Espionage – The Gentle Spies

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Gerry Painter (Barry Foster) is assigned to infiltrate a group of peace protestors who have somehow gained access to sensitive government secrets.  The government, in the shape of the Minister (Michael Horden), wants the mole identified and punished.  Gerry begins by attaching himself to Sheila O’Hare (Angela Douglas), a highly idealistic member of the group.  But his increasing feelings for her make it hard for him to concentrate on the matter in hand …..

The Gentle Spies is a fascinating time capsule of the mid sixties and also, after three very intense episodes, is quite a change of pace.  Although the topic it covers (unilateral disarmament) is weighty, it’s done in a fairly light-hearted manner.  This is best seen at the start when Gerry attempts to catch Sheila’s eye.  Foster, later to star in Van Der Valk, shows a deft comic touch whilst attempting to woo a very disinterested Douglas.

Ernest Kinoy’s script is firmly on the side of the protesters.  He takes great pains to depict them as totally non-violent – indeed, the only fracas occurs when Gerry (attempting to impress Sheila) throws a punch at a policeman.  He seems to boyishly assume this will get him into her good books, but it only serves to irritate her.  As for the information they release via leaflets (the location of the government’s secret bomb shelter, an accident involving a plane carrying a nuclear warhead) Kinoy seems to be suggesting that although they’re official secrets it’s in the public’s interest that they be released.  WikiLeaks is an obvious modern parallel.

Horden’s Minister is less forgiving though. “In a way it’s a lot worse than if the information had been leaked to a bona-fide Russian spyring. At least they’re professionals, you expect to lose a certain number of wickets to them.”  The Minister goes on to complain that he’s under pressure from Washington, so it seems that political expediency is driving his desire to find the mole.

The protestors are led by Lord Kemble (Alan Webb).  Kemble is a public figure (a former Nobel prize winner) and therefore a major thorn in the Minister’s side.  Kemble is a staunch believer in unilateral disarmament, although the rights and wrongs of this are only lightly touched upon.  Towards the end, the Minister tells him that this course of action would be suicide – if one side has the bomb, then the other must have it too.

At one point, Gerry runs into Willi Hausknecht (Eric Polhmann). Willi, an East German agent, has also attached himself to the protestors. For a moment it looks as if he’s the one supplying them with the information but it turns out that he’s aiming to find the source of the leak so he can obtain further intelligence for his masters. Nothing comes of this, as Gerry has him arrested, but it shows how idealists can be manipulated by the unscrupulous (Callan has several good examples of this).

Since the political and moral arguments of The Gentle Spies remain rather undeveloped, it’s the performances of Barry Foster and Angela Douglas that keep the story moving along.  If Foster is a strong leading man (albeit with a sense of humour) then Douglas essays a typically winsome performance.  Sheila is so whole-heartedly honest and open that it’s no real surprise that Gerry falls for her in a big way.

The reveal of the mole is practically an afterthought – it was the Minister’s wife, Sara (Joan Hickson).  Hickson, later to gain small-screen immortality as the definitive Miss Marple, holds the viewer’s attention for the last few minutes.  The Minister finds he can do nothing – which once again appears to be a demonstration of political expediency (if his wife was revealed as the mole then his career would be finished) and so the status quo remains in place.

As previously touched upon, The Gentle Spies is chiefly of interest due to the way it captures a snapshot of the mid sixties peace movement.  Sensible jumpers, placards and endless chorusus of “we shall overcome” are the order of the day.  It’s not the most complex episode of Espionage but neither is it without interest or merit.

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Gideon’s Way – Morna

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Everybody loved Morna Copthorne (Angela Douglas).  Or nearly everybody.  When she’s found shot dead, Gideon is tasked to investigate her murder – and he finds that a much more complex character emerges.

The opening scene is an interesting one – we see a fisherman discover Morna’s body and then we observe him rush off to inform the police.  But it’s all dialogue-free, instead the incidental music almost seems to be acting as a substitute.  It feels slightly odd, but it works.

We then cut to Gideon’s house as he, Kate and Matthew are planning a day out, although there’s no prizes for guessing that an important call will shortly force Gideon back on duty.  Kate looks far from happy (indeed, it’s pretty much the most disgruntled I can recall her looking throughout the whole series).

Morna was the daughter of an important man, Sir Robert Copthorne (Robert Adams), and some discrete strings have been pulled to ensure that Gideon heads the case.  During the early part of the episode we hear several fulsome tributes to the dead girl, starting with her father.  “What was Morna like? She was exquisite. She was like a rose, soft, fragile, lovely. Everything thing about her was beautiful.”  Poor Sir Robert seems a broken man.  Later he tells Gideon that since Morna was born late in his life, he now has nothing to look forward to.  The fact that he looks at his wife, Lady Copthorne (Shelagh Fraser), when he makes this statement is telling.

Gideon and Keen then travel to Morna’s exclusive public school, which is run by Harriet and Leonard Bright (Kay Walsh and John Justin) who continue the praise of the girl.  Harriet tells them that Morna was her favourite pupil (“she had all the qualities that make up a wonderful human being. She was so warm, so vital, so alive”).  Leonard is no less effusive. “She had a quality, you know. Same sort of quality a star has. She glowed.”

If all this sounds far too good to be true, then it’ll come as no surprise to learn that it is.  Everybody who praised Morna so fulsomely  had their own reasons and for many there’s an element of self deception.  For example, Lady Copthorne is the first to illuminate a chink in Morna’s armour – she drank.  Sir Robert seems disbelieving, but it’s more likely that he knew all along about her frailties, he just wouldn’t admit them.  Lady Copthorne then makes a damning statement about their child – by giving her every material gift they could, they ended up spoiling her.  She admits that they attempted to buy her affection, leaving the possibility open that Morna never cared for them at all.

