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"An Englishman's Castle": A little-known classic

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"An Englishman's Castle", a mini-series made by the BBC in 1978, is set in what was then an alternative present—an imagined 1970s—in which Germany had won the Second World War. But there are no swastikas, or SS in the street. Britain is ruled by a puppet government and on the surface everything looks very familiar. The economy is booming (unlike the real 1970s, incidentally). Terrorists plant bombs, but that happened in the real 1970s too. Over the course of three episodes, the view becomes deeper and darker.

This is something of a forgotten classic. See it if you get the chance.


(Read this only if you have already seen the mini-series, or don't think you ever will, or don't care about spoilers.)











Main review (contains spoilers)

The story follows Peter Ingram (played by Kenneth More), who is the successful writer of a hugely popular soap opera, also named "An Englishman's Castle". It is somewhat based on his own life story, dealing with the Second World War. By this time the series has reached 1940. There is a successful German invasion and a puppet government, but some soldiers escape to start a resistance—the young Peter Ingram had been one of these. A period of guerilla warfare followed. But after a disaster, in which Churchill (apparently leading the resistance) had been killed, the Germans had offered an amnesty and most (including Ingram) had surrendered, accepting reality as it seemed. All this is now (fairly) safely in the past and the authorities like the soap opera's message that the British had been brave but eventually made the necessary choice to accept the new world. The series is apparently sold all over Nazi-controlled Europe, making a lot of money for British TV and for the actors.

Ingram believes that he is making something of value. There are two characters, brothers, who both represent him, but one gets killed off in the war—much to the fury of the actor playing him. Can't he come back, when it turns out he he was only wounded? It's a popular character! But Ingram is inflexible because it's the truth of his own life: the romantic side of him died in the war, the practical side went on. But it doesn't seem that his colleagues share his opinion. Harmer (Anthony Bate), the Programme Controller, regards "An Englishman's Castle" as rubbish. But of course no one says so to Ingram.

As the story progresses Ingram gradually learns more about the reality of his country, and is recruited into the resistance by his mistress Jill (Isla Blair). Jill is in fact Jewish; there are still some living in Britain who have evidently managed to conceal their ancestry. Ingram is reminiscent of the white South Africans who somehow managed not to know about how apartheid was really maintained: he lives on the surface. He is at least partly taken in by the British facade of power, or chooses to be. Surely the British security police don't torture people? And if they do, it's the terrorists' own fault. (We do later learn that the working class has a rather less rosy view than comfortable people like Ingram.) A conflict develops with