety and Boxoffice reviewers both saw it as unsubtle compared with the novel; for the former it is ‘dull’[25] and the latter questions whether the novel is too ‘internalised’ for a visual medium.[26] The exception in US criticism was Marjorie Bilbow, who generally liked it and praised good performances all around.[27] Paramount studio’s spokesman claimed to have been ‘very surprised’ when the film didn’t do well at the box office, following its extensive release as an attempted winter blockbuster.[28]

In the UK, Derek Malcolm was mixed, liking the ‘brooding atmosphere’ and raving about Caine’s performance, comparing him to Trevor Howard in earlier Greene adaptation The End of the Affair (1955) and Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana (1960).[29] Patrick Gibbs, who’d slated the Burton-Taylor film of The Comedians sixteen years earlier, is generally negative. He liked Mackenzie’s ‘admirable clarity’ of Mackenzie’s way with the story but said it lacked ‘involvement’.[30] He opened his review by spotting a trend: Hampton and Dennis Potter, screenwriter of the simultaneously-released Gorky Park, were both ‘theatre playwrights’, untrue in Potter’s case, unless one accepts the conflation of TV drama with drama per se.

Nigel Andrews was negative about this ‘cod-Latin American adventure’ and deploys the scathing adjective ‘abysmal’. He is especially disappointed, as, in the context of early 1984, he sees cinema as his main cultural refuge from the ‘relentless flood of programmes on TV about George Orwell’.[31] David Robinson was generally negative: echoing US critics regarding its unsubtlety and drawing parallels again with Gorky Park with its director and writer coming from television. Philip French is the most wholly negative, assailing it as a ‘glum movie’, with Greene’s narrative ‘reduced to a triangular affair’.[32] He comments on the leisurely restructuring of the narrative – with the kidnapping occurring more than half-way through, proportionately far further on than in the novel. His review opens with a broadside against what he sees as the BFI’s absurd and self-defeating designating of 1984 as ‘The Year of Television’.

Castell was the most positive, praising a ‘lucid script’, Greene would like its ‘implosive’, not explosive nature. ‘The themes of religion and politics, courage and cowardice, spiritual and physical love, are adroitly woven together’. Yet, the vitriol returned in Barber’s piece, a withering diatribe against both Mackenzie and Gere: ‘“Efficient thriller” is, I believe, the phrase. Not quite so efficient, actually.’[33] In the excellent publication, the MFB, Tom Milne was generally very critical but with one or two caveats. For him, it is self-parodic ‘Greeneland’, with the climactic scene referred to as a ‘reductio ad absurdum of all Greene has ever written or stood for’. ‘Hampton’s script reduces the novel to a skeleton’.[34] Milne liked the very last scene with Fortnum and Clara, which he argued conveys some of the novel’s power.

Richard_Grenier
Neo-con critic, Richard Grenier (1933-2002)

The film of THC was accused by American novelist and critic Richard Grenier of being an ideological weapon. Grenier was notable for writing a review of Attenborough’s Gandhi, which savaged the reputation of the man Gandhi, and, in February 1984, wrote a stridently conservative piece in the Daily Telegraph, laying into what he describes as Hollywood’s preoccupation with ‘public affairs’ and political bias towards the left (or, in US terms, ‘liberalism’), criticising The Honorary Consul along with its fellow 1983 films Silkwood, Deal of the Century, Daniel , Testament and the Nicaragua-focused Under Fire.[35]

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

He characterises these films as preaching at audiences and unsuccessfully so, stating each film’s low chart placing in the Variety’s annual list of films that grossed over a million dollars as evidence and then saying these films had ‘been easily identified’ by the public as ‘anti-American.’[36] This review shows a kind of neo-conservative rhetoric that greatly influenced Thatcherite and Blairite neo-liberal cultural critics in the UK in their populist attacks on films, TV programmes and music that dealt explicitly with political issues.

Hampton and Mackenzie’s film fits Richard J. Hand’s formulation of the ‘Five Creative Strategies of Adaptation’ (2010).[37] It (1) omits Doctor Saavedra and all of the novel’s literary nature. There is the (2) addition of flashbacks to torture, which are given less context; as well as the specific naming of the setting as Argentina and Corrientes, in particular, which Greene had visited while researching the novel.[38] There is the (3) marginalisation of Sir Henry Belfrage and the British context, as discussed in my paper – despite the token efforts of Gere to speak in an English accent! There is the (4) expansion of violent and sexual scenes – the novel dwells more on the psychological aspect of love-making, not in describing its physical processes. There is the significant (5) alteration of responsibility for the torture, with Greene’s many references to the CIA’s implication made to seem a domestic South American matter. As Heyman said they wanted to suggest, but not spell out, the conditions of the Argentinian dictatorship that was in place during the film’s making in 1982-3.[39] The novel had been written when Argentina was theoretically a democracy, and its focus was on Paraguay being under the American thumb. As Falk comments, Hampton’s script has too linear and sequential a narrative, in contrast with Duffell’s more layered script which built up tension more successfully.[40] When it does manage to deviate from sequential order, this is via notably unsubtle and sensationalist flashbacks.

Perhaps Mackenzie learned from the experience of this film, with its occasionally sensationalist, watered-down politics, when he came to direct The Fourth Protocol (1987). In his paper at the September 2015 Spying on Spies Conference, Paul Lynch referred to Mackenzie’s contrary ideological take on Frederick Forsyth’s original text, angering the right-wing author. To conclude, critics found the ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing’ politics of The Honorary Consul either too pronounced or not emphasised enough; it was surely the Ed Miliband of Graham Greene film adaptations, trying to straddle an impossible line without the requisite skills.

[1] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) Adapting Graham Greene. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p.17

[2] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.134

[3] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader. London: Penguin, p.xi

[4] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.20

[5] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[6] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[7] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[8] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[9] Screen International (1984) ‘’Consul’ proves a box office draw’, Screen International, 21st January, p.8

[10] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[11] Falk, Q. (2014) Travels in Greeneland: The Cinema of Graham Greene. 4th edn. Dahlonega, GA: University Press of North Georgia, p.130-1

[12] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[13] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.131

[14] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[15] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.132

[16] Hodges, A. (1983) ibid., p.15

[17] Stringer, R. (1984) ‘Profile: man who put Greene on the screen’, Daily Telegraph, 9th January, p.8

[18] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ‘Michael Caine at 50: Testing the Limits of the Actor’s Art’, New York Times, 16th October

[19] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ibid.

[20] Pulver, A. & Clarke, P. (illustration) (1998) ‘Profile: Michael Caine – Now don’t mess abaht’, The Guardian, 23rd February, p.B4

[21] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ibid.

[22] Cadwalladr, C. (2016) ‘Why working-class actors are a disappearing breed – Once we had gritty TV dramas such as Boys from the Blackstuff; now we have glossy thrillers with public school-educated stars. How did British screens become dominated by the privileged few? And does it matter?’ The Observer, 8th May, p.6

[23] Anthony, A. (2016) ‘Michael Caine: the class act who enjoys the political fray’, The Observer, 24th January, p.32

[24] Canby, V. (1983) ‘Film: ‘Beyond the Limit’, From Graham Greene’, New York Times, 30th September

[25] Cart. (1983) ‘Film Reviews: Beyond the Limit’, Variety, 5th October, p.24

[26] Summers, J. (1983) ‘Reviews: BEYOND THE LIMIT’, Boxoffice, 1st December, p.145

[27] Bilbow, M. (1983) ‘Reviews: THE HONORARY CONSUL’, Screen International 17th December, p.11

[28] Goodman, J. (1984) ‘Integrity in face of the unlovable’, The Times, 4th January, p.11

[29] Malcolm, D. (1984) ‘Our man in the savannah’, The Guardian, 5th January, p.9

[30] Gibbs, P. (1984) ‘The Honorary Consul’, The Daily Telegraph, 6th January, p.13

[31] Andrews, N. (1984) ‘When only Caine is able’, Financial Times, 6th January, p.11

[32] French, P. (1984) ‘Murder in Moscow’, The Observer, 8th January, p.54

[33] Barber, L. (1984) ‘The Wrong Gere’, Melody Maker (59)3, 21st January, p.27

[34] Milne, T. (1984) ‘The Honorary Consul’, Monthly Film Bulletin (51)600, January, p.16

