Tag Archives: Cold War

Codename Kyril

Codename Kyril is a British television spy series first broadcast in 1989 and based on the novel A Man Named Kyril by John Trenhaile. I have to admit, I haven’t read the book, so I’m not sure whether the television series is close to the book.

Kyril

We recently acquired this on DVD. For some reason I missed it on its 1989 transmission. But beware: the TV series was edited down for a TV film after the original transmission, and a great deal cut out. So if you get the DVD, make sure it’s the full version – 209 minutes.

Codename Kyril was probably the last great addition to the canon of Cold War spy dramas, and has the feel of a John Le Carre, though with more action sequences. This is a real edge of the seat programme, so take the phone off the hook and don’t answer the door. It was scripted by John Hopkins, who also co-scripted the TV version of Le Carre’s Smiley’s People.

It has some wonderful actors, notably Edward Woodward, Peter Vaughan, Ian Charleson, Denholm Elliot, Richard E. Grant and Joss Ackland – all perfectly cast and thoroughly believable in their roles.

Unlike a lot of Cold War spy dramas, you get to know who the traitors are early on. But this doesn’t take anything away from the tension. Indeed, it increases the suspense as you wonder when they’ll be found out.

Marshall Stanov, head of the KGB – a mesmerising performance by the late and great Peter Vaughan, discovers that there’s a traitor in the Moscow Centre leaking secrets to MI6. He despatches KGB agent Ivan Bucharensky (Ian Charleson) to London as a supposed defector with the codename Kyril. Stanov fakes a diary, purportedly by Bucharensky, which might suggest who the traitor is. The idea being to lure out the traitor.

The head of MI6 (Joss Ackland) orders his best agent Michael Royston (Edward Woodward) to capture Kyril and prevent the KGB from getting him back, lest he betrays the British mole in Moscow Centre.

In reality, of course, Kyril knows nothing, but his supposed knowledge makes him a target for both sides in this exciting war of nerves. Kyril is hunted both by MI6 and the KGB and his evasion methods and the use of tradecraft makes for gripping viewing.

And is the KGB the only organisation with a traitor in its ranks, or have the Russians penetrated MI6 as well?

Rather like in the best of Le Carre, the Great Game is played out like a game of chess, one move forwards and then another backwards.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot, because this is a programme you really do need to see for yourself.

The production values are excellent, the script literate and the direction by Ian Sharp stunning.

I’m thrilled the Cold War is over (I think!), but how we miss those Cold War spy dramas.

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The Hill of the Red Fox

The Hill of the Red Fox
By Allan Campbell McLean

Many years ago, when I was a child, long before I ever visited or walked on the Isle of Skye, I felt I knew it quite well through the exciting thrillers of the novelist Allan Campbell McLean.

This author has, and not without some justification, been compared to the great John Buchan. Both told yarns of innocents in peril, both tended to narrate their novels in the first person, and both wrote present-day and historical stories. As a great admirer of Buchan, I feel that Allan Campbell McLean books belong on a nearby shelf.

The only difference is that Allan Campbell McLean wrote for a younger audience. But the best children’s books can be enjoyed as much by an adult. This author’s work certainly can. In addition to several thrillers he wrote three very fine historical novels set during the Highland Clearances.

He also wrote an adult novel The Glasshouse, based on his own experiences in a military prison during World War Two. This latter was banned from publication in the United States. I read it many years ago. A classic work of literature. The resistance to the book probably sent the author towards writing the books for which he is best known.

“The Hill of the Red Fox” (1955) was the first of Allan Campbell McLean’s Skye thrillers. It’s a novel set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s, and is one of the best in this crowded genre.

Alasdair, who has led a sheltered life in London, beset with romantic dreams of his Scottish heritage, is sent to stay on the Isle of Skye, in a farming croft that belonged to his late father. The croft is now being run by the dour Murdo Beaton, with the help of his mother and young daughter Mairi. Alasdair doesn’t get a very warm welcome on his arrival.

And even before he gets there he has had a mysterious encounter on the train to the Highlands – rather like Richard Hannay’s railway journey in Buchan’s “The Thirty-nine Steps”. Alasdair is passed a message by a desperate spy who jumps the train, a villain in hot pursuit.

On Skye, Alasdair meets a number of friends of his late father, including Duncan Mor, a crofter and sometime poacher who takes Alasdair under his wing. Allan Campbell McLean’s depictions of Skye and crofting life, the ways of the shepherd, the peat-cutting, the weather in the mountains, are both beautifully lyrical and realistic. When I first visited Skye in 1997, I could recognise so much from my memories of this author.

I’m not going to give any of the plot away, for this is a thriller well worth seeking out – and having read all of Allan Campbell McLean’s novels I can say now that there isn’t a duff one among them – but I will look at some general themes.

