‘The perennial lodestone of liberalism’ – BOOK REVIEW: Toby Manning’s “John Le Carré and the Cold War”

John Le Carré and the Cold War
Toby Manning

London: Bloomsbury, 2018

Toby Manning - JLC and the Cold War

le Carré’s position on communism was considerably closer to that of the British state than is critically acknowledged or popularly understood. (Manning, p.11)

This book is an important intervention in JLC studies, analysing six George Smiley-centric novels in considerable depth. Manning places the novels in historical context and employs rigorous close-reading in order to shed light on political ideology within the novels. He focuses not just on what is there, but is also what is not there; developing an argument that JLC fundamentally elides any deep discussion of communism as an ideology or cause.

Whether central or ancillary, Smiley has always embodied, contained and ‘resolved’ these novels’ ideological dilemmas: he is the perennial lodestone of liberalism. (Manning, p.183)

Where many writers in Britain ignore liberalism and capitalism as powerful ideological forces, Manning carefully defines and inteprets them. This is especially the case with liberalism: he teases out the contradictions between the individualist, imperialist and often authoritarian Hobbesian strain and milder, twentieth-century social liberalism. Indeed, he locates these as tensions in the ‘national ego’ which are embodied by George Smiley, who is contradictorily portrayed as sometimes a humanistic arbiter and at other times as a forceful, illiberal agent who brings victorious closure to the narratives. GS’s knowledge empiricism is also identified and placed in an intended binary with the unbending, ideological communist enemy, represented by Karla.

Manning makes a powerful argument that JLC’s Cold War fiction fundamentally backs the hegemonic Western Cold War position of ‘containment’, and does not, as many critics have argued, posit a moral equivalence between liberalism and communism. There is typically some acknowledgment of ‘our’ side having to do bad things, but these are invariably shown to be necessary to contain an ‘other’, alien communism. Where communism is mentioned, it is always with emotive language such as ‘evil’. Manning identifies this treatment of the communist enemy as Manichean and not all that far from Ian Fleming’s presentations of the eastern foe. In this argument, he builds on Andrew Hammond’s wide survey of British Cold War Fiction in 2013. As I have argued previously, one of the few writers to seriously question the West’s geopolitical position was Graham Greene. Manning locates Greene alongside Eric Ambler as being fundamentally influenced by their experience of the 1930s and the ‘Popular Front’.

Manning’s other advance is to find references in the texts to the contemporary domestic politics; while there is generally denigration of working-class geographies in the novels – such as the municipal blocks of flats in The Looking Glass War (1965) – Call for the Dead (1961) is said to differ. This occurs in its climactic action, where Smiley kills Dieter Frey and Smiley’s remorse is said to incorporate ideas of ‘home-grown radicalism’, with  textual quotations from an 1830 folk song. Manning describes JLC as usually endorsing ‘an essentially establishment England’ of public-school and Oxbridge; just for a brief moment, here in the first Smiley novel, are glimpses of the domestic political alternative of the Diggers, the Jacobins, John Ball, Williams Blake and Morris. This implicit alternative emerges when Smiley doubts his own ‘gentlemanly’ status, having carried out the brutal act of murdering Frey. Manning’s attention to detail has certainly made me want to go back and read this novel again; exactly what you want from any such academic study.

Manning also deftly interweaves Britain’s post-colonial angst with its Cold War geopolitics; explicitly avoiding the sort of compartmentalising that too many scholars engage in. The main novels where Britain’s colonial legacy features are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).

This book is the culmination of wide reading, with skilful reference across a range of secondary texts used to place the six primary texts in a rich historical context. There’s a precision in dating the novels’ publication and in identifying the major world and UK events surrounding them. He also utilises contemporary UK and US book reviews to highlight how JLC has previously been denied canonical status by taste arbiters.

Manning is a le Carré enthusiast and scholar who has also written popular music journalism.* He astutely situates these novels in post-WW2 cultural context while elucidating their explicit and implicit politics. Even adherents of the view that these novels are ‘just’ exciting thrillers will be convinced by Manning’s comprehensive investigation of their politics. He convincingly establishes just how wedded to the ‘establishment’ status quo these novels are, always giving us Smiley’s or other upper-class characters’ perspective and barely ever allowing working-class or communist characters a hearing.

