BBC’s “The Game” by Toby Whithouse, starring Brian Cox, is a must-see if you like your spy drama closer to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, even though it does have its action scenes. Set in Britain in the early 1970s, the six-part series follows MI5 as they desperately attempt to prevent a KGB operation which they believe will have history changing implications for Britain.
The cast is superb, with Paul Ritter in particular standing out as the repressed deputy head of MI5. Tom Hughes plays Joe Lambe, a top MI5 operative embroiled in the case. If anything, Hughes’ male model good looks provide one of the more unbelievable parts of the show. Would MI5 really hire someone so conspicuous? As a female friend of mine pointed out, every time he appeared on screen she couldn’t resist shouting out “You’re too good looking!” Having said that, his actual performance is just as good as the rest of the cast. No himbo he.
The show looks superb, managing to look both modern and 70s dated at the same time, with MI5′s tacky, modern and brutalist headquarters in particular of note, and the IPCRESSesque soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton is a cracker, especially the main theme.
There’s just enough hint of humour in it to endear you to the characters, and also, although it has that cynicism of all these sort of shows, the team come across as genuine patriots. The Soviet plot is big and gripping, and it is refreshing to see a spy show not bogged down by technology for once.
Seriously hope the BBC commission a second series. These are characters and a setting we’d like to see more of.
I’ve written previously about my interest in old British and US cult TV shows from the 1960s and ’70s, and the recent passing at 93 of British actor Patrick Macnee, who played debonair spy John Steed in the 1960s British spy series “The Avengers” has triggered a few thoughts on the subject.
Two Christmases ago I treated myself to the complete Avengers TV series on DVD, which ran in its original format from 1960 to 1969. The show was a success in its day, being very popular as one of the few British shows to be exported to a US TV network.
But what struck me, watching it, was the number of then young actors in it who became quite well known later in life but have since passed away, with Macnee being the last male lead still living. Its main producer and de facto creator, Brian Clemens, also passed away earlier this year. Watching the show one realises that many of its original viewers have also since passed away (it was off the air three years before I was born) and that the show’s human hinterland, the people who made and watched the show are gradually vanishing.
This is actually a relatively new phenomenon given the fact that television as a medium is only really sixty five years old. Unlike music or movies or other aspects of culture, TV had, until quite recently, a large number of still living if elderly TV pioneers who had been the actors, writers, producers and directors. It was still possible to ask them what they had been trying to communicate, and what their stories meant.
That access, the ability to ask the actual participants, is rapidly dying out across the world.
We are now seeing a whole new avenue of cultural history open up as these shows go from being just old TV shows to a glimpse into the society and culture of a previous age. Watch spy shows from the 1960s and see how many of them like “The Man From UNCLE” or “The Champions” were about international cooperation to preserve peace. “The Avengers”, for example, had a number of episodes where the two heroes fought to stop some baddy trying to sabotage European unity (I’m not joking), the assumption being that it was obviously a good thing. By the 1990s, on the other hand, shows like “The X Files” or “Alias” were about how one’s own government was the enemy.
It’s the same with sitcoms. The 1970s sitcom “Maude”, starring a pre-”Golden Girls” Bea Arthur, was one of the first TV shows to address abortion, which in itself says something about changing culture. Imagine the hysteria that would have arisen if “Friends” had an episode where Rachel had an abortion. “Will and Grace” and now “Modern Family” both traced the changing social attitudes towards homosexuality. “Star Trek” allowed issues of segregation and race be addressed in a thinly disguised science fiction setting, including the first ever inter-racial kiss on US television. TV history is important.
That’s why programmes like the Emmy Foundations interview archive, where actors, writers and others talk at length about their experiences on these TV shows, is important.
RTE should be doing this, talking, for example, in depth to Gay Byrne and others about The Late Late Show. They are part of our living cultural history, and have a story to tell.
Guy Richie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is based on the 1964-68 TV series about agents working for an international crime fighting organisation. One of the key attributes of the TV series was that the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, even at the height of the Cold War, had Americans and Russians working together for the common good. The TV series, although not a spoof as lazy latter day TV critics would claim was nevertheless set in a world where the ideology of the US and USSR were not really alluded to. It was, in short, fantasy.
As a concept, certainly to this then teenager watching repeats in the 1980s, it was a fascinating internationalist concept, that there was far more that united us as a race than divided us. Could it have worked?
One would have to say no. There’s a telling line in the series when Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo, the titular Man from U.N.C.L.E., describes THRUSH, a nasty group of international renegades that acts as the anti-U.N.C.L.E. of the series, as an organisation that “believes in the two party system: the masters and the slaves” Solo could easily be describing the Soviet government (and funder of U.N.C.L.E.) of his fellow agent Ilya Kuryakin. But more on THRUSH in a minute.