Apart from the very accurate depiction of Skye, “The Hill of the Red Fox” portrays very beautifully the friendship between Duncan Mor and Alasdair. Having lost his own father and been brought up by a mother and aunt, Alasdair finds a father-figure in the crofter. He’s taught the real ways of Scotland – far from the romantic Jacobite tosh of his reading matter. As the weeks on Skye pass by, Alasdair grows up.

And he has to, for he soon finds himself in a situation of incredible danger, his life threatened more than once. Allan Campbell McLean is particularly good at portraying hurried journeys, night-time assignations, the true nature of how to follow someone and the grip of fear in the stomach when you realise you are being followed yourself.

Alasdair finds himself in a situation where it becomes hard to know just who to trust as he tries to interpret the one clue he has – a slip of paper passed to him by the spy on the train which reads “Hunt at the Hill of the Red Fox”. The hill itself – Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh Ruaidh in the Gaelic – is easy to find, but its mystery, well…

The whole chase leads to a dramatic conclusion, with the kind of accurately portrayed action that any mainstream thriller writer would have been proud to have penned. Cold War espionage is very well done here, the mistrust and fear of a time that is now – unbelievably – sixty years ago.

Allan Campbell McLean’s books were to be seen regularly on bookshelves when I was young. “The Hill of the Red Fox” is still in print, both as a paperback and eBook. Sadly, some of his other classic writings seem to be out of print, though second-hand copies are readily available from the usual online sources.

But this is an author who writes with such great ability that he deserves to have all of his books available in good modern editions. I do hope that one of the publishing houses might do that, perhaps one of the enterprising Scottish publishers.

Allan Campbell McLean’s books should be there to be found by a new generation of young – and not so young – readers.

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Mr Palfrey of Westminster

We’ve just had a very enjoyable few weeks watching the spy drama “Mr Palfrey of Westminster” starring Alec McCowen – a classic ITV television series from the 1980s. “Mr Palfrey” is probably one of the most cerebral, intelligent spy series ever made.

Mr Palfrey (Alec McCowen) is at first glance a typical Westminster civil servant, well-suited and gentlemanly – the kind of man you see in droves if you wander up Whitehall during office hours. But Mr Palfrey isn’t some political pen-pusher. He’s the country’s best spy-catcher. The security services turn to Mr Palfrey when they want a traitor unmasked or a defector’s motives questioned.

Mr Palfrey is a polite, perceptive individual who uses his air of amiability and ability to fence verbally and expose the spies working for the other side. And when I say the other side I mean the Russians and the KGB, for this series aired during the last full decade of the Cold War. Intelligently, the Russians and those who work for them are not portrayed as villains – as in lesser dramas – but agents who, in their way, might be very similar to Mr Palfrey and his associates.

If you want shoot-outs or car chases this is not the spy drama for you. Mr Palfrey achieves his victories through verbal entrapment. Though like all spymasters he has a “Heavy” to do the physical work on the ground, Blair, played by Clive Wood. He does much of the tailing of suspects, breaks in to flats and offices to plant bugs, and is used to provide an element of menace when needed. Not that it usually is in the rational and intellectual world of Mr Palfrey.

You don’t need the fast action and you certainly don’t miss it here. The individual stories are so tightly scripted that they are gripping from start to finish.

Like all good spymasters Mr Palfrey has a boss, referred to simply as Controller, played with great skill and humour by the wonderful Caroline Blakiston. She resembles, in her bossy attitude and occasional silliness, Margaret Thatcher, and, given the time the series was produced, I suspect the likeness was deliberate. Though amusingly enough you occasionally see the Controller on the telephone to the Prime Minister and it is clearly intended that it is Thatcher she’s talking to, as she becomes increasingly exasperated by the Prime Minister’s political demands.

Rounding off the team is Mr Palfrey’s secretary Caroline (Briony McRoberts) who is, delightfully, the kind of secretary any civil servant might have and who happens to have come into the world of espionage almost by accident. A very clever performance. Most episodes have some terrific actors brought in to do battle with Mr Palfrey, including John Shrapnel, Leslie Phillips, Martin Jarvis and Clive Francis.

Mr Palfrey first came to our screens in 1983 in a Storyboard pilot entitled “Traitor”. This developed with some minor changes into two series of ten one-hour episodes broadcast in 1984/5. There was a kind of reprise for the character of Blair in 1989, with Clive Wood, in a sequel play called “A Question of Commitment”.

Alec McCowen’s portrayal of Mr Palfrey is brilliantly understated and totally believable. His technique for catching spies is rather like watching a grand-master play chess, the moves of the opponent are anticipated, brought into the trap, countered and checkmated. And McCowen makes Mr Palfrey just the kind of spy-master you’d want to confess to. A master-class in fine acting.

This really is a television series to seek out and, thankfully, all the episodes and the pilot and sequel are available on DVD. Not a typical spy series, clever and witty, plays that hold your attention by the minute. Well worth seeking out and a great pity that further series weren’t made.

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