Saturday, 1 October 2011

Britain's Cultural Perception of Cold War Spying

You will probably not be surprised when I say this posting has been prompted by me seeing the recently released movie of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' based on the novel of the same title (1974) by British author John Le Carre.  I am slightly too young to remember the BBC television series of the novel which was broadcast in 1979 (when I was 12 and very into spying) though as a strangely avid viewer of feedback programmes about television, notably 'Points of View' I remember the complaints about the complexity of the story and the call for subtitles not to translate foreign dialogue but to inform the viewers about what was happening in the plot.  I also remember well the spoofs of the series especially in sketches by the 'Not the Nine O'Clock News' series (1979-82).  The success of the series revived interest in non-glamorous spy stories in the way which had not been seen since the trilogy of Harry Palmer movies, based on novels by Len Deighton and featuring Michael Caine, released 1965-7.

This latest version of Le Carre's novel has received very good reviews and so I went to the cinema for the first time in ages.  Even on a Wednesday night there was a good turnout, though I did notice that some people found the lack of dramatic action tedious and either left or started sending messages on their mobile phones.  This demand for violent action on a regular basis, whilst admittedly enjoyable does seem to push out movies which may be on cognate topics but adopt a more cerebral approach.  I think of the criticisms of 'Glorious 39' (2009) a thriller set in Britain in 1939 featuring a heroine who is utterly out of her depth and struggles to uncover the conspiracy.  Rather than seeing that as an interesting approach, complaints came that it was leaden and frustrating.  This is interesting as in the past thriller readers have enjoyed out-thinking the detective or spy, nowadays we are far more passive consumers and insist the hero/ine works harder, faster and more effectively than we are willing to do ourselves. 

In this way 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' is both old fashioned and yet possibly part of a small clutch of more thoughtful thrillers to sit alongside and complement more action-focused movies, notably the Bourne trilogy (2002-7; a fourth movie is promised).   The complexity of Le Carre's story and the dramatisations is exaggerated. If you can follow an television version of an Agatha Christie story then you will have not trouble with this movie.  In many ways, like quite a few of Le Carre's stories, it is as much a 'whodunnit', a detective story which happens to be set among the world of spies, as it is a spy story per se.  There are five suspects including the 'detective' himself, George Smiley (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman; he does not even speak for the first twenty minutes and yet imposes the character on to us) and in classic detective story style he gathers information and sets a trap to tease out the true guilty one from among the suspects.  Oldman resembles Alec Guinness in his portrayal of Smiley without trying to replicate it.  It is interesting the focus on the feature of a rather dull, late middle aged man, though interesting one quite happy to swim in rivers and wield a pistol.  The fact that at times we are looking right into the face of Smiley with his rather bland, aged features seems symptomatic of the style of the movie.

Whilst the movie has an excellent ensemble cast, the real 'star' is the evocation of London, Paris, Budapest and Istanbul in 1973.  This is a movie where you slip into a different time and you certainly feel that the past is another country.  The attention to detail down to clothing, hairstyles, cars, street furniture, office equipment, food, crockery, leaflets and advertisements, even the lighting is wonderful and really encompassing.  The behaviour is spot on and it is fascinating to see a 1972 works Christmas party so lovingly reproduced.  I think I only spotted two errors.  Too many of the male characters wear wedding rings, something which was uncommon for men, certainly those who were not Catholic, in 1973.  It is a fashion which has only caught on in the UK in the past twenty years.  In addition, there seems to be an error with the Trebor mints that Smiley eats near the end.  They are clearly extra-strong mints but wrapped in a Trebor mint wrapper making it far larger in diameter than Trebor mints of the time which were far smaller, shinier discs of mint.

This movie could certainly not have been relocated to the USA even if it was still set in 1973.  I imagine, having seen the acclaimed Danish crime drama 'Forbrydelsen' (2007) that it could have been set in northern Europe, anywhere from France through Germany and Scandinavia, into the former Eastern bloc countries.  However, I wondered why I could not envisage a US version and I realised that it stemmed from the different genuine history that Britain experienced during the Cold War.  It is not an issue of style, Britain certainly being painfully bleak in the 1970s despite the occasional garish colours; in sharp contrast to the excess of US culture at the time, it is more about what the British experienced in terms of spying. 

For the Americans, their greatest spying scandal was the sharing of atomic secrets in the 1950s by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; David Greenglass - Ethel's brother, Harry Gold, Morton Sobell and Klaus Fuchs.  Their arrest, the execution of the Rosenbergs and imprisonment of other conspirators, certainly fuelled the US hysteria about the Communist threat in the 1950s and the era of McCarthyism which affected so many people on a scale massively out of step with Soviet spying operations.  However, the bulk of these spies were seen anyway was 'outsiders'.  The Rosenbergs and Gold were Jewish and unashamedly Communist; Fuchs has been born a German and held British citizenship.  These were the type of spies that the Americans had always expected, associated with the dictatorships of Germany and Russia (even if they had fled them) and not Christian.   For the Americans counter-espionage is about identifying someone who 'does not fit' not only in the views they espouse but in other characteristics.  This approach persists to today which explains why the Americans are far happier seeking to tackle Islamist terrorism associated with people with a Middle Eastern or South-Central Asian connection than terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, who, to many 'mainstream' Americans resembles them too much for them really to believe that his actions were evil.

