1970s Alan Bridges BBC Dennis Potter Directors Play For Today Writers

Play for Today: Traitor

By Joseph Oldham

Written by Dennis Potter, directed by Alan Bridges and produced by Graeme McDonald. Broadcast on BBC1 at 9.20 pm on Thursday 14 October 1971.

‘Exiled in Moscow’, declared the front cover of the Radio Times (9-15 October 1971), heralding the return of Play for Today for its second series. The main image depicted a slightly dishevelled man standing in front of a small painting of an English landscape – over this, a caption described the premise of this first play in the new run: ‘An English ex-spy lives with the memory of what he has betrayed’.

Traitor (14 October 1971) was a new play by Dennis Potter, who had rapidly established himself as one of Britain’s most prolific and acclaimed television playwrights since his single play debut on Play for Today’s predecessor The Wednesday Play six years earlier. In this latest work, Potter offered a study of Adrian Harris (John le Mesurier) – former British intelligence officer and long-time Soviet double agent. Now in his later years, Harris has defected to Moscow, where he lives in solitary exile. At the outset of the play, four Western journalists arrive at his flat, seeking an interview with the famous traitor – this is the catalyst which will give the audience some tantalising glimpses into Harris’s background and psychology.

Potter’s model for Harris was the real-life double agent H.A.R. ‘Kim’ Philby, one of the infamous Cambridge Five – a ring of spies hailing from privileged backgrounds who had been recruited as double agents for the Soviet Union whilst attending Cambridge University in the 1930s. Philby likewise resided in Moscow by this time, having fled upon his discovery by the British authorities in 1963, and the parallel is most obvious in how Harris’s name is derived from Philby’s first two given names, ‘Harold Adrian’. Philby’s name had continued to appear in the headlines over the years since his defection – in 1967, for instance, the Sunday Times Insight Team had published an enormously revealing exposé on Philby’s career, whilst Philby himself had subsequently penned his own KGB-sponsored memoir, My Silent War (1969). As a result, the BBC’s Audience Research Report found that viewers perceived the play to possess ‘topical appeal’.[1]

This play took Potter into a thematic area which he had not previously explored – the murky world of Cold War espionage.[2] For Potter’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter, this invited a  particularly specific comparison – Traitor, he wrote, is ‘a competent excursion into John le Carré territory’.[3] Coming to prominence with novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and The Looking-Glass War (1965), John le Carré had gained a worldwide reputation for bringing a new sense of plausibility and moral complexity to the spy genre.

As it happens, Potter wasn’t the only writer to think of writing a television play about a double agent in the style of le Carré – another attempt had been made by none other than le Carré himself who, in 1969, had submitted his first television script to the BBC as a potential Wednesday Play. Taking place entirely within a railway carriage, The End of the Line dramatised an encounter between Arnold Frayne, an atomic spy on the verge of psychological disintegration, and the ‘Reverend’ Paul Bagley, a security operative who has disguised himself as a clergyman so as to obtain the traitor’s confession.

Le Carré would later enjoy a highly productive relationship with the BBC, chiefly through adaptations of his novels. In this instance, however, his script was rejected by producer Graeme MacDonald, prompting his agent to respond haughtily, ‘I must say that I admire your courage in turning down a play by John le Carré’.[4] The End of the Line was instead picked up by Thames Television and produced for its Armchair Theatre series (with Ian Holm as Bagley) (29 June 1970). Subsequently the play was remade (in a translated version) by West German broadcaster BRD-TV as Endstation (23 January 1973).[5]

The End of the Line

MacDonald, meanwhile, went on to produce Traitor as a Play for Today – only two years after he had rejected a play on the treachery theme from an acclaimed and bestselling author who specialised in such material, and whose scripted material was considered entirely acceptable by two other major broadcasters. This invites the question – why was Potter’s treatment of this topic for television apparently considered to be more promising?

Whilst the two plays are similar, insofar as they are anchored around an interrogation in one central setting, there is also a key formal difference between them. Entirely confined to a single location, The End of the Line was likened by Sylvia Clayton of the Daily Telegraph (30 June 1970) to the work of Harold Pinter in its depiction of a struggle ‘for territorial superiority, for subjugation of the will’. This was a canny approach for le Carré, as many of Pinter’s most notable plays had been produced for television since the early 1960s, including The Birthday Party (ITV Play of the Week, 22 March 1960), A Night Out (Armchair Theatre, 24 April 1960) and The Lover (ITV, 28 March 1963) – this was a style of writing which was well-suited to the claustrophobic style of 1960s’ studio drama.

