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Abroad 1983


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t e l e v i s i o n .

 

An Englishman Abroad

by Thomas Brown, Dial, February 1986

A FEW YEARS AGO actress Coral Browne told writer Alan Bennett about the time "Cambridge spy" Guy Burgess stumbled into her dressing room in Moscow while she was touring with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1958. Bennett found the story irresistible -- and we find irresistible and unforgettable his screenplay for "An Englishman Abroad."
Directed by John Schlesinger ("Sunday, Bloody Sunday" and "Midnight Cowboy"), and starring Alan Bates as Burgess and Coral Browne as herself, "An Englishman Abroad" originally aired on "Great Performances" in 1984. It returns this month to intrigue us with its depiction of a man forced to live with an ideal he has outgrown.
Burgess met Browne during an intermission of "Hamlet" and invited her to lunch at his apartment seven years after he had disappeared and defected to the Soviet Union with fellow Cambridge alumnus and British diplomat Donald MacLean. Between 1951, when the British press burst with headlines about the "missing diplomats," and 1955, when they were reported to be in the Soviet Union, the counterespionage forces of almost every Western nation had joined in a global manhunt for the two.
Stephen Spender relates in his just-published memoir that Burgess told him he had planned to accompany MacLean only to Prague and then go on to Italy. When, in Prague, they heard of the newspaper stories about their disappearance, MacLean convinced Burgess to continue to Moscow.
Burgess was a Marxist, but he liked good English tailoring too much to be a rabid revolutionary. In the film he is shocked that anybody would consider him dangerous. "The analyses of situations I had to submit to the Foreign Office were always Marxist," he says. "Openly so, impeccably so. Nobody cared. 'It's only Guy, dear old Guy. Quite safe.' You could shove a whole slice of the Communist Manifesto into the Queen's Speech and nobody would turn a hair. Least of all HMQ."
By the time Browne toured the Soviet Union, Burgess had settled into a seedy apartment where he prepared a feast for his lunch guest that consisted of two tomatoes stuck with cloves of raw garlic. If Burgess had hoped for glory, he found none. To the Soviets he was low-level business, more of a bother than a socialist hero.
Bennett and Schlesinger have turned Browne's visit into an affecting drama. It was Burgess the exile, not Burgess the spy, who attracted Bennett. "I think an exile has much more intense feelings about his country than someone still here," Bennett said in a 1984 interview. "People say about exiles and about the Cambridge spies in particular that they wanted England to be simply a colony of Russia and as gray and featureless as a Communist state. But it seems to me that's the opposite of the case. They seem to suffer from an overdose of Englishness."
The exile did do his best to keep up a good front. "I love living in this country," he told Spender. "It's solid and expanding like England in 1860, my favorite time in history, and no one feels frightened." Yet he is reduced to stealing soap and cigarettes from Browne's dressing room and is followed everywhere by the police. Even the Russian lover he is allowed may be a policeman. (Says Bates as Burgess: "I know what I've done to deserve him, but what has he done to deserve me? Am I a reward or a punishment?") The picture still is of a man in love with things English, a man of wit surrounded by drabness. "They're not strong on irony, the comrades," he says.
In one of the film's more haunting moments, Burgess weeps as he stands and listens to the music of a Russian church service. The droll mask of a desperately homesick exile falls away, his true face revealed only in this dark sanctuary from the committedly atheistic state.
Burgess says: "So little, England. Little music, little art. Timid, tasteful, nice. But one loves it, one loves it." He died far from little England. On September 1, 1963, an official of a Moscow hospital announced that Jim Andreyevich Elliott -- the name by which Burgess was known in Russia -- had died from heart disease. The "Internationale" was played at his funeral three days later. Apart from MacLean, no one of note attended.
The story is also subtly hilarious -- as one might expect from a scriptwriter who was an original member of the Beyond the Fringe group of comedy writers and actors that included Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore. Witness Browne's realization on stage that it was the infamous Guy Burgess who had lurched into her dressing room looking for a place to be sick, or the way Burgess's matter-of-fact London tailor accepts a suit order as if the defector had been fitted only a day before. "Mum's always the word here," he says with utter English discretion. "Moscow or Maidenhead, mum is always the word."
Browne hesitated when asked to play herself twenty-five years later, but Schlesinger convinced her. Browne is primarily known for her Shakespearean roles with the Old Vic and other London productions including Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" and Joe Orton's "What the Butler Saw." You may have also seen her in films like "The Ruling Class" or "The Drowning Pool," or even with her husband Vincent Price in the shocker "Theatre of Blood."
If Alan Bates has chosen some questionable movie roles in the last few years, his performance here should remove any doubt that he is one of the great English-speaking actors.
The supporting cast is also excellent. There's Browne's fellow Shakespeareans, Claudius and Rosenkrantz (played by Charles Gray and Harold Innocent), the twits in the British embassy (Douglas Reith and Peter Chelsom), Burgess's Russian boyfriend (Alexei Jawdokimov), and Burgess's English tailor, shoemaker, and pajama peddler (Denys Hawthorne, Roger Hammond, and Trevor Baxter).
The filmmakers have successfully created a dismal Moscow from exteriors shot in cold, gray locations in Scotland. And the collaboration of Bennett, Browne, and Schlesinger remains generally faithful to what really happened. Bennett uses his dramatic liberty in some scenes -- the dressing room Burgess got sick in, for instance, was Michael Redgrave's, not Browne's -- but Browne remembered it all. "It was vividly etched in my memory," she says. "You don't meet a traitor to your country and forget it."
Though the production has plenty of humor and it is generally affectionate in its portrayal of Burgess (he had "bags of charm," says Browne), you may find it a disturbing experience. New York Times critic John J. O'Connor observes that in "An Englishman Abroad" "being treasonous, it seems, is not nearly so unseemly as being vulgar. And being charming can apparently excuse anything." However you find it, you'll find it hard to forget. |||

| Channel 4's The Spying Game |

| "Englishman" reviews, ephemera |

| Coral Browne, by Alan Bates |