Manning places this ‘repression’ of other voices within the context of the mid-1970s. With developments in Vietnam, Portugal, Jamaica, Laos and Angola, the West’s Cold War ‘victory’ seemed far from assured. He also identifies just how anti-American The Honourable Schoolboy is, with JLC again endorsing Smiley’s urbane, traditional but muscular liberalism as the prefered way. The Circus’s intractable bureaucracy is analogised to the Russians’, with Smiley often criticising it, only to himself ultimately steer the UK state bureaucracy to notable victories.

The careful elision of the concept of social class only proves its very power within these fascinating novels, with JLC using a ‘mythic register’ in presenting Oxford, Cornwall and spies’ training centre Sarratt as the true England and Smiley’s liberal, gentlemanly habitus as justly leading to victory in the Cold War.

* I really hope Manning gets his planned ‘folk-spy hybrid’ novel Border Ballads published! He can be heard mentioning this and discussing his JLC book here.

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A vital corrective: A UNITED KINGDOM (2016)

Rosamund Pike: They were sitting side by side, the two of them close up to each other. It was like someone had flicked on a switch […] I felt tears streaming down my face. Something about them moved me so much […] It bore out everything I’d hoped for […] I find their story incredibly inspiring and moving, and that’s what I ask for in movies I go and see. I want to see movies like that. I want to see movies that make love heroic and the act of love courageous.[1]

a-united-kingdom-poster

The hit Netflix’s series The Crown – in many ways admirable stuff – almost entirely omits non-whites from Britain’s story; Kenyans feature more as backdrop figures than as agents themselves. British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga has recently presented Black and British: A Forgotten History on the BBC. Oxford-born black British actor David Oyelowo pronounced: ‘People of colour have been expunged from Britain’s history’.[2] Oyelowo has acted on this imperative by starring in A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante, best known for 2013’s acclaimed 18th-century-set Belle (2013).

This new film dramatizes the controversy surrounding heir to the throne in Bechuanaland getting married in 1948 to a white British woman. Oyelowo first came across the story via Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar (2006) in 2010 and began developing the idea for a film with producers Justin Moore-Lewy and Charlie Mason, who acquired the rights.[3] Oyelowo has also spoken of the film being an attempt to tackle history that educational curricula choose to ignore.[4] He also commented that the recent rise in racist rhetoric has validated the reason for making the film.[5]

The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa.

The story has been well selected, and is presented as a rare upbeat depiction of Africa. As Asante argued: ‘Why wouldn’t we show the beautiful sunsets? I remember waking up in my mother’s African village to beautiful sunrises and beautiful sunsets.’[6] The film also pays close attention to power, politics and persuasion, as in what Stables refers to as Seretse’s ‘game-changing speech’.[7] Where Peter Morgan captured some of the paranoid psychosis of Idi Amin’s Uganda in The Last King of Scotland (2006), screenwriter Hibert fashions a story containing many political tensions, but also an inexorably buoyant narrative. Such an avowed love letter to social liberalism feels embattled in ever less tolerant and pluralistic 2016. I would agree with Kate Stables in Sight and Sound that it is a ‘laudable retelling of a less than glorious chapter in British history.’[8] Sadly, far from the last ignominious such chapter…

The film ends with independence on the cards, using captions to convey the rest of Seretse and Ruth’s story. It seems it wasn’t, as some might expect, particularly sanitised. It leaves you wanting to find out more about the real situation in Botswana from the 1960s until today, which is a good thing.

seretse-and-ruth

In real life, Seretse Khama took a brave gamble and renounced his chieftaincy, and stood for election, winning in 1965: leading to independence for the renamed Botswana in 1966. On that Independence Day, Queen Elizabeth II conferred a knighthood on him. He kept to Westminster style political arrangements, avoiding a one-party state. His economic policy was more free-market than socialist; as Keatley states, ‘He insisted on a strict balance of payments and a sound currency’.[9] This economically ‘Victorian’ figure was, however, defiantly anti-Apartheid and towards the end of his reign he established free universal education in his country. Keatley praised Khama’s ‘legacy of tolerance and stability that have made Botswana one of the happiest countries in Africa’.[10] One of the better researched articles on the film from Jessamy Calkin confirms the positive picture of Botswanan culture and society: ‘Historically, it was less heavily colonised than much of the continent […] Good management and wealth brought by the discovery of diamonds have ensured that its citizens are entitled to free healthcare and education, and each can claim a piece of land, 40m by 40m, once they are 21, for which they don’t have to pay. (In two days here, I have met many people who have done so.)’[11] Calkin also comments that Seretse Khama’s personality has impacted on the culture’s genteel and courteous nature today, where it is ruled by his son Ian Khama.