Indeed, given that U.N.C.L.E. by its own admission (via voiceover in the series) is dedicated to the maintaining of legal order anywhere in the world, that logically meant that behind the Iron Curtain U.N.C.L.E. was battling democrats and opponents of the Communist one party state. Not something one would wish to see on their TV, scenes of Solo and Kuyakin valiantly shooting people trying to hop the Berlin wall to freedom. On the flipside, what were THRUSH doing behind the Iron Curtain? Surely the United States would be quite happy with any disruption they could cause? Would it be that hard to imagine THRUSH selling its services to both sides occasionally?
If one looks at so much of the things U.N.C.L.E. could logically be expected to combat, one comes into problems. In the 1970s and 1980s the KGB funded many terrorist groups in Europe and elsewhere. They’d hardly support U.N.C.L.E. trying to undermine their efforts. Would Henry Kissinger have been pleased if U.N.C.L.E. had intervened to stop the overthrow of the (democratically elected) Communist president of Chile in 1973 as per the mandate about preserving legal order? Chances are, U.N.C.L.E. agents would have spent most of their time sitting around whilst their bosses negotiated over what they could actually investigate. They probably spend most of their time fighting copyright fraud.
We do get a glimmer in the real world of what happens when an international law enforcement organisation does operate, and it’s not always pretty. Interpol, for example, was headquartered in Vienna in the 1930s, and was seized by the Nazis, at one stage being headed by Gestapo head Reinhard Heydrich. He was head of Interpol at the time of the notorious Wannsee conference that planned the “final solution”. There have been complaints in recent years of Interpol warrants being used by Putin’s Russia to harass political opponents of his regime. Yet there are unusual glimmers of international security cooperation. Germany, France and seven other European countries, for example, have a combined military unit called Eurocorps (See symbol left).
Curiously enough, the central plot of the new movie, which focusses on the US and USSR working together to stop weapons of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands is quite believable, even today. It is easy to imagine the US, Europe, Russia or China all working together to stop nuclear or biological weapons being developed by rogue nations or indeed groups, as they are with Iran. United Nuclear Control, Logistics and Enforcement, anyone?
And that’s the key to something like U.N.C.L.E. It only works if there is a common THRUSH-like enemy that the great powers feel is a threat to global stability.
“Seven Days in May” was made in 1963 and stars Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in a story about a plot to overthrow the President of the United States. Lancaster plays a Curtis LeMay type figure who is appalled at the plans of the President (Played by Frederic March) to sign a deeply unpopular peace treaty with Russia. The movie is based on a book written by a journalist who, having interviewed a number of senior Pentagon figures, came to believe it was a viable proposition. Interestingly, President Kennedy (Who had removed a rightwing general, Edwin A. Walker, for openly advocating far right policies whilst a serving officer) supported the making of the film, permitting filming outside the White House, a courtesy the Pentagon refused to extend to the filmakers.
What makes the movie, as in so many great motion pictures, is the moral greyness. Lancaster’s general has no doubts about the rightness of his cause, and indeed has the support of the public, whilst Douglas, who agrees with the general’s analysis of the treaty, nevertheless remains loyal to the constitution. An Oval Office confrontation between the president and the general is a high point of the movie, putting all the issues bluntly on the table, and unlike so many modern stories, it paints Lancaster, the nominal baddy, as a man whose patriotism even the president accepts.
I’m always encouraged to see more online political debate about Irish politics, especially if it is of the rational debate of ideas as opposed to the hysterical name calling of TheJournal.ie comment section. Here’s two links worth a look at:
The first is www.politicalpeopleblog.com, which covers both Irish and international politics, and the second is The Arena, a weekly podcast with John O’Donovan, John McGuirk and Jonny Fallon under the need-no-introduction Slugger O’Toole label.
COWEN, BLAMING AHERN, CONCEDES DEFEAT AS KENNY OPENS NEGOTIATIONS WITH RABBITTE.
The Taoiseach, Brian Cowen TD, has conceded defeat after tallymen said that FF senator Cyprian Brady would narrowly fail to be elected to the last seat in Dublin Central. This result confirmed that Fianna Fail’s loss of five seats in the general election meant that it was now impossible for the party to attempt to cobble together a majority with the remaining PDs and independents.
Cowen launched a blistering attack on his predecessor, Bertie Ahern TD, for his decision, following the 2002 general election, to restrict mortgage lending and tax breaks. He identified Ahern’s attempts to dampen down the property market as the key reason for Fianna Fail’s defeat in the general election. The decision to restrict lending was very badly received by first time buyers, who accused the government of treating them like children and not letting them borrow as much as they wished.
Ahern’s January 2003 RTE Prime Time interview, where he suggested that the banks and mortgage holders were piling debts upon themselves based on massively overvalued assets caused the Taoiseach to be savaged by the media, who attacked him (and not just in their weighty property supplements) of being alarmist and talking down the market. Ahern’s refusal to back down led to a gradual slow down and modest dip in property values, and following heated rows in heated tents in Galway with party supporters, finance minister Charlie McCreevy announced his resignation, accusing Ahern of lacking courage.
