Espionage was an ITC film series which ran for twenty four episodes between 1963 and 1964. An anthology programme, each edition explored the theme of espionage in various ways and with a mixture of styles (both modern day and historical settings were featured).
Three of the episodes (A Free Agent, The Frantick Rebel, Never Turn Your Back on a Friend) were directed by Michael Powell (director of many notable films including A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus). Powell wasn’t the only film director to turn his hand to television – Charles Crichton became a mainstay of many ITC series – but Powell’s story is quite interesting. His 1960 film Peeping Tom caused such an outcry that it appears to have killed his film career stone dead. He barely worked again afterwards, with only a handful of television and film credits during the remainder of the 1960’s and 1970’s – a somewhat sad end to an illustrious career.
Although many ITC series remained in circulation for decades, not only in the UK but also worldwide, Espionage vanished after its original run. Maybe this was because at times it’s a bleak and uncompromising series (illustrated during the title sequence, designed by Maurice Binder). The titles are an exercise in creating a sense of unease – real-life photographs of war and death are briefly glimpsed and help to state the nature of the series. This isn’t, like most ITC series, a lighthearted thriller or detective series, Espionage tends to go a little deeper.
Because of this, and the typically excellent guest casts, it’s a show to be treasured – although it’s true that the mixture of styles does mean that some scripts are better than others. However, across the twenty six I feel that the strike-rate is pretty good.
During WW2, Captain Andrew Evans (Steven Hill) trained Celeste (Ingrid Thulin) to be a killer. He was very successful, but Celeste has carried on fighting, even though the war has been over for several decades …..
When we first see Celeste she’s attending a consultation with Mr Smith (Martin Miller). Smith is an astrologer (the sign outside his office proudly proclaims that he’s a councillor to the troubled) and it appears at first that Celeste is being positioned as a helpless victim to the predatory Smith. He offers to spend more time dealing with her problems and suggests that she meets him at his flat – much more comfortable, he says, than the office. But it quickly becomes clear that she’s the cat and he’s is the mouse. She asks him if he’s German and – a little surprised – he admits that he is, although he’s clearly uncomfortable about talking about his past.
Miller, who coincidentally had appeared in Powell’s Peeping Tom, impresses in the small but pivotal role of Smith. He was a familiar face on both the big and small screens (a few months after this broadcast he’d pop up in the Doctor Who story Marco Polo as Kublai Khan, for example)
Scenes of Celeste walking through busy London streets seem to imply that she’s an isolated figure – even amongst the multitude she’s very much alone. A detour into a Soho strip club sees her indulge in a spot of pick-pocketing – the marks (distracted by the girls on the stage) are easy prey, but this scene poses questions. Why is the outwardly respectable Celeste doing this?
The threads of the story come together as we see her pursued at a discrete distance by Evans. Evans, an American, has come to England to see her again and he clearly wants to help her. But there’s an uncomfortable sense, even early on, that Celeste is a damaged individual who won’t be easily repaired.
When Evans and Celeste meet again, they kiss – which segues neatly into the next scene. They’re still kissing, but now we’ve rewound twenty years or so. The flashback sequences help to flesh out how Evans came to recruit Celeste – to begin with she was reluctant, but Evans was convinced she would be a first-class agent. Stock footage of real-life wartime explosions are intercut with studio shots of Evans and Celeste in action (although it’s quite a leap that the story presents Celeste as an effective cold-blooded killer immediately after the scene in which she doubted her abilities).
Evans and Celeste have very different views about the world they’re now living in. Evans believes that the Londoners may now look dull, but they hanker after the old, exciting days of war. Celeste disagrees and tells him that “the war didn’t bring them one single thing worthwhile. Because if it did, they wouldn’t look dull, they’d still be enjoying it. Because war doesn’t end. That’s the big myth, that you can end a war by signing a treaty. But you can’t, the war goes on, goes on. You can see that, can’t you?”
A generous help of location filming on the streets of London helps to make this episode memorable. Smithfield meat market is an unexpected location, but the sight of Evans and Celeste walking past pig’s heads is certainly an arresting one. Elsewhere, Michael Gwynn (today probably best known for one of his final roles – as the ersatz Lord Melbury in the first episode of Fawlty Towers) provides strong support as George Case. Case is the head of British security who faces a dilemma concerning Celeste. She’s the recipient of the George Medal and a personal letter of commendation from Winston Churchill, but Case finds it impossible to ignore the fact that she’s responsible for several murders.
He plans to hand her over to the police – with regret – but there’s no other option. The real hammer-blow, in plot terms, comes when Case tells Evans that one of Celeste’s victims might have been German, but he had no Nazi connections. Her lack of judgement is reinforced after she murders her latest victim – Smith. He slumps forward on the desk, revealing a number tattooed on his arm (conforming he was a Jewish prisoner of war). This is never mentioned in dialogue and it’s also never stated whether Celeste is aware of her mistake – an example of the subtle nature of the scripting.
Steven Hill is perfectly acceptable as Evans, although apart from one monologue and the closing scene with Thulin he’s a little colourless (but with American co-production money in the series it’s no surprise that American actors will occasionally pop up in leading roles). The Incurable One really belongs to Ingrid Thulin, who’s perfect as the damaged Celeste – someone who manages to be both heroine and victim. And whilst the ending is telegraphed well before the end it still carries an considerable emotional punch. Shot as the pilot episode, The Incurable One is a quality production.