The Blunt Affair: Official secrecy and treason in literature, television and film, 1980–89 examines a number of significant plays, films and novels about or related to the Cambridge spies from the time of Anthony Blunt’s unmasking as the “fourth man” in late 1979 to the end of the Cold War. This study argues that these works collectively offer a forceful response to issues at the forefront of British politics and culture in the decade, such as the rise in anti-gay sentiment and policies during the AIDs crisis, nuclear proliferation and CND’s stand against it, state secrecy and the abuse of the Official Secrets Act, Thatcherism and patriotic imperatives. This study also offers a much-needed reassessment of the literary and filmic culture of the decade, arguing that these texts, by writers as diverse as Dennis Potter, Julian Mitchell, Alan Bennett, Tom Stoppard, John le Carré, Robin Chapman and Hugh Whitemore, deserve a more central place in the cultural assessment of the decade.
Hugh Whitemore’s Pack of Lies, Concealed Enemies and Breaking the Code
This chapter seeks to establish Hugh Whitemore’s dramatic trilogy as a major body of work in the literature and culture of the 1980s, particularly for the playwright’s persistent and insightful dramatization of official overreach and the traumatic effect it can have on individual lives. In Pack of Lies, based on the Portland spy case, the Jackson family are compelled by MI5, under threat of violating the Official Secrets Act, to betray their best friends and neighbors. In Concealed Enemies, the House Un-American Activities Committee, exploits the government’s subpoena power in order to prosecute a political rival (Alger Hiss) and embarrass the opposition party. In Whitemore’s most enduring work, Breaking the Code, the brilliant mathematician and war hero, Alan Turing, is arrested for “gross indecency,” forced to undergo hormone treatment, and eventually commits suicide. By staging the tragic life of Alan Turing, a gay man who was betrayed by his country, Whitemore’s Breaking the Code challenges the “gay traitor” stigma of the Blunt Affair, and helped establish Turing’s reputation as a war hero and progenitor of artificial intelligence. As this chapter argues, because Whitemore’s plays were staged at a time when the Official Secrets Act was being invoked at alarming rates (often in ways that had little to do with the protection of the realm), the playwright’s work helped advance the cause of the Right-to-Know movement. Collectively, these three plays offer a formidable critique of government secrecy and the intrusive threats posed by unregulated and opaque state intelligence services.
Scandal, the Profumo Affair, and the end of the Cold War
Aided by Richard Davenport-Hines’s recent study of The Profumo Affair, An English Affair: Sex, Class, and Power in the Age of Profumo, Joe Boyd’s memoir, White Bicycles, interviews with Ian McKellen, and a personal interview with screenwriter, Michael Thomas, this chapter reads the film, Scandal, as a critique of the Conservative government and its reactionary views of human sexuality, patterns of resistance to sexual liberation that persisted from the Profumo Affair, to the homophobia of the Blunt Affair, the AIDs crises of the 1980s, and Clause 28 (the anti-gay legislation that prompted Ian McKellen to play Profumo in the film). In ways that are consonant with earlier chapters on Stoppard, Whitemore and the Official Secrets Act, this chapter argues that Scandal exposes how the secret backchannels and coordinated efforts of the House of Commons, the Special Branch and British intelligence conspired to prevent or minimize political embarrassment in the Profumo Affair. In this manner, the film illustrates how damaging revelations about the Minister of War conducting an affair with a woman who was also sleeping with a Soviet spy could be minimized by scapegoating an unwitting London socialite, Stephen Ward, whose suicide, much like that of Alan Turing, was the result of police and intelligence abuses. The political impact of this drama is suggested by the likelihood that BBC executives, in the interests of protecting the reputation of the Conservative government, sought to suppress the film project when they first viewed the script in 1985.
