This week saw BBC2's Newsnight broadcast 'the holy grail' of espionage aficionados; the discovery of a long forgotten interview with Guy Burgess of the Cambridge spy ring in Moscow (see link here) For someone like myself, who used to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Burgess, Philby, Maclean and Blunt being given the unexpected chance to see and hear Burgess speak was a real treat. It's fitting therefore that following that surprise I decided to watch Dennis Potter's 1971 play Traitor which saw a BAFTA award winning turn from John Le Mesurier as a fictionalised defector to the USSR from the dreaming spires and the ruling classes of England.
Traitor is a claustrophobic piece that sees a party of Western journalists visit the Moscow flat of the notorious traitor of the title, Adrian Harris (Le Mesurier), to secure the rare scoop of interviewing the former MI6 controller and Soviet double agent.
Much like the pieces concerning Philby that appeared in the newspapers in the late 60s, Traitor's main set - Harris' Moscow flat - is depicted as a bare and minimal room save for just a couple of chairs and a table with the obligatory bottle(s) of spirits ready to hand. Even in exile, Philby remained nostalgic for 'his' England and Harris also shares this sentiment as witnessed by the metaphorical landscape portrait of rural England that adorns the wall of his flat, sticking out like a sore thumb.
Like the best autobiographers and journalists who concerned themselves with the Cambridge spies, Potter explores the dichotomy inherent in the notion of treason. For the reporters and indeed much of the outside world, Harris betrayed his country by becoming a committed communist who passed on vital information to the KGB that cost people their lives. But as the deeply troubled and slowly intoxicated Harris continues to maintain, it was not his country which he betrayed but rather his class. Potter himself discussed “the misstatement that someone could politically betray their country and be presumed not to love it” and via his trademark flashbacks we began to understand and empathise with Harris' point of view; his upbringing was one of an aloof father and a strict, violent boarding school regime where he was physically slapped by the headmaster for having a stutter and therefore proving incapable of reciting Blake (quotations feature heavy in Traitor and the present day Harris seems to seek solace in his ability to say them now just as much as he takes solace in the bottle) As a result it's easy to see why someone would not feel loyal to such a lifestyle and, in one of the most satisfying moments of the play, when we see footage of the Jarrow Marches, the general strike and the back to back penury of the working classes of the 1920s and '30s accompanied by that traditional paean to England, Jerusalem, we become aware of a very different and more important England that Harris both believes in and wanted to fight for. “There is another England, you know?" he cries out to the reporters at one point "And you can paint it in blood and tears and sweat and slime and shit!"
As with many of Potter's works there is more going on with Traitor than initially meets the eye. A double agent is of course a wholly unreliable narrator and duplicitous figure and this ultimately bleeds into the play itself when, in the final scene, we suddenly flashback to the beginning and a replay of Harris awaiting the journalists. Except this time we are privy to something Potter did not reveal at the start - Harris discovering that the KGB has bugged his flat in preparation for the meeting. “Remember the microphones and be careful… For God’s sake remember the microphone!” we hear Harris say in his head as he opens the door to greet the reporters. So what is this? Is it a straightforward flashback in which it is revealed that Harris knew he was bugged and has just lied to his Western audience by putting on an act? Or does this flashback suggest that the entire play has been in Harris’s mind - that the journalists have only just arrived and everything we have witnessed is Harris imagining what is likely to happen next? Either is possible as witnessed by his description of “home” as “a journey you take inside your head” or his references to the likes of Nellie Dean, the equally unreliable narrator of Wuthering Heights. Either way, Harris is continuing to be the master of deceit and is lying to someone, be it the journalists, the KGB, or even just to himself.
Traitor is an extremely dialogue heavy static piece which despite its brilliance does occasionally make it heavy going. That it was later remade for radio is particularly telling. Nevertheless it benefits greatly here from the performance by Le Mesurier for whom Nancy Banks-Smith said "cursed with so Hamlet-like a face, he seems to have been coerced into comedy. This, is Hamlet, was worth waiting for" Le Mesurier was by then a household name thanks to Dad's Army and his arrival to the role says much about Potter's intentions to cast comedic actors against type (some of his first choices included Tony Hancock for Jack Hay in Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton - previously reviewed here - Spike Milligan in Pennies from Heaven and Max Wall and Jimmy Jewel for Blade on the Feather) The actor was extremely hesitant in accepting the role, nervous about the long speeches and swearing and scared that he would not be able to ''pull it off''. In the end his fears were unfounded and he won the BAFTA for Best TV Actor that year. It was said that Le Mesurier, not a great believer in awards, used the statuette to prop open his bedroom door!
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic Play for Today's please sign the petition I started here