Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Cold War – or just the old male workplace?


The recent repeat of their 1979 adaptation of the John Le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the BBC’s season about the Cold War recalled a period long gone, not just of espionage drama, but of when the male workplace was a staple of  TV drama.

In the 1960s and 1970s, most TV drama centred around male characters in different jobs and professions. In banking, in the legal profession, in the police, in journalism, in other commercial environments.  Astonishing to think, there was once even a prime-time drama, Hine, in which the lead character was an arms dealer.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was famously well written and acted, and highly publicised,  but I was probably drawn to it firstly due to a familiarity with that dramatic sub-genre.  Le Carré’s MI6 Circus, full of jargon and acronyms and code words and confidentiality and urgent trips out of the office to other work locations, bore not a little similarity to the business world of industrial manufacturing which I had just entered. In drama too as in life, women were in the minority and in positions which were more junior and less well paid.

The weakness of the recent film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for me is the fact that we the audience have moved too far away from that time. The film does have an attractively bleak cinematography which emphasises correctly how the Cold War period of the 1970s was still closely linked to its 1940s origins, and its characterisation of Toby Esterhase does present more deeply than did Arthur Hopcraft in the first dramatisation how a poor Eastern European background lay beneath Esterhase’s middle-class English establishment success. However, most of its actors do not convince as men of their period.  Colin Firth has clearly been cast for his crowd-pulling qualities and Benedict Cumberbatch’s youthful androgyny makes him look completely out of place. Gary Oldman is a reasonable age for George Smiley, but, perhaps because he is of my own generation and I know about our shared 1970s/1980s heritage, he doesn’t bring to the role the correct gravitas and mystery which Alec Guinness conveyed so elegantly.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was screened just after the arrival of a less prestigious ITV series, The Sandbaggers, written by Ian Mackintosh. It is instructive to watch the agents and officials in their old-fashioned smart suits, trilbies and bowler hats while they enact stories which are now also part of past history : about the Soviet concentration in the Kola peninsula adjoining Scandinavia, assassinations of African dictators, politicians open to blackmail because of alleged homosexual relationships, tensions in Cyprus, Palestinian terrorist groups who are funded by Libya, fears about whether Malta under the left-wing government of Dom Mintoff would become too-pro Soviet, how being out of NATO was seen to weaken French intelligence capability.

The special relationship between the British and the Americans was a constant theme in the series, just as it continued in the wider media during the concurrent leadership periods of Thatcher and Reagan.  CIA London agent Jeff Ross is a regular character and we frequently see him in discreet walks in parks and city streets with MI6 (although always referred to as SIS in the programme) Director of Operations Neil Burnside. There are constant moans about British defence spending cuts and how these compare unfavourably to the generous budgets enjoyed by the CIA, and story-lines refer to how operational plans are often thwarted by changing government priorities.

Like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Sandbaggers portrayed a male-dominated world of endless debates over minutiae and responsibilities, career progress and competition, established practices changed by individual whim, late nights, heavy smoking, barked phone conversations, food seen as secondary to the ever-changing business of the day, scant regard for domestic life outside the workplace castle.

I am always struck by occasions in such dramas where scriptwriters do acknowledge life outside. There are a couple of scenes in The Sandbaggers where Matthew Peele, the older Deputy Chief who still remembers life outside work, refers ruefully to his untended garden and missed bridge club,  much to the scorn of the obsessive Neil Burnside.

Later, Paul Dalgetty, the new Director of Intelligence who is seen as similarly clubbable and therefore promotable,  is shown telling another character that he has booked a squash court – squash in this era being a popular male action sport in TV characterisation as in real life.

Equally, I love the sequence in the original Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  which encapsulates the opposite obsession. George Smiley has returned late from an evening out and has been chauffeured away with little explanation by Peter Guillam. He is brought to an all-night meeting in a rural retreat to hear the damning allegations of MI6 leadership corruption from Ricky Tarr – which end with the curtains being pulled open and the morning sunlight of the world outside pouring in, and the distant sounds of a young girl’s music practice.


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A song whose time may be coming


The very first time I consciously heard “Freedom Come All Ye” was at the close of my first Dick Gaughan concert, in Glasgow in 1985. “Hamish Henderson called this the song of the century,” Gaughan introduced it, “and it’s the song I want to be our national anthem when we become independent.”

I had become a great fan of Gaughan by that time, both of his political songs and his more traditional material, so those comments struck me. I already knew and loved another Henderson lyric which Gaughan had recorded, “The John McLean March”.

Two elements of “Freedom Come All Ye” immediately engaged me: the tune, and those English words which I could discern from that first listen: the lines about the ships sailing from the Broomielaw and about John McLean meeting with his friends in Springburn.

What I didn’t realise at first was that the music of the song was traditional and not Henderson’s own composition – he followed the Robert Burns practice of writing words to traditional tunes –  so that reduced somewhat my initial awe for the song. Later again, I became a little less patient with the use of the Scots language as a medium. That first visceral impact of the song (of which a large part came from Gaughan’s unique delivery) began to dilute.

