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Ashenden (1991)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Ashenden (1991)
BBC1, tx. 17/11-8/12/1991
4 x 55 min episodes, colour
DirectorChristopher Morahan
Production CompaniesKelso Films, BBC TV
ProducerJoe Knatchbull
ScriptDavid Pirie
Original StoriesW. Somerset Maugham
PhotographyChris Seager

Cast: Alex Jennings (John Ashenden); Joss Ackland (Cumming); Ian Bannen ('R'); Alfred Molina (Carmona); Elizabeth McGovern (Aileen Somerville)

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The playwright John Ashenden is recruited as a spy during the First World War by the British secret service but becomes increasingly disenchanted with the tasks he is given to perform.

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W. Somerset Maugham used his own experiences as a First World War spy for his highly influential series of Ashenden short stories. In 'The Dark Woman' (tx. 17/11/1991), the opening episode of this four-part adaptation, Ashenden is asked to forge the contents of love letters to convince a foreign agent to cross over into enemy territory. This is emblematic of David Pirie's refashioning of Maugham's disparate characters and plot strands into a cohesive whole.

Although Maugham cautioned readers that "Fact... is a poor storyteller", as adapted by Pirie the miniseries' exploration of the human cost of espionage immediately emphasises its autobiographical aspects, with each episode starting with a 1960s prologue that recalls Maugham's own later life in southern France. We eventually learn that the key to Ashenden's past is a wartime waltz (by Stephen Oliver) now turned into a pop song.

Ashenden is only given a surname in the book, but in the series he is humanised and deepened (and given the first name John). In love with a rich (and married) society woman, and close friends with a homosexual pacifist (Jason Isaacs, sporting a passable American accent), he is turned down by the head of MI6 but ends up a spy for 'R' in military intelligence. Joss Ackland plays the real-life MI6 chief, Sir George Mansfield Cumming, as a pragmatic idealist, while 'R' is much more ruthless, believing that in war the ends always justify the means. Ashenden is caught between the two. The fundamental theme here is the moral education of its protagonist, a self-proclaimed cynic who by journey's end is an emotionally damaged romantic who, haunted by the death of an innocent woman, comes to agree with Cumming's view that 'R's lack of honour and loyalty is a slippery slope, leading "from disillusion to disaffection to defection".

The series was sumptuously filmed on location in Hungary, Austria and the then Yugoslavia, and Alex Jennings' subtle and finely judged central performance (he appears in every scene) is matched by many strong cameos, especially a truly sinister turn by Alan Bennett as the title character in 'The Traitor' (tx. 24/11/1991).

Compared with Hitchcock's adaptation Secret Agent (1936), Ashenden is notable for its textual and tonal fidelity, capturing well the passion beneath the detached veneer of the main character. Roland Culver also played Ashenden in 'Sanitorium', the final episode of the Maugham anthology Trio (d. Ken Annakin/Harold French/Antony Darnborough, 1950).

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Memories (0:47)
2. Old loyalties (3:59)
3. The fates (5:21)
4. Dying of the day (3:19)
Complete episode - 'The Hairless Mexican' (51:47)
Secret Agent (1936)
Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983)
Bannen, Ian (1928-1999)
Davis, Carl (1936-)
Molina, Alfred (1953-)
Morahan, Christopher (1929-)
Pirie, David (1953-)