Old Dog, New Tricks

24 March 2022

Old Dog, New Tricks

by J.R. Thomas

It is true what they say about the British.  To stir things up you have to be controversial about dogs; that really gets the fingers tapping on keyboards.  It certainly did about last week’s piece, on The Power of The Dog – and that only mentioned a dog in the title. 

One correspondent wrote to critique my list of better modern Westerns; top of their personal list is Bad Day at Black Rock, a Western in which a stranger arrives by train in a remote town. The train is diesel hauled, the year is 1945, the stranger is Spencer Tracey, and the townsfolk are upset about ….but that would be telling.  Watch it, it is a very fine film and relevant to today.  My friend also nominates a film yet to be made, pushing the charisma of dogs – The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.  This Dog is a combination of western and road movie, set in the 1970’s, and one of only three books written by Portis, the best known being True Grit. Two were made into films but for some reason the lyrical and eminently filmable Dog of the South never was, perhaps because Portis was a reclusive small town guy; retiring in his early 40’s to Little Rock, Arkansas and living off the proceeds of True Grit. Also received for modernish Westerns with deep messages were commendations for Hud, for Comes a Horseman (indeed, a serious and unsettling movie), and for Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackmans’ superb Unforgiven.

But that’s enough on American movie makers with messages about society today, or a while ago, through presentations of the changing West. UK film makers also like to muse about society and let their thoughts scroll across the big screen, a fashion prodded into being in Britain by Len Deighton and John Le Carre, two great writers born within a couple of years of each other, whose formative years were during the Second World War, and who both examined post-war society mainly through the medium of the spy thriller.  We paid tribute to Le Carre when he died 15 months ago, so here we will merely mention his superb Tinker Tailor trilogy.  The first book was made into a fine movie starring Gary Oldman as the main character George Smiley.  It is though overshadowed by one of the greatest TV series ever made, which brought to the small screen both Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People, and starred Alec Guinness as Smiley.  These are spy thrillers; but they are also thoughtful commentary on British society and politics, on Britain’s decline, and, on top all of that, make close examinations of some very interesting characters not unlike people you know – or you. 

It is usual to say that TV, or at least the BBC, can no longer make anything of that quality.  But ITV have just proved that they can, with its new six-part production of Deighton’s The Ipcress File.  It looked as though the definitive version of that had already been made in 1965 in an all-time great movie, directed by Sidney Furie, starring Michael Caine (his second big film), and a stellar supporting cast including Guy Doleman as Ross and Nigel Green as Dalby, both brilliant pieces of casting.  If you want to know about the 1960’s, this is the film to watch (together with Alfie, also starring Caine).  It shows post war London just starting to swing, stylish cars and clothes, and society as it then was, where girls typed and men did exciting leadership things.  And everybody smoked.  Palmer cooked – yes, really, amazing, he could cook; a man cooking, a warning of what was to come. It was all about the subtle graduations of class, authority firmly in the hands of debonair and reserved public school boys, and foreigners still aspiring to look like British gentlemen. And a society that was losing its way and Americans who, pre-Vietnam, were very much top dogs.  (It is not much true to the book which with Deighton’s consent, was heavily cut to make it easier to translate to the screen,.)

But now Ipcress is back, remade for the small screen again with Len Deighton’s cooperation – Len is very much alive, age 92, having given up writing (“The best thing about writing books is being at a party and telling some pretty girl you write books, the worst thing is sitting at a typewriter and actually writing the book.”) to spend more time cooking. 

This remake is much closer to the book, with settings in London, Lebanon, and on a Pacific island.  It is set in 1963 and a great deal of trouble has been taken to get the feeling right (there are the minor lacunae, probably to give the nit-pickers nits to pick; books that weren’t yet published, music not then played, car models not available), but it feels right. Right down indeed to Joe Cole as Harry Palmer in those heavy black framed spectacles, a tribute to Caine, but also because that’s what stylish young men were wearing in the early 1960’s, throwing off their father’s tortoiseshell or wire frames.  It of course engages with much that Deighton had to say about English society, though for some reason Palmer is still a southern lad, not as Deighton birthed him, from Lancashire. Maybe Cole, like Caine, cannot do a northern accent.  America is the coming power and calling the shots, men in senior management are still toffs but their regime is crumbling, society is less certain about what the future is, and political correctness and wokery is far off.

So why have the producers corrected several factors that nobody had yet noticed were wrong?  Not enough smoking for one thing, but more perplexing, women are promoted to fairly senior roles.  They ought to have been of course, but that had to wait the Thatcher times, 20 years in the future.  Women were, alas, still banging away at typewriters or propelling mops across lino office floors.  The very few who had made it into higher jobs were old and mostly single and certainly unlikely to sleep with colleagues.  But let us move on from that; this is a very good series indeed, well acted, well cast, shedding light on our former ways, and dealing with Russian threats and nuclear bomb technology.  Who would have thought that theme would still be defining the way we live now?    

Tile photo: Taylor on Unsplash

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