More recently, having heard the song regularly in various recorded and live versions, I have scrutinised its lyrics more closely. It is still greatly loved by more than one generation of left-leaning folk music fans.  But is it as great as Gaughan first said?

My present opinion is that it is perhaps three quarters of a great anthem.

The first stanza is mostly good. The song starts with references to weather and climate, good classic lyrical openings, as Burns himself applied in “Now Westlin Winds”.  Even an ear unused to the Scots language might pick out that the song is commenting on events of “the world the day” and that the actions of “rogues” are being criticised.

The second stanza is a bit more confusing. A reference to the ships sailing down the Broomielaw might be expected to be a heroic one but actually these ships are not the newly-launched Clyde-built products of working-class craftsmen but departing troop carriers mourned by onlookers. “Scotland the Brave”, also usually a reference to heroism, is here explicitly described as a “curse”. In fact, the stanza is supporting equally the plight of Scottish soldiers forced to fight unnecessary wars abroad and the inhabitants of the countries they invade.

It seems that Henderson was being critical and ironic with language which is often taken at face value, the language of national and imperial martial success. Rather in the way Bruce Springsteen was angry that his “Born in the USA” was misread by US Republicans as a jingoistic flag-waver rather than as a statement of anger at the country’s betrayal of its war-veteran working-class.

Henderson’s lyrics clarify again at the start of the final stanza. The “freedom” of the title is signposted at the start and there is a clear exhortation not to listen to voices of fear and reaction.  The reference to John McLean is indeed one of celebration, about his revolutionary ideas being put into practice. However, the phrase “painted room” is surely too flimsy to represent such ideas as a home fit for heroes or the 21st century Americanism of homeland.  The final image of pulling down gallows is a powerful one but the reference to “a black boy” now sounds uncomfortably close to the colonialism which Henderson was challenging. It’s also a weak phrase for the song’s big finish. And why the specific naming of “Nyanga” at the end? Apparently it was a location of anti-apartheid protest but is certainly now rather less well-known than Sharpeville or Guernica or Auschwitz.

Of course the delivery of a song is all-important. Most versions of “Freedom Come A Ye” which I have heard present it in a dramatic, martial way from start to finish. Maybe it should be sung more delicately and gently, with differing emphases as the imagery shifts from heroic to bleaker. I don’t remember enough of the details of Gaughan’s performance in 1985 but You Tube has a TV performance  from 1989 which is excellent.  His delivery is sweet but manly and measured and I note he changes that penultimate line from “black boy” to “black lad”, slightly less horrible as a phrase plus more assonant to the ear.  Of course Gaughan would be the first person to admit he can’t quite sing like that any more!

Scotland now sits a little closer to the political situation which Gaughan envisaged in his 1985 comments but I think today’s Scotland is a little less attached to the Scots language than Hamish Henderson hoped we might be.  It will be intriguing to see whether the political and cultural discussions which continue during this year will give the song a higher profile.

A man is entitled to change his mind over time. Gaughan’s most recently reported views on the song, when he performed it in Edinburgh on 1 January this year, show a slightly different attitude to it. In an epithet which was apparently first coined by the late Labour MP and folk music aficionado Norman Buchan, Gaughan said, “The best way to kill a song is to make it a national anthem.”



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A Christmas journey


Happy New 2014!

The most famous poem about the Epiphany is probably “The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot.  The picture it draws is so unlike that of the famous paintings of the Nativity. While the latter are usually full of rich, colourful detail, Eliot’s scene seems to be only sketched outlines, or, at most, in shades which are muted and sombre.  

The first stanza brings in a few details about the physical journey made by these Three Wise Men, the places they saw and the people they met.  It was a demanding journey and many things were exasperating. The conversational list contrasts at the end with the narrator’s reference to “the voices singing in our ears” during their night-time travelling.  Are these the angels who are calling to the shepherds? It is now almost morning.

The second stanza has some striking images which foreshadow Jesus’ adult life: the “three trees” hint towards the crucifixion at Calvary and the “dicing for pieces of silver” either to the Roman soldiers’ gambling for his clothes or to Judas’ betrayal; the “vine-leaves” and “empty wine-skins” might anticipate either his first childhood miracle at Cana or the parable reference of new wine in old wine-skins. It starts with the momentous-sounding “Then at dawn…” and ends with the famous understatement that “the place…was (you might say) satisfactory”.

The final stanza, reflecting that “All this was a long time ago…” has a tone of loss and regret which suggests that the famous journey of the title is greater for what it has changed within these men, a change which has not brought comfort and happiness, or at least not yet.

For me, Eliot’s distinctive voice suits this a little less well than “The Wasteland”. I enjoyed Saeed Jaffrey’s delivery and the TV report format used in the BBC programme Essential Poems for Christmas of a few years ago. Fred Proud also catches the mood well.


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