Gerry Painter (Barry Foster) is assigned to infiltrate a group of peace protestors who have somehow gained access to sensitive government secrets. The government, in the shape of the Minister (Michael Horden), wants the mole identified and punished. Gerry begins by attaching himself to Sheila O’Hare (Angela Douglas), a highly idealistic member of the group. But his increasing feelings for her make it hard for him to concentrate on the matter in hand …..
The Gentle Spies is a fascinating time capsule of the mid sixties and also, after three very intense episodes, is quite a change of pace. Although the topic it covers (unilateral disarmament) is weighty, it’s done in a fairly light-hearted manner. This is best seen at the start when Gerry attempts to catch Sheila’s eye. Foster, later to star in Van Der Valk, shows a deft comic touch whilst attempting to woo a very disinterested Douglas.
Ernest Kinoy’s script is firmly on the side of the protesters. He takes great pains to depict them as totally non-violent – indeed, the only fracas occurs when Gerry (attempting to impress Sheila) throws a punch at a policeman. He seems to boyishly assume this will get him into her good books, but it only serves to irritate her. As for the information they release via leaflets (the location of the government’s secret bomb shelter, an accident involving a plane carrying a nuclear warhead) Kinoy seems to be suggesting that although they’re official secrets it’s in the public’s interest that they be released. WikiLeaks is an obvious modern parallel.
Horden’s Minister is less forgiving though. “In a way it’s a lot worse than if the information had been leaked to a bona-fide Russian spyring. At least they’re professionals, you expect to lose a certain number of wickets to them.” The Minister goes on to complain that he’s under pressure from Washington, so it seems that political expediency is driving his desire to find the mole.
The protestors are led by Lord Kemble (Alan Webb). Kemble is a public figure (a former Nobel prize winner) and therefore a major thorn in the Minister’s side. Kemble is a staunch believer in unilateral disarmament, although the rights and wrongs of this are only lightly touched upon. Towards the end, the Minister tells him that this course of action would be suicide – if one side has the bomb, then the other must have it too.
At one point, Gerry runs into Willi Hausknecht (Eric Polhmann). Willi, an East German agent, has also attached himself to the protestors. For a moment it looks as if he’s the one supplying them with the information but it turns out that he’s aiming to find the source of the leak so he can obtain further intelligence for his masters. Nothing comes of this, as Gerry has him arrested, but it shows how idealists can be manipulated by the unscrupulous (Callan has several good examples of this).
Since the political and moral arguments of The Gentle Spies remain rather undeveloped, it’s the performances of Barry Foster and Angela Douglas that keep the story moving along. If Foster is a strong leading man (albeit with a sense of humour) then Douglas essays a typically winsome performance. Sheila is so whole-heartedly honest and open that it’s no real surprise that Gerry falls for her in a big way.
The reveal of the mole is practically an afterthought – it was the Minister’s wife, Sara (Joan Hickson). Hickson, later to gain small-screen immortality as the definitive Miss Marple, holds the viewer’s attention for the last few minutes. The Minister finds he can do nothing – which once again appears to be a demonstration of political expediency (if his wife was revealed as the mole then his career would be finished) and so the status quo remains in place.
As previously touched upon, The Gentle Spies is chiefly of interest due to the way it captures a snapshot of the mid sixties peace movement. Sensible jumpers, placards and endless chorusus of “we shall overcome” are the order of the day. It’s not the most complex episode of Espionage but neither is it without interest or merit.