a-united-kingdom-aa

Director Asante, 47, Streatham born with Ghanaian roots, has had a notable life: her parents ran a shop that sold African cosmetics and then groceries; she experienced racism in Streatham while growing up, was in Grange Hill (“it taught me that I could not act”), met Nancy Reagan as part of the “Just Say No” campaign and is a massive Prince fan who had a private meeting with him.[12] In 1998, she wrote and directed the Liverpool-set Brothers and Sisters which featured the then 22-year-old David Oyelowo. Asante has spoken eloquently on ethnic minority and female under-representation in British cinema and has claimed that the Brexit vote wouldn’t have happened without class inequality.[13]

Its 66-year-old screenwriter Guy Hibert, a veteran of 1990s BBC film-drama strands Screen Two and Screenplay, comes up with a concise, focused film celebratory of liberalism: cross-racial romance, democratic values. Seretse is conveyed as similarly eloquent in his use of rhetoric to Martin Luther King, as depicted in Selma (2014).

Acting-wise, Jack Davenport is particularly assured as Alastair Canning, a sadistically bland British government functionary who offers sherry while giving Seretse the absurd offer of a posting to Jamaica. Tom Felton is a little more cartoonish – reflecting some of the occasional unsubtlety picked up on by Stables. Jack Lowden, with Nikolai Rostov, Oswald Alving and Thomas Wyatt already under his belt at 26, gets to play a heroic, twenty-something Tony Benn. Rosamund Pike continues her specialism in enacting post-WW2 characters; following An Education (2009) and Made in Dagenham (2010) with a sensitive and humane portrayal of middle-class clerk Ruth Williams.

ros-pike1
Rosamund Pike, also representing the sorely lacking British conscience in Made in Dagenham…

Local and international power politics are well conveyed, as highlighted by Davis: ‘Since South African uranium was a key ingredient of the West’s Cold War nuclear arsenal, Britain was reluctant to antagonise the Pretoria regime.’[14] While Khama’s own people are won over quite quickly by the couple, the British led by Attlee are unwilling to jeopardise key economic assets in the geopolitical context of the Cold War. In the 1951 General Election campaign, Churchill – unseen, sadly and not played by John Lithgow – promises that Seretse will be allowed to return to Bechuanaland. Once in the power, the old ‘statesman’ – or is that grandiose rogue? – reneges on his promise and extends Khama’s exile. Kermode has argued it successfully blends the personal and political and is necessary in being crowd-pleasing, working well with a large audience.[15] It seems the ideal film to appeal to this critic’s liberal-left Christian sensibility.

In a Live Q&A in November 2016 following a film about his diaries, Alan Bennett bemoaned Britain being a less ‘tolerant’ country than it was in the 1950s. A Britain that is now lacking in Ruth Williams’[16] – hailed by Stables for ‘her stoicism and community efforts’ – and drowning in boorish Farages and Johnsons.  A United Kingdom sketchily depicts some of the underlying racism of the late 1940s, but has a powerful sense of its romantic leads both being outsiders in each other’s cultures. It also balances the Attlee government’s compromises with ‘Anthony Benn’ figuting as a morally crusading advocate for Seretse and Ruth. As Calkin commented, the couple named one of their sons after Benn.[17] To me, it feels like empathy within British society and support for the Welfare State has eroded and we are less tolerant. Our younger British generations are generally past racism, but the media keeps fermenting it, especially successfully among older citizens, who vote more and are more susceptible to such a message.

