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

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

DEFENCE OF THE REALM

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

THE FOURTH PROTOCOL

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

THE WHISTLE BLOWER

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

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

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

SPY STORY 1976

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

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

Greene - THE HUMAN FACTOR

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

THE HUMAN FACTOR 1980

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

Q&A:

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

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

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

HIGH TREASON

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

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

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

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

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

Rooney - RED JOAN

Gilman - THE UNEXPECTED MRS POLLIFAX

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

MRS POLLIFAX - SPY 1971

TTSS - Beryl Reid

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

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

Q&A:

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

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

VELVET

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

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

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

LITERATURE: FICTION

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

LITERATURE: NON-FICTION

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

FILM

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

TV

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

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

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

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“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE CONSPIRATORS

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

DAS UNSICHTBARE2

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

DAS UNSICHTBARE3

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

Q&A

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET

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

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

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

James Chapman

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

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

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

THE LADY VANISHES

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

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

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

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THURSDAY

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

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

EPO

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

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

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

AKUNIN

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

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

HAPGOOD

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

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

Q&A:

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

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

THE BIG FOUR

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

UNDERMIND3

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

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

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

above-suspicion

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

ann bridge

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

Q&A:

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

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

TINTIN - HADDOCK

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

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

PAMUK

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

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

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

casino-royale-pan-first-uk-paperback

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

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

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

Q&A:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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