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by Harlan Kennedy



I hate the idea of causes, and if 1 had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.

E.M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy



When a ship of state springs leaks—as Britain's has been doing like a colander in the last four years of Thatcher government, with old spies being unmasked, top-secret documents fed to the Press and media, and mini-Watergates opening up from Westminster to Wapping—astounding  things start happening to that state's popular culture.


British cinema is going spy-mad at present. And not with the clean-cut-action-man espionage of J. Bond and chums but with the murkier moral verismo of the country's real secret agents and defectors: Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Harold (Kim) Philby, George Blake, Anthony Blunt and the rest. All the old questions and conundrums that ensue in the wake of political instability—questions of treachery, loyalty, and political vs. personal allegiance—are being re-aired in 1980's Britain, and all the old real-life anti-heroes brought out of mothballs.


Another Country is Marek Kanievska's screen version of Julian Mitchell's hit stage play about the formative (or deformative) schooldays of Moscow-defecting Brit spy Guy Burgess. An Englishman Abroad, written by Alan Bennett and directed by John Schlesinger for Channel 4, scooped almost every available British TV prize last year for its portrait of Burgess in Moscow (played by Alan Bates). And even the dippy new commercial romp The Jigsaw Man has Michael Caine commuting between Red Square and Trafalgar Square as one "Phil Kimberley," a name that only a shortsighted mental defective from Tierra del Fuego could fail to unscramble as Kim Philby.


Just as Watergate in America in the Seventies lit the blue touch-paper to a whole epoch of Paranoia and Conspiracy cinema (The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, etc.), so the political leakiness of modern Britain is opening up a new era of films traiteurs. It's likely that the adamantine and `unsinkable' Prime Minister Thatcher herself, British politics' answer to the Titanic, is one of the big contributing factors. Her air of steely invincibility is a challenge to all passing icebergs and all passing saboteurs with portable depth charges.


But there's a difference between Watergate cinema and the new British traitor movie. Watergate was an open-and-shut case of heroes and villains. The villains were the crime and cover-up experts on Capitol Hill and in the White House; the heroes were the Galahad journalists who unmasked them. In Another Country and An Englishman Abroad—and in Graham Greene's The Human Factor, novel and film, and John Le Carré's long-running Smiley saga—spying, subversion, and treachery are far muddier ethical areas. And far muddier emotional areas. No longer is the spy either a dark-garbed figure of clipped and hissing evil (if he's against us) or an upper-crust swashbuckler of the John Buchan or James Bond variety (if he's for us). Burgess in Another Country and An Englishman Abroad is neither hero nor villain but a man of a hundred moods, paradoxes and motives: petulant, dilet­tante, proud, mawkish, sarcastic, de­spairing, funny. And the very roundness of the portrait is a reflection of the extent to which we now empathize with, rather than simply praise or condemn, the complex choices and emotional contor­tions of the men who choose to become traitors.


The spy is also, of course, that oldest and grandest of tragic prototypes, the man fallen-from-high-places. Burgess went to Eton, England's top "public school," on which the school in Another Country is based. And he had his eyes set—not-too-implausibly considering his brains, flair, and secure place in the old­boy network—on a top-flight career in the Foreign Office. Julian Mitchell's play and screenplay suggest that it was thanks to the persecution and disap­pointed hopes of promotion he experi­enced at school, because of his deafen­ingly indiscreet homosexual adventures, that Burgess turned to the panacea of Marxism. Disappointed at not climbing to the top of the hierarchy, he decided to scorn the hierarchy as a whole, and turn to "another country" where all men were equal (but some were more equal than others).


In Alan Bennett's based-on-truth screenplay for An Englishman Abroad we meet Burgess in Moscow a quarter cen­tury later, seen through the eyes of ac­tress Coral Browne (playing herself), whom Burgess invited to lunch after a chance meeting during a performance of Hamlet. Burgess, heavily topped up with vodka, apparently burst into her dressing room to throw up. This Burgess is instantly recognizable as an autumnal version of Mitchell's Burgess, a man living on epigrams, gossip, disap­pointed and vocal sexuality (he isn't sure if the Russian boy he's been given as a lover has been assigned as reward or punishment), and a dandyish aristocratic manner still impregnated with Eton. The reason he invites Browne, we learn, is so that she can measure him for the suit, shirt, hat, and nether garments he wants her to order from a top tailor in London.


The portraits in these two films are both guesses at Burgess's character and personality. But they're sufficiently close to each other to suggest that the writers have delved deeply enough into their subject to find the common ground.