Traitor, by contrast, corresponded to more recent developments in television drama carried over from The Wednesday Play, taking a rather different attitude towards the space of the television studio. Unlike The End of the Line, Potter’s play opens the scope considerably beyond the Moscow flat; instead of being the sole focus, the interview with the journalists in the present timeframe is continually intercut with different narrative threads showing key experiences from Harris’s past.

Potter was a keen adherent of a movement that sought to break with the supposedly ‘naturalistic’ tendency of the studio play – in this regard, he had been inspired by fellow writer Troy Kennedy Martin’s call for a ‘new drama’, in which (amongst other things) montage would play a key role.[6] Different practitioners had taken these ideas in different directions – some instances of the ‘new drama’, such as Cathy Come Home (The Wednesday  Play, 16 November 1966) from writer Jeremy Sandford and director Ken Loach, used montage techniques to convey polemical critiques of social injustice.

Potter’s primary interest in the ‘new drama’, however, lay in its potential for dramatising the complexities and uncertainties of character interiority. This he had in common with another leading television writer of the era, David Mercer – indeed, the director assigned to Traitor was Alan Bridges, a frequent collaborator with Mercer on plays including Let’s Murder Vivaldi (The Wednesday Play, 10 April 1968) and On the Eve of Publication (The Wednesday Play, 27 November 1968). Traitor would be the first of two Potter plays directed by Bridges – ‘a director with a flair for psychology and interior crisis’ according to  Peter Bradshaw – who proved an excellent match for the writer’s vision.[7]

As highlighted by the cover of the Radio Times, one of Traitor’s key themes is that of memory. Potter had long been interested in the challenge of dramatising memory – ‘understood as a vivid, continual pressure from the past’ – describing it in 1967 as ‘an extremely difficult concept to translate into televisual or cinematic terms’. The conventional extended flashback, he argued, had ‘degenerated into a stylistic cliché’ and, in any case, worked poorly with the ‘crabbed dimensions’ of 1960s television sets. Potter had first experimented with alternative techniques for representing memory in Stand Up, Nigel Barton (The Wednesday Play, 8 December 1965), a semi-autobiographical play about a working-class scholarship boy at Oxford University. Here Potter had sought to convey the tensions and contradictions of Nigel Barton’s (Keith Barron) altered social status ‘by chipping the play up into swiftly moving fragments’, making quick, disconcerting jumps in time across episodes in Nigel’s life to create associations and juxtapositions.[8]

Traitor takes a similar approach in its portrayal of Harris, even though this central character (like his real-life inspiration, Philby) comes from a privileged upper-middle class background a world away from those of Nigel Barton or Potter himself. Intercut with the Moscow interview are two strands featuring Harris as a child (Sean Maddox) – one depicting his troubled relationship with his distant and uncaring father Sir Arthur Harris (Lyndon Brook), and another showing his traumatic experiences at an authoritarian prep school.

This, too, aligned with the interests of Bridges, who is described by Bradshaw as a ‘cinematic satirist – in tones both mordant and melancholy – of the English class system of the early 20th century’. The school sequences, meanwhile, strongly echo similar scenes in Stand Up, Nigel Barton set in a working-class village school and it is for this reason that John R. Cook argues that together the two Nigel Barton plays offer a universalised interpretation of treachery as an ‘inevitable product of crossing the heavily fortified battle-lines’ of the English class system.[9]

A third thread depicts a visit made by Harris, as a young man, to Glasgow at the height of the Great Depression, when he first saw ‘what people lived like’. Finally, a fourth strand shows the older Harris (the only other strand in which the character is portrayed by le Mesurier) at the height of his intelligence career. Here he arranges the assassination of Michaelov (Richard Marner), a would-be a Soviet defector who threatens to blow his cover – an incident inspired by Philby’s role in the demise of Konstantin Volkov under similar circumstances in 1945.

But although these fragments allow insights into Harris, they are offered for the viewer to contemplate without a clear framework for judging their significance. John Caughie argues that the most effective use of montage in Potter’s work offers ‘a way of dissolving hierarchies, resisting the unifying order of plots and subplots, identification and resolution, catching the viewer instead in the dialectic of competing realities which refuse to cohere into the plenitude of an organically unified world’.[10] Here Potter resists the more conventional technique of, for instance, having Harris’s voice authoritatively tell his story to the journalists, instead using rapid juxtapositions to create a disjointed and disorientating effect.

