David Hare has written a spy thriller for BBC television, and PBS are broadcasting it on the other side of the Atlantic. That sound you hear is the scratching of a goose quill drifting down the centuries. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster, is sourly scribbling a memo to the ambassador in Paris. “Sir Walter Raleigh is back at ye court againe, since another visit to his Colony of the Virginies, in ye Newe World. He is full of muche talke concerning an town there he names ‘Laing-ley”. Noe goode will come of this, marke ye my words.” Well, perhaps not quite. But suspicion of American Intelligence is one of the defining tropes of recent British spy fiction, and Hare’s Page Eight is no exception.
British spies these days – the most interesting ones at any rate – are weary, compromised and full of a guilty nostalgia for the quiet savagery of the Cold War. Spy fiction is a way of thinking about British decline, the long loss of faith and loss of face that the last century brought from Suez onwards. America is literally the new world: classless, Manichean, untormented by the past, and about to swallow the future whole. (Friends and newspapers suggest that the US is not actually like this, but that’s how the genre uses it.) So perhaps its less surprising that it might at first appear that the US picks up on shows like Page Eight and films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, despite the form’s pervasive scorn for their country. Britain is having a quite articulate and entertaining nervous breakdown in a well-tailored suit whilst America eavesdrops politely from the future.
And it really is an articulate breakdown. Page Eight doesn’t blaze any particularly new trail, but it’s terrifically well-tuned to the maze of once-indomitable institutions which make up the establishment. The secret service, a Cambridge college, the cabinet office, the art world, they all look like slightly variant versions of the same system. David Hare is better placed than most playwrights to tackle this mode: his trilogy of plays about the Church, the Law and the Labour Party exposed three central British institutions in crisis. He has an affectionate and merciless ear for how these things works, and it is in good evidence here.
In Bill Nighy he has less an actor write for than an icon. That long, rueful countenance, the self-mocking drawl, the peculiar gait which marks him out from everyone else in each shot, like a closely shaven yeti with excellent manners – for American audiences particularly, he is Britain. He shambled across the Swinging Sixties in The Boat That Rocked, he avuncularly outraged modern mores in Love Actually, and he gave a moving performance as an angst-ridden plate of calamari in Pirates of the Caribbean. In short, for many viewers he is Homo Britannicus: lanky, melancholy, somehow both dapper and ill-kempt, skulking around history long after it has ceased having any use for him.
The whole thing cannot be absolved of sentimentality, mind you. Nighy’s final stand, in which he Does the Right Thing and Damn the Consequences, is from a gentler stable than Le Carré’s, but the cast carry it off with such panache that you may forget to quibble. Dominic Dromgoole once suggested that Hare started out as a lefty subversive who wanted to get close to the establishment in order to take it apart, and gradually drifted into being a playwright who simply enjoyed being proximate to power. Certainly Page Eight has nothing of the fire and fury which drove Plenty and Licking Hitler, his earlier plays about British Intelligence during the Second World War. But it is a fluent and assured piece of work. If the Brits can’t maintain a coherent and effective foreign policy, good heavens they can still write decent drama about that failure.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, June 2011.