The 1970’s were a fertile time for British television dramas which portrayed the country toiling under totalitarian dictatorships. Apart from An Englishman’s Castle, broadcast in 1978, there was also The Guardians (LWT 1971) and 1990 (BBC 1977). It’s probably not too hard to understand the reason why – strikes, power cuts, the three-day week, inflation running at 30% and a humiliating bail-out by the IMF had all conspired to dent the nation’s pride.
In some ways, the 1970’s was the decade of paranoia. Rumours of impending right-wing coups and mutterings that MI5 were planning to oust Harold Wilson and his government abounded. So it’s no surprise to find several television dramas had tapped into this mood to produce nightmarish visions about what might happen.
But whilst The Guardians was set in the aftermath of a coup and 1990 was set a decade or so in the future, An Englishman’s Castle takes a different tack. In this serial, the Germans won WW2 and Britain has been a subjugated nation ever since. Coincidentally, Len Deighton’s novel SS-GB had the same basic premise of a Nazi-subjugated Britain and was published a few months after An Englishman’s Castle was broadcast.
Casting Kenneth More in the central role was a conscious statement of intent. More had built a career playing a certain type of Englishman (exemplified by classic war films such as Reach for the Sky). Following the gradual decline of the British film industry More moved into television (The Forsythe Saga, Father Brown) but he still tended to play upright, decent characters. Peter Ingram also seems to be a decent man – but as the serial opens we see that he’s totally reconciled to living under German rule. Is he simply being rational or has he been living a lie all these years? That’s one thing that we’ll discover over the following three episodes.
An Englishman’s Castle is the name of Peter Ingram’s popular soap opera. Set in 1940, just prior to the German invasion, it’s the story of an everyday British family. Not only is it a success in Britain, it’s also sold all over Europe (or as Ingram says, “all over German Europe”). Programme controller Harmer (Anthony Bate) is intrigued as to how Ingram will present the invasion. Ingram tells him that “I can’t rewrite history. I mean, the Germans invaded us, and we got beaten.” Harmer’s response strikes the first discordant note. “I look back on it now as a victory. A victory for common sense, and decency, and humanity. The triumph of peace-loving people everywhere.”
Jill (Isla Blair) plays Sally in the show. She’s young, beautiful and Peter desperately wants to take her to bed. Jill’s also interested in Peter, but has a mocking and questioning nature which indicates that nothing’s going to happen straightaway. To begin with, she’s more interested in finding out about the young Peter and what happened to him in 1940.
JILL: Were you in the resistance?
PETER: Yes, of course.
JILL: And then?
PETER: And then there was Black Friday, the day that Churchill was killed.
JILL: And then?
PETER: A lot of us were killed.
JILL: One way or another.
PETER: The survivors took to the hills, and lived like ancient Britons. Had a bad time of it. Then they proclaimed a general amnesty. And I suppose we were getting older and more peace loving and we wanted to see our wives again, our girlfriends … so we came down from the hills and handed over our weapons, or at least most of us did.
PETER: I couldn’t see that we would ever win.
JILL: No .
PETER: What was the point of it all? What was the use?
It’s notable that we never see any Germans and there’s no outward signs that Britain is an occupied country. All the dialogue strongly indicates that following the invasion, the British were left to govern themselves (but with the ultimate decision-making taking place in Germany). Peter has come to accept this as normal – they might be a subjugated race, but when the authorities are British it’s easy to forget this (or at least push it to the back of your mind).
When the restaurant that Peter and Jill are eating in is attacked by resistance terrorists, Jill is convinced that the terrorists will be taken away and tortured. Peter doesn’t believe that the British police would do such a thing (“they have a long tradition of not doing things like that”). “Had a long tradition” counters Jill. This clearly indicates that they think in totally different ways. It’s partly an age thing (Peter is much older) but there are other reasons why Jill is much more suspicious, as we’ll discover later.
The scenes we see of Peter’s soap opera are particularly instructive. He hasn’t been told to write propaganda, but that’s what he seems to have done anyway. Jill later puts this point to him very clearly. Although it’s set in 1940, it reflects contemporary attitudes and seems to have been designed (either consciously or unconsciously) to keep the masses docile. “What they’re saying is now. Be sensible, make peace. We don’t want to die. Nobody does. Survival, that’s all that matters. In every programme you have this keynote speech, your message for now, and your viewers think ‘he’s right, you know’, telling us we’re right. We’re right to go on as we are. Not making any fuss, obeying orders. Just content to work hard, fall in love, have children, give them a good start in life, and retire on a pension when we’re old. Eh lad, it’s not a bad life under the Germans, is it?”
It should go without saying that More is excellent here, but he’s matched step-for-step by Blair. Another top-notch performance comes from Anthony Bate as Harmer, who is insistent that he doesn’t want to censor Peter’s script, just edit it. Bate is at his most chilling when Harmer tells Peter that it’s impossible for him to introduce a character called Rosenthal. The Jewish problem (courtesy of the gas chambers) was dealt with a long time ago, but there’s no way that a sympathetic Jewish character could appear on British television.
This is not a request from the Germans – Harmer is simply anticipating their concerns. He dangles the possibility that by aggravating them over such a trivial matter they run the risk of inviting German interference in every aspect of their broadcasts. Is this another example of the subjugated British being more rabid than the Germans would be? In the first sign of stubbornness from Peter, he refuses to change the name straightaway and asks if he can sleep on it. Harmer doesn’t spell out what will happen if he doesn’t, but then he doesn’t need to – by now it should be pretty clear.
When Jill reveals that she’s Jewish, Peter’s squabble with Harmer pales into insignificance. If it’s discovered that she’s Jewish and that Peter’s slept with her then under the racial purity laws they’ll both face death. An excellent hook to end part one with.