It is 1972 in a sepia coloured England. Everything is black and white, or beige. In a Lancastrian mill town there is an infant school built by the Victorians; all granite and high ceilings and heavy wooden desks, the ones with little inkwells at the top right hand side, and a groove to hold your pen and pencils. A relic from when children were taught to read and write, rather than emote and play on Facebook. In this dreary classroom there is a dreary teacher. We shall call him Mr. Dreary. Mr. Dreary is a dull man with no great gift for inspiring. He has given the children an hour of personal reading time, probably as an excuse for doing nothing himself. One of the children is a thin, pale nine-year-old boy intently reading…something. Mr. Dreary is for some reason, intrigued perhaps because it is not the inevitable comic or Ladybird book. He comes over and asks the child what he is reading. It is Len Deighton’s “The Ipcress File”.
“It’s just plain ordinary spy, sir”, says the child, and resumes reading, although he is a bit puzzled by what the lady spy and the man spy are actually doing to each other in that hotel room…
Mr. Dreary wanders off, perplexed by this strange child. The nine-year-old is of course, your humble scribe, and I remember it like it was yesterday, although it does come back to me in black and white.
What reminded me is a chat I had with our landlord Petunia this week. I was suggesting a post on cop dramas of the 70’s but it’s already been covered brilliantly by Moor Larkin. Anyway, Petunia suggested I should write something about our home-grown crime dramas – “Dixon of Dock Green”, “Softly, Softly” and “Z Cars”, for example. There was only one problem about that: I couldn’t remember a great deal about them, save that “Softly, Softly” was very well acted. Clearly, I was not very interested in Bobbies nabbing a few pearly kings and queens or driving round Skelmersdale in a Ford Zephyr.
What did I remember? Well, one thing is the British spy drama. It seems I was developing at an early age an agenda which involved a profound attraction to secrecy, duplicity, extreme violence and sex. When it comes to the British “spy” drama on TV, I am going to use the term quite loosely. What I remember as the original and best is “Callan” played by the late great Edward Woodward. I remember it as coming on a Sunday night. It was created by author James Mitchell (who went on to write and create “When the Boat Comes In”, as I now learn). I know a little of the “back story” of Callan, because I once read one of the Callan novels; I think it was “A Red File for Callan.”
Callan’s back story was this. He had been trained as a Commando, and seen service in some foreign war. Anyway, as is often the way, after leaving the services, he found himself unemployable and in trouble with the law. He ended up in prison where, as a basically good bloke, he got on the wrong side of the prison hard man and his gang, who decided to do him over. They put him in the prison hospital for sure, but he put them in there with him. He was released on parole to the care of “the Section”, the secret government operation which deals with malcontents and, from the State’s point of view, undesirable, by killing them where necessary. I was too young to understand the psychology of the show. I just remember the iconic starting credits with a close up of a swinging bare light bulb in an obviously dingy cellar (evoking just the sort of place where a ruthless, unauthorised interrogation would take place) which started the credits. Here it is now:
Now I can analyse the show a bit. There are certain classic tropes which appeal to the British sensibilities; so much so that I might suggest that watching “Callan” might be a prerequisite for the British citizenship thing. Callan is working class, unlike his fellow operative, the vile snobby psychopath Toby Meres, brilliantly played by Anthony Valentine in the series. Callan is unpretentious. He is intelligent and thoughtful; we know he has a love of military history and likes model soldiers. In the first classic episode he plays a war game using model soldiers with a rich and powerful foreign villain, the target of his mission, and displays a detailed knowledge of the Crimean War; he also wins the game. He is taciturn, and he is uncomfortable with women and emotions. He is a reluctant warrior, being coerced to do his job. He works for a ruthless Patrician figure (“Hunter”) and questions his tasks, and is thus the “little man” who is being used by “The System”. He is also hard as nails. All of these are qualities which, I suggest, endeared him to the Great British Public. Indeed, we can maybe see some parallels with the Harry Palmer character in “The Ipcress File”, “Funeral in Berlin” and “Billion Dollar Brain”. He is a reluctant warrior too; he would rather run away from a fight than tough it out not because he’s weak, but because he’s just sensible.
Veering off topic slightly, but prompted by the memory of Michael Caine’s performances as Palmer, there are also some similarities with Michael Caine’s character in the superb 1971 movie, “Get Carter” – though his character dressed better.
So “Callan” might tell us something about ourselves, but the show also told us something about the 1960’s and 70’s. We had hippies and whatnot, and I think Glam Rock would have been on the rise, so how did such a downbeat show and taciturn, buttoned up character resonate? I once heard it said that “Swinging London” was a mirage. It was merely a cadre of less than a thousand hedonists. The rest of us were still drinking our halves of Watney’s Red Barrel and eating fish and chips whilst watching “A Family at War” in black and white. I think there is something to this. In “Get Carter”, when Caine’s character arrives in Newcastle from “The Smoke” he doesn’t go to a dazzling nightclub filled with “groovy” people singing “This is the Age of Aquarius”. He walks into a huge “boozer” full of smoke and heavily drinking Geordie pensioners in a city that hasn’t changed much since the 1930’s.
Later on the 70’s, Yorkshire Television produced the very watchable “The Sandbaggers”, following the fortunes of what is in essence the Secret Intelligence Service. Roy Marsden was excellent at the Director of Operations, Neil Burnside, and we get a bit of social context too, because we find a service which is fraying around the edges, short of money and dependant on the Americans. This is Britain at the end of the 70’s, declining, stressed. One of the reasons the series was good was that operatives – “Sandbaggers” – got killed off, so there was a real sense of jeopardy. It was also watchable because they recruited a female Sandbagger, played by the delectable Diane Keene, an actress who lit up the 70’s in shows like “The Cuckoo Waltz”. And autumn 1979 brought us perhaps one of the BBC’s greatest productions, the dramatization John le Carré’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. That is a series which I have recently revisited, and it was indeed superbly written and acted. As a social record of late 1970’s Britain it is again profound: Britain is a dreary place, meetings are dreary, and fashions are awful. Everybody smokes. Food is boring and stodgy. There are no cookery programmes. There is no decent wine. If people do drink it is gin and tonic or beer or tea.
Our landlord did drop “The Professionals” into the conversation. Great stuff: not strictly of the “spy” genre, but still socially significant. Now we are heading towards a Thatcherite society, all get and go and up for a bit of retail therapy. Callan’s opening credits are the swinging light bulb in a basement; the boys from CI5 announce themselves by their ownership of, respectively, a Ford Capri 3.0 and RS2000, and driving them aggressively through piles of cardboard boxes. No stuffy office politics there, then. Callan would not have approved. He would have got the bus. But he was the best.
And finally, on another note, I like to find things that are a bit peaceful and reflective for a Sunday. I stumbled across this on YouTube: music by Mike Oldfield and vocals by some woman called Tarja Turunan. Apparently she’s a soprano (not one of those Sopranos) who likes to do a bit of Goth and metal stuff, but this is a rather lovely tune in parts, I thought. I liked some parts of the video, some I wasn’t really sure of. Have a good Sunday.
Gildas The Monk