Navy Strength: Spies on British Screens come to Plymouth Pt. 1

Plymouth University recently put on a conference exploring how spies and the intelligence community have been represented in British cinema and TV and looked at how these representations impact on our perceptions of the security services.

Our man in the field Tom May reports.


On a mild summery Friday morning, the Spies on British Screens Conference commenced in a small lecture room at Plymouth University, housed in a new building. Most of Plymouth was suitably early Cold War in its look: copious concrete shopping precincts and 1950s-60s tower blocks.

spycoldAlan Burton (Klagenfurt University) provided a chronological survey of the British spy film cycle, from 1964-73. This was a group of films made in a ‘specific and limited timespan’, in the wake of the success of From Russia with Love (1963). He located the zenith of the spy film cycle as in April 1965, when Films and Feelings magazine declared a state of ‘spy mania’: the year of the stratospheric box-office success of Thunderball and the anti-Bond complexities of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Ipcress File.

Many films in the cycle couldn’t escape the shadow of Bond: Where the Bullets Fly (1966) even promoted Tom Adams’ Charles Vine as the world’s ‘second best’ secret agent! A July 1966 Guardian article which asked ‘Is the spy bubble about to burst?’ Burton was able to trace a lineage of films through to 1973, though the cycle had long since ceased to be economically or critically valued.

saintFelix Thompson (University of Derby) did the same for TV spy dramas as Burton had done for films, discussing how examples showed a dissolving of national boundaries in the era of mass tourism: another popular cultural practice of the 1960s and 70s of equal significance to James Bond. He analysed series’ such as The Saint and Danger Man, and mentioned how Patrick McGoohan was very critical of James Bond. He explained how series 2 was both a ‘panorama of cosmopolitan encounters’ and strongly connected to news discourses at the time, and highlighted John Drake’s unique status as simultaneously working for the UN, the CIA, MI5 and NATO! The Saint’s frequent airport sequences were linked to the very 1960s aspiration of jet-setting lifestyles.

Thompson went on to discuss the ‘procedural’ spy series’ like Special Branch, Callan and The Sandbaggers, set in more mundane, everyday world and, in the case of Callan in particular, depicting class tensions and exploitative relationships. Thompson analysed episodes of Special Branch and The Avengers for their focus on themes like immigration, nationalism and treachery.

In the Q&A, Burton mentioned Tightrope (1972), a children’s spy series which included a communist take-over of a school, with a ‘particularly suspect’ Maths teacher implicated! A profound question was considered: ‘Why is there so much light-heartedness in TV spy dramas?’ This seemed to be the particularly 1960s mood, with more seriousness (The Sandbaggers), blandness (The New Avengers) and ‘macho’ aggression (The Professionals) characterising the 1970s.

The Q&A also resulted in a perceptive educational summary of the spies:

  • James Bond = public school, fee-paying, socially established.
  • Harry Palmer = grammar school, selective on ability, socially mobile.
  • David Callan = secondary modern, practically focused, socially proletarian.
Guy Burgess

Guy Burgess

The second panel began with Claire Hines (Southampton Solent University) analysed the current film archetype of the tech geek, through the portrayal and of Ben Whishaw’s Q as a mainstreaming of the ‘nerd’ character was mentioned, with the example of Whishaw’s Prada photo shoot. Next, Stephanie Jones (Aberystwyth University) enquired into the myths of Dalton’s Bond as being the ‘New Man’, and the false popular memory of him making quiche for a romantic meal with a female character. She showed that the scene was actually from the late-Moore era film, A View to a Kill.

Moving on from the politics of quiche, Matthew Bellamy (University of Michigan, not the Muse singer!) tackled the relation between Bond and Cambridge spy, Guy Burgess. He placed Fleming’s defiantly “leak-proof” Bond as designed to be as an unambiguous figure, able to redeem and refresh the establishment after 1950s scandals. The Q&A contained interesting discussion of where the ‘007’ of Bond came from: as well as being the UK dialling code for Russia, it was also seen as a lucky number by a spy of a somewhat different era: Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s spy who saw the 0s as representing eyes, telling her majesty: “I am your lucky eyes”.

George Smiley

George Smiley

The third and final panel of the day began with an analysis by James Mason expert Sarah Thomas (Aberystwyth University) of the 1966 film, The Deadly Affair. This was an adaptation of the first George Smiley book, featuring Mason as Smiley, renamed, for copyright reasons: ‘Albert Dobbs’. In contrast to the exotic vistas of Bond films, this film was analysed as having ‘unromanticised’ and ‘drab’ everyday London settings such as an East End boozer.

Douglas McNaughton (University of Brighton) used television theory to analyse the BBC’s acclaimed 1979 serial version Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, explaining the ‘Oratic power’ in how productions use actual locations that the audience would recognise.

Jane Barnwell (University of Westminster)’s following paper focused on the 2011 film adaptation, being based on extensive interviews with set designers. She explained how the set design of Control’s messy, disordered flat helped John Hurt ‘get’ just how unhinged and crazy his character, Control, was.

The ‘Keynote’ lecture by Pamela Church Gibson (London College of Fashion) focused on fashion and social class. She highlighted Sean Connery’s early job as a model and how he bought his clothes at Vince’s Men Shop in Soho. She contrasted the rumpled truthfulness of Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) with the lavish recent BBC-1 adaptation of John le Carre’s The Night Manager, ‘which could be a fashion shoot’, highlighting the difference in backgrounds between Connery, Caine and Burton and the cast of that serial, the main three of whom – Laurie, Hiddleston and Hollander – were all ‘Eminent Dragons’, alumni of the same Oxford prep school. This wasn’t the last Conference paper to address such issues…

The Night Manager

The Night Manager cast

Incidental Intelligence

Tom-MayTom May teaches English at Newcastle Sixth Form College. He has MAs in both English (Cambridge Uni) and Film Studies (Northumbria Uni), and has in recent years given academic papers on Cold War culture, including analysis of works and adaptations of John le Carre, Dennis Potter and Graham Greene. He is planning a book on Cold War dystopian fictions and news discourses. He has written for the Oxonian Review and Tachyon TV, and his current blog is the Cold War focused Opening Negotiations.

Learn more about Plymouth University’s Spies on British Screens.

3 thoughts on “Navy Strength: Spies on British Screens come to Plymouth Pt. 1

  1. Making quiche for a romantic meal was actually from A View to A Kill not Octopussy so wrong on both counts.

  2. Pingback: “Spies on British Screens” Day 1: Lucky eyes, communist maths teachers and the politics of quiche – Opening Negotiations

Any Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.