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Cold War Spies

Spy dramas from the serious 70s and beyond

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As British television switched to colour at the end of the 1960s, many of its programmes became increasingly greyer as it put the 'swinging sixties' to one side.

Britain in the 1970s was for many an era defined by loss of status in world affairs and economic instability. This period saw increasing industrial action, the energy crisis, the introduction of the three-day week and the arrival of 'stagflation'.

On television the spy genre was still generating such traditional 'them versus us' adventures as Codename (BBC, 1970) and Quiller (BBC, 1975), along with tongue-in-cheek romps like Spyder's Web (ITV, 1972) and The New Avengers (ITV, 1976-1977). Even more lightweight were the David Jason spoof The Top Secret life of Edgar Briggs (ITV, 1974) and the audience participation game show Masterspy (ITV, 1978), hosted by William Franklyn. A tougher, bleaker, more pugnacious style was increasingly in evidence, however.

John Le Carré's End of the Line (tx. 29/6/1970), for Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-1974), looks outwardly like typical espionage bluff and double bluff, but its penetrating study of verbal deception is more akin to Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter than James Bond. The internal politics of the British Secret Service were also analysed through intense and vivid exchanges of verbal wordplay in Ian Mackintosh's splenetic drama series, The Sandbaggers (ITV, 1978-1980).

During the 1970s and '80s, attempts were finally made to look, more or less directly, at the legacy of the Cambridge spy ring. Dennis Potter's twinned plays Traitor (BBC, tx. 14/10/1971) and Blade on the Feather (ITV, tx. 19/10/1980) explore how the 1920s and '30s social and political milieu helped created upper-class defectors and traitors like 'Kim' Philby. Ian Curteis's Philby, Burgess and Maclean (ITV, tx. 31/5/1977) emphasised the fear of nuclear war behind their actions and was highly successful, though it soon seemed dated by omitting Anthony Blunt, whose role as the 'fourth man' was only revealed two years later. That however coincided with the hugely successful transmission of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC, 1979), John le Carré's fictional re-imagining of Philby's exposure.

Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad (BBC, tx. 29/11/1983) and A Question of Attribution (BBC, tx. 20/10/1991) look sympathetically at the later lives of Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, while Blunt (BBC, tx. 11/1/1986) and Cambridge Spies (BBC, 2003) concentrate more openly on the homosexual aspects of the affair. A measure of the power and almost mythic status of these KGB double agents can be gauged from the fictional assassination of Philby in The Fourth Protocol (d. John Mackenzie, 1987), released over a year before his actual death from natural causes.

The other great British spy scandal of the post-war years, the Portland affair, was dramatised as Act of Betrayal (BBC, 3/1/1971) by Hugh Whitemore. He later turned it into a stage play, which was itself televised as Pack of Lies (UK/US, 1987). Troy Kennedy Martin also turned to history for Reilly - Ace of Spies (ITV, 1983), a romanticised look at the adventures, in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia, of British spy Sidney Reilly (Sam Neill).

In the 1980s the genre flourished, often reflecting the perceived political chicanery and unrest of the times, spying presented frequently as an activity undertaken as a kind of game by remnants of the British upper-classes. This is neatly summed up by the series Chessgame (ITV, 1983) with its academic, aristocratic hero Dr David Audley (Terence Stamp), the gamesmanship of its title and plots invariably revolving around Britain's military past. John Le Carré's partly autobiographical A Perfect Spy (BBC, 1987) plays like the flipside of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, depicting five decades in the life of a British double agent (Peter Egan). David Pirie's Ashenden (BBC, 1991) faithfully adapts Somerset Maugham's jaundiced spy stories but emphasises their basis in the life of the author.

A deep streak of cynicism and pessimism is much in evidence in such one-off dramas as Charlie Muffin (ITV, tx. 11/12/1979) and Bryan Forbes' The Endless Game (ITV, 1989), which completely reject patriotic sentiment, while Stephen Poliakoff's 'Soft Targets' (Play for Today, BBC, tx. 19/10/1982) uses spy conventions as a mocking counterpoint to a story of urban isolation and despair.

The traditional spy story finally petered out in the late 1980s with the end of the Cold War, falling foul of new political realities in the era of 'Glasnost' and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The genre was capped however by Granada's superb adaptation of Len Deighton's best-selling trilogy Game, Set and Match (ITV, 1988), a hugely expensive thirteen-part miniseries starring Ian Holm, which was an undeserved ratings catastrophe. Subsequent examples have been few and far between. The Piglet Files (ITV, 1990-1993) was a Nicholas Lyndhurst sitcom set in MI5, while Sleepers (BBC, 1991) looked comically at the fate of two forgotten Soviet agents (Nigel Havers and Warren Clarke), mistakenly left deep undercover in the UK for twenty-five years.

Since the 1970s, as British national identity has been eroded and patriotism questioned, personal ties have come to the fore in the spy genre, reflecting E.M. Forster's celebrated phrase: "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country". Blunt himself alluded to these lines in his statement to the press after being exposed as a traitor.

Spies were successfully returned to the screen in Spooks (BBC, 2002- ), following renewed national security anxieties in the post-September 11 world.

Sergio Angelini

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Blade on the Feather (1980)

Blade on the Feather (1980)

Meditation on loyalty and treachery by Dennis Potter

Thumbnail image of Blunt (1987)

Blunt (1987)

Investigation of Anthony Blunt, art historian and KGB spy

Thumbnail image of Cambridge Spies (2003)

Cambridge Spies (2003)

Intelligent drama following the careers of the Cambridge spy-ring

Thumbnail image of Englishman Abroad, An (1983)

Englishman Abroad, An (1983)

A real-life Moscow encounter between an actress and a spy

Thumbnail image of Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977)

Philby, Burgess and Maclean (1977)

Dramatisation of the famous 1950s Cambridge spy scandal

Thumbnail image of Question of Attribution, A (1991)

Question of Attribution, A (1991)

Alan Bennett's sly portrait of KGB spy turned art expert Anthony Blunt

Thumbnail image of Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983)

Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983)

Highly-rated Great War espionage drama

Thumbnail image of Sandbaggers, The (1978-80)

Sandbaggers, The (1978-80)

Highly-praised spy drama starring Roy Marsden

Thumbnail image of Smiley's People (1982)

Smiley's People (1982)

The sequel to 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy', again starring Alec Guinness

Thumbnail image of Spooks (2002-2011)

Spooks (2002-2011)

High octane thriller set inside the world of MI5

Thumbnail image of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Classic adaptation of John Le Carré's cold war novel

Thumbnail image of Traitor (1971)

Traitor (1971)

Dennis Potter's imaginative exploration of the Cambridge spies story

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