[35] Grenier, R. (1984) ‘Un-American activities’, Daily Telegraph, 11th February, p.16

[36] Grenier, R. (1984) ibid., p.16

[37] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.8

[38] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

[39] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

[40] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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

One_for_the_Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry Mason

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

Che Guevara
El Tigre – less present than this fella…

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

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

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

Denis Healey

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

OBE

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

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

crystal2l

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

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

Robert Southwell

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

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

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

Lord Haw Haw accents telegraph

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

N_Sinyard_3
Neil Sinyard

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

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

ITALY THE RED THREAT 14-06-76

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our man in the cinema: Graham Greene, popular culture, underdogs and the Left

THC

In Graham Greene’s 1973 novel The Honorary Consul, Argentinian love-interest Clara knows ‘the latest dope about a woman called Elizabeth Taylor’, while the honorary consul Charley Fortnum shows his lack of popular cultural capital: ‘a fellow called Burton? I always thought Burton was a kind of beer.’[1] In addition, Clara is represented as vain and her attention is ‘bought’ by Dr Eduardo Plarr through a pair of sunglasses, an object signifying consumerist desires and also the act of watching. Popular writer Greene’s life and work has an ambivalent relation to popular culture, and his attitudes to the political Left were rarely fixed. One of the few common threads in his non-conformist life is a concern for the underdog.

Graham Greene was a ‘child of the cinema’: as a young man he had been a cineaste; from 1935-40, he reviewed hundreds of films, inspired by the serious film journal, Close Up, which he was reading in 1922 when he started at Oxford University.[2] His tastes were for the Grierson school of British documentary, European art cinema like Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and the comedies of Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. These were examples of the relatively few films which lived up to his ideal of ‘poetic cinema’ that reflected life and had a visceral, popular appeal.

His views on British cinema were that it should depict the national character, as was observable in Will Hay films and the Grierson-style documentaries. This doesn’t necessarily clash with his status as a cosmopolitan internationalist. He tended to observe that British films were watered down by non-British influence and far less interesting or evocative of life than those which resisted this. Some of his pre-WW2 reviews seem like a cautious blueprint for Ealing’s Balcon-era output. As Matthew Sweet reminds us, Balcon’s Ealing was actually pretty left-wing – the sort of individual-respecting socialism that we can assign Orwell, Priestley and, indeed, Greene. Balcon was involved in the 1941 Committee who were lobbying for post-war opinion to be pro-Attlee instead of Churchill.[3] The Balcon children all speak of a home with a ‘political atmosphere’, infused by the ‘Left Book Club’. Sweet writes evocatively of Balcon’s protégé, Pen Tennyson, director of some earlier relatively class-conscious and politicised Ealing films: There Ain’t No Justice (1939) and The Proud Valley (1940). In his film reviewing days, Greene had seen potential in both films, but argued that it wasn’t realised; of the former, saying: ‘The etceteras – setting of bar rooms and coffee stalls – are admirable, but the whole picture breathes timidity and refinement.’[4] The latter he compared, unfavourably, with Carol Reed’s A.J. Cronin-adaptation The Stars Look Down (1940).[5] Cronin’s original novel had been loosely inspired by the March 1925 Montagu View Pit Disaster, in Scotswood, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Greene was regularly critical of and bemused by the British Board of Film Censors’ decisions: for example, to classify The Wizard of Oz (1939) as ‘for adults only’.[6] He argued, ‘Surely it is time that this absurd committee of elderly men and spinsters who feared, too, that Snow White was unsuitable for those under sixteen, was laughed out of existence?’[7] He felt it ridiculous that parents wouldn’t be able to take their children to see this ‘lavish’ film, which he liked in a pantomime vein, praising Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the ‘spinster-witch’. This shows a resistance to the wrong kind of paternalism: the BBFC’s stuffy partiality and bizarre prudery made them odd and damaging cultural gatekeepers.

BBFC

In his critic days, Greene was often scornful of ‘middlebrow’ British films preferred by the BBFC that lacked intellect or excitement and chased a form of intangible sophistication or spurious cultural cachet. He also attacked much of Hollywood as summarised by the insipid nature of a Bing Crosby song number in a film with its ‘mild self-pity, something soothing, something gently amusing’, but not much of life.[8] As opposed to the lively vulgarity he liked in British audiences, he disliked the materialistic vulgarity of Hollywood, as shown in his 1937 piece ‘Film Lunch’ where he attacked moguls like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and a system in thrall to money, with the content of films lacking in either intelligence or vivacity: ‘money for no thought, for the banal situation and the inhuman romance: money for forgetting how people live.’[9] He speaks of American capitalism utilising ‘a touch of religion, a touch of the family’ to gain respectability and cultural hegemony.[10]

He was sued in 1938 by 20th Century Fox for critiquing the ironically anti-religion and anti-family sexualisation of child-star Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie. The magazine who published his review, Night and Day, had to pay the studio and Temple damages that came to a total of £3500. Nearly £216000 in today’s money! In another 1937 review, Greene condemned US cultural imperialism that he discerned within the ostensibly Germany-focused The Road Back, referring to ‘the unformed, unlined faces and the well-fed bodies of American youth, clean limbed, prize cattle mooing into the microphone […] It would be funny if it wasn’t horrifying. This is America seeing the world in its own image.’[11]

THE ROAD BACK - 1937i

Fifteen years later, in 1952, when the House of Un-American Activities was in full swing, Greene wrote a letter to Charlie Chaplin that was published on 27th September in the New Statesman. He praises Chaplin as ‘a great liberal’, champion of the underdog whose films ‘have always punctured the bully’.[12] He suggests British personnel in Hollywood could boycott the films of those ‘friends of the witch-hunter’ Adolph Menjou and Louis B. Mayer. This letter even, as Neil Sinyard claims, partially inspired scenes in Chaplin’s anti-McCarthyist satire A King in New York from 1957. He suggests to Chaplin a scene where the tramp is resurrected and called before the House, which proposes an absurd range of indictments against supposedly politically-charged scenes from the tramp’s cinematic past. The letter shows a telling attempt by Greene to connect with the values he perceived in Chaplin’s cinematic work. Indeed, rare are the Greene texts which lack the underdog master-plot, as defined by H. Porter Abbot.

WENT THE DAY WELL

A clear example of this is Greene’s 1941 short-story ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’, which became the tremendous, ‘People’s War’ myth-building film, Went the Day Well? (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942). The short-story emphasises the working-class poacher, Purves, who is in the end imprisoned for his transgression of upper-class land, despite the ironic fact that this contravention enables him to pick off most of the German platoon threatening the village. Greene’s story focuses on this absurd, class-based injustice, while the film instead has the character die heroically, leaving a more or less united social tableau at the end. Greene represents ‘Old Purves’ as a plucky underdog, embittered due to his Boer war service, who succeeds due to his illicit knowledge of the Lord Drew’s land, but yet feels some revulsion at what he has done, when finding a baby-and-hearth photo on the person of the German lieutenant he had killed.[13] With Greene’s eye for the partiality and myth-making of official propaganda, he subtitles the story: ‘An Unrecorded Victory in 1940’.

In August 1956, US Democratic Presidential candidate and ‘egghead’ Adlai Stevenson had asked Greene to write a film script to support the United Nations. Greene drily declined, saying that the UN and ‘American materialism’ combined were the ‘chief threat’ to world peace.[14] Again, these are concerns which prefigure Chaplin’s A King in New York, which features a (sometimes overly verbose) series of verbal volleys against US culture, as Jim Jarmusch has identified. Chaplin critiques plastic surgery, product placement, advertisements and the sanitisation of popular music, in often very pungent visual terms – for example, the banal, crashing noise of the scene where his bonce is ‘drummed’ by a resident band’s drummer in a restaurant.