And so, when considering Harris’ motives, should we concentrate on his childhood or on his experiences of the Depression? What is the significance of the Michaelov assassination, given that it occurs long after Harris has made the fundamental life choices that led him down the path of treachery? Is it perhaps included by Potter to discourage us from being too tempted to sympathise with Harris? In Traitor the montage technique expresses the complexities of Harris’ formative experiences without resolution, the abundance of information denying a singular explanation for who he is and what he has done.

David Rolinson has provided an insightful analysis of the richly allusive contents of these narrative threads, but it is also useful to consider what is not represented. A key part of the longstanding popular fascination with the Cambridge Five has centred around their recruitment by Soviet intelligence in the glamorous and unlikely setting of Cambridge University. Harris briefly mentions his time at Oxford University during the interview (Potter substituting his own alma mater for Cambridge), fondly recalling ‘bells across the meadow, city of dreaming spires, punts on the river, champagne and strawberries, straw hats, narrow little streets…’. Notably, however, the play neglects to represent this visually, or to expand on the experience in any way beyond this superficial description.

Through this omission, therefore, Traitor appears to downplay an intellectual context to Harris’ conversion to Soviet Communism. Indeed, although Traitor would prove to be just the first in  a whole subgenre of programming about the Cambridge Five, the formative university days of Philby and his fellow spies would remain curiously neglected by fictionalised portrayals for many years – only belatedly dramatised in the BBC serial Cambridge Spies (2003), in much the same glamorised nostalgic hues evoked by Harris’s brief description.

Indeed, the decision of Potter to place so much emphasis instead onto Harris’s childhood could be said to diminish the political choices later taken by his adult self – is treachery simply a trauma response with no meaningful ideological component? The visual depiction of the Great Depression provides at least some counterweight, and this is notable for being presented in a fundamentally different manner to the other strands.

It is easy to imagine a conventional rendering of Harris’s formative trip to Glasgow – this might encompass original scripted material, staged with actors, in which we see the young Harris’s response to seeing ‘what people lived like’. However – in an instance of formal experimentation typical of the ‘new drama’ – the visual representation of the Depression instead consists solely of genuine archival footage depicting slum life (from the campaigning documentary film Housing Problems, 1935) and the Jarrow Hunger Marchers.

This introduces a documentary aesthetic which purposefully does not ‘fit’ the style of the other segments, resembling more the agitational aesthetic of productions such as Cathy Come Home. Though it is unclear whether this is a product of Potter’s script or a directorial flourish added by Bridges, this technique succeeds in rendering the crisis of capitalism in the 1930s more vividly than in any heritage drama about Oxbridge student politics.

Meanwhile, in the present timeframe of the Moscow interview, Harris claims a continuing devotion to his own ideal of England. This is encapsulated in a landscape painting which hangs on the wall of his flat – the same painting that appeared on the cover of the Radio Times. At the climax of the interview, one of the journalists sharply suggests that Harris’s photograph in the newspaper should be captioned ‘traitor’. In response, Harris moves towards the painting, declaring, ‘to my class, yes, to my country, no.’ Potter later described this as his challenge to ‘the misstatement that someone could politically betray their country and be presumed not to love it’, citing his own attachment to landscape and an ‘English condition’ divorced from ‘flags and drums and pomp and circumstance’.[11]

In considering the relationship between Traitor and the oeuvre of le Carré, it is notable that Potter’s play pre-empted le Carré’s own engagements with the figure of Philby in two of his best-known novels – firstly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), a ‘whodunit’ account of the unmasking of a high-level Soviet mole, and later A Perfect Spy (1986), a complex, non-chronological life story of a double agent (somewhat akin to Traitor, albeit on a much vaster scale). (Frayne in The End of the Line is conspicuously not Philby, explicitly described as being from ‘lower class’ origins.) Coming from a more privileged background than Potter, le Carré had far more capacity to identify with Philby; in a 1968 article on the famous traitor for the Sunday Times (18 February), he had declared how ‘Philby, an aggressive, upper-class enemy, was of our blood and hunted with our pack’, before qualifying the ‘we’ by identifying himself as ‘middle-class, graduate, intellectual’.[12]

