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Cold Light, The (1956)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Cold Light, The (1956)
For Sunday Night Theatre, BBC, tx. 29/7/1956
105 minutes, black & white
ProducerRudolph Cartier
ScriptJudith Kerr
Original PlayCarl Zuckmayer

Cast: Marius Goring (Crystof Walters); John Longden (Sir Elwin Ketterick); Anton Diffring (Buschmann); John Van Eyssen (Angus Fillebrown); Roger Delgado (Jean-Marie Merminod)

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A German physicist, fleeing from the Nazis, becomes involved in the US nuclear programme, where his troubled conscience leads him to feed secrets to the Soviets.

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The Cold Light is indicative of producer Rudolph Cartier's desire to supplement the conventional, inoffensive television repertoire of the 1950s with more challenging contemporary European material. The play was the second of four by popular German dramatist Carl Zuckmayer that Cartier would produce for the BBC. Cartier had travelled to Hamburg in 1955 for the German premiere of The Cold Light and persuaded Zuckmayer to allow him to give the play its British premiere on television.

Zuckmayer's story is a fictional take on the then recent case of Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who in 1950 had been imprisoned for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union while working in British and American research establishments in the 1940s. The play's central character, Crystof Wolters, is similarly placed. Zuckmayer portrays him sensitively throughout, depicting the circumstances that led to his treachery. In Zuckmayer's hands, the story becomes not a conventional spy drama but an exploration of loyalty, treachery and the politics of science.

The German Wolters is initially British by allegiance, having fled the Nazis, and in the play's opening scene espouses the very British sentiment that it 'couldn't happen here'. Soon, however, he is interned as an 'enemy alien' and sent to Canada. It is the privations he and his fellow internees experience on the voyage (notably the death of the Jewish ex-concentration camp inmate Friedlaender), which turns Wolters to socialistic sympathies and condemnation of the 'decadent' Western nations. Although not a communist himself, the idealistic words of a Communist Party man turn his thoughts to the most humanitarian distribution of research secrets.

The play's espionage plot is supplemented by a love story, with Wolters discovering that his Norwegian sweetheart Hjoerdis has married during his internment. He finds he must work under her husband, the bullish and militaristic Kettering, who leads the atomic research project. In one of the play's most effective scenes, Wolters must forsake Hjoerdis, now prepared to leave Kettering, or explain that a note that she believes to arrange a meting with another woman does in fact refer to his spying.

Marius Goring, in the second of numerous performances for Cartier, carries the bulk of the play on his shoulders. He imbues Wolters with an inner torment and the quietly expressed moral turmoil of his position. The Times observed that Goring "gave the part compelling intellectual continuity, and moments in his performance were profoundly disturbing".

Oliver Wake

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Video Clips
1. Friedlander's death (5:08)
2. Kill or cure (5:02)
3. Meeting in the fog (2:40)
Cartier, Rudolph (1904-94)
Goring, Marius (1912-1998)