Chaplin4Chaplin2 Chaplin3

The attempt to make the child character (played by Chaplin’s son, Michael) the underdog doesn’t work like the universal Tramp, but very perceptive points indeed about monopoly and immigration are emitted from the precocious child’s gob. The sense of Chaplin as a champagne liberal or socialist is keenly felt – he plays a King, deposed via a communist revolution, but who finds US society no better. King Shadhoff has a Shavian or Wellsian belief in social progress, speaking not just against nuclear weapons but of a ‘Utopia’, which makes a mockery of Chaplin’s off-screen claims to be non-political: ‘I have never been political. I have no convictions. I am an individualist.’[15] Chaplin would have surely been quite well disposed towards Wells, who also had a turbulent London upbringing. Greene spoke in 1983 of admiring HGW’s work ‘enormously’ and preferring him to the more canonised Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.[16]

chaplin1

Individualism for Chaplin must be rather more about non-conformity than anything dangerously Ayn Rand or as ‘social mobility’ fixated as Michael Caine. This is shown in how the film encourages the audience to think and consider collective dreams like disarmament and devolved decision-making (with, admittedly, the paternalist King pointing the way).

Chaplin5

If Chaplin can be likened to Bertrand Russell’s left-humanism, Greene might be usefully located in the context of the post-WW2 British cultural elite, with his brother Hugh Carleton Greene’s 1960-68 tenure of BBC Director General and the Wilson government influencing an incrementally more liberal cultural climate and laws. In a 1971 interview, Greene is very critical of the puritanical didacticism of the otherwise liberal Home Secretary Rab Butler’s Street Offences Act of 1960 – which he refers to as the ‘Cleaning the Streets Act’.[17] Contrastingly, Greene consistently adheres to a more ‘enlightened’, relaxed-about-vice well-healed paternalism. This is in the context of Leavisite ascendency in literature study, Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1958) and seriously engaged documentaries in cinema and television from the likes of Denis Mitchell and John Krish. Politically, this aligned with Butskellism and the consensus politics deriving from the political economies of Beveridge and Titmuss; epitomised also by films such as A Diary for Timothy (1945), with its W.H. Auden script. Greene’s own focus on the ‘promise of socialism’ was first articulated in fiction via his 1934 novel, It’s a Battlefield.[18]

In 1993, Auberon Waugh referred to Greene as a ‘left-wing social democrat’, given to siding with the underdog and who had a ‘hatred’ of American culture for its ‘vulgarity and populism’.[19] There is a strong sense in which anti-Americanism runs through the middle and upper-class left in this era, seeing Hollywood and ‘mass culture’ as threatening to long-established ways of life – for example, Hoggart’s view on Leeds. However, Couto outlined what she saw as Greene’s nuanced attitude towards Americans in The Quiet American and The Comedians, arguing that Pyle and the Smiths represented the ‘courage and good intentions of individual Americans’, yet ‘also their misplaced, ill-judged and simplistic attitudes to life and the world.’[20] Couto discerns in the latter novel a critique of well-meaning charity, with aid money buttressing ‘imperialist activity’.[21] Ultimately, the benefit of the doubt never gets given to Americans in Greene’s work, though at least the Smiths are shown to be capable of learning and gaining more wisdom.

Perceptions of Greene’s hate-hate relationship with the US were strongly present in public discourse. Four days after Greene’s death, George Pitcher wrote a satirical piece for The Observer, wherein he has a ‘ghastly dream’ of the American secret-services responding to Greene’s persistent criticisms by blacklisting his works and which ends with Pitcher pointedly and sarcastically attacking on America’s ‘freedom, not money and business’ driven foreign policy.[22]

PITCHER

Greene also disliked the vast majority of the film adaptations of his work; with most American adaptations being, in his words from 1984: ‘outstandingly bad’.[23] He was particularly outraged by how Joseph L. Mankiewicz reversed the geopolitical argument of The Quiet American, making it into flag-waving, anti-Communist narrative; as Patterson argued, it might as well have been retitled ‘The Really Nice American’![24]

As well as Vietnam, many writers were radicalised by events in Chile, in the early 1970s; for example, Harold Pinter, whose turn to the left – a reverse-Kronstadt moment – was caused by the Pinochet coup d’état of 11 September 1973.[25] While writing THC, Greene wrote ‘Chile: The Dangerous Edge’ for the Observer Magazine, published on 2 January 1972, a ruefully pessimistic account of his travels around Chile and meetings with the increasingly besieged Salvador Allende. He sees Allende’s democratically-elected Popular Unity minority coalition government of six parties as an underdog ensemble, having to be wary of various threats: generals in Brazil and Bolivia and Robert Kendall Davis, American Ambassador to Santiago, who had links with the CIA in Guatemala; as well as the proud, moneyed miners of Chuqui and ex-President Frei ‘waiting in the wings.’[26]

Greene had been impressed by ‘the new class’ of Communist that he had met in Chile, who seemed to him very similar to those Czechs involved in the Prague Spring in being ‘open and experimental, with dogma as the ground of argument and not as an article of faith’.[27] In an October 1973 letter to Czech dissident writer Josef Skvorecky, he claimed that Allende was of the ‘school of Dubcek’ and expressed his horror at Pinochet’s putsch.[28] Andy Beckett has documented how Pinochet’s neo-liberal reforms – coupled with a repressive ‘authoritarian populist’ impulse, to use Stuart Hall’s terms – provided a template for Thatcherism in the UK.[29]

Greene and Torrijos

Greene moved left as he grew older, influenced by South American outlooks and his experiences visiting the continent, where liberals and social-democrats often worked with communists, uniting against the invariably US-backed domestic right-wing forces. He referred to American policy driving him ‘to be more friendly towards Communism’ than he would otherwise have been.[30] At the behest of the moderate General Torrijos of Panama, who became a personal friend, Greene was involved as a sort of maverick diplomat in many affairs in the region. For example, he attended the signing of a Panamanian treaty with the Carter-era USA, and, in 1979, he ‘helped to secure the release of British bankers kidnapped in El Salvador’.[31] His positive identification with Central and South American movements is also expressed in The Honorary Consul, as the reader is encouraged to like Leon Rivas, a former priest turned revolutionary who Greene loosely based on Father Camillo Torres, a priest who was shot along with guerrillas in Colombia.[32] Rivas quotes Che Guevara approvingly, to justify a pan-South American outlook.[33]

His support for countries faced by hostile US actions, like El Salvador and Nicaragua, became steadfast, and he refused to adopt a knee-jerk anti-communism: ‘constant economic and military aggression from the USA is the power that will drive these societies to hard-line Marxism’.[34]

In an April 1987 visit to Nicaragua, Greene acclaimed the Sandinistas as being on the frontline in a ‘war between civilisation and barbarism’, using language far more left-wing than he would have in 1950, when he visited Malaya, the one Cold War conflict zone where he found himself entirely aligned with conventional Western thinking.[35] Additionally, in a letter in early 1984 to his cousin Edward, he emphasised the Sandinista regime’s education programmes, which significantly reduced illiteracy and the productive nature of a government with Catholic priests and Jesuits working alongside Marxists like Tomas Borge.[36] For Greene, Margaret Thatcher’s giving Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua a frosty reception on his visit to the UK displayed a ‘complete ignorance of conditions in Nicaragua and Latin America.’[37] As with Chile, Greene saw Nicaragua as an underdog; Couto summarised his position: ‘every Government that seeks a degree of autonomy from American hegemony is branded a liability, its sovereignty given short shrift, its power destabilised’.[38] As Chris Mullin and Alan Plater showed with the novel and TV adaptation of A Very British Coup, a left-wing government in Britain would have faced much the same pressures. Harry Perkins is a left-wing underdog in the Greene mould, but with a Sheffield accent.

In the same year, Greene told Martin Amis: ‘I retain this sympathy for the dream of communism anyway, though I agree that the record is very discouraging.’[39] Indeed, in November 1967, before his protest efforts against the Vietnam War, Greene, along with Bertrand Russell and Herbert Read, was a signatory to the Belgian Defence of Human Rights’ letter to the Soviet Union protesting against the imprisonment of satirical writers Daniel and Sinyavsky.[40] Yet, he also told Amis: ‘I would rather end my days in the Gulag than in – than in California’, confirming comments he had originally made in the 1960s.[41] This clearly conveyed a clear preference, stopping short of support, for the Soviet side, representing a ‘lesser evil’-type judgement.

