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Conspiracy and the British spy hero

Joseph Oldham, Film and Television Studies

Published October 2012

James Bond's continued success is testimony to spy fiction's enduring popularity as a genre. What does change, however, is the nature of its heroes and themes, as they reflect the political and public concerns of their time. Here, Joseph Oldham explores how, in particular, conspiracy and institutional paranoia are a growing undercurrent of the genre in recent spy fiction.

Lego spySpy protagonists often find themselves in dangerous and uncertain worlds of shifting loyalties and conspiratorial systems, an ever-growing undercurrent of contemporary spy fiction.

This is a striking change in emphasis from earlier models of British espionage on film and television. The initial Bond films of the 1960s, commencing with Dr No (1962), presented little doubt regarding the fundamental integrity of the state institutions served by the protagonist. The 1960s was also the peak decade of the British spy on television, with adventure series such as The Avengers (1961-9), The Saint (1962-9) and Department S (1969-70) upholding this optimistic image of Western intelligence work, inflected with a contemporary ‘pop’ aesthetic.

Post-War British spy thrillers such as these have regularly played out a fantasy in which, beneath the nation’s imperial decline, Britain remains a key player in a ‘secret world’ concealed from everyday life and visible politics. The reassuring function of such thrillers is in ordering the chaos and violence of the world into distinct threats which can be defeated one-by-one in each instalment. However, more pessimistic strands also existed during this period, such as the Harry Palmer films and the television series Callan (1967-72) which drew upon the hard-boiled style to develop a seedier vision of intelligence work.

In subsequent decades numerous political scandals and the emergence of international terrorism as a headline issue has revealed the ‘secret world’ to be less affirmative and more chaotic than might have been hoped. The terrorist threat of the 1970s was addressed in The Professionals (1977-83), a toughened-up retooling of the 1960s adventure series, featuring hard-men who combated dissidents ‘by any means necessary’. Elsewhere, the British spy thriller has been increasingly hybridised with characteristics of the conspiracy thriller, a genre which underwent a significant Hollywood boom in the 1970s against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal, with films such as The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). Another catalyst was a home-grown British conspiracy, specifically the Cambridge Five betrayal and the scandal of its cover-up. Notably, the novelist John Le Carré’s treatment of Kim Philby’s exposure, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), received a prestigious seven-part BBC adaptation in 1979. This complex, long-form narrative paved the way for a cycle of original multi-part conspiracy thrillers in the 1980s, including Edge of Darkness (1985) and A Very British Coup (1988), which meditated upon the problems of the ‘strong state’ associated with Margaret Thatcher’s government.

In some respects the spy and conspiracy genres can be seen as opposite sides of the same coin, as both frequently dramatise a conflict between state institutions and subversive elements, yet the conspiracy thriller is often more inclined to appreciate the oppositional perspective. By placing the emphasis on institutional paranoia, rather than addressing the chaos and ‘messiness’ of political and social conflict episodically, the conspiracy thriller seeks to build these issues into its own totalising systems and explanations. Though often pessimistic, it finds its heroes in isolated individuals who resist the corruption of institutions.

Spy carIn the first decade of the 21st century, Spooks dramatised the domestic front of Britain’s involvement in the ‘War on Terror’. Initially chiefly concerned with the combat of terrorists, thereby reviving the ‘counter-terror’ narrative model of The Professionals with a more ‘realist’ tone, the series evolved a complex meditation on contemporary concerns such as the erosion of civil liberties and growing culture of surveillance, and many episodes dealt with systemic political corruption. Spooks developed into a hybrid, incorporating traits of the conspiracy thriller into the traditional spy thriller model, yet its critiques were limited by the fundamental narrative impulse of spy fiction towards maintaining the status quo.

Initially such developments were largely ignored by the Bond films, which were able to retain an optimistic tone into the 1990s, helped by nostalgic ‘retro’ revival of 1960s spy fiction in this decade. Indeed, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond seemed to embody a sense of post-Cold War optimism and, as a charismatic and informal figure with an interventionist stance on world affairs, arguably reflected the contemporary image and popularity of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Yet his subsequent replacement by Craig, as Blair’s foreign policy became more controversial, read like a crisis of this image. In Casino Royale (2006) Bond (by now suspect) charm was reconfigured, and his role as an individualist, untamed by the British political institutions, was both emphasised and questioned. Global terrorism has been a more substantial focus in Craig’s films than in preceding instalments, yet in Quantum of Solace (2008) this was counterbalanced by the revelation of extensive corruption in the British state, the first significant intrusion of conspiracy into the Bond series.

Recently themes of institutional conspiracy have even entered period drama with espionage themes, such as the film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and the television series The Hour (2011-), providing a historical dimension to this crisis. Skyfall and Hunted appear set to continue the development of conspiratorial tropes within the spy genre, challenging its tendency towards optimism and closure, and this tension offers the potential to engage with new political contexts in a contemporary framework.

Joseph Oldham is an Associate Fellow in the Department of Film and Television Studies, leading seminars on "The Hollywood Cinema" and "Basic Issues & Methods: Film Criticism". His PhD thesis, 'Serial Narratives of the Secret State in British Television Drama', is a study of the history of the spy and conspiracy genres on British television. His research interests include British television history, British cultural history, spy and clandestine fiction, and paranoid aesthetics and narratives.


BrickArms Spy Carbine prototype by Andrew Becraft (via Flickr)
Tatra 603 on a Spying Mission at the Airbase... by tatraSkoda (via Flickr)