This piece is a fuller, more rambling expansion of the piece I have written here for Literary 007. I wasn’t quite sure they were so interested in the 1950s boffin, ‘Father Stanley Unwin’ and Glasgow locations standing in for Czechoslovakia (and there was a word limit)!
On a pleasant Friday morning (17/06/2016), the Spies on British Screens Conference commenced in a small lecture room, housed in a building that was less than ten years old. Most of Plymouth was suitably early Cold War in its look – plenty of concrete shopping precincts and 1950s-60s tower blocks.
Alan Burton (Klagenfurt University) provided a chronological survey of the British spy film cycle, from 1964-73. He applied genre-theorist Steve Neale’s formulation of a film ‘cycle’ to a group of films made in a ‘specific and limited timespan’, in the wake of the success of From Russia with Love (1963). The focus was initially on the 1960s; Burton quoted Alexander Walker’s description of James Bond as ‘man of the decade’. He argued that the cycle’s high-water mark was in April 1965, when Films and Feelings magazine declared a state of ‘spy mania’: the year of the stratospheric box-office success of Thunderball and the anti-Bond complexities of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Ipcress File.
Many films in the cycle couldn’t escape the shadow of Bond: Where the Bullets Fly (1966) even promoted Tom Adams’ Charles Vine as the world’s ‘second best’ secret agent! Among the many obscure films in the cycle that Burton mentioned (and, for many, it sounded like this status was entirely deserved!), some particularly interesting ones were Where the Spies Are (1966) and Otley (1968), with Tom Courtenay as a small-time antiques dealer, left floundering and bewildered in the world of espionage. Danger Route (1967) and Innocent Bystanders (1972) were given as examples of the more violent end of this cycle, with adjectives like ‘vicious’ and ‘unpleasant’ used.
The compendious Burton, who has recently had published A Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction, rounded off his enlightening survey with mention of the spy spoofs – Morecambe and Wise, Carry On, Modesty Blaise (1966) – and the anti-Bond sub-cycle of Deighton and le Carre adaptations. Despite spoofs kicking in early, and a July 1966 Guardian article which asked ‘Is the spy bubble about to burst?’ Burton was able to trace a lineage of films through to 1973, though the cycle had long since ceased to be economically or critically valued. Bond operated on a different level commercially; even if its critical acclaim dwindled from You Only Live Twice (1967) onwards.
Felix Thompson (University of Derby) effectively did the same for TV spy dramas as Burton had done for films, though his paper included analysis of how a smaller range of examples demonstrated the dissolving of national boundaries in the era of mass tourism: another popular cultural practice of the 1960s and 70s of equal significance to James Bond. He analysed series’ such as Danger Man, and mentioned how Patrick McGoohan was very critical of James Bond.
Thompson gave an overview of TV drama in the age of long series, contrastingly to today in Britain where serials such as The Night Manager dominate. He explained how series 2 of Danger Man was both a ‘panorama of cosmopolitan encounters’ and strongly connected to news discourses at the time. Even The Saint, to an extent, was concerned with Britain’s loss of Empire and the increase in globalisation, trade and migration. He explained John Drake’s unique status as simultaneously working for the UN, the CIA, MI5 and NATO, and how narratives included ones such as ‘The Galloping Major’, where the goal is to prevent a coup in a new post-colonial democracy. He analysed how Drake figures as the ‘colonial hero transforming into the tourist’. The Saint’s airport sequences – very common! – were linked to the very 1960s aspiration of jet-setting lifestyles. This show also depicted international cooperation and summitry, with Simon Templar going to a Geneva Conference in an episode ‘The Russian Prisoner’; though this was said to contain national stereotypes and paranoia.
Thompson went on to discuss the more ‘procedural’ spy series’ like Special Branch, Callan and The Sandbaggers, set in a more everyday world and more likely to contain complaints about working conditions. Settings were again dissected: Callan with the shabby suburban controller’s office far from the world of Bond or even Smiley. He discussed Callan’s theme of class tensions and exploitative relationships, with the hierarchy of upper classes exploiting and giving Callan orders, who, in turn, exploits and gives Lonely orders. Special Branch was said to contain some focus on immigration discontent and racism and made the ‘defence of national boundaries’ into a problematic issue. Thompson concluded by tackling that most widely popular of Cold War British spy shows, The Avengers, with ‘The Charmers’ identified as a rare episode in including a Russian character: a renegade KGB officer, who trains gentlemen to be sleeper agents – something in the vein of the Cambridge Spies.
In the Q&A, Burton mentioned Tightrope (1972), a children’s spy series which included a communist take-over of a school, with a ‘particularly suspect’ Maths teacher involved! To even more amusement, there was discussion of Gerry Anderson’s The Secret Service (1969), ‘only ever shown in Birmingham’ (!), which featured the eccentric Stanley Unwin as ‘Father Stanley Unwin’, a puppet vicar secret agent!
A profound question was considered: ‘Why is there so much light-heartedness in spy dramas?’ This seemed to be the particularly 1960s mood, with more seriousness (The Sandbaggers), blandness (The New Avengers) and ‘macho’ aggression in relation to terrorism (The Professionals) characterising the 1970s. Out of the Q&A came a fascinating educational summary of the spies:
- James Bond = public school, fee-paying, socially established.
- Harry Palmer = grammar school, selective on ability, socially mobile.
- David Callan = secondary modern, practically focused, socially proletarian.
The second panel began with Claire Hines (Southampton Solent University) analysed the current film archetype of the tech geek, through the portrayal and representation of Ben Whishaw’s Q in recent Bond films. This as a mainstreaming of the ‘nerd’ character was mentioned, with the example of Whishaw’s Prada photo shoot and GQ magazine’s Bond special featuring the character heavily. The archetype was briefly located as a development of the earlier WW2 ‘boffin’ figure, a significant presence in the early Cold War, as best exemplified by Barnes-Wallace in The Dam Busters (1955).