In the context of 2016, A United Kingdom forms a vital corrective to our severely disunited kingdom, by showing and understanding the follies of the past and presenting an inspiring story of love as a progressive, necessary force.

a-united-kingdom

[1] Griffin, S. (2016) ‘The power of love’, Yorkshire Post, 25th November, np

[2] Stables, K. (2016) ‘Reviews: A United Kingdom’, Sight and Sound, December, p.89

[3] Clark, A. (2016) ‘Amma Asante: ‘I’m here to disrupt expectations’ – As her movie A United Kingdom opens the London film festival, the British director talks about her new membership of the US Academy – and why the whole industry needs to change’, The Observer, 2nd October, p.6

[4] Loughrey, C. (2016) ‘Finding love in a time of division’, The Independent on Sunday, 27th November, p.89

[5] Anon (2016) ‘Film industry is ‘doubly testing’ of women, says Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike’, The Herald, np

[6] Clark, A. (2016) ibid., p.6

[7] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[8] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[9] Keatley, P. (1980) ‘A legacy of tolerance’, The Guardian, 14th July, p.6

[10] Keatley, P. (1980) ibid., p.6

[11] Calkin, J. (2016) ‘The true story of the first president of Botswana and the English woman he fell in love with’, The Daily Telegraph, 4th November, np

[12] Jacobs, E. (2016) ‘A change of narrative’, Financial Times Weekend Supplement, 12th November, p.18

[13] Jacobs, E. (2016) ibid., p.18

[14] Davis, C. (2016) ‘THE SECRETARY AND THE PRINCE – Their relationship scandalised 1950s Britain but Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama had a happy marriage, as a new film reveals’, The Express, 17th November, p.13

[15] Kermode, M. (2016) ‘A United Kingdom review’, BBC Radio 5, 25th November

[16] Stables, K. (2016) ibid., p.89

[17] Calkin, J. (2016) ibid., np

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

“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

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

Spectres of Aberfan, Arthur and “Americanisation”: further notes on Dennis Potter, ‘Traitor’ and national identity

TRAITOR vi - by DENNIS POTTER - SOVIET MONTAGE

‘A writer may wish to confirm or strengthen the prevailing values of his society, or he may find that the movements of his imagination take him in the opposition direction. Usually, it is a bit of both, of course.’[1]

From Thursday 3rd-Saturday 5th September, I will be in London to chair, help and deliver a paper on Dennis Potter’s ‘Traitor’. This piece is an attempt to provide broader context for my paper – particularly regarding the issues of culture and national identities. For Adrian Harris, literature and journalism function as a stark binary, yet Potter himself was just as much the critic as the creator. His journalism provides a complement to his plays, and further clarifies his singular view of nationhood. Within the ambitious ‘Traitor’, Potter claimed he was “trying to pack a lot of things in that I’d been thinking about”.[2] His journalism reveals the gamut of his preoccupations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

‘TRAITOR’ – BROADCASTING CONTEXT AND RECEPTION

‘Traitor’ was shown on 14th October 1971 on BBC-1. Television in 1971 concerned itself with spying; to add to ‘Traitor’ is ‘Act of Betrayal’ – a BBC Play of the Month broadcast in January. There was much questioning of power structures – a documentary on The Judges, whose veneer, argued Williams in The Listener, proved resistant to the probing. In the summer, LWT had broadcast a drama serial strongly engaged with ideas: The Guardians, a 13-part epic that dramatised clashing ideologies like liberalism, fascism and Marxism. In the same series of Play for Today there were some common themes to ‘Traitor’: alcoholism (Jeremy Sandford’s Edna, the Inebriate Woman) and, three weeks later, the cruelty of the prep-school system: ‘O Fat White Woman’, an exceptional adaptation of a William Trevor short-story. This latter is one of my favourite of all Plays for Today, with its sense of evocative brutality, its Delia Derbyshire soundscapes and acting from the outstanding Peter Jeffrey – present on BBC-2 in Trial on 14/10/71 and a standout in Potter’s later Lipstick on your Collar (1993) as the mentally crumbling old War Office cove.

‘Traitor’ was followed by an insightful interview with Potter on BBC-2 in Late Night Line Up at 11.10pm with Michael Dean, in which the playwright explored his motives in writing the play. Or, rather, this followed Milos Forman’s 1967 film The Firemen’s Ball, a 70-minute Czech comedy which started at 10.10pm, ten minutes before ‘Traitor’ finished. BBC-1 had in its schedules the repeat of an appositely archaeology-themed episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from 1970 and coverage of the Tory Party conference. BBC-2 had an edition of Europa, focusing on gyspies’ changing way of life and an episode of the legal drama Trial, by future Sapphire and Steel creator P.J. Hammond.