On 16th February 1987, impressed by Gorbachev’s leadership and feeling the Soviet Union was moving more towards his vision of it, Greene gave a speech to the Moscow Peace Forum, claiming Communists and Catholics were fighting together against the Death Squads in El Salvador, the Contras in Nicaragua and General Pinochet in Chile.[42] Greene often spoke of having no fixed attitude towards Communism, but it seemed, at that stage of Gorbachev’s liberalisation, as if ‘socialism with a human face’ could be realisable. It is only the sort of hindsight trafficked in by a Sandbrook or Gaddis that would claim there was an inevitability about Gorbachev’s ultimate failure to reform and transform communism.

Greene spoke of how he’d ‘rather romanticise the Left than romanticise the Right as Evelyn Waugh did’.[43] While he did show the limits of some left-wing organisations – such as the rebels in THC, who are shown to lack a seriously organised alliance with Catholicism – Greene in the détente and ‘second cold war’ eras showed his commitment to the struggles of the ‘new communism’ of Dubeck, Allende and the Sandinistas by including favourable representations of such ‘bottom-up’, underdog movements in his work.

[1] Greene, G. (1974) The Honorary Consul. London: Penguin, p.71

[2] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader. London: Penguin, p.xiii

[3] Sweet, M. (2006) Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema. London: Faber and Faber, p.167

[4] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.323

[5] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.380

[6] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.371

[7] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.371

[8] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.414-6

[9] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.421

[10] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.420

[11] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.227

[12] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.436

[13] Greene, G. (2005) Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin, pp.472-3

[14] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) A Life in Letters. London: Abacus, p.221

[15] Chaplin Today (Jerome de Missolz & Jim Jarmusch, 2003) – DVD: A King in New York

[16] Cunningham, J. (1983) ‘Plain thoughts of an Englishman abroad’, The Guardian, 19th December, p.11

[17] Hamilton, A. (1971) ‘GRAHAM GREENE’, The Guardian, 11th September, p.8

[18] Couto, M. (1988) On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the novels of Graham Greene. London: Macmillan Press, p.167

[19] Arena: The Graham Green Trilogy 2: ‘The Dangerous Edge’, BBC, TX: 9th January 1993

[20] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.178

[21] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.178

[22] Pitcher, G. (1991) Bottom Line: ‘Greene fingered’, The Observer, 7th April, p.30

[23] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[24] Patterson, J. (1999) ‘Playing the Greene card’, The Guardian, 10th December, p.B27

[25] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[26] Greene, G. (1990) Reflections. London: Reinhardt Press, p.283

[27] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.281

[28] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) ibid., p.328

[29] Beckett, A. (2003) Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History. London: Faber and Faber

[30] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.209

[31] Evans, R. & Hencke, D. (2002) ‘In life as in fiction, Greene’s taunts left Americans in a quiet fury’, The Guardian, 2nd December, p.3

[32] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[33] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.104

[34] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[35] Arena: The Graham Green Trilogy 3: ‘A World of My Own’, BBC-2, TX: 10th January 1993

[36] Greene, G.; Greene R. (ed.) (2008) ibid., p.382

[37] Evans, R. & Hencke, D. (2002) ibid., p.3

[38] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.167

[39] Amis, M. (1984) ibid., p.7

[40] The Guardian (1967) ‘Plea to free writers’, The Guardian, 28th November, p.17

[41] Amis, M. (1984) ibid., p.7

[42] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., pp.316-7

[43] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.212

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

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

DEFENCE OF THE REALM

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

THE FOURTH PROTOCOL

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

THE WHISTLE BLOWER

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

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

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

SPY STORY 1976

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

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

Greene - THE HUMAN FACTOR

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

THE HUMAN FACTOR 1980

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

Q&A:

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

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

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

HIGH TREASON

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

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

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

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

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

Rooney - RED JOAN

Gilman - THE UNEXPECTED MRS POLLIFAX

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

MRS POLLIFAX - SPY 1971

TTSS - Beryl Reid

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

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

Q&A:

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

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

VELVET

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

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

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

LITERATURE: FICTION

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

LITERATURE: NON-FICTION

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

FILM

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

TV

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

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

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

“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 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.

THE IPCRESS FILE - cimbalom

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?

THE IPCRESS FILE - poster

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.

A HILL IN KOREA

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 - novel cover

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 SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD - film
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.

GOLDGINGER
“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

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.

BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN

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.

Q&A:

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.

JohnLeCarre_TheRussiaHouse

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!

FOR EYES ONLY - 1963

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.

DAS UNSICHTBARE VISIER

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.

Q&A:

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.

LIBERATION

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)’, Academia.edu [online] https://www.academia.edu/15485524/_Do_You_Always_Wear_Glasses_Vision_Knowledge_and_Power_in_The_Ipcress_File_1965_ [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’, Academia.edu [online] https://www.academia.edu/15972648/Enrolling_the_anti-establishment_working_class_agents_in_the_early_spy_fiction_of_Len_Deighton_and_John_Le_Carre [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

Dominic Sandbrook: Cameron’s Panglossian optimist

Review: Let Us Entertain You

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

Dominic Sandbrook3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dominic Sandbrook1

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

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

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

Dominic Sandbrook2 - THE BEATLES

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

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

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

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

Dominic Sandbrook - KATE BUSH AND THE BRIT SCHOOL

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE CONSPIRATORS

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

DAS UNSICHTBARE2

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

DAS UNSICHTBARE3

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

Q&A

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET

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

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

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

James Chapman

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

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

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

THE LADY VANISHES

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

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

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

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A:

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

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

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

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

“Spying on Spies” Day 1: Of conspiracies and compartmentalisation

20150903_103915

This article is the first of a series on what I saw at the Spying on Spies conference at the Warwick Business School on the seventeenth floor the Shard, London, 3rd-5th September – ably organised by Toby Manning and Joseph Oldham, who has written a far conciser conference report than myself here! Evidently, one human being can only gather so much of the total output of the conference, but the Facebook group is yielding many of the papers that I missed, which I may also comment on in time. I witnessed nineteen papers, plus three keynote speeches, making a total of 22. This was a mere 41.5% of the total number of 53 speakers at the conference. The articles intend to follow a chronological path, and aim to encapsulate what I learned about the Cold War through the voices of fellow SOS delegates.

My own paper, which I have previously linked to, is here.

THURSDAY

The opening remarks were brief and germane, setting out the conference’s remit to the 55-60 or so people in attendance at the beginning. The word ‘cross-disciplinary’ was mentioned; always, I feel crucial that supposedly ‘discrete’ disciplines are not placed in silos, but can intermingle. Important also, among these particulars, was mention of the later pint-meal convening in the George Inn, Borough Street, after Thursday’s panels. There was an allusion to a quiz and prizes by the end of the conference. Oldham’s making reference to Callan and The Sandbaggers was intriguing to me, having been captivated by the latter in recent viewings of Network’s DVDs. Unfortunately I was to be unable to see Oldham’s paper on the Cambridge Spies on TV, due to being on helper duties for my first panel of the conference… As ‘helper’, I assisted in a technical support role, and witnessed all Thursday’s papers in the Syndicate I-III, a non-Arthurian ‘round-table’.

The first panel I attended, then, was on ‘Postmodernism and the Spy Genre’… chaired by Oliver Buckton, who was to be part of my panel on Saturday.

EPO

Kyle Smith (University of Highlands and Islands, UK) began proceedings in animated style, comparing two literary works: E. Phillips Oppenheim’s Miss Brown of X. Y. O. (1927) and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). There was reference to the ‘sleepy state’, ‘conspiracy’ and ‘apocalypse’ narratives’ presence in EPO’s novel, which revolved around a Communist plot against the British state.

There was mention of Duncan Sandys; I cannot recall the exact context from my vague notes! But I did recall that Sandys was responsible for the 1957 Defence White Paper which reduced conventional forces in the move towards the missile age, and also set in train the end of National Service. Smith linked Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with futuristic Seattle, with its early 1960s World’s Fair – Pynchon had worked in Seattle. He analysed the novel’s depiction of architecture as controlling and discussed the internationalism of transnational, bureaucratic states – the ‘rocket-state’, indeed. Gravity’s Rainbow’s protagonist Tyrone Slothrop was said to be unwilling to be an information machine – a concern ever more relevant with post-1973 economic shifts.