"Class" is the perennial English commodity that no amount of class warfare, from miners' strikes to unemployment marches to anti-government leaks, seems likely to resolve or wear away. But the paradox at the heart of Mitchell's play and film is its suggestion that the seedbed of the British traitor is the patri­cian education, and that the horror of British inequality may be most deeply felt by those at the top rather than the bottom.



Last summer I trusted myself to Brit­ish Rail and trained up from London to Oxford, with its dreaming spires and nightmare monasticism, where Another Country was being filmed, with the crumbling honey-toned Gothic of Ox­ford's Brasenose College standing in for Eton. I came fresh from seeing the still­running stage play the previous night, where for the 600th-odd performance Guy Burgess (called Bennett in the play) was gadding about laying siege to his teenage Ganymedes, railing against the hypocrisies and hierarchies of Britain and finally turning in last-scene despair to Das Kapital. I went about the film location purveying my bewilderment as to how on earth they could turn this hothouse drama about the madness of the English public school system into a movie with globe appeal.


First I threw my bewilderment in the direction of the film's star Rupert Everett, who had "originated" the Bennett role on the London stage in 1981. Loll­ing and Byronic, he was taking a breather under a stone archway while a long crocodile of Eton-clad boys—grey flannels, black tailcoats and toppers­—went before the camera, marching across a quadrangle to the orders of di­rector Marek Kanievska. Wrist-thick ca­bles snaked across the grass, towering arc lights strove to outshine the August sun, and tracking rails were being laid and re-laid by a perspiring crew who looked as if they were putting in time on the Burma Railway.


"I think Another Country will be a much better film, an even better film than it was a play," says Everett in his throttled-velvet voice, unlolling from the archway as I extend my tape-re­corder. "Marek and I see eye to eye about the character of Bennett, and how to rework the way I played him on stage in movie terms. Also I feel I know the character better than ever now. I did the play for nine months and all the continuity and the contradictions are there in my head."


"What first interested you about the role and the character of Bennett-Burgess?", I asked, quick as a flash.


"He's a very exciting, vibrant, dangerous character. A very quick-witted creature. At the beginning of the play Bennett has a great deal of potential, but he's betrayed by himself, by his own nature. By himself and not by anyone else. And once that happens he turns, irrevocably, into something quite fright­ening, bitter and nasty. He's got an acutely brilliant sense of humor about his surroundings, and it's a tragic shame that he's not strong enough to sustain that through what goes wrong with him. Because he makes a huge mistake. I mean, he really doesn't judge things well, because from the moment he blackmails the prefects about, about..."


"About sleeping with just about everyone in the school," I prompted.


"Yes. Once he does that, he's really blown it for the rest of his life. It was such a stupid thing to do, really, because those schools and what happened there really determined the rest of your life. Especially Eton, especially in Burgess's time, the 1930s. They all went up to­gether, and then they ran the rest of the country together. So if you had done that act of blackmail at school, they'd re­member. So he's blown it. All his dreams and ambitions. And that's terri­fying. At the age of 16 or 17 he's blown every chance of being a leader, which he could otherwise have been."


A "gofer" came up to us and re­quested Everett's attendance on the set as he was in the next shot. Off he went, and Everest's co-star Colin Firth hoved into tape-recorder range across the sunstruck quadrangle. Firth plays Tommy Judd, Bennett's Marxist schoolchum and eventual converter. "Judd's a rebel against the system but he's more open about it than Guy Bennett," says Firth. "Bennett is underhand, he wants to take advantage of the comforts, and that's really his undoing. Judd is more upfront, he's a proselytizer. He could never have been a spy."


Does Judd in the movie, or whoever was his historical original, end up defect­ing to Moscow like Bennett?


"No, I'm killed," says Firth. "On my 21st birthday. In the Spanish Civil War. That's what happened to the character Judd is based on, a man called John Cornford, who was a public schoolboy in the Thirties." Judd is not, as the Variety review of Another Country had it, based on Burgess's famous spy chum Donald Maclean, according to scriptwriter Julian Mitchell. He states that Judd is an amalgam of two people, the man Firth men­tioned and Esmond Romilly, who later became a pilot and was killed in World War II. Both were public schoolboys and avowed communists.


Firth was whisked back into the movie melee to rehearse a dialogue scene on a sunlit bench. As the school­boy extras broke ranks and took a grate­ful rest from pounding the gravel, I scanned them for likely interview vic­tims. One older boy, tall, blond, patri­cian-looking, stood out so starrishly from the rest that I thought I had spotted another one of the leads. I went up and quizzed him. No, he wasn't one of the leads. What he was was Viscount Charles Althorp, Princess Diana's brother, no less. The Viscount was lend­ing the supporting cast a dash of incog­nito distinction and shuttling for the movie between Oxford and Apethorpe Hall in Cambridgeshire, the family seat, which was being used as a second loca­tion for the film.


