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A new film by Huw Lemmey and Onyeka Igwe

Smiley takes a handkerchief from his pocket and with it wipes the smears from his glasses. Placing them on his face, his eyes are suddenly illuminated, enlarged, framed by their thick rims. Large, dark, open. Ricki Tarr looks at him. “I’ve got a story to tell you,” he says, “it’s all about spies. And if it’s true - which I think it is - you boys are going to need a whole new organisation.” This moment comes at the end of the first episode of the 1979 BBC adaption of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a masterpiece of 20th century British television. It’s a coming together of some of the nation’s great storytelling talent; the original author, John Le Carré, perhaps the greatest ever spy writer; producer Jonathan Powell and director John Irvin; and actors like Alec Guinness, Beryl Reid, Ian Richardson, Patrick Stewart. The story they told - all about spies - is a brilliant one. Brilliant because it rejects the temptation of heroes. The opacity of the lives of secret service operatives makes them appealing as complex heroes; men like James Bond or Jason Bourne. Le Carré, instead, highlights the nature of a network, a series of flawed men (and occasionally women) whose role is social, shaped and enforced by the organisations in which they operate. Compulsion and doubt are at the core of Le Carré’s characters, and especially George Smiley.

Perhaps this is why Guinness, a sensitive actor attuned to the subtle pressure of self-doubt, is the perfect choice to play Smiley. After accepting the role, Guinness wanted to meet a real spy. Le Carré arranged a rendevous at the pub between himself, Guinness, and the recently retired former head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Sir Maurice Oldfield. He observed Oldfield closely; Le Carré described him as an “orangutan” - a natural mimic. The cleaning of the glasses: that was Oldfield. He noted that Oldfield wiped the rim of his glass before he drank from it. Out of earshot, Guinness asked Le Carré whether he was checking for poison. Alas, he was just checking whether the glass had been cleaned properly. Oldfield, really, was the model for the on-screen Smiley. It was a fitting tribute to the old spymaster, whose legacy, otherwise, was dirt for many years. After leaving MI6 his security clearance was revoked, following the discovery that he was a homosexual. 

Homosexuality was a matter of national security. Since the 1950s, its discovery would lead to instant dismissal on security grounds. Yet at the same time, homosexuality had long been deeply intertwined with the security services in the UK. Ironically, the class prejudices in pre-war recruitment techniques tended towards the hiring of homosexuals, drawing new recruits on the basis of personal recommendation from friends, all alumni of elite universities (largely Oxford and Cambridge) in which homosexual subcultures and secret societies already flourished. Young men without family ties, with a love of risk, with a sense of being, somehow an outsider: how could they not?

These cultures emerged into the wider social consciousness in the 1950s and ‘60s, in a series of spy scandals involving queer spies that were laid over a public and media culture in which homosexuality was becoming more visible and legible as a social ill, a network of men within British society who lived somehow apart, underneath, the social fabric. Perhaps it was contagious; it seemed to be getting worse. There was the defection of Burgess and Maclean to the Soviets, two high-ranking members of the Cambridge Five, a yet-to-be-uncovered ring of double agents operating at the height of the British establishment. Maclean’s prodigious homosexuality was an open secret amongst that establishment, covered for until his habits of drinking, cruising and fucking came close to an international incident. That story seemed to ring true to the British people; there was something seditious and untrustworthy about men who lived in the shadows. It was compounded by the Vassall affair a decade later, when John Vassall, a staffer within the Admiralty, was exposed as a Soviet agent who had been blackmailed having been caught in a honey-trap by the KGB at a gay Moscow gangbang years earlier. 

It was these stories, and their emergence into the hostile, paranoid public sphere, that were the influence for my new film, Ungentle, which opens at Studio Voltaire on 16th September. Ungentle is a fiction with its feet firmly in history. After several years of research (much of which will be included in an upcoming book of the same name) I wanted to explore how love and friendship proved so key in the shaping of geopolitical futures. Perhaps this is the sharpest edge between history and desire; many of these men led lives in which their immediate and long-standing desires for other men would go on to shift the balance of the Cold War, to change government policy, and to expose the weaknesses of the establishments of Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union. Conversely, their outings and exposures would go on to shape the attitudes of the public, especially in the UK and the US, to homosexuality, creating a link between homosexuality and the idea of sedition and treachery that would last right up to the past few decades: perhaps even today

I made the film in collaboration with the filmmaker and artist Onyeka Igwe. A touchstone for our discussions about the film has been how the British have represented espionage in their own visual culture over the years. An obvious reference would be the Bond film franchise, yet Bond represents something of an anomaly: an attempt by the British to craft a form of virile masculine self-representation in a world where its former colonies were throwing off their imperial rule. In a world where the British held decreasing levels of influence, the idea that it was still calling the shots and shaping history, just this time in secret, was intoxicating to cinema audiences, and helped the nation rebuild its soft power: its cultural influence as a well-spoken supporting character within the American Empire. 

Far more influential to us were television representations such as the 1979 Tinker Tailor series (based on a book itself deeply influenced by the Cambridge Five) in which there was an ambivalence over the violence and moral rectitude of spycraft, but which, at the same time, harboured nostalgic views of Britain’s geopolitical role. Unlike the flashy international action scenes of Bond, shows like Tinker, Tailor dwelt on the London of its day; a crumbling Cold War society squatting within a grand Victorian metropole. Its interior shots are quiet and dark, its exteriors cold and wet. In our film, we return to the significant historical sites of British homosexual espionage to capture some of those ghosts, and use them as the scenery on which these stories are acted out. The actor Ben Whishaw narrates the film; as the protagonist, it is his story that, I hope, fills out some of the desires that make sense of these lives devoted to secrecy. Yet there is no “why” to their stories, not really. If you believe in treason, you can never understand its justification.

The original season of Tinker Tailor finished its screening on BBC2 mere weeks before art historian Anthony Blunt, the much-sought-after “fourth man” in the Cambridge Five spy ring, was revealed to the nation by new Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Blunt had attempted to sue the journalist Andrew Boyle to prevent the publication of his new book on the Cambridge Five, The Climate of Treason. In the book he refers to the “fourth man” by the pseudonym Maurice after the main character in the eponymous book by EM Forster. Maurice, the character, was a homosexual, a man whose life is sent off its “normal” course by the realisation of his desire for a working-class man. Blunt too was a homosexual; a snob, maybe, but one whose life had been shaped by a secret affinity with struggle of the working class. Blunt’s case was an example of the Streisand Effect; in suing, he inadvertently outed himself, and Private Eye named him as the fourth man, a fact confirmed in Parliament by Thatcher. 

I hope in Ungentle we have traced, in film, some of the hidden contours of these histories. I hope that the film itself captures the complex representation of both spies, and England itself. I could talk more on some of the influences and stories behind it; the TV work of director Alan Clarke, for example, or the role of the buildings and landscapes which we have used to tell our story. But perhaps, if it’s a story you’re also interested in, it's best to see it for yourself. The film opens from 16th September, although there’s an opening event, which is free and open to all, on the 15th, from 6-8pm. It will then run at Studio Voltaire until 31st December. At the top of this page is the trailer for the film.

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Huw Lemmey's 'Utopian Drivel'
Huw Lemmey's 'Utopian Drivel'
Huw Lemmey