Pinter at the BBC – Old Times (22nd October 1975)

If some of the previous plays in the set – The Basement especially – were designed specifically for television (utilising numerous scene changes in a way which would have been impossible to achieve on stage) then Old Times turns out to be a very different beast. The staging is very theatrical with no concessions made to the television format. At the time (and indeed well into the eighties) this style of production was very common, but eventually it fell out of favour. The quest for realism demanded that drama be shot on single-camera film, with the result that multi-camera videotaped recordings of this type began to look hopelessly old-fashioned to certain people. Personally, I love the clarity of this type of production as it really does stand or fall on the quality of the writing and the performances. There’s no place to hide …. The stagey nature of the piece is evident right from the opening titles. Deeley (Barry Foster) and Kate (Anna Cropper) are seated in separate chairs. The room is dark and they are immobile (whilst the fact that both are spotlighted helps to suggest their emotional distance from each other). Meanwhile, Anna (Mary Miller) stands in darkness at the back of the room.

Deeley and Kate are a married couple, awaiting the arrival of Kate’s old friend, Anna. That the play begins with Deeley and Kate discussing Anna (who is present but ignored by them) gives the piece a strange, disconnected air. This odd feeling continues when Anna suddenly steps into the light and begins interacting with the other two. Several theories have been propounded to explain the meaning of the play. Possibly the whole drama is being played out in Deeley’s subconscious (and furthermore Kate and Anna are aspects of the same person). When Anthony Hopkins tackled the role of Deeley in 1984 he asked Pinter for some pointers. The playwright’s advice? “I don’t know, just do it”. Old Times finds us in familiar Pinter territory. A previously tranquil household is transformed into a battleground for supremacy as Deeley and Anna both stake their claim on Kate. As the play unfolds, every statement has to be parsed for meaning as the three interlock. Deeley begins the play in a dominant position, quickly joining forces with Anna to reminisce about times past via a medley of their favourite songs. Kate at this point seems to be somewhat passive and colourless compared to Anna. Deeley is keen to claim ownership of his wife (remembering how they bonded over the same film – Odd Man Out) but his own memories of Anna and the revelation of her previous closeness with Kate both serve to somewhat destabilise him. (a lengthy discussion between Deeley and Anna about the best way to dry a freshly bathed Kate crackles with intensity). As ever, if you want closure and neatness then you’ve come to the wrong playwright. Old Times is an emotionally distanced experience which isn’t afraid to leave questions unanswered. The fallibility of memory, a familiar Pinter device, is key here. And if there’s some doubt about the reality of the present-day setting, how many of these past reminisces can we actually rely upon?

Espionage – The Gentle Spies

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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.

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