Poststructuralism and naturalism in literature, television and film in the 1980s
The concluding chapter offers a reconsideration of the literary canon of the 1980s, assessing the political and social concerns of literature about the Cambridge spies in relation to both mainstream and experimental theatre and film in the decade (a time when cuts in arts funding threatened to eliminate avant garde theatre), but also in relation to the generation of postmodern novelists that emerged in the 1980s. This situation created a fruitful context in which to rethink the merits of social realism or “naturalist” drama in an era when magical realism gained ascendancy. Critical estimations of 1980s literature show an inordinate valuation of the new generation of writers emerging in the 1980s, those hyped in Granta’s “best novelists under forty” in 1983. This divergence in literary practice was largely generational. The authors who responded to the Blunt Affair and the late Cold War were typically born in the 1930s. They came of age during the first Cold War and were subject to the National Service Act, which meant a suspension of life, a postponement of university careers, and in some cases marriage and sexual initiation, arguably leading to resentment against this imposition of servitude. They worked in theatre, film and television, and were subject to different commercial demands and aesthetic pressures that ultimately ran counter to the poststructuralist tendencies of the novel. The works related to the Cambridge spies aimed to meet this urgent need to communicate clearly and to use drama as a means of questioning and challenging the prevailing political climate.
This chapter examines two one-act plays that Alan Bennett wrote about the Cambridge spies, An Englishman Abroad (1983), a teleplay about Guy Burgess’s encounter with the actress, Coral Browne, in Moscow in 1958, and A Question of Attribution (1988), about a period in Anthony Blunt’s life when he was working as the curator of the Royal Art Collection, and, as required by his immunity deal, also serving as an MI5 informer. These plays were performed together in 1988 under the title Single Spies. As with Julian Mitchell, Bennett offers a sympathetic portrait of the Cambridge spies, but whereas Mitchell brought a youthful, appealing Guy Burgess to the stage, Single Spies shows Burgess and Blunt in advanced years, long after their spy games and Cold War utility had faded, leaving them beleaguered by the consequences of their youthful political fervor. This chapter, guided by a motif Bennett uses in A Question of Attribution, reads both Burgess and Blunt in relation to Titian’s Allegory of Prudence, a triple portrait representing what art critic Erwin Panofsky terms “the three forms of time” evident in Titian’s painting: “the present, learns from the past and acts with due regard to the future.” I argue that Bennett’s dramas aim to humanize and individuate Burgess and Blunt and to show that they are complex and conflicted figures in ways that challenge the press’s and public’s rash condemnations of their treachery.
Friendship and treason in Robin Chapman’s One of Us and Blunt: The Fourth Man
This chapter examines one of the more critically neglected dramatizations of the Cambridge spies, Robin Chapman’s play, One of Us, and its film version, Blunt: The Fourth Man. Chapman’s work anatomizes the Cambridge spy’s credo of personal loyalty, particularly their abuse of E. M. Forster’s elevation of personal friendship over allegiance to one’s country. Chapman’s plot centers on the visits Burgess and Blunt paid to Goronwy Rees’s home just prior to the Burgess–Maclean defection in 1951, and Chapman deftly recreates the tense exchanges that likely took place between first Burgess and Rees, then Blunt and Rees, and finally Margie Rees’s role in convincing her husband to testify before MI5. The film version, Blunt: The Fourth Man covers the same ground, but adds some key scenes relating to Burgess’s and Blunt’s personal relationship, their suspenseful preparations for getting Maclean out of the country, and offers more speculation about the correlation between Blunt’s work as an art historian and his Marxist utopian ideals. Using Enlightenment-era and Marxist theories of friendship and camaraderie, this chapter argues that Chapman’s drama represents a forceful critique of what Burgess calls the “solemn and binding” imperatives of class and school allegiances, the inflexibility of political commitment, and the offenses against “personal relations” to which they lead. Hence, as Chapman’s drama recounts, despite Rees’s efforts to expose Anthony Blunt in the early 1950s, his testimony was suppressed by conspiratorial alliances, founded on the bonds of friendship, among those in power.