The Firemen’s Ball is a tremendous, ambiguous film – cool, sardonically feminist, holding up an unforgiving mirror to masculine ways of seeing and leering. Forman makes a mockery of the sort of televisual spectacles that lingered on for decades in Britain; a different form of protest than the necessary sabotage at the 1970 Miss World contest. It can also be read as a satire of incompetent, corrupt communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Released internally at the end of 1967, it was only released in the UK in November 1968, following the crushing of the Prague Spring. This would have been its television debut and it surely made for pointed scheduling – overlapping with BBC-1’s Potter play, which contains explicit rebuke to the Soviet meddling. Committee and trade union ways in the town are shown as a corrupt mockery of true socialist values: “solidarity” is the loaded word used by committee leaders when on the platform and providing “help” to an old man who has ironically had his house – situated next door – burn down during this Firemen’s Ball.

THE FIREMAN'S BALL 3

The bored, listless ladies rightly do not embody any stereotypical ‘beauty’ and therefore represent an anarchic active human beauty when they scarper: an act of rebellion. They have been given a handful of words within the satirically patriarchal frame – and by the lecherous, officious committee men.

The brass-band present throughout would strike a chord with anyone aware of the annual July Durham Big Meeting – the Gala included a ‘Durham Coal Queen’, up until 1983. The section in the film where the competition prize is ‘claimed’ by a grandmotherly figure constitutes jubilant subversion and the band plays along raucously, with the committee desperately, haplessly, trying to coax the ‘contestants’ back to the stage.

Reactions in the press to ‘Traitor’ itself were mixed, tending towards positive. Dunkley in The Times was the most positive, praising a ‘tremendous’ use of the medium, the presentation of Harris as ‘wrong-headed’, but with understandable motives.[3] In The Guardian, Banks-Smith commended the use of newsreel and Potter’s blending of ‘strongly poetic’ and popular elements, seeing the contemporary scenes as like a ‘Cagney confrontation’.[4] While regarding it as one of Potter’s ‘best plays’, T.C. Worsley of The Financial Times had reservations, criticising the ending and noting the gap between the understandable turn to the left and actual defection.[5] Holland of The Observer was similarly lukewarm, saying that while the play was technically ‘riveting’, ‘dramatically the apparent coldness towards his hero leaves a chill in the viewer’.[6] Lawrence in The Stage and Television Today was the most critical, censuring its verbosity and dependence on literary quotation.[7]

‘Traitor’ was repeated on BBC-2 on Tuesday 27th February 1973 and again on 21st July 1987, just ten days before the publication of Peter Wright’s controversial memoir, Spycatcher.[8] In May 1980, there was a radio-play adaptation, featuring Denholm Elliott as Harris – the same year Elliott featured in Potter’s other treachery-related play, Blade on the Feather, broadcast in October by LWT. This arguably improves on the original by removing the television play’s ending, which had flashbacked to the start of events: conveying the needlessly obvious detail that Harris is being bugged by the KGB.

POTTER AND NATIONAL IDENTITY

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“An understanding of what class means is a politically motivating force” – Dennis Potter.[9]

 The previous year to ‘Traitor’ was Potter’s Lay Down Your Arms (LWT), which scathingly caricatured the officer class at the time of the Suez crisis. Potter had done his own National Service in the War Office in the early 1950s – pre-Suez – alongside future collaborator Kennith Trodd, who was from a similar working-class background. They shared a socialist outlook and both had witnessed ‘at first hand the Cold War antics of the upper-class majors and colonels under whom they served.’[10] When ‘Traitor’ was discussed in BBC Board of Management meeting, the following bullet point in the minutes discussed likely government criticism of a BBC schools’ pamphlet on the history of the ‘Suez episode’, demonstrating that the power and controversy surrounding Suez remained strong, fifteen years on.

The barbed attack-dog Potter of LDYA is well represented by its telling opening shot of, post-Trooping the Colour, ‘a man shovelling up horse-shit’.[11] The best scene in the play is where the grammar schooled Potter surrogate protagonist Lt. Hawk pretends to be Lev Yashin in a London pub, to impress some of its working-class punters.

