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

One_for_the_Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perry Mason

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

Che Guevara
El Tigre – less present than this fella…

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

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

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

Denis Healey

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

OBE

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

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

crystal2l

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

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

Robert Southwell

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

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

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

Lord Haw Haw accents telegraph

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

N_Sinyard_3
Neil Sinyard

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

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

ITALY THE RED THREAT 14-06-76

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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