By Val Gielgud
First published: UK, Collins, 1963
Gielgud – brother of John, director of the first television drama, and collaborator with Carr – took readers into Scottish technocrat John Reith’s BBC (Death at Broadcasting House, 1934). He also gave them The First Television Murder (1940).
The Goggle-Box Affair, a quarter of a century later, is set in the early ’60s worlds of commercial television and espionage.
I know ’60s television well; I wrote one of my theses on the debate between Director-General Hugh Greene (liberal) and NVALA campaigner Mary Whitehouse (not a liberal) over the purpose of the BBC, and the rise of the permissive society.
Television of the period was often experimental, surreal, and imaginative. The decade kicked off with The Strange World of Gurney Slade (a whimsical, philosophical, surreal show about a character who walks off the set of a banal sitcom), and continued with The Avengers, Doctor Who, and The Prisoner.
It produced several outstanding dramas (The Forsyte Saga and The Caesars); entertaining adventure shows (Danger Man, The Saint, Adam Adamant Lives!, and The Champions); comedies (Not Only But Also, Monty Python, Dad’s Army); and thought-provoking science fiction (anthology series Out of the Unknown, Nigel Kneale’s Year of the Sex Olympics).
The golden age of television that began in the ’50s with the Quatermass serials puttered out in the early ’90s. I’ve watched very little television made since then: the BBC isn’t what it was; American television is largely vapid; and Australian television unwatchable.
(“I tolerate this century, but I don’t enjoy it.”)
Gielgud could have done much more with his television background. It’s well-written and characterized, and the opening chapters promise an entertaining mystery in the line of Nicholas Blake, Michael Gilbert, or his own classic Broadcasting House, combining a fair play puzzle plot with a look at the workings of a company.
The ratio of sound to noise is off, though; there’s a lot of static, too many talking heads, and not enough content.
There are some clever ideas (a TV producer is ideally placed for Intelligence work, and a man is driven to suicide with a tape-recording) – but it doesn’t add up to a satisfying detective story.
Note sympathy for a Pole who lost his country after WWII; and German refugees escaping to Britain.
Homosexuality is suggested as a motive for a highly placed spy to commit suicide. The 1957 Wolfenden Report had recommended decriminalization between consenting adults; this didn’t happen until 1967.
The espionage elements were also topical; Britain’s reputation suffered in 1963, with both the Profumo affair and Philby’s defection to Russia, a dozen years after Maclean and Burgess. Fleming’s Bond novels and the successful franchise (Dr. No, 1962) attempted to redress this through fantasy.
“I was brought up on the spies of William le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim; Silver Greyhounds; Monte Carlo, and the Orient Express; Balkan diplomats with beards and enamelled crosses hung round their necks, and slinky adventuresses, with plans of fortresses in their corsages. Enormous fun – and you couldn’t believe a word of it.
“Which is a long way from Eric Ambler and Graham Greene: seedy little men in grubby raincoats skulking in shadowed alleys with half-smoked cigarettes and bad consciences on a salary of a few pounds a month: layabouts game to sell anything or anyone at the drop of a hat, and usually with nasty sexual proclivities. That’s the contemporary accepted picture. And that’s a long way from the real thing – the thing that matters: spies with solid social backgrounds like Alger Hiss or Burgess and Maclean; atomic spies with outstanding professional attainments, like Fuchs and Ponte Corvo. The most important thing for the genuine spy, the dangerous spy, is his ‘cover’.”
He had almost made up his mind to waste a couple of hours in a cinema, and was looking half-heartedly at the list of films currently showing in the vague hope of finding one that did not include rape, space-fictional horrors, the amours of French beatniks Italian layabouts or the English redbrick-student fraternity…
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):
An excellent example of the tale based on finding out what a man has done and who his acquaintances are in order to discover who has murdered him. The wife, friends, business associates are all turned inside out, and the result is a kind of interlocked multiple biography. There are good reflections on espionage, too, for Val Gielgud is an educated man as well as a skilful writer. (Compare [Frank] Swinnerton, On the Shady Side.)