Potter’s non-fiction, much of it collected in the superlative The Art of Invective (2015), distills a striking anger towards bourgeois indifference to the poor, and he displays scorn for the militaristic, nostalgic element in British culture. He denounces the unnaturalness of the Aberfan disaster of 21 October 1966, which had been caused by the bosses’ neglect of safety, and he derides Correlli Barnett’s ‘no-nonsense’ history tome, Britain and Her Army 1509-1970. Potter seems pleased that we have lost our ‘world role’ and avoided the ‘social gangrene’ of a standing army. He mocks military decline: ‘Recruiting for the British Army now takes place in the Natural Break: busy, bang-bang scraps of film sandwiched between more pacific (and more persuasive) advertisements for tinned dog food and biological stain-removers’.[12] He argues that ‘pomp and pride’ has dwindled to ‘narrow and hateful prejudice within our own small boundaries’, which can be linked his Till Death Do Us Part review where he criticises the public’s non-ironic love of Alf Garnett.[13] In contrast to what he perceived as Speight’s pandering, a July 1971 review for The Times, Potter praised David Caute’s experimental trilogy The Confrontation for its ‘deeply honest’ use of dialectical, Brechtian techniques and for making his ‘head ache’.[14]

In several journalistic pieces, he displays scepticism about the new, arty middle-class leftism. And, while he deplores the pomp and circumstance, he is somehow won over by one particular televisual spectacle of monarchy, conveying he is not so angry as to want to uproot all English traditions…

Potter was a conflicted rationalist – he adored the exacting critic Hazlitt, naming a collection of his essays as his book choice in his 1977 appearance on Radio-4’s Desert Island Discs. In a Times piece written a month before filming started on ‘Traitor’, he was critical of youths who were following post-structuralists’ lead in abandoning rational argument. [15] However, he was still more critical of older generations; who, he argues, caused this loss of faith with the aforementioned acts of war in 1968 and their construction of nuclear weapons. With ‘Traitor’ he attempted show the tension between rationalism and romanticism.[16]

Potter ‘sees this fantasy of the Past, this belief in a lost Eden, as a parallel with the communists’ hopes for a future Earthly paradise’.[17] He refers to a ‘shrivelling’ reason in contemporary society that is becoming more concerned with place than with rationalist ideas: this could be seen to anticipate such mid-1970s works as Play for Today: ‘Penda’s Fen’, Requiem for a Village and Akenfield.[18]

Potter refers to his childhood visions of Jesus Christ’s ‘presence’ on a road and King Arthur asleep in a cave in the woods. He forever associates these “gigantic, chapel-and-school taught figures” with the geographical locale of the Forest of Dean, that ‘complex tangle of woodland chimera and solidified memory between the Severn and the Wye; a place which is still to me the Holy Land and Camelot’.[19]

He refers to Arthurian myths as mourning a loss and glory that has gone, ‘yet which also convey the implicit promise of renewal, return […] the return of the dead king comes with the experience of adult love’.[20] He mentions that Ashe draws passionately on Blake, who may be seen as the poet best embodying English love. He refers to deep British antiquity as a ‘land that is in Europe yet not quite of it’.[21]

Potter’s political ideal for his “mythic England” is: “love mercy pity – peace –Blake’s Hammer like rhythm of what man is about”.[22] On LNLU, he contrasted this with the grasping individualism of Tory England, and vocally supported the miners’ calls for a strike at the recent NUM National Conference of 1971 – rejecting a 7-8% pay rise offer – and raged polemically at those he saw as the class enemy:

“Now I look at people like Mrs. Thatcher standing up in front of the cameras taking milk away from kids and saying – it’s up to parents to look after them you know, etc. etc. – all that spew that comes gushing out of these people from generations past, who are responsible for all the filth, and moral mental obscenity, of this country, as I’ve seen it and experienced it and escaped from it”.[23]

“AMERICANISATION”, MATERIALISM AND INDIVIDUALISM

Potter regarded American culture with nostalgia – film noir and much of its popular music, as evidenced in The Singing Detective and other texts – but was increasingly concerned, like Richard Hoggart and others, with its materialism and corrupting influence on local British customs and working-class solidarity. In a 1958 piece, he lauded a Forest of Dean teenager for sarcastically mocking the rock ‘n’ roll music coming from a cafe jukebox in Cinderford: ‘she showed that all was not lost, that the Brave New World had not yet won.’[24] In 1967, he bemoaned the ‘profit-driven […] horrors’ of American TV.[25] In 1974, he complained of US shows like Harry O and Ironside, in contrast to the film noirs of his youth: ‘Why don’t they write the crackling backtalk anymore?’[26] He argues that US influence has led to the British taking on ‘the mental inflections or infections of a provincial and colonialized people’.