It is often very difficult to follow academic papers on novels you haven’t read, but I learned a lot and came away wanting to read both novels. Smith made a point that stayed with me: he quoted General Leslie R. Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, on compartmentalisation of knowledge being good – and then linked this disturbing tendency with Pynchon’s text, citing the line: ‘Everything he needed to do his job and nothing else’.

AKUNIN

Eugenia Gresta (George Washington University, USA) was not in attendance, but Buckton read the paper. It focused on Boris Akunin’s writings, including The Turkish Gambit, with its postmodern shifting between the 1877-8 Turkish-Russian War and the Khrushchev era thaw; its focus is on de-Stalinization, ideology and propaganda. There was a mention of ‘Russians turning inwards’, towards ‘Mafia activities’, which put me in mind of the tremendous, bleak film Leviathan (2014). Akunin was said to have written epic political series’ of novels, set in 1931-83 and 1966-88.

There was reference to the narrative ‘fading into an artifice’; Gresta used phrases like ‘literary anarchy’ and ‘a postmodernist mosaic’ to describe Akunin’s approach. His novel has a Russian nobleman and civil servant as the hero and the Turkish spy as the villain. To the Soviets, ‘spy / spion’ had negative connotations, ‘secret agent’ had positive. The character Petrovich dresses like an English gentleman, linking somewhat with the portrayal of Adrian Harris in Dennis Potter’s Play for Today: Traitor (1971), which I was to analyse on Saturday.

HAPGOOD

Anna Suwalska-Kolecka (The State School of Higher Professional Education in Plock, Poland) gave a paper which was rare in the conference for its focus on drama. Her focus was Tom Stoppard’s 1988 play Hapgood, with its focus on twins, spies and quantum mechanics. Stoppard’s link between QM and espionage is said to reflect the intricacies of human identity. The play focuses on the British secret services and the CIA setting a trap for the mole who betrayed them to the KGB. Suwalska-Kolecka’s mentioned Stoppard’s creation of deliberate confusion with bizarre stage images; his evoking of the interrogative “What exactly is going on?” This somehow evoked in my noggin the recent re-viewings I’ve undertaken of that wonderfully absurdist dystopia of British television, The Prisoner (1967-68).

As with that series’ public tannoy announcements, there is an articulated meta-narrative, but this one doesn’t cheerily conceal: “In science this is understood: what is interesting is to know what is happening.” In contrast to Newtonian fixed laws dependant on ‘cause and effect’, QM theory has nothing as certain. Suwalska-Kolecka saw Stoppard as having linked this greater uncertainty and the (supposed) collapse of the metanarratives such as Marxism, and mentioned his utter distrust of binaries. There was a reference to the crisis in epistemology, and the typical postmodernism of ‘no one authoritative voice’.

Q&A:

When asked why he’d chosen that particular Oppenheim novel, Smith admitted there could have been good selections from John Buchan, Helen MacInnes and Geoffrey Household. However, he said its focus on a female protagonist – Miss Brown is a secretary – made it stand out, as well as its contrast to the 1970s with its view of ‘the worst thing that can happen is that the [British] Empire is destroyed’.

When asked about Pynchon’s use of third parties as ‘puppet-masters’, Smith stated that Pynchon didn’t like definite answers. He then mentioned the bizarre character who thinks he literally is World War II! Who then gets a temperature on D-Day… Returning to the Oppenheim novel, he said that the novel naively intimates the winding-up of MI5 at its close, once the threat has been defeated and a peace has been made with the Communists. I then mentioned Bernard Porter’s Plots and Paranoia, with its survey of the British reluctance to engage in espionage on any seriously wide, organised scale until WW1.[1] Therefore, the prospect may not have seemed entirely naïve at the time. Porter has commented that it was a mark of our confidence in the Victorian age that the British felt they didn’t need any organised spying. I then asked about whether there was any reference or link to the 1926 General Strike in Oppenheim’s novel. Smith said there wasn’t, it being primarily a romance rather than a ‘serious’ spy novel. He said there weren’t left-wing or communist villains in Bulldog Drummond and that Sapper claimed communist ideology didn’t exist! The villains tended to be pawns of industrialists, wanting revenge against Britain, reflecting a ‘motiveless malignity’.

THE BIG FOUR

I did vaguely think of Agatha Christie here, having read about The Big Four (1927), in which events such as the October Revolution have been steered by a shadowy gang most of whom are hiding out in the Dolomites: an American richer than Rockefeller, a French woman scientist, a spectral Chinese mastermind who never sets foot out of China and an obscure English actor and master of disguise known bizarrely as ‘The Destroyer’.  To quote from the novel: “There are people […] who know what they are talking about, and they say that there is a force behind the scenes”. … “A force which aims at nothing less than the disintegration of civilization. In Russia, you know, there were many signs that Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets whose every action was dictated by another’s brain.”[2]

UNDERMIND3

This tendency interested me; it crops up enough in shadowy-conspiracy TV dramas like Undermind (1966), which is equally careful about precisely naming the ideology of its inscrutable conspirators. An intense ‘Yellow Peril’ politics can clearly be discerned in Christie’s positioning of Li Chang Yen as the Fu Manchu-style ‘mastermind’ behind the Big Four’s plan to create worldwide anarchy and then take over.[3]

Suwalska-Kolecka was asked about Hapgood’s staging in Poland and translation and said that much of Stoppard’s humour was lost when converted into Polish, but also that Polish TV broadcast a large amount of drama and theatre. She also mentioned Stoppard’s Jumpers (1972) exploiting detective fiction. She spoke seeing the Gdansk premiere of Arcadia and referred to TS’s frustration at the predictability of most novels; thus, he turned to modern science for what he saw as greater volatility. There was interesting mention of Shakespeare’s foreshadowing of unstable theatrical identities, with his comedies of misunderstanding and characters donning disguises. I am currently teaching King Lear at GCSE; a tragedy which has uncertain identity as a significant theme.

Next up, in the largest lecture theatre, was the first Keynote Speaker, Phyllis Lassner (Northwestern University, USA), who has had a distinguished academic career and has published two books on Elizabeth Bowen and one that I’d like to read some day: Women Writing the End of the British Empire. As Lassner states in her abstract, her Keynote aimed to ‘challenge the common assumption that the politics of spy fiction are only a pretext for adventure plots […] for Helen MacInnes and Ann Bridge, political crisis is the plot that drives the thrills and chills of spy fiction’.

above-suspicion

Lassner focuses on MacInnes’s novel Above Suspicion (1941), commenting on how the writer perceived critique and leadership as overly male dominated domains. She identifies radicalisms: at the centre of this novel is a woman’s voice, peoples’ right to self-determination is desired, instead of the sort of defence of Empire seen in Ian Fleming. There’s an interweaving of events in1939 and 1941 and a potent challenge to the Nazi representation of Jewish prisoners as ‘sub-human’: the novel’s protagonist Frances sees them as ‘civilised’. Lassner discusses the novel’s view that ‘if only the people of Germany had acted against the Nazis’, thus foreign involvement would not have been needed. She uses Haffner’s Defying Hitler memoir to explain how stacked the odds were against internal rebellion, given the appeasement tendency. Lassner summarises with a claim that MacInnes identified signs of the genocide to come.

ann bridge

She then analysed Ann Bridge’s 1953 novel, A Place to Stand. This was said to revolve around a portrait of 1940-1 Budapest, Hungary’s joining of the Axis and American isolationism. There is also mention of the Katyn Massacre of Poles by the Soviets during WW2; Lassner placed the number of Polish dead at 30,000. She then drew a link between the refugee situation and the Syrian crisis, dominating the news during the conference. There was discussion of motifs such as false identity papers and the nature of resistance, and how the novel was ‘politically and narratively’ caught between mourning a lost Europe and hopes for US and UK intervention.