For the British the situation is utterly the reverse.  The key spy scandal in the UK was associated with the so-called 'Cambridge Spies' due to the university they studied at.  These were Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess who fled to the USSR in 1951; 'Kim' Philby who  followed them in 1963; Anthony Blunt, revealed as part of the circle in 1979 (though this had been uncovered as early as 1963 but kept secret) and John Cairncross, who was confirmed as a member of this set of Soviet agents in 1990.  What was distinctive about these spies is that they were everything that the US atomic spies were not.  Both sets were intelligent, but the Cambridge spies were certainly not outsiders, they were very much insiders.  Whilst Cairncross came from a lower-middle class background, he still attended Cambridge University at a time when only a tiny elite did and he rose rapidly to high levels withint the civil service.  Burgess was the son of a naval officer, Maclean was the son of a knighter MP, Philby was son of a civil servant in the British colonial service and Blunt was highest status of all, related to the present queen's mother.  Thus, for the British rather than seeing danger coming from outside the danger even before the Cold War started was more from within.  The fears of Nazi sympathisers among the British elites in the 1930s mutated into evidence of Communist sympathisers among the British elites in the 1950s-90s.  Of course, unlike in the USA where the good upstanding, usually white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant was set to hunt down the Soviet agents, in Britain it has been others of the same class and background as the traitors who is set to find them out.

I suppose in some ways, British spy novels have always reflected the British class system in which the bulk of the population is really seen as the 'outsider' to the elite whose attitudes drive how Britain progresses.  Deighton's Harry Palmer (not named in the novels) is a working class character who emphasises his outside nature and yet penetrates the deceptions of those who see him as his superiors.  He is hampered by the machinations of those above him not only because of their official status but because of social capital they can put into use against him.  In Le Carre's stories, with the traitors and their hunters on the same social level, it comes down to wits and cunning in order to catch them or escape from the hunt.  For those of us not among the elites, it is also nice to see those abusing Britain caught and brought down a peg supposedly in the broader interests of the country.  Of course, the elite protects their own and even once the Cambridge spies were known they were allowed to escape or their dirty secrets kept secret with official collusion.  I believe the exasperation of this is why in the movie the traitor is assassinated to give the audience some sense of retribution when the traitor is on the verge of being traded, as so often happened with Cold War spies.

Commentary on 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' has noted that these days it would seem peculiar for anyone to betray their country on the grounds that they believed it was pursuing the wrong ideology.  It is interesting that in the movie, the traitor's explanation for their treachery is that the West has become so 'ugly', such a sentiment is believable when you see London in 1973, though as one reviewer noted, Moscow, even these days, is no better.  The explanation is much the same as that given by the traitor in 'The Whistle Blower' (1986 - based on the novel by John Hale).  One wonders why they are given such world-weary explanations rather than the one which the Cambridge spies did.  They all believed that Communism was the correct ideology, particularly at the time when it seemed like the only system that was not willing to compromise with Nazism (bar of course 1939-41) in the way that Britain seemed more than eager to do.  They also believed, despite their elite positions, that Communism was the correct ideology for the world as a whole and anything which advanced the standing of the USSR as the leading proponent of Communism was to be for the global good.

Whilst even Communist states such as China seem to have lost such faith in the ideology, it does not mean that world-perspective ideologies could not be the basis of a motivation to betray one's country.  Ideology such as anti-capitalism or environmentalism have no 'host' nation to which the traitor could turn, so the approach would be something simply like Wikileaks.  However, since the rise of fundamentalism in Iran in 1979 and the spread of such views to a number of countries, one could certainly envisage someone turning over British secrets to another states on the grounds of an Islamist perspective.  Interestingly, Kim Philby's father was a convert to Islam.  In time, other world view ideologies and countries associated with them may rise to provide the kind of context that permitted the kind of developments seen with spies in the Cold War.

Whilst a Cold War conspiracy movie might seem to be based on a dated concept, it does not mean it cannot be engaging, just as a story set at the court of King Henry VIII cannot engage us, even though the tensions between Catholics and Protestants at the time might seem inscrutable nowadays.  What is interesting for me, is that British history impinges on the fiction and means that a story carries a 'baggage' brought by the audience that allows us to engage with the 'game' of the story on this basis, whereas if we had had a history like the USA or many other countries, we would not see it as feasible.  Anyway, I will add my voice to the recommendations of the movie.  However, do not expect a British version of 'The Bourne Ultimatum', see something instead, that is a puzzle presented incredibly well in terms of portrayals both by the actors and the settings they appear in.

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