Essays: Exporting our secrets |
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Exporting our secrets

AS the week wore on the news programmes made it increasingly clear that the British Government should ask the Soviet Union for a large annual contribution towards the funding of our intelligence services. To pay the EEC for having our economy ruined is perhaps historically justifiable, but to go on providing the USSR with a free espionage system is downright perverse.

But the cost to the revenue goes far beyond that. Supplying the prospective enemy with our plans by clandestine means inevitably entails that the contract for the laser-guided carbon-fibre tank sprocket will go to a Soviet factory. There is no reason why the relevant secret part should not be built here and exported to the Russians in the normal way. No wonder Mrs Thatcher sounded so angry in Parliament. The news programmes carried stills of Mrs Thatcher while her disembodied voice whined bitterly. She was pretending to be in a wax about Mr Chapman Pincher, but anyone with half an ear could tell that she was really on about costs.

On News at Ten (ITN) Pincher was asked why he or anyone should lend credence to information about MI5 emanating from within that organisation. Pincher said ‘No comment,’ but it was a good question. All the straight news programmes and most of the back-up shows, ‘Nationwide’ included, featured spokesmen keen to insist that MI5, or whatever it is called nowadays, is nowadays worth every penny, whatever that is called nowadays. It would have been more reassuring to hear this if you could have driven the thought out of your head that everyone in the intelligence services now must have been recruited by people who were in the intelligence services then.

Still, the bad news had at least one good angle: the Social Democrats, who were also in the news on account of having at last come into official existence, have been supplied with a good argument for abolishing the public schools, always supposing that any of them, apart from Shirley Williams, ever favours such a move. The connection between the British class system and treason might be difficult to establish, but there is no difficulty at all about establishing the connection between treason and boarding school. Sensitive children who feel betrayed by mummy will get their revenge one way or another. Add an old-school-tie network on top of that and you’ve got an unbeatable formula for ensuring that all the most delicate areas of public service are staffed by traitors.

But enough for now. More when it is at last revealed that Sir Winston Churchill worked for the Abwehr. Several readers, presumably representative of viewers in the London and certain other areas who happened to be awake at midnight last Sunday, have written to ask whether I was drunk while delivering my contribution to the post-BAFTA drone-in, After the Awards (LWT). The brief answer is that if I drank at all I would have been as drunk as a skunk.

One didn’t so much mind the way the ceremony ran half an hour over: nowadays one does one’s best not to die of frustration if the chance to shoot one’s mouth off is postponed. But the ceremony ran half an hour over because it had been dithering with such meaningless questions as who should win the prize in a category that included both World Championship Snooker and the siege of the Iranian Embassy. If BAFTA wants to be taken seriously it should put its house in order. No doubt many viewers found the ceremony entertaining but it could be all of that and sensible as well.

Back at the start of the viewing week, Unity (BBC2) made a sort of half impact, like one side of a bomb going off. Dramatised by John Mortimer from the book by David Pryce-Jones, it told the story of the Mitford sister who fell for Hitler. Other Mitford sisters fell, at various angles, for Stalin, Sir Oswald Mosley and the Duke of Devonshire. In the eye of history it turned out that Unity drew the short straw, but this was by no means apparent at the time, when certain sections of the British aristocracy thought Hitler admirable. Pryce-Jones’s book caused its furore largely because of its explicit doubts about whether the nobs concerned should be allowed to forgive themselves for this. Sir Oswald himself turned up in London to assure the television audience that Unity had been nothing more than a stage-struck gel and that he objected to the issue being raised.

A lot of other top-drawer people objected right along with him. Most of them had never been Nazi sympathisers, but they all shared what Lord Annan has usefully defined as the aristocratic theory of politics, by which people’s social acceptability can be held to excuse their political views. Actually the play would have done a better job of rebutting that theory if it had made Unity nicer. What it made her was very nasty indeed. Lesley-Anne Down made her look suitably beautiful but she sounded like a raving bitch at all times, which rather blunted the point when she was shown being beastly to the Jews. She was beastly to everyone and everything, with the possible exception of the beasts. Large dogs lolled everywhere, so that the Nazis could fondle them, prod them with the toe of a jackboot, etc.

Hitler spent a lot of time prodding his wolf-hound. For just a moment he looked believable. Also he had the correct voice — a slightly husky rich purr, it could obviously have filled a stadium at the swell of a lung. But in all other respects he just wasn’t the man. His incipient dementia was conveyed by pop eyes. Since he chewed the carpet in real life, there are difficulties in the way of making him credible, but there is no point in trying to dodge the fact that he had real charisma. He made a genuine appeal to the dark places in human nature. If he could have been shown doing that, there would have been something both plausible and instructive about Unity’s multiple orgasm of Sieg heil!

Sieg means victory. Unity thought she was on to a winner. Other golden products of her generation put their money on an alternative brand of totalitarianism, but what united them all was power-worship. They were a minority even within their class. On the whole the British upper crust has traditionally remained impervious to big ideas, although it is a nice question whether this can be put down to good sense or philistinism. Anyway, the British aristocracy is in no danger of being thought dispensable. The inspiration it provides for television drama series would alone be sufficient reason to keep it going, just as the upper middle class is vital in providing material for the spy series which have contributed so heavily to the balance of payments.

Only a Game (Thames), conceived by several minds of which the director Leslie Blair’s would appear to be the most formative, was a play about football that looked like a documentary. There was not a well-bred voice to be heard, which was a huge relief. Not even the manager turned out to be a Russian spy.

There was a fascinating Horizon (BBC2) about sign language. Profoundly deaf people are often discouraged from learning it, but the argument that it is no adequate substitute for ordinary speech was here refuted. A man told a story about a bomb-shelter while the hurrying sub-titles barely kept pace with the marvellous eloquence of his hands. The show was written and produced by Vivienne King, who should be congratulated for her imagination.

The Observer, 29th March 1981
[ An excerpt from this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]