Q&A:

Lassner discussed how Bridge critiques the place of women in narratives. A question regarding Fleming’s Casino Royale – which, it was noted, was published the same year as APTS – led to interesting discussion of how the character Vespa turns out to be far more complex than Bond suspects. This was said to be more complex than the ‘formulaic’ women of the early Bond films. A greater vulnerability was discerned in Skyfall (2012), which was said to be closer to Fleming’s Bond. Lassner mentioned how Bond is often a ‘hapless’ figure in the novels and regularly doesn’t win. She made strong final claims for MacInnes and Bridge’s work as reacting against the xenophobia of earlier writers, and avoiding the Oppenheim/Buchan binary of women as villainess or ‘help me’ figurine.

The early evening panel saw me back in Syndicate I-III. Surangama Datta (University of Delhi, India) gave a paper clearly influenced by Edward W. Said’s theory of ‘Orientalism’; she contrasted Herge’s Tintin and film director-writer Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, using binary terms. Tintin was placed as problematically imperialist in its ideology; having a ‘Eurocentric’ approach and seeing different cultures as “Other”. Red Rackham’s Treasure (1943) and Prisoners of the Sun (1946-48) were the two narratives analysed. The former was said to represent the native via a stereotypical cannibalism, signified through skulls and bones being strewn around the island.  Tintin and Haddock are portrayed as more idiosyncratic individuals in comparison to the uniform natives, whose story and perspective we never get. Haddock is even lionised in statue form: ‘Sir Francis Haddock’.

TINTIN - HADDOCK

It simply cannot be an academic conference without the verb ‘problematise’ showing up, and Master’s student Datta took the honours for the first such usage of SOS! I was also to partake of such lexis.

The Seven Crystal Balls (1946-48) was said to depict Tintin as a beacon of scientific knowhow, as opposed to the unreliable, superstitious Peruvian natives. Datta identified what she saw as a binary of EAST (Occult) : WEST (Scientific). She made a formal observation about the clear distinctions between the cartoon adventure’s panels reflecting the clear-cut content.  This was contrasted with the artwork of Tapas Guha, for Ray’s Bengal-set Feluda mysteries – Guha has the action burst across the panels: linked in the paper’s argument with the resistance of oppression. I would have appreciated more time allocated to Feluda; it was a little under-analysed in comparison to Tintin; but, still, clear points were communicated.

PAMUK

Doruk Tatar (University of Buffalo, USA), a third-year graduate student discussed the novels The Black Book (1994) and My Name is Red (2001), by Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. For context, he discussed Kipling’s focus on the geopolitical ‘Great Game’ and Edward W. Said’s critique of Kim and its white fantasy of ‘going native’, as well as Arendt’s The Human Condition – regarding our fascination with numbers and letters showing our compulsion to feel part of something bigger. He also discussed Frederic Jameson’s distinction between the receding public sphere and the private sphere. Tatar located the conspiracy aesthetic as being of the twentieth century – while, in the nineteenth, espionage had been articulated as a ‘game played for its own sake among colonial secret agents’. Conspiracy was viewed in context of the enlargement of the private sphere. It begged the pertinent question: how does the withering of the welfare state in Western societies affect people’s private worlds?

He situated Pamuk’s portrayal of transnational corporations alongside David Harvey’s critique of neo-liberalism. He also very pertinently mentioned how the economic ideas of the ‘Chicago boys’ were first exported to Chile, and referred to this as a “laboratory of Thatcherism”, which the excellent Andy Beckett has written extensively about.[4]

In Tatar’s biography in the conference programme, he mentions how the term ‘conspiracy’ is used to posit affective connections between individuals and ruling elites and usually excludes ‘social antagonisms’ and thus paradoxically enforces ‘a sense of harmony within post-colonial societies’. He cited Walter Benjamin regarding how Pamuk views everyday objects as having ‘unconventional meanings’ and harbouring ‘conspirational agendas’. TBB has a flaneur-type detective investigating how seemingly innocuous objects are ‘essential in shaping the habits of the society in the most sinister way’. MNIR depicts the monetary coin as effectively having character, with the worker estranged and stripped of agency. I liked Tatar’s focus on ideologies and representations of everyday life.

casino-royale-pan-first-uk-paperback

Samuel Goodman (Bournemouth University), focused on James Bond and Popular Culture after Empire, mentioning in an aside how apt it was to present his paper in London, a centre of imperialism. Bond – Fleming’s, Amis’s and Boyd’s, among others – was seen as bound up with nationhood and Britishness. Goodman pertinently mentioned Danny Boyle’s usage of Craig’s Bond in the 2012 Olympics promotional film – with the signification of Bond as quintessentially English, the fictional spy appearing in shot alongside the serving monarch. The difference from the 1948 Olympics was clear to Goodman; then: world power status assertion, now: inclusiveness, as signified by the Parade of Nations. He persuasively described Elizabeth II and Bond as cut from the same cloth: both implicated in this status decline, both being born in the public consciousness in the 1950’s.

Unlike Dominic Sandbrook in his recent TV ‘history’ show Let Us Entertain You, Goodman avoided ducking the issue of American influence. He mentioned Dr No’s plan to disrupt US missile tests, and how Fleming saw British colonies as buffers against communism. Casino Royale focuses on Marshall Aid; Goodman mentions the irony that Lend Lease debt was finally paid off in 2006 – the year of the Craig version of the same novel!

He mentioned the ‘fiction of a civilising role’ and the ‘exotic mode of aesthetic experience’ in Bond’s consumer enjoyment. Two months later, on Saturday 7th November, I was to see Goodman deliver a talk as one of the ‘New Generation Thinkers’ at the BBC Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead, which entertainingly explored the British Empire’s influence on British consumption and production of beer.

Q&A:

Solo-William-Boyd-

A delegate mentioned how Fleming entirely avoids the middle-east – unlike, as is mentioned, Peter Cheyney. Philby was based in Beirut; Deighton features Beirut early in The Ipcress File (1962). Goodman explained how, in William Boyd’s Solo (2013), Bond makes his first visit to Africa. This novel also presents Bond in 1969 London, older and paunchy amid the changing, increasingly multicultural city. He waves away a copy of The Times bearing tidings of Vietnam. The Nigerian-born Boyd apes Fleming’s colonialist politics – describing a local woman’s nipples as perfectly round like coins and depicting an Africa of ‘cliché and stereotype’. This got me thinking that Solo would have been benefited by including some sort of Tiny Rowland figure – whose outrageous business ‘practices’ in Ghana have been dissected by Adam Curtis in episode 2 of The Mayfair Set (TX: 25/07/1999). Of course, for a Cameron, Johnson or Osborne, Rowland would be one of those archetypal British ‘buccaneering’ capitalists we should do everything to encourage.

Datta was asked about stereotyping; In Tintin narratives, the natives are often stereotyped – I have read Tintin in the Congo (1931), and yes, the blacks are depicted as eager, savage children in need of firm tutelage. Mentioned the natives as ‘subordinate’ to Tintin. There were fewer questions on Pamuk’s work. The general neglect of Africa was raised; it was mentioned that Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter (1948) is set in Sierra Leone. Concerning North Africa, it was my thought that someone should write a Bond novel set during the Suez Crisis, and not straightforwardly mimic Fleming’s style…

Thursday’s literature-dominated proceedings over, relaxation began, in the non-shadowy environs of the George Inn.

[1] Porter, B. (1989) Plots and Paranoia: History of Political Espionage in Britain, 1790-1988. London: Routledge. 

[2] Christie, A. (1927) The Big Four. Glasgow: William Collins & Sons.

[3] Frayling, C. (2014) The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

[4] Beckett, A. (2003) Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History. London: Faber and Faber.

Conference paper: “The heart of England does not beat in stately homes or on smiling lawns” : Treachery and national identity in Dennis Potter’s ‘Traitor’

Go here to read and / or download my paper, which I delivered at the Shard in London this last Saturday on Dennis Potter’s ‘Traitor’. This was part of the excellent Spying on Spies: Popular Representations of Spies and Espionage inter-disciplinary conference; I will be writing further reflections on this event here in the near future.

