An Englishman Abroad
by Thomas Brown, Dial, February 1986
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."
4's The Spying Game |
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Browne, by Alan Bates |
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.
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,"
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.
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
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
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. |||