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Traitor (1971)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Traitor (1971)
For Play for Today, BBC, 14/10/1971
60 minutes, colour
DirectorAlan Bridges
ProducerGraeme McDonald
ScriptDennis Potter

Cast: John Le Mesurier (Adrian Harris); Jack Hedley (James); Vincent Ball (Simpson); Neil Mccallum (Blake); Jon Laurimore (Thomas)

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Adrian Harris, a British defector now living in Moscow, is forced to confront his past when interviewed by a group of hostile Western journalists.

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Traitor (BBC, tx. 14/10/1971) was one of the first dramas to explore the lives of the spies 'Kim' Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, but is much more substantial than a mere roman-a-clef. Although Dennis Potter's fictional KGB mole Adrian Harris (John Le Mesurier) does resemble Philby, his reduced circumstances in Moscow are closer to what happened to Maclean, while the dependence on drink also recalls Burgess's well-known alcoholism. The assassination, however, is clearly patterned after Philby's involvement in the 1945 Volkov affair.

Potter later commented, "I thought they were detestable people. But it's partly because I detested them so much that I wanted to find some saving grace in them". To this end, Potter employs a complex narrative structure that looks forward to his magisterial The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986). The interview in Harris' dismal Moscow flat is increasingly disrupted by various flashbacks, some of which are just flashes, like the ultra-quick shots of a brutal assassination which we only belatedly realise was ordered by Harris to protect his cover.

Flashbacks to Adrian as a boy having his father read Tennyson's tales of Camelot set the seeds for the hopeful idealism which may have led him to treachery. This is reinforced by the contrasting use of historical footage illustrating the financial hardships and squalor of 1930s Britain, including newsreel coverage of the Jarrow march and clips from the classic documentary, Housing Problems (d. Edgar Anstey, 1935).

Potter pulls off a stunning finale which repeats the opening scene of the play, except that something new is added to the sequence of shots carefully orchestrated by director Alan Bridges. While Harris's fumbling around his apartment is initially assumed to be a case of nerves, we now see that he is, in fact, searching for listening devices. He eventually finds one under his living room table and the play concludes on a freeze frame of Harris opening the door, as we hear him say in voice over, "For God's sake, remember the microphone". This adds a new layer of deception as we realise that Harris is not even trusted by the Russians, intriguingly suggesting that what we have just seen may also have been conjecture, fantasy or a projection of anxiety on his part. Le Mesurier is utterly compelling throughout in an atypical role, which he called "the best part I ever had on TV", and for which he won a BAFTA.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. King Arthur's Britain (3:02)
2. Questions (3:03)
3. Father to the man (3:34)
4. Not a traitor (2:10)
Le Mesurier, John (1912-1983)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)
Trodd, Kenith (1936-)
Cold War Spies