The policy led to a substantial drop in employment in the construction industry, with unemployment leaping from 3.1% to 5.1%, and demands for the Taoiseach’s resignation by some FF backbenchers. Fianna Fail suffered heavy losses in middle class areas in the 2004 local and European elections, with Fine Gael trouncing FF with a clear call to reverse Ahern’s restrictions. Polls showed clearly that Ahern’s interference in the property market was deeply unpopular with middle class and aspiring middle class voters, and in June 2006, following a sustained campaign in the media, Charlie McCreevey announced that he was challenging Bertie Ahern for the party leadership. Although he defeated Ahern in the vote, McCreevy was beaten in the subsequent leadership election by Brian Cowen, his successor as finance minister, who pointed out that he believed in the “traditional idea that the leader of Fianna Failer should be, you know, a member of Fianna Fail.” The new cabinet announced it was reversing Ahern’s restricting on lending and restoring the tax breaks to the building industry.
The incoming Fine Gael/Labour coalition has said that it does not believe the fact that the country is building over 80,000 housing units when Sweden, with double the population, is only building 12,000, to be a cause for concern.
In other news, the family of Capt. Edward Smith, the “mad” captain of the RMS Titanic who rammed an iceberg in 1912 and caused over a £100,000 worth of damage to his own ship, have petitioned the British Government to clear the captain’s name. Smith, who died disgraced in 1950, always maintained that if he attempted to turn the ship away from the iceberg it could have been badly damaged along its hull in such a way as to sink the ship, a theory that modern engineers have recently begun to suggest has merit. For years, the phrase “To Smith Oneself” was a derogatory naval slogan to describe a foolish action taken by a person who claimed that they were attempting to avoid a greater catastrophe.
The former luxury liner continues to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in London, where it is moored.
Robert Ryan’s “The Dead Can Wait” is the second of (so far) three novels about Sherlock Holmes’s friend Dr. John Watson in his later years, serving with British forces during the First World War. Watson is asked by a well-known and senior figure in the British government to investigate the mysterious deaths of a number of British soldiers at a top secret establishment testing a new weapon which may change the direction of the war. Assisted by an Irish secret service operative and a former nurse from the front, Watson reveals that maybe he had paid more attention around Holmes than he’d first suspected.
When I read the book, my first question was when are they going to turn it into a TV series, as it has all the prerequisites. Ryan has captured the character of Watson well, making sure to portray the cautious, empathic and decent Watson of the original novels and the Jeremy Brett series rather than the Watson as buffoon which has become the de facto portrayal up until the 1980s. Mrs Gregson, the nurse turned mechanic turned suffragette is a wonderful foil to the older Watson’s old-school values. The two work together not dissimilar to a WWI version of The Avengers, yet another reason to make a TV show.
Ryan plays tricks with his readers with his writing style to throw a few red herrings about the place, but to his credit they’re honest twists that work by letting the reader make assumptions rather than by deliberating withholding information. It’s an enjoyable story that moves along at a solid pace.
If you’re a Sherlockian, I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And no, I’m not going to answer the obvious question. Read the book! Me, I’ll be reading the other two.
Watching a Channel Four news report during the week, I was surprised to find myself tearing up at the interview of a young Greek woman who, despite her desperate situation, passionately defended being a European citizen and wanting to be part of Europe.
Regardless of how Greece votes tomorrow, Greece isn’t going away. Regardless of its recent political history, and the Troika’s failure with regard to Greece, these are Europeans too. We can’t let Europeans go without food or medicine, indeed, if that’s the EU we’ve created even I think we should abandon it.
Syriza (and the IMF) are quite correct. The Greeks, regardless of how they created the debt, can’t pay it back, and crippling the country in an attempt to avoid admitting that is plainly immoral.
Having said that, Syriza and most of their European Left supporters are in denial about where Greece must go now. Syriza were elected on an either deluded or plain dishonest platform of pretty much restoring the old patronage and tax evasion ways. They protest that, but it is the reality.
But enough of the finger pointing: how do we now help this great people, and they are a great people, get off their knees and take their place as an economically sustainable EU nation?
Is it time to offer a compact: direct temporary control of tax collection, business regulation, labour and market reforms by Brussels, in return for direct welfare payments to Greeks to create a social floor beneath which no one will fall? We help them reform the economy, and in return either set up distribution of food, medicine, etc, or put money straight into their bank accounts.
Yes, I know, it sounds crazy. This is a sovereign democratic nation. But these are not normal times and this is not a normal crisis, and whatever about the political difficulty of selling a bail out in Germany or Finland, there are few Europeans who will begrudge us helping those at the bottom of the Greek pile.
Would such a compact need another referendum? Almost certainly. But at least we could be sure that writing off debt would be going hand in hand with putting in place the requirements to help Greece transform itself.
Greece is a beautiful country with the potential to be Europe’s holiday destination of choice. Its people are decent, compassionate and not afraid of work. But someone has to destroy the political and social structures that allowed generations of politicians to tell people economic fantasy.
This will hurt. Liberalisation causes uncertainty, and people will have to retire later, and yes, pay more tax. But there is a way out, and as part of that I’d rather some Greek grandmother look at a box of medicine with an EU flag on it, and know that Europe was more concerned with getting her medicine to her than trying to stop it.