The wistful hedonist: John Le Mesurier and Englishness in the Cold War

JLM - DAD'S ARMY 03.14

Biographer Graham McCann refers to the sort of parts Le Mesurier (1912-83) played: ‘His absent minded aristocrats seemed a little envious of any less class-bound, but still subtly sybaritic, kind of modern democratic lifestyle. Few actors, in short, were better at embodying that peculiarly English brand of wistful hedonism that opened the eyes while pursing the lips.’[1] This article will discuss John Le Mesurier’s role in the 1971 Play for Today ‘Traitor’. It provides greater background and context to my paper about this TV play at Spying on Spies at the Shard on 5th September.

LIKE CARY GRANT AND GOLDEN AGE HOLLYWOOD STARS, IS LE MESURIER ‘ALWAYS THE SAME’?

According to Peter Coles, who directed him in a 1958 TV version of Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s The Makropulos Affair[2], Le Mesurier’s ‘playing was unique – but forever the same’, ‘he had depths unrealised through the mechanical pieces in which he generally appeared’.[3] Coles refers to him as playing a range of professional types; critic Philip French describes him as ‘essentially the representative of bureaucracy and officialdom but with a ‘complex […] feeling of exasperation [and] anxiety [that] lurked behind that handsome bloodhound face’.[4] French describes his role in Traitor as taking his ‘British screen persona to the point of destruction’.

John le Mesurier’s casting for ‘Traitor’ was refreshing; his wife Joan saw it as his ‘chance to get shot of the problem of typecasting’.[5] He would have been best known for playing Sergeant Arthur Wilson in Dad’s Army. ‘Fallen Idol’ (TX: BBC-1, 18/12/1970) was the last time he’d been seen as Wilson before ‘Traitor’, and, in counterpoint to Potter’s play, Captain Mainwaring is suspicious of Fraser, asking Wilson whether he might be a subversive: “You don’t think he’s a communist, do you…? I’ve noticed he doesn’t play monopoly with the other men…”

This is despite Mainwaring’s somewhat socialist claims earlier in the episode:

“This is a democratic platoon […] We’re all equal here…”

Also worth considering is series 3’s final episode, ‘Sons of the Sea’ (TX: BBC-1, 11/12/1969), a typically gentle fantasy of old men as small boys on an idyllic and absurd excursion. We have here a nation’s peculiar self-image of ‘muddling through’ amateurism – one wonders how much Croft and Perry contributed to the national myths of shambling, anti-technological improvisation that David Edgerton has critiqued. In this episode, Sergeant Wilson shows technical expertise in creating the mock-up boat, skills inculcated by his nanny. It is notable that Arthur Harris in ‘Traitor’ also had a nanny as a boy – as shown early in the play – which emphasises his similar social background to the languid Arthur Wilson. Dad’s Army invariably conveys that reflective mid-twentieth century British belief in the necessity of social consensus between classes: fostered in contrasting ways in Millions Like Us (1943), The Way Ahead (1944), In Which We Serve (1942) and Listen to Britain (1942). ‘Traitor’ shatters any sense of social togetherness, for a picture of class antagonism far more apt to the 1970s context.

Impact is increased by casting JLM as such a ‘haunted’, tormented character. Not just known for his diffident, urbane Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army, but for roles as the gently out-of-touch military man in These Dangerous Years (1957) and in the complacent Boulting Brothers-helmed colonial ‘satire’, Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1958). He appeared uncredited – mercifully – in the wretched Terry Southern adaptation The Magic Christian (1969) as Sir John, again Cambridge-associated as in ‘Traitor’. TMC makes anti-materialist points in as trivial and gauche a manner as possible; one can only imagine the extent of Dennis Potter’s basic ethical agreement but utter disdain for the execution, had he reviewed it. Le Mesurier has an excellent role as a lonely bachelor artist in the Tony Hancock vehicle, The Punch and Judy Man (1963), a melancholy and irreverent seaside comedy that is the closest British cinema got to Le Mez’s beloved Les Vacances de M. Hulot.

Le Mesurier appeared in many quota quickies like A Time to Kill (1955). In this, he is a puritanical father, blundering into the courtroom declaiming: “I am the father of the unhappy Madeline Tilliard!” as if he was in a Victorian theatrical melodrama. We don’t get to hear that much more from this character, speaking of “the devil’s brew” and his sinful daughter; a shame, it’s a mediocre film and the past-master at raising the bar within such films, Le Mesurier, does just that!

Defiantly non-mediocre was The Pleasure Garden (1954), an eccentric and idealistic 37-minute fantasia from American avant-garde director James Broughton, made amid the ruins and statuary of Crystal Palace Terraces, which had been closed to the public since 1937. This ode to sexual passion and desires, ironically features JLM – a lover of the good life and far from puritanical – as a Lord Chamberlain-like moral arbiter, an official whose job is to stamp out licentious behaviour and, basically, fun. It was intended by Broughton as “a valentine to the land of Edward Lear, Shakespeare and pantomimes” and seems to utilise the spirit of Jacques Prevert and Oscar Wilde. Rather like Powell and Pressburger, we have a subtle antipathy to such signifiers as typewriter sounds, offices and bureaucracies and city streets. However, this 1954 film has none of the stultifying, shorthand usage of these of signs – ‘grim tower blocks’ invariably included – that pervaded Britain in the 1970s as a form of anti-socialist propaganda. Lindsay Anderson appears in this film. There are characters called ‘Lord Ennui’ and ‘Lady Ennui’. It is a brilliant one-off!

Like in Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball, the phrase “stop this nonsense!” is uttered by censorious types. Le Mesurier’s black-clad Col. Pall K. Gargoyle seems to embody centuries of moralistic cant and soullessness: “This is indecent and PUT SOMETHING ON!” He uses verbs like “unhand”, and repeats “Dignity!” as a deadening mantra. It has a greater pungency when we consider Le Mesurier’s own laid-back personality and his love of jazz music and pubs.

Merrie Albion (Hattie Jacques) transforms some of Gargoyle’s underlings into statues and decrees “You shall be as dead as official art.” This focus on the inertness of sanctioned, propagandist art – perhaps taps into concerns over the increased role of state subsidy for the Arts, post-WW2: represented by the Arts Council in the 1940s and significantly increased Arts spending under Labour Minister Jennie Lee in the 1960s. It may, however, be a much more pointed and direct broadside against communism and ‘Socialist Realism’, which was perceived in just this way: lifeless and inert, when judged against US abstract impressionism or pop art.

Other significant roles include his appearance in David Mercer’s Flint as the wild vicar, as a rather less wild clergyman in Brideshead Revisited (Granada, 1981) and alongside Anthony Hopkins in A Married Man in 1982: this latter, remarkably, JLM on Channel 4!

Raiding my DVD archive, I have uncovered JLM as a minister of finance in a corrupt South American state vied over by the Soviets and the Americans: the very so-so early Danger Man episode, ‘An Affair of State’ (TX: 13/11/1960). There is novelty in Le Mesurier playing a man called ‘Alvardo’, putting on a truly odd accent and engaging in a spot of ‘desperate’ brawling. There isn’t novelty – in terms of British telly in the 1960s – in how the script has a grown woman referred to as “child”… A “poor child”, at that. In the night-club, Fenella Fielding gets to be objectified. McGoohan is in tame mode, compared with The Prisoner (much more on that, anon!).

Rather better is Roger Marshall’s ‘Mandrake’, a Cathy Gale era episode of The Avengers (ABC, TX: 25/01/1964).There is vaguely mournful jazz music that wouldn’t be out of place in a certain later Patrick McGoohan ITV venture… There is uneasy bliss, gallows humour and sardonic use of leftist rhetoric from Annette Andre: “Hopkins? Oh, what’s he? A fat decadent, bourgeois capitalist, exploiting the proletarian masses! No, he’s actually rather nice!” JLM is a villain, posing as a doctor, with an acolyte resembling Luke Haines – all appropriately cooking up corrupt schemes in an English graveyard. There are oddly gritty references to “children educated on Congo blood money”. There’s arsenic in the soil and literary allusions abound: to Richard III and John Donne. Honor Blackman is marvellously resourceful and unusually attractive. Patrick Macnee is one of the few Old Etonians you don’t resent. It all feels very different to the colour Diana Rigg episodes I’ve seen far more of – this is less stylised, mordant Englishness, rather than somewhat bolted-on eccentricity for the overseas market. Le Mesurier is perfect for this sort of superior hokum.

