• Spies like us: 'Callan at 50', 'Sixties Spies and Beyond'

    The secret agent has been a fixture in popular fiction since the novels of Conrad, Childers and Le Queux, and the genre eagerly embraced film and television as each of those media arrived. The 1960s, especially, saw an explosion (sorry) of espionage on the small screen, and the BFI Southbank caught the mood of those times at the weekend. A late episode of Callan starring Edward Woodward was followed by a panel discussion, a super-compilation of clips from a dozen different programmes of the period both reminded and introduced the audience to a wide range of interpretations,and the thoughts of veteran critic Kim Newman and equally long-serving BFI programmer Dick Fiddy prompted debate. Open Channel D please…

    The centrepiece of the weekend – itself part of the ‘Who can You Trust?’ season of British thrillers at the BFI – was ‘Suddenly - At Home’, first screened in 1970 and thus one of the more mature Callan stories. It was written by the series’ creator, James Mitchell, and saw the eponymous agent of Section tasked with dissuading a widow from taking part in a documentary about her late husband’s governmental work. A simple mission turns complex, however, when Callan falls for Lady Lewis and clashes with his colleague Cross (a well-named character if ever there was one). The true intentions of film-maker Joinville are also suspect, whilst Callan and Cross’s boss, Hunter may have motives of his own when tasking his men.

    Having never seen an example of the programme before, this was for me a perfect introduction. Mitchell’s script was tight, convincing and involving, and contained with some sharp digs at the circumstances – assumed and actual – of the main participants. The repetition of a single word of dialogue (“Promise?”) evidenced its poignancy and power – the episode’s title, a then-common phrase in obituary columns, hints at the reason. Michaell’s son Peter, present on the panel that followed the screening, noted how his father’s anti-establishment leanings were given voice in the series and, in response to a question about another writer in the field, pointed out that “Le Carre didn’t write characters like Callan, he wrotecharacters like Hunter!” The two bursts of violence in the programme were surprisingly powerful even in the context of today’s far more permissiveenvironment, a measure of the skills of writer and director.

    This last was Piers Haggard, who also joined the panel and who has directed films and television productions as varied as Pennies from Heaven, the final Quatermass production and cult horror Blood on Satan’s Claw. With this Callan episode, Haggard’s desire to “make it feel like a movie” as he put it was immediately apparent in an opening shot that tracked through the set, involved several actors in speaking roles and paused to view the action through the glass prisms of a merit award before moving on, all accomplished in one shot lasting around half a minute; ambitious indeed in a studio-bound drama of the time. Shooting through glass actually introduced another of Haggard’s self-confessed favourite devices, and mirrors were used several times in the episode to advance the action. Haggard described how shooting into reflective surfaces keeps two actors conveniently facing the camera, but this is disingenuous since it was notable how he deployed this as subtly and selectively as any other camera effect – elsewhere in the episode the opening of one mirrored bathroom cabinet door actually isolated the remaining figure as a reflection in the closed half. “The other thing about mirrors,” he added, “is that a thing becomes something else, becomes something else, becomes something else… it’s a way of progressing[the action] without changing [the shot]. Elaborating after the screening, Haggard said to me that in this way “you only use the cut when you want to.” Equally impressive was Haggard’s careful placement of actors within the depth of the frame in certain interior shots to create spatial interest, selective focus being used in one instance to add even more texture. Usually encountered only in widescreen cinematography, this was again a mature and visually adept approach for such an intimate (a 4:3 aspect ratio applied) and domestic (most interiors were offices or flats) setting.Haggard also told me of how he would work with the set designer for each production, ensuring for example the presence of “camera traps” to enable these difficult shots to be obtained. That all of this was achieved in a production schedule of just two days is astonishing.

    Prompted by the clip package, the second discussion explored the range of interpretations the genre received across the decade in question. Comparing and contrasting and noting the crossovers with westerns, war films and so on was fascinating. The roots of ‘Spy Fi’ were found by some in the gadgets of the period (which themselves derive from the escape aids Allied air crews were furnished with during the last war), but overlooked was surely the impact of the Space Age. That almost all of Gerry Anderson’s puppet series engaged the genre in some way was noted; indeed, one of the more enjoyable adventures of Thunderbirds, 'The Cham-Cham', sees Lady Penelope and Tin-Tin decamp to a ski resort in the Alps to investigate military sabotage. A useful difference was established between the tenor and tone of episodic spy stories in the US versus the UK, the one being predominantly the caper and the other tending toward the mole – reflecting, one assumes, the national character traits. The success or otherwise of big screen adaptations was covered at some length, albeit with few solid

    conclusions being drawn. And, lengthy thought the clips montage was, all acknowledged that still more programmes had been omitted. The likes of C.A.T.S. Eyes, The Americans, Now & Again and Alias, the last two of which are perhaps the most obvious inheritors of the Sixties vibe, would have also fulfilled the ‘beyond’ of the session title and filled the gap before Spooks (which was mentioned) and its ilk arrived.

    As it is, the enduring obsession we viewers have with those who work in the shadows is likely to continue.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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