No sooner had I struck royalty, though, than tea and sticky buns en­gulfed the sward. Cast and crew turned their backs on work and interviewers, and a hundred raving schoolboy extras made short work of the patisserie. Off I hopped to the nearby Sheldonian The­atre, Christopher Wren's baroque bee­hive in honeyed stone, where Michael Cimino had shot the opening com­mencement sequence for Heaven's Gate. By the time I returned, Another Country had turned into a mini-produc­tion. Just a crew, a couple of actors and bearded, bearish producer Alan Mar­shall. On this movie, Marshall is severed for the first professional time from his pal and partner, director Alan Parker. But the latter's name comes up quickly nonetheless.


ME: What prompted you to go after this play?


MARSHALL: We didn't actually. By sheer coincidence Alan Parker saw it at the dress rehearsal and we became involved in it as the Alan Parker film com­pany, with Alan possibly directing. Then Alan, as it happened, began preproduction work on another project. The play's producers, Julian Seymour and Robert Fox [younger brother of ac­tors James and Edward], suggested I might go ahead and produce it with an­other director.


(That other director was Marek Kanievska, Polish-born but British-resi­dent, here helming his first feature after a string of TV and short-film credits, including the Oscar-winning A Shocking Accident. As Marshall and I spoke, Kanievska was busy once again laying rails for a tracking shot, for the Everest-Firth bench scene.)


ME: Do you feel bereft without Parker?


MARSHALL [with bearish grin and frown]: No. He's on the phone and we talk. He's my stand-in director just in case it goes wrong! [Laughter.] It's diffi­cult working with a new director, obviously, and needs adjustments. There are different nuances. But Marek and I agree on basics, so there are no big prob­lems. He's tracking mad, of course. There are probably more tracking shots in this film than all Alan's put together!


ME: Will the film give a seal of ap­proval to what Burgess has done?


MARSHALL: Oh no, not at all. It's not a propaganda film, and of course the story is fiction, even though inspired by Bur­gess's story.


ME: This film could give another meaning to the saying, "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." Why aren't you filming at Eton?


MARSHALL: They turned us down. So we've dressed up the boys in top hats and tails, which is the Etonian dress, and came to Oxford as the next best place.



After my visit to the set, Another Country soon dove into the darkness of postproduction, that Nibelungland from which we mortals only hear the distant rumble of Steenbecks and hiss of editing scissors. Before the film burst into day­light again and copped a prize for Best Artistic Contribution (Peter Biziou's cinematography) at its Cannes World pre­miere, Britain unbosomed some earlier contenders in the Traitors Cinema stakes.


In An Englishman Abroad, Guy Bur­gess laid claim to be everyone's favorite double-agent. The fascination of this TV movie, brilliantly shot by John Schlesinger in a snowbound Dundee-for-­Moscow, is that it pinpoints its traitor hero at a time when the motivating sparks of anger and idealism portrayed (or hypothesized) in Another Country have long died, and Burgess is now a genteel landed whale spread out on the terminal beach of middle-aged exile. How-to-change-the-world has turned into How-to-get-through-the-day: with the aloof and imperiously polite Coral Browne roped along to a soul-chilling lunch of garlic-spiked tomatoes and gos­sip in Burgess's flat; followed by a walk to the local cathedral, where he weeps silent tears at the splendor of the soulful, majestic, Russian choral singing.


Though the film is built around a true story (Miss Browne did meet Burgess, more or less in these circumstances), it takes flight, like any good story, into the higher strata of suggestive metaphor. The haberdashery that Burgess wants Browne to order become his last, proud, hopeless heraldry of homesickness. Garbed in them, he walks with chin-up grandeur through the Moscow streets in the last sequence, while the soundtrack swells to Gilbert and Sullivan's "He is an Eng-lish-man."


The apparent contradictions in Bur­gess, his patriotic sentimentality about both Russia and England, aren't ana­lyzed by the movie, they're presented as a given. Which makes us do the think­ing. And the film suggests that the ideals and political credos that motivate action become just so many straws in the wind. What remains behind is the emotional bedrock in the love of a country or a people or a way of life.


What An Englishman Abroad, in its bitter-sweet magnanimity, doesn't take on board is the fact that a traitor is none­theless responsible for all his actions, and goes on being responsible. He may forget or wish to forget the motives of his treachery and its consequences, in the suffering or deaths of friends and col­leagues, in his own broken promises and pledges. But his victims remember, if they survive. And so does history, which keeps the file on him and has an alarm­ing tendency to keep taking it out when least expected—usually when another spy in the chain is revealed ten or twenty years later, a regular jack-in-the-box event in postwar Britain.