Although Morna’s dead at the start of the episode, via flashbacks we do get to see her.  Because we’re effectively viewing her through the eyes of various people – her best friend Lydia Merritt (Alita Naughton), her fiancé Michael Usher (Norman Bowler) – there’s the possibility that the Morna we’re watching has been “edited” by them.  This doesn’t seem to be the case though.

Through various testimonies, we discover that Morna kept a flat in London, enjoyed gambling, marijuana and was pregnant.  She owed nightclub owner Chay (Johnny Sekka) eight hundred pounds and this seems at first to be the crisis she faced on the day of her death.  I’ve written elsewhere about how impressive Sekka was in the Z Cars episode A Place of Safety, and he’s equally good here.  Chay is someone with a chip on his shoulder – he’s a black man in a white man’s world – so below his charming exterior is a mass of resentment.  It bubbles to the surface after Gideon takes him in for questioning.  This interview is probably one of the most hostile seen in the series – compared to the likes of The Sweeney it’s tame stuff, but it pushed the series into an area that it didn’t often cover.

Angela Douglas (like Kay Walsh) was one of a select group of actors who played two different roles in Gideon’s Way.  Morna, like Cathy Miller in The “V” Men, is a vulnerable character.  Our perception of Morna certainly changes as the episode progresses, but she doesn’t suddenly turn into an “evil” person.  I think that Alun Falconer’s screenplay was attempting to make the point that she’s neither saint or sinner – just an ordinary person with human frailties.  And if she was painted by some as an untouchable goddess, then that was simply because they had agendas of their own.

As a big fan of Moonbase 3, my heart was warmed to see Barry Lowe in the small role of a forensics officer.  He clearly wasn’t a terribly good one though, as his examination of the boat house, close to where Morna’s body was found, failed to spot a bullet hole in the wall!

Kay Walsh had been the central figure in The Housekeeper, so the role of Harriet Bright appears, at first, to be much less interesting.  It’s certainly a smaller part, but it turns out to be a vital one.  John Justin is terribly good as her husband, a man who seems to have rather an inflated opinion of his teaching abilities.  Alita Naughton only had a handful of credits and there’s something a little distancing about her performance, which I think is down to the dubbing.  Her character, Lydia, was American, so possibly Alita’s American accent wasn’t terribly good and she was later redubbed?

Another good story, enlivened by some decent performances (most notably Johnny Sekka).

Gideon’s Way – The “V” Men

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Sir Arthur Vane (Ronald Culver) is the leader of the Victory Party, an extreme fascist political movement which creates controversy wherever it goes.  After Vane receives death threats, Gideon assigns (slightly against his better judgement) Chief Supt Bill Parsons (Allan Cuthbertson) to take charge of the case.  Shortly after, a bomb explodes outside Vane’s flat.  There’s a witness – but she disappears and Gideon finds it hard to track her down.

The “V” Men is a reminder that some things never seem to change.  Although this was made some fifty years ago it could just as easily been set in 2015.  The Victory Party has several aims (which appear to have been designed to alienate as many people as possible) – keep Britain white, kick out the financiers (especially the Jews) and also deal harshly with the pacifists.

Gideon’s superior, Commissioner Scott-Marle (Basil Dingham), recommends that Parsons takes charge of Vane’s security.  Gideon’s momentary hesitation, as well as Keen’s obvious dislike of the man, is a rarity in Gideon’s Way as generally we see the police work together in complete harmony.  Allan Cuthbertson made a career out of playing tightly-wound martinets, so his casting here is an obvious piece of shorthand.  Parsons doesn’t seem to be anything more than a humourless, unimaginative copper.

After Gideon overhears some of his aggressive questioning, he calls a halt to the interview and proceeds to gently try and set him on the right track.  He tells him there’s no law against being a fanatic, to which Parsons responds that there should be.  “I’m sick and tired of these people trying to push everyone around. Why don’t we shove the lot of them into jail?” This is the sort of statement that you know Gideon would object to, although it’s typical that Gregson plays the scene with a mild air of humour – helping to diffuse the tension.

Two plot-threads seem to be developing – the other concerns a young woman, Cathy Miller (Angela Douglas) who bumps into Vane as she’s making her way to a meeting with one of his neighbours, Peter Bennett (Dyson Lovell).  Bennett is shocked to be told by Cathy that she’s pregnant (Bennett is a married man).  Cathy was the woman seen running away from the flats following the explosion and is now being sought by the police.

Angela Douglas is winsomely attractive as Cathy and it’s the human drama of her personal situation that’s the most memorable part of the episode.  Parsons is convinced that Cathy is involved in the bombing, but Gideon isn’t.  Her questioning by both of them demonstrates the difference in approach they take.  Parsons attempts to browbeat and intimidate her, whilst Gideon favours a friendly and conversational approach (John Gregson is typically charming in these scenes).

The mystery of who planted the bomb isn’t solved until the last few minutes, as once Cathy is introduced it takes second place to her problems.  But when Gideon is able to reassure her that her pregnancy isn’t the end of the world, we can once again refocus on Vane.

The conclusion – as Vane comes face to face with his attacker – is certainly dramatic (although it does lurch over the top somewhat).  The identity of the bomber is unexpected, to say the least, and any remaining loopholes in the plot have to be explained away with the catch-all explanation that the man was quite mad.  So whilst the script doesn’t quite fulfill the potential it might have done, once again the guest cast (Culver, Douglas, Cuthbertson) help to cover most of the cracks.