Next, Stephanie Jones (Aberystwyth University) gave an analysis of Bond and the ‘New Man’ – a cultural archetype recorded by the OED as first appearing in discourses around the 1982 film Tootsie. Jones explored the myths of Dalton’s Bond as being the ‘New Man’, and popular memory of him making quiche for a romantic meal with a female character. This memory is false, Jones revealed, showing the scene as actually from the late-Moore era film, A View to a Kill (1985). Jones further questioned the perceptions of Dalton as a more progressive, cultured Bond; arguing this was more to do with his persona off-screen – Shakespeare actor and partner of Vanessa Redgrave – than anything to do with his performance as Bond.
Moving on from the politics of quiche – and false memory – Matthew Bellamy (University of Michigan, not the Muse singer!) tackled the relation between Bond and Cambridge spy, Guy Burgess. He placed the defiantly “leak-proof” Bond as designed by Fleming in opposition to the more effeminate and sexually ambiguous figures in British espionage and culture from the 1920s onwards: T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom was used to contextualise the Cambridge Spies. Bond was seen as an unambiguous figure, able to redeem and refresh the establishment. The Q&A discussion revealed that recently released files show that the British secret services thought they could get Burgess not for his spying activities but for his homosexuality, in a Britain that had yet to see the liberal reforms of the 1960s. The Q&A also contained interesting discussion of where the ‘007’ of Bond came from: it isn’t just the UK dialling code for Russia, but was also seen as a lucky number by a spy of a somewhat different era: John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s spy who saw the 0s as representing eyes: “I am your lucky eyes”, as he said to the Queen. The absorbing Q&A also took in the dandyism of Roger Moore’s Bond and how the shock at Bond cooking quiche seems odd in that Bond is so often depicted cooking in Fleming’s novels.
The third and final panel of the day began with an analysis by James Mason expert Sarah Thomas (Aberystwyth University) of the 1966 film, The Deadly Affair. This was an adaptation of the first George Smiley book, featuring Mason as Smiley, renamed, for copyright reasons: ‘Albert Dobbs’. In contrast to the exotic vistas of Bond films, this film was analysed as having ‘unromanticised’ and ‘drab’ everyday London settings such as an East End boozer. As with the other papers on this panel, the focus was on setting, use of locations and analysis of how films use mise-en-scène to create specific impacts on the audience.
Douglas McNaughton (University of Brighton) used television theory to analyse how director John Irvin and the BBC production team made the acclaimed 1979 serial version Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, explaining the ‘Oratic power’ of when productions use actual locations that the audience would recognise. He gave the example of the serial’s opening shots of the Cambridge Circus, with its cinematic presentation of the actual Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road junction. The production’s ingenuity was also shown in how they used Glasgow for scenes that were supposed to be Czechoslovakia. McNaughton’s paper formed an argument that the TV version of TTSS was more writerly and more cinematic than the 2011 film version.
Jane Barnwell (University of Westminster)’s following paper focused on the 2011 film adaptation, being based on extensive interviews with set designers. She explained how the set design of Control’s messy, disordered flat helped John Hurt ‘get’ just how unhinged and crazy his character, Control, was. Interiors with their elaborately thought-out and researched period décor, were described as having a character of their own. The Q&A reflected how the 1970s aesthetic ‘look’, with oranges, browns and pinks connoting drab austerity, is now a British ‘Heritage’ look comparable in familiarity to how country houses regularly appear in Merchant-Ivory films or Downton Abbey. There was an interesting debate, which could not end conclusively, on whether places (i.e. sets or locations) in films represented people (i.e. characters in the diegesis), or whether they said more about the geographical locations represented.
The ‘Keynote’ lecture was delivered, in interactive and entertaining style, by Pamela Church Gibson (London College of Fashion), an extensively published analyst of the cultural history of fashion and cinema. She discussed Sean Connery’s early job as a model and how he bought his clothes at Vince’s Men Shop in Soho – which was also frequented by influential cultural types such as George Melly and Peter Sellers. She attacked the ‘dangerous myth’ of social mobility: of being able to move up the social class ‘ladder’, as most glaringly exemplified by the ‘insufferable’, upwardly-mobile Joe Lambton in Room at the Top (1959).
Church Gibson then compared Bond with the unnamed narrator in The Ipcress File (Harry Palmer, of course, in the film), saying that in the novel he possesses a cultural capital that Bond lacks, reading books and the New Statesman, stripped away in the Michael Caine film, which just leaves the cooking. She mentioned Caine’s Palmer’s ‘enormous’ appeal to women at the time, despite his use of the colloquial “birds” for women. Discussion of the film developed into the director Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys (1964) as a ‘really interesting film’ and discussion of London: St James’ Park is ‘always where spies meet’ in spy films!
The April 1966 issue of Time magazine on London as the ‘Swinging City’ was critiqued. The associated mythical ‘silliness’ of the 1960s as Swinging London – embodied in a film mentioned in the Q&A, Smashing Time (1967) – was unfavourably contrasted with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) film, starring Richard Burton as Alec Leamas in a crumpled mac. Church Gibson contrasted this veracity with the recent BBC-1 adaptation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager, ‘which could be a fashion shoot’, highlighting the difference in backgrounds between Connery, Caine and Burton and the cast of that serial, the main three of whom – Laurie, Hiddleston and Hollander – were all ‘Eminent Dragons’, alumni of the same Oxford prep school. This wasn’t the last in SOBS that we were to hear of casting and social class: Rosie White’s paper on Leslie Howard, Tom Hiddleston and national identity was to explore this further on Saturday…