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Question of Attribution, A (1991)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Question of Attribution, A (1991)
For Screen One, BBC, tx. 20/10/1991, 71 mins
DirectorJohn Schlesinger
Production CompanyBBC Films
ProducerInnes Lloyd
Script and original playAlan Bennett
PhotographyJohn Hooper

Cast: James Fox (Sir Anthony Blunt); David Calder (Chubb); Geoffrey Palmer (Donleavy); Prunella Scales (Queen Elizabeth II); Gregory Floy (Radiologist); Edward De Souza (Collins)

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The final years in the career of Anthony Blunt, the celebrated art historian who for many years was a double agent in the employ of the KGB.

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Alan Bennett's A Question of Attribution (BBC, tx. 20/10/1991) is a companion piece to his An Englishman Abroad (BBC, 29/11/1983), also directed by John Schlesinger. In 1988 the two were performed together as one-act plays under the overall title Single Spies, with Bennett himself playing ex-KGB spy Anthony Blunt.

Bennett described the piece as an "inquiry in which the circumstances are imaginary but the pictures are real", not an unreasonable view given that the chronology of events is left deliberately vague. Blunt, we are told, meets Chubb (David Calder), his new MI5 debriefer, for the first time six years after his 1964 confession, although this is also said to take place some two years after his 1972 treatment for cancer. At the end of the film Blunt is seen leaving his job at the Courtauld Institute after being publicly exposed as a spy in 1979, when actually he had retired from there five years earlier. Additionally, the time frame as presented is seemingly quite narrow, so that events which actually took place over a decade are compressed into what appear to be only a few months. This somewhat haphazard chronology, however, also serves to reinforce the elusive nature of Blunt himself, who remains an enigma to the very end. James Fox gives a subtly shaded and highly sympathetic performance as Blunt, carefully recreating the character's mannerisms and upper-class drawl without descending into caricature.

Structurally, the film follows three main lines of inquiry. In the first, we see Blunt being unsuccessfully questioned by various MI5 officers. This is contrasted with the second strand, in which Blunt is involved in historical research to try and uncover a figure apparently hidden in a painting of Titian and a Venetian Senator. The third and best-known episode presents an encounter with the Queen, who is only referred to as 'HMQ' in the credits and is played with a mixture of icy shrewdness and school-girl inquisitiveness by Prunella Scales.

The film ends brilliantly with Blunt revealing that there is a fifth man hidden in the painting. Although John Cairncross is now generally held to have been the real-life 'fifth man', in the film it's Donleavy (Geoffrey Palmer), a friend of Blunt's and Chubb's superior, a character reminiscent of Guy Liddell, the 1950s Deputy-Director of MI5. The finale suggests that Blunt's exposure revealed very little, but may have obfuscated the treachery of others.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Slide show (2:44)
2. Interrogation (2:48)
3. In the gallery (3:32)
4. A royal fake? (2:35)
Cambridge Spies (2003)
Englishman Abroad, An (1983)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)
Fox, James (1939-)
Palmer, Geoffrey (1927-)
Scales, Prunella (1933-)
Schlesinger, John (1926-2003)
Cold War Spies