In 1988, Hebdige commented on how cultural debates in the 1930s-60s ‘tended to revolve, often obsessively, around two key terms: “Americanisation” and the “levelling down process”.[27] He starts with discussing an example from Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen and discusses Waugh and Nancy Mitford as right-wing High Tory traditionalists recoiling from the culture’s leftwards movement during and post-WW2. However, he also identifies the liberal socialist Orwell and the social democrat Hoggart as sharing scepticism towards the ‘shiny’ ‘mass culture’ created in the UK by perceived ‘Americanisation’. Potter may also be identified in this lineage, and he refers approvingly to J.B. Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes’ concept of ‘Admass’, coined in 1955 to describe the conjunction of advertising and mass communications.

The American is named ‘Blake’, perhaps to chide and goad Harris about the perceived cultural imperialism and political and economic dependency of Britain upon the USA. Harris describes American culture as “irredeemably vulgar”. As Potter said that he put some of his own thoughts about England into Harris’s mouth, it may be inferred that he shares his character’s resentment at the American influence – placing him closer to the writers literary academic Andrew Hammond describes as most seriously critical of US hegemony: the likes of Graham Greene and John Berger.

Much of Potter’s own loathing of materialism and consumerism finds vent in Harris. He describes the journalists’ use of the word “conscience” as “vulgar and adulterated” after they have criticised his views on “necessary murder”. He says they make “conscience” sound “like a peppermint with a hole in the middle”.

As well as its consumerist blandness, Adrian mocks Western culture’s central tenet of “individuality”. This powerful idea was forged through Cold War propaganda: from the more clear-cut, CIA-backed film of Animal Farm (1954) to a 1970s British TV dystopian series like 1990 (1977-78), which starred Edward Woodward as a crusading journalist hero, opposing a British that has degenerated into banal socialist bureaucracy. As Harris argues, Western claims of enshrining “freedom of speech” are undermined by the role of sub-editors; we can extend this to the Murdoch influence – Potter was writing this play just over a year after Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun, which he had previously written articles for. However, Potter undermines Harris in showing most of the journalists to be ethical and willing to speak against both the Vietnam War and the crushing of the Prague Spring. Through Harris, Potter voices many of his usual reservations about Western culture, but does not reject it outright. In his LNLU interview he explicitly yearns for a democratic socialist future – ideally fusing Blakean idealism with some Hazlitt-style rationalism – though hasn’t worked out how we might arrive at such a future.

ANALYSIS OF ‘TRAITOR’

Characters in the play – chiefly Harris’ Arthur and Adrian – posit dialectical binaries, clear divisions that give meaning to their lives and outlook. Interestingly, the play doesn’t establish any Burgess and Maclean style association of sexual deviancy with treachery – sexuality doesn’t feature in this play. (Nor do women, other than Harris’s mother in flashbacks) Potter makes clear the tension in some of the binaries that feature:

BINARIES TABLE

Harris associates Romantic poetry with twentieth century rebellion – “there was a time when poets exploded like bombs”- and his allusion to Auden evokes the active agency of poets in the Spanish Civil War. It is surprising that amid the many poets mentioned, Shelley is not included.

Another Blake can be brought into this story: the defector George Blake! His mystical Christian idealism was replaced by Communism as he felt only it could bring about ‘heaven on earth’.[28] Blake defected as he claimed that he felt he wasn’t on the right side when he fought in the Korean War and witnessed the brutality of the US-backed Rhee regime; he saw the Communists as stirred by the ‘same noble motives’ as Dutch and other freedom fighters in WW2.[29] When considering such ‘traitors’, Graham Greene’s critiqued the standard reflex moral judgements: ‘He sent men to their death’ is the kind of stock phrase which has been used against Philby and Blake. So does any military commander, but at least the cannon fodder of the espionage war are all volunteers.’[33] He has no sympathy for the defecting spy Volkov, but rather more for Philby. George Blake is different to Harris and Philby in being from a relatively lowly social class and a Jewish background. Potter can be said to have rejected GB’s path from Christianity to Communism, having strong faith in ‘gentle’, liberal and democratic socialism.