Perhaps in consequence, le Carré’s two Philby novels make far less distinction between pastoral England and privilege. Both are enamoured with elite spaces such as public schools and country houses, epitomising the post-imperial melancholia of a generation of intelligence officers who found themselves ruling not a promised empire but instead ‘a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the water’.[13] This was made particularly vivid when both were adapted for television as lavish heritage dramas in 1979 and 1987, respectively; as Toby Manning argues, the betrayal in Tinker Tailor is ‘of a class which regards the nation and itself as indistinguishable’.[14] This stands in stark contrast to how Traitor – a product of the ‘new drama’ and its challenges to both dramatic form and class politics – had worked to deconstruct this conflation.  

Joseph Oldham is a writer and researcher, and the author of Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama (Manchester University Press, 2017) – out in paperback in December 2020. For more detailed analysis of The End of the Line, Traitor and also Blade on the Feather (19 October 1980), a later Potter play about a Soviet spy, please see the article ‘“Don’t let the side down, old boy”: Interrogating the traitor in the “radical” television dramas of John le Carré and Dennis Potter’, published in Cold War History 20:3 (2020): 311-327.


[1] BBC Audience Research Report VR/71/417, ‘Play for Today: Traitor’ [BBC Written Archives].

[2] The closest Potter had previously come to Cold War themes had been Lay Down Your Arms (ITV Sunday Night Theatre, 23 May 1970), a semi-autobiographical play about his experience of national service in the War Office in the 1950s.

[3] Humphrey Carpenter, Dennis Potter: A Biography. Faber, 1998: 260-261.

[4] Letter from Carol Smith (A. P. Warr) to Shaun MacLoughlin (script editor, The Wednesday Play), 17 July 1969 [BBC Written Archives].

[5] Decades later The End of the Line was loosely reworked into Chapter Eleven of le Carré’s episodic novel The Secret Pilgrim (1990).

[6] Troy Kennedy Martin, ‘Nats go home: First statement of a new drama for television’, Encore, 48 (March/April 1964).

[7] The second collaboration between Potter and Bridges was Joe’s Ark (The Wednesday Play, 14 February 1974).

[8] Dennis Potter, The Nigel Barton Plays: Two Television Plays. Penguin, 1967: 19-20.

[9] John R. Cook, Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen. 2nd edition. Manchester University Press, 1998: 74.

[10] John Caughie, Television Drama: Realism, Modernism and British Culture. Oxford University Press, 2000: 167.

[11] Dennis Potter with Graham Fuller (ed.), Potter on Potter. Faber and Faber, 1993: 42.

[12] This article was reprinted as the introduction to by Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightly, Philby: The Spy Who Betrayed a Generation. Andre Deutsch, 1968.

[13] John Le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Pan Books, 1975 [1974]: 297.

[14] Toby Manning, John le Carré and the Cold War. Bloomsbury, 2018: 113.

3 replies on “Play for Today: Traitor”

That’s a fascinating and well argued piece. I think you are right that it comes from a somewhat more radical political position than JLC, adhering to gently moderate socialism.

I wonder whether anyone has identified the painting? It is also very notable how the prep school headmaster bullies Adrian in making the stuttering lad recite from Blake, a poet Potter himself loved, showing the stark pleasures and pains associated with education and a national literary canon.

Potter was idealistic about wanting to detach gentle patriotism from jingoism and he wanted a new word for its better side. Sadly, we are perhaps even further from doing that, nearly 49 years on – and if you read certain early Blake poems, you will find some fairly fierce jingoism!

Here is the text of an old conference talk I gave on Traitor (five years ago! With major help from Ian Greaves) exploring how Potter felt the traitor could be a patriot and questioned the ‘treachery’ itself. I think I am perhaps unfair not to mention the other critics, e.g. Nancy Banks-Smith and Mary Holland who (IIRC) made comparisons to Jimmy Cagney movies and Hamlet… But, Raymond Williams is ideologically acute…

An excellent review of a very moving play. I have only a poor quality version of this play on my computer and now living in Australia it is unlikely to ever make it onto the local television. I can really sympathise with the traitor as a child, having been through boarding, but not prep school, as a child myself. I find myself unable to sympathise with the traitor as an adult though, having read about the Gulags. There are other ways at getting back at your class . Leaving the country for instance, like I did.

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