John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy and the treachery of Kim Philby
This chapter reads A Perfect Spy as a bildungsroman that blurs the distinctions between le Carré and his longtime nemesis. The chapter argues that A Perfect Spy maps the overlapping contours of le Carré’s and Philby’s formative years—the amoral influence of their respective fathers, an alienating public-school experience, exposure to leftist intelligentsia at university, and the disillusionment that came with the demands of national service—to illustrate how resentments against class and country can metastasize into treachery. This chapter also reads le Carré’s novel as an expression of his growing disenchantment with the monetarist agenda under the Thatcher government in the 1980s, particularly what le Carré viewed as a growing climate of greed and the misguided reverence it showed toward the rich. In reflecting on his own family history, le Carré came to recognize such material ambition and quests for social mobility as integral to the growth of the British middle classes to which he belonged. A Perfect Spy, then, suggests that treason signifies an understandable though desperate reaction against a corrupt and exploitative establishment. In A Perfect Spy, le Carré’s obsession with Philby’s treachery evolves from an intense hatred for Philby from the time of the spy’s defection in the 1960s to strong feelings of identification in the 1980s, with his novel serving not so much as an apology for Philby’s actions but as a means of comprehending them and redressing the flawed institutions and middle-class values that produced traitors like him.
The Blunt Affair and its impact on literature, television and film in the 1980s
The introduction establishes the key historical contexts in which the study is grounded. I begin by describing the events in November 1979 that led to the unmasking of Anthony Blunt, particularly the publication of Andrew Boyle’s Climate of Treason, the hostile and homophobic response in the tabloids, followed by Blunt’s “icy” and unapologetic BBC interview. This background information is followed by a brief survey of the plays, films and novels written about the Cambridge spies in response to the “Blunt Affair,” the actors and filmmakers involved in these projects, and an overview of the content. The introduction also provides a concise background the individual Cambridge spies, with particular emphasis on three major players—Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt—who feature most prominently in works about the Cambridge spies. I summarize the key known facts about their lives, their public-school background, how they were largely perceived by the public, and the dates of their exposure and circumstances surrounding their defections. I then describe the ways in which Andrew Boyle’s portrayal of the Cambridge spies in Climate of Treason reflect the appeal they garnered in the British counterculture of the 1980s.
This chapter examines the first important drama to appear in the wake of Anthony Blunt’s unmasking, Blade on the Feather, a Dennis Potter teleplay about a reclusive, upper-middle-class, Etonian writer named Cavendish who had been involved in Communist groups at Cambridge in the 1930s, where he knew Burgess, Maclean and Philby. Although by the time in which the action of the play is set, Cavendish’s political sympathies have shifted to the right, one learns that during the early years of the Cold War he had spied for the Russians and been involved in the assassination of a British ambassador, an act that closely resembles Kim Philby’s role in the death of Konstantin Volkov. Cavendish’s reclusive life on the Isle of Wight is interrupted by a visitor who claims to be working on a postgraduate thesis on Cavendish’s fiction, but he is actually a Soviet spy sent to prevent Cavendish from completing and publishing a memoir that may expose KGB operatives. In this timely script Potter offers a poignant critique of class privilege, noting how traitors have always come from the upper classes, and that the privileges of their class and wealth allow them to escape the consequences of their betrayal. This chapter also argues for the value of Potter’s teleplay, particularly for its poignant anxiety about capitalistic expansion and commodification in post-war Britain, which Potter feared would accelerate under the Thatcher government.
This chapter serves as the centerpiece of the monograph, as the success of Mitchell’s play and its subsequent film version in 1984 established the literary and theatrical appeal of the Cambridge spies. In the play, Mitchell explores Burgess’s formative public-school years in an effort to suggest how and why a young man of privilege and promise eventually betrayed his country, with a particular focus on Guy Bennett’s homosexuality, how that sexuality is both abided and punished according to public-school traditions, and how such internalized, secretive and self-regulating forms of institutional behavior shape the British establishment and sometimes encourage fascism. The chapter also examines how Mitchell refashions Guy Burgess into a disaffected countercultural icon, downplaying his unappealing traits and transferring his Marxist priggishness to another schoolboy, Tommy Judd. Mitchell forges his protagonist’s raffish appeal by casting a succession of charismatic actors (Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Daniel Day-Lewis) to play Bennett, and martyrs him by dramatizing what Didier Fassin classifies as a “retributivist” form of punishment designed to expiate or erase actions deemed to be wrong, as well as to “differentiate” (in Foucault’s terms) the punisher from the prohibited acts to which he himself is prone. This chapter examines the ways in which Mitchell’s representation of homosexuality in the English public schools, and by extension in a society that criminalizes it, compels stealthy modes of courtship—encoded gestures and language, oaths of secrecy, and clandestine meetings—constitutes an apprenticeship in espionage.