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Blade on the Feather (1980)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Blade on the Feather (1980)
LWT for ITV, tx. 19/10/1980
90 minutes, colour
DirectorRichard Loncraine
ProducerKenith Trodd
ScreenplayDennis Potter
PhotographyPeter Hannan

Cast: Donald Pleasence (Jason Cavendish); Tom Conti (Daniel Young); Denholm Elliott (Hill); Kika Markham (Linda Cavendish); Phoebe Nicholls (Christabel Cavendish)

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The arrival of a mysterious stranger plays havoc with the family life of an elderly Cambridge don who is hiding a terrible secret.

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Blade on the Feather (ITV, tx. 19/10/1980) is a companion piece of sorts to Dennis Potter's spy drama Traitor (BBC, tx. 14/10/1971). Both use the obliquities of the espionage genre to ruminate on such themes as the nature of loyalty, patriotism, betrayal and concepts of 'family' and honour.

Originally conceived as a cinema film, it was eventually made for ITV following renewed interest in the Cambridge spy ring after the exposure of Anthony Blunt as the 'fourth man' in 1979. While Julian Mitchell's Another Country (d. Marek Kanievska, 1984), a fictionalised portrait of Guy Burgess's experiences at Eton, took its title from the hymn 'I vow to thee my country', and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC, 1979) from a nursery rhyme, Potter's spy drama takes its unusual title from an Eton boating song. The opening titles interweave through an animated sequence depicting macabre images of death and decay occasionally twinned with illustrations of traditional British university life.

The story begins ominously in typical Potter fashion with a clap of thunder sounding the arrival of a stranger (Tom Conti), who before long gives the father (Donald Pleasence) the kiss of life, seduces the daughter (Phoebe Nicholls) and then steps into the shower with the wife (Kika Markham).

Blade on the Feather functions best as a powerful distillation of many of Potter's favourite themes and ideas. The upper-class traitor who arranges the murder of a man who knows his secret is taken from Traitor (BBC, 14/10/1971), as is the assassination scene set during a car ambush. The forceful defence of England, married to a critique of the British class system, also recalls Traitor, as well as Message for Posterity (BBC, 1967 and 1994), while the mysterious stranger who ravishes and destroys a family of three looks back to Brimstone and Treacle (BBC, 1976). The discovery of Kika Markham's naked strangled body is almost exactly like the same actress's demise in Double Dare (BBC, 6/4/1976), while Conti's story about eating fast food is taken from Joe's Ark (BBC, 14/2/1974).

The production is beautifully realised, thanks mostly to Richard Loncraine's stylised direction, Jon Costelloe's taut editing and Peter Hannan's sumptuous location cinematography on the Isle of Wight. The final sting in the tale is perhaps a bit unconvincing, but it provides additional layers to the theme of betrayal. Conti and Denholm Elliot shine throughout, while Pleasence is superb in his final scenes of quivering cowardice.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Young stranger (3:07)
2. Pudding (2:57)
3. Fast food (3:05)
4. Father and daughter (3:02)
Conti, Tom (1941-)
Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Potter, Dennis (1935-1994)
Trodd, Kenith (1936-)
London Weekend Television (LWT)
Cold War Spies