Arthur Harris, Adrian’s father in ‘Traitor’ compares strongly to Philby’s father: St John Philby. We get some sense in the play of Arthur’s eccentric martinet politics, which aren’t dissimilar to the Arabist adventurer St John. Perrott refers to his progress from being a ‘Socialist of a highly individual sort’[30] to becoming first candidate to stand for the far-right British People’s Party in the July 1939 by-election in Hythe, Kent, losing his deposit in this Tory-held seat with a pitiful 2.6% of the vote.[31] The British People’s Party was against war with Germany and its secretary John Beckett was interned in May 1940.[32] St John was interned himself briefly. The BPP had a strain of anti-semitism, which can be linked to when Harris refers to in the play, with a journalist quoting Hillaire Belloc, who Harris puts down as “a sweet, fey anti-semite”.

CONCLUSION

Overall, Potter’s view of the Cold War can be inferred as somewhere between critical friendship of the USA and outright non-alignment. His scorn for backward-looking patriotism very understandably knows no bounds. He is a writer whose views were partly informed by the Suez debacle and also had a contempt for Churchillian myths, which I will analyse in another blog post…

REFERENCES:

[1] Potter, D., Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.211

[2] BBC WAC (1971) Late Night Line Up transcript, 14th October, p.7, file 09151/2041

[3] Dunkley, C. (1971) ‘Traitor: BBC-1’, The Times, 15th October, p.12

[4] Banks-Smith, N. (1971) ‘TRAITOR on television’, The Guardian, 15th October, p.10

[5] Worsley, T.C. (1971) ‘Period Promises’, The Financial Times, 20th October, p.3

[6] Holland, M. (1971) ‘Coming back to class’, The Observer, 17th October, p.29

[7] Lawrence, J. (1971) ‘Play for Today: Traitor’, The Stage and Television Today, 21 October, p.14

[8] The Times (1973) Broadcasting, The Times, 27th February, p.27

[9] BBC WAC (1971) ‘Late Night Line Up’ transcript, 14th October, p.2 file 09151/2041

[10] Cook, J.R. (1995) Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.10

[11] Gilbert, W.S. (1996) Fight and Kick and Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis Potter. London: Spectre, p.183

[12] Potter, D. (1970) ‘Britain’s Natural Break Army’, The Times, 25th April, p.5

[13] Potter, D, Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.128-30

[14] Potter, D. (1971) ‘Busting the categories’, The Times, 22nd July, p.12

[15] Potter, D. (1971) ‘The perpetual awakening’, The Times, 4th March, p.12

[16] BBC WAC (1971) Late Night Line Up transcript, 14th October, p.11, file 09151/2041

[17] Jones, D.A.N. (1971) ‘Playing Potter’s traitor: the best part I ever had on TV‘, Radio Times, 7th October, p.6

[18] Potter, D. (1971) ‘King Arthur and a vision of childhood country lost’, The Times, 18th January, p.8

[19] Potter, D. (1971) p.8

[20] Potter, D. (1971) p.8

[21] Potter, D. (1971) p.8

[22] BBC WAC (1971) ‘Late Night Line Up’ transcript, 14th October, p.11, file 09151/2041

[23] BBC WAC (1971) Late Night Line Up transcript, 14th October, p.8, file 09151/2041

[24] Potter, D., Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.17

[25] Potter (1967) ‘TV literature and the two that got away’, The Times, 4th November, p.21

[26] Potter, D., Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.152

[27] Hebdige, D. (1988) Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things. London: Routledge/Comedia, p.47

[28] Storyville: Masterspy of Moscow – George Blake (2015) BBC Four, TX: 23rd March https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rutcvpJdyKE [accessed: 26/08/15]

[29] Hermiston, R. (2013) The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake, London: Aurum Press, p.89

[30] Perrott, R. (1963) ‘Philby: all we know’, The Observer, 7th July, p.17

[31] The Times (1939) The Times, 21st July, p.14

[32] The Times (1940) The Times, 24th May, p.6

[33] Greene, G. (1968) ‘Our man in Moscow’, The Observer, 18th February, p.26