1 August 2009 | FilmFlaneur
Long unseen, well worth seeing 60's spy show
As the title suggests, Espionage has a particular theme. One supposes that a commercial incentive for its appearance on the small screen was the contemporary fad for spy-based drama as the extraordinarily successful Dr No had appeared just the year before. But Espionage largely eschews the gimmickry, violence and sexual undertones of its big screen cousin, and replaces the particular time and place of James Bond's battles with something more varied. The television episodes do include stories addressing contemporary concerns, such as nuclear disarmament and the tensions of the Cold War. But others are set in different times (episode The Frantick Rebel, for instance, is set in 18th century London). Much of the series deals with the psychological as much as political suspense, and there is fraught contemplation by individuals rather than desperate action (although there is plenty of excitement). As one might expect of such a series, events still characteristically centre on subterfuge, but Espionage often focuses just as much on self-deception as it does on the confrontations and double-dealing in secret between competing security forces or political blocs. And whereas Bond externalises (and releases) the tensions of his glamorous missions in repeated, dangerous activity and sexual promiscuity, those in the TV show often have to face up to the greater stress of their own internal doubts and contradictions which can prove just as risky.
Thus in the episode The Incurable One an aristocratic spy (a luminous performance, incidentally, by one of Bergman's favourite actresses, Ingrid Thulin), recruited to assassinate Germans during the Second World War, finds herself unable to stop murdering when peace comes and she finds herself in London. Ultimately the deception here is an emotional one, as her wartime lover has to confront and stop her in advance of the police. Or in the Powell-directed A Free Agent, where an English agent (Anthony Quayle, who actually worked in the secret services during the war) marries a Russian spy - a relationship, which leads, inevitably, to suspicions over how honest love can be. Are they seriously infatuated or is the marriage dictated by one side's need to know the 'trade secrets' of the other? In such a set up, it can easily be peace of mind stolen rather than secret documents, double lies rather than double agents exchanged.
A Free Agent is one of three episodes directed by famed British director Michael Powell, the unexpected appearance of which gives this series particular interest. It was written by Powell's previous collaborator Leo Marks, responsible for Peeping Tom (1960), a film which had all but ended Powell's career in the eyes of the British critical establishment. Their TV work is less controversial - although one might argue that, like Peeping Tom, A Free Agent is in its own way also concerned with points of view. Powell's two other contributions include the wartime-set Never Turn Your Back on Your Friend, revolving around the capture of a heavy water scientist in Norway, this one scripted by Waldo Salt, who six years later was to write Midnight Cowboy. More interesting is Powell's last piece here, the aforementioned Frantick Rebel. One suspects that this was as much fun to direct as it is to watch: an historical romp starring Powell favourite Roger Livesey as Dr Samuel Johnson and Stanley Baxter (inspired casting) as James Boswell investigating a 1777 case of espionage. Beginning with a striking trawl of the camera through a giant keyhole, one of the director's characteristic surreal set moments, Frantick Rebel is fast moving and light-hearted, a forgotten work showing Powell's lighter side worth the price of admission alone.
Such a degree of frivolity is unusual, although other episodes do show a lighter touch. In The Gentle Spies, a tale of infiltration into the CND starring Barry Foster and Michael Horden, there's a welcome streak of self-mockery as well as (together with one or two other episodes of this series) an unusually balanced presentation of the debate for disarmament along the way. A rare outing for a cause too often decried or mocked by popular UK TV in later decades. By contrast, another fine episode He Rises On A Sunday And We On Monday is notably bleak: a tale of the 1916 Easter rising in Ireland starring Billie Whitelaw and Patrick Troughton, it has an ending which remains powerful for a TV production, both then and now.
Over 24 episodes there are inevitably less interesting works, made more conspicuous by the finer episodes seen elsewhere. Dragon Slayer, for instance, is another historical tale, this one set during the Boxer rebellion, sunk by some distracting oriental accents essayed by the British cast as well as an unsteady grasp of history. In To The Very End, a much better watch, a fresh-faced James Fox struggles in turn with an unconvincing French accent as the chief protagonist; fortunately it matters less as the surrounding drama is more interesting. In one of the most entertaining, if uneven, shows, The Weakling, agent Dennis Hopper is sent by a guilt-wracked John Gregson into occupied Europe with the details of planned D-Day landings. The fun here lies partly in seeing the contrast between Hopper's frequent method scene-chewing and the old school acting of Gregson, as well as some exchanges between Hopper's character and his druggie European contact, played by Patricia Neal. Hopper is tortured in turn by blowtorch and drugs, which affects his acting not a jot. The actor's use of 1960s' idioms, presumably improvised on set (e.g. being "very hip to myself" as he sets out on his mission) are bizarre in the context, but it all adds to the fun.
There are too many good shows here to bear mention of them all. Overall, at its best, Espionage remains memorable.