Le Mesurier gives an enjoyable performance in the Adam Adamant Lives! episode ‘The Terribly Happy Embalmers’ (TX: 04/08/1966) as the supercilious psychiatrist Velmer. This was watched by 8.2 million people, though only received an Audience Appreciation Index figure of 44, rather low.[6] It doesn’t quite have the wit of a good Avengers episode, but is a reasonably affable run-around, traversing the series’ usual ground of anachronism and culture clash. Adamant poses as an ‘Adam Smith’, who is “worrying about his tax problems” as Velmer observes. Some may see this as proto-neo-liberalism uttered by a mock-up of the Market Liberal supremo himself: “I have money enough, but not if I pay my taxes”! Le Mesurier is excellent at smugly condescending: “Still fighting your duels, Mr Smith!?” and uttering grandiose Leavisite lines like “Modern man has forgotten how to breathe…”

I also watched an episode of Jason King, an ITC adventure drama I had never seen before. ‘If it’s Got to Go – It’s Got to Go’ (TX: 16/02/1972). It was dreadful. As Dr Litz, Le Mesurier half-heartedly tries out a German accent, which is barely perceptible by the end of the episode. The pre-credits sequence at least promises garish ham: “The treatment has been successful. He is totally… utterly… INSANE!” Even that dubious promise isn’t delivered upon. Maybe it was the low-rent YouTube version I watched… But maybe it was just a dull, trivial narrative that didn’t hold my attention for a second. Taking this role was clearly an indication of the dearth of good quality scripts in the early 1970s that biographer McCann identified.[7]

Cold War-related roles on radio for JLM include: I Was A Communist (TX: 08/02/1952) and Stoppard’s espionage play The Dog It Was That Died (TX: BBC R3, 09/12/1982) – playing an MI5 doctor. Show Me a Spy from 1951, which I’ll be honest I know nowt about! I am also quite intrigued by his appearance in a presumably lost (?) take on the Sellar and Yeatman satire on reductive ‘island story’ history 1066 and All That, transmitted over Christmas 1952. He was in Val Guest’s Where the Spies Are (1965), which was playing in hospital when he was dying in 1983.

His first film role following ‘Traitor’ was Au Pair Girls (1972), also directed by Val Guest; according to Graham McCann: ‘a cheesy nosegay of pendulous breasts, drooping bottoms, and flaccid jokes accompanied by the sound of clinky-clank guitars, patty-pat bongos and dozy saxophones, which obliged John to stroke a prostrate young woman’s bare chest: a task that he exerted with all the enthusiasm of someone searching for something edible on a tray of soggy canapes.’[8] Truly, symbolic for the state of mainstream British cinema at that time that Adrian Harris was followed by Mr Wainwright…

“WHAT IS GOING TO BECOME OF US ALL?” – FAMILY, POLITICS, CHARACTER…

When they were married, Hattie Jacques pushed John into doing “the odd active thing” for the Conservative party and voting the ‘right way’ on Equity matters when they were married, but he was, as his widow Joan has said, generally a moderate ‘One Nation’ conservative.[9] Joan: “I’ve always been left-wing so he got no encouragement from me at all! I remember one time in the 1970s, Saatchi and Saatchi called, trying to get him to do some commercials for the Conservative Party in a lead-up to a General Election […] I told him, “John, you can’t possibly do that! […] No, you mustn’t!” He was far from as parochial, and his favourite film was Jacques Tati’s exquisite comedy Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953). His good judgement extended to an incident Joan recounts in her afterword to his autobiography. They are in Margate, waiting for their bus to Herne Bay, and John sees a giant billboard with Jimmy Savile’s face on it and utters a single “Cunt”.

Le Mesurier is an evocative figure in British culture, and dabbled in other areas than TV and film. In theatre, he was in Moliere and Ayckbourn; Priestley as well as Coward. He also released a wonderfully titled LP, What Is Going to Become of Us All? (1977) that is seemingly almost impossible to find! In this, he was assisted by Derek Taylor, who was press officer for The Beatles and The Beach Boys in the 1960s and worked with Vivian Stanshall, Nilsson and George Melly in the 1970s. Taylor turned him onto the writings of Stephen Leacock, some of which he recorded. It may be an album worth hearing, from an era of actor interventions in recorded sound: Richard Harris, Patrick Cargill, Peter Wyngarde and David Hemmings, to note just four. ‘There’s Not Much Change’, recorded in 1982 – with Clive Dunn – however, is dreadful, but was at least fun for those who made it. Not by many though; Joan commented that it “enjoyed the dubious distinction of being one of the lowest selling records of the year”.

He son Robin toured with Rod Stewart in his rather ghastly late-70s era. His other son Jake was intriguingly involved in playing and writing material with The Dream Academy, Yazz and The Orb: contributing more of worth than a good many more prolific musicians. This “lovely guy”, as he is described in Graham McCann’s JLM biography, was found dead in a squalid London flat in October 1991, heroin in his body.

STARRING IN DENNIS POTTER’S ‘TRAITOR’

He worried to Joan that there were ‘too many words’ in ‘Traitor’, yet he got down to work with Potter’s complex, verbose script and turned up for the rehearsals word perfect.[10] He doesn’t so much break his typecast image as use its diffidence and gentleness to produce a richly textured, troubling Adrian Harris, who you can empathise with. Gentleness and socialism go as well together as gentleness and Burkean Tory paternalism – Le Mesurier’s normal mode, which he imbues with diffidence. He plays Harris with a troubled edge, which suggests the fusion of gentle idealism with hard Marxist ideas.

While Le Mesurier was understandably miffed that the Radio Times cover with his image failed to include his name, he would have been pleased by just how universally acclaimed his was performance was. Here is a sampling of the major broadsheet TV critics’ comments:

DUNKLEY (TIMES): ‘Mr Potter’s traitor, obsessively tidying his depressing Moscow flat in a high-rise block, rather like some shabby old owl marooned in an eyrie’.

BANKS-SMITH (GUARDIAN): ‘the part of the traitor was a formidable aria for John Le Mesurier […] This, his Hamlet, was well worth waiting for’.

HOLLAND (OBSERVER): ‘a part at last worthy of his serious talents’.

WORSLEY (FINANCIAL TIMES): ‘What held us was [John Le Mesurier’s] marvellous performance’.

JLM’s 1972 BAFTA award for ‘Traitor’ was handed over by Princess Anne, under the roof of the Albert Hall. “I don’t get much time to watch TV”, Anne said to him.[11] It is inconceivable somehow to imagine what her thoughts would be had she actually watched ‘Traitor’! Patricia Hayes also won an award for her role in ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’, which Le Mesurier comments wryly on: “it was, like ‘Traitor’, a remarkable play, but not too strong on laughs”.

CONCLUSION

Le Mesurier ‘never hid from the fact that he worked in order to live rather than lived in order to work’.[12] Few British TV and film actors managed to achieve as much, in as deceptively effortless a manner as ‘Le Mez’. From the 1950s until his death in 1983, he embodied a laid-back, sophisticated and gentle Englishness. The Le Mesurier archetype knows how to enjoy life – and is also, crucially, open-minded. Therefore, all the more powerful to see him tackling an edgy role like Adrian Harris, countering his usual embodiment of non-boat rocking English steadiness and serenity.

[1] McCann, G. (2010) Do You Think That’s Wise? The Life of John Le Mesurier. London: Aurum, p.ix

[2] The Times (1958) ‘Broadcasting Programmes’, The Times, 7th March, p.6

[3] Coles, P. (1983) ‘The quiet man of comedy’, The Guardian, 16th November, p.9

[4] French, P. (1983) ‘Mesurier’s multitude’, The Observer, 20th November, p.34

[5] Le Mesurier, J. (1985) A Jobbing Actor. London: Sphere, p.119

[6] Pixley, A. (2006) Adam Adamant Lives! DVD booklet, 2 Entertain

[7] McCann, G. (2010) p.274

[8] McCann, G. (2010) p.275

[9] McCann, G. (2010) p.331

[10] McCann, G. (2010) p.270

[11] Le Mesurier, J. (1985) A Jobbing Actor. London: Sphere, p.121

[12] McCann, G. (2010) p.ix