A traitor can never simply shrink himself into an old dear who eats garlic tomatoes and chats about the dear dead days of Eton and Cambridge—except by a dramatist's sleight-of-hand. As a film, An Englishman Abroad is almost identical to its own portrait of Burgess: witty, wistful, eclectic, irresistibly charming, and finally, fatally in thrall to its own sentimentality.



The Jigsaw Man, directed by Guy Hamilton, is a bash at disinterring the shade of Kim Philby and notable chiefly for the convolutions of a plot which probably even Philby, with access to a main-frame computer, couldn't work out. The movie also reminds us how incredibly innocent and insular Britain can be when addressing the topic of spies and traitors. Not only is our top diplomat hero played by Michael Caine as a gallivanting rough-diamond with a cockney-Russian accent ("Ah will be needink British pusport"), but when­ever the film radiates out into global references it starts dropping clangers as big as filing cabinets—as in a telecast talking of Julius and Esther Rosenberg.


The Jigsaw Man is a loony throwback to the old "DropgunorIkeelyou" days of spy movies. But the subject of one man's tug-of-war loyalty—should his first alle­giance be to himself or his loved ones or his country?—surfaces today in many British films that are not specifically about spying or defection or treason.


Cal, written by Bernard MacLaverty and directed by Pat O'Connor, is about a Catholic boy (John Lynch) in Northern Ireland torn between his reluctant in­volvement with the IRA and his love for the wife (Helen Mirren) of a murdered Protestant, at whose killing he drove the getaway car. It's a Romeo and Juliet yarn—two divided houses and a love caught in the crossfire—and it suggests that the fascination in Britain today with the co­nundrums of loyalty extends far beyond the exclusively political. Or that the po­litical has got up such a head of steam that it has now burst through into the personal.


Likewise Sakharov, Jack Gold's film about the Russian dissident starring Ja­son Robards and Glenda Jackson, and aired in the U.S. this summer on HBO. It is not about espionage or political trea­son per se, but it does adumbrate many of the conflicts that underpin those sub­jects: personal beliefs versus political mandate, freedom vs. tyranny, silence vs. outspokenness, the individual vs. the establishment that reared him. And just as Judd in Another Country could be defined as an "open traitor"—a free­spoken proclaimer of Marx to the West —so Sakharov and his fellow dissidents are open traitors, evangelists for free­dom in a prison state.


That the traitor can be a man of heroic virtue us also suggested by Orwell's 1984, now shooting in Britain with Rich­ard Burton, John Hurt, and Suzanna Hamilton, directed by Michael Radford. Most of us run screaming from the room whenever this book is mentioned these days, and have to be comforted, sobbing, with the thought that it's only 150-odd shopping days to 1985 when Orwellomania will at last be over. But overexposure shouldn't distract us from Orwell's prime place in the traitor sym­posium. 1984 is the clearest clarion-call among 20th-century books to the need for heroic betrayal. To betray the totali­tarian state, as Winston Smith and Julia do or try to do—even the state that 'pro­tects' them and gives them all their food and shelter, and education and culture —is an act that can be vindicated, sug­gests Orwell, by both personal morality and collective history.


Orwell wrote the novel in 1948, dur­ing the postwar heyday of the British Labour party, and he intended it as a warning note. He saw the creation of the authoritarian state as a betrayal of Social­ism: although today, as Russia grasps tightly onto its captive states on the other side of the missile curtain, it's be­coming increasingly arguable that the authoritarian stare is not a betrayal of Socialism but a logical fulfillment of it.


The shadow of betrayal as a theme spreads out into Jerzy Skolimowski's new film, which could hardly be less Orwellian, Success Is The Best Revenge: a crazy-cut tragicomic meditation on alle­giance and abdication. Of the two main characters—the Polish stage producer self-exiled in Britain (Michael York) who shuns but still loves his native country, and his rebellious son (Michael Lyndon, Skolimowski's own son) who abandons Mom and Dad and adoptive Britain to fly back to a Poland he's never really known—which is the traitor and which the loyalist Skolimowski uses scatter­shot editing and a squall of non-sequi­turs to make the audience feel as much at sea as the characters. The movie suggests that for most people (those not working in the giddy echelons of politi­cal power or influence) there is no terra firma in the world of betrayal and alle­giance. You take your own compass, plant your feet on the deck, squint up hopefully at the stars, and trust to luck.



The new Polish presence in British cinema—directors like Skolimowski and Kanievska, cinematographers like Cal’s Jerzy Zielinski—is a strikingly apt embellishment at this time. No country going through the throes of ethical and political self-scrutiny, as Britain is today, can fail to have thrown some frantically curious glances at Poland's history dur­ing the last few years. Is Lech Walesa a traitor? Or a hero? Or both? And what of Jaruzelsky? A recent Tom Stoppard TV play, Squaring The Circle, asked these questions, and a forthcoming film star­ring Ian Holm as Lech looks set to do the same.


The Polish experience unleashed a whole sea of political paradoxes into British life and thought. Here was a Conservative British government cheering on a foreign trade union movement in its struggle against its national leaders. (The irony was not lost on Britain's own trade unions.) And here was the Socialist opposition in Britain roundly condemn­ing the role of the Socialist leaders in Poland and the Eastern Bloc. The time was clearly out of joint and something was rotten, or at least new and perplex­ing, in the state of Europe.


No wonder that the various leaks, rev­elations, unmaskings and minor scan­dals of the last few years have met with a wildly heterogeneous response. All the old criteria are being skittled like nine­pins. Back in the early Sixties, when the Profumo affair erupted and helped to unseat Harold Macmillan as Prime Min­ister, scarcely anyone demurred at the importance and degree of the security risk involved and the justice of Profumo's dismissal, however much sympa­thy they had for him as a person.


But under the current Thatcher regime, leaks and scandals and other voluntary or involuntary forms of govern­ment destabilization have encountered no unanimity of reaction at all. Many condemned but many condoned Cabi­net Minister Cecil Parkinson, who was dismissed from the Conservative Party chairmanship last year for an adulterous affair, involving broken promises of mar­riage, with a woman bearing his child. Many condemned but many cheered the newspaper which recently published a sheaf of leaked Cabinet doc­uments exposing the government's cov­ert attempts to manipulate the miners' strike (despite Mrs. Thatcher's fre­quently fanfared hands-off attitude) by playing off different trade unions against each other in the pay round­


And most famously, many con­demned but many cheered Sarah Tisdall when she was identified as the civil servant who leaked to the Guardian Cabinet documents revealing the arrival time in Britain of the U.S. cruise mis­siles. She was put in the slammer for six months by the judge. Was she a dan­gerous traitor or a martyr for pacifism who broke her oath of secrecy for an­other, "higher" cause?


The whole crossweave of political and personal motivation, guilt and inno­cence, purpose and accident, idealism and self-interest, in matters of "be­trayal" is immensely complex. And it is seen to be more complex the more a nation puts distance and decades be­tween itself and the simplicities and patriotic imperatives of a war or a state of emergency.


No wonder modern Britain gets hooked on the Byzantine imbroglios of John Le Carré. His plots and characters and moral schemes for Tinker Tailor Sol­dier Spy and Smiley's People have as many counterpoints, contradictions, cryptograms and canonic overlaps as a Bach fugue. And so does his latest novel, The Little Drummer Girl, now going before the movie cameras with Diane Keaton.



I finally caught up with Another Coun­try in June at a London cinema. The finished product is fascinating, not so much because it is a good film—it isn't—as because of what seems to have hap­pened between stage and screen. The rainbow-hued rhetoric of Mitchell's play has done a bunk, leaving behind some­thing leaner and more larval. This de­fecting-butterfly process has had its aus­picious influence, especially in Peter Biziou's doom-and-velvet photography, which out-Caravaggioes The Verdict. But there's also a lost-and-lusterless feeling in the characters now, brooding away in their Eton black as if it were Hamlet black. And the actors have clearly been encouraged to semi-soliloquize rather than stage-semaphore their dialogue, in the vain and earnest hope that this will be more cinematic.


Another Country's one trump card, apart from Biziou's prize-grabbing lens work, is that it does suggest, even if it doesn't well execute, the notion that the traitor might have tragic status. This Eton could be an Elsinore where young Hamlets, garbed in inky black, get their last chance to thrash out the great issues of life, death, sex, and personal or politi­cal idealism before taking the terrifying plunge into adulthood and self-determi­nation.


The film of Another Country has only the air, not the substance, of a tragedy. But that alone might help to nudge the younger, newer British filmmakers toward continuing to delve for the geneal­ogy of modern morals and political sensi­bility, not in the far-flung fol-de-rol of the British Raj, but in the intellectual incubators of our own schools and uni­versities. cliques and clubs and cabals. There they might find that England past, like modern Russia or imperial In­dia, is another country, and a far more neglected one, from whose language and struggles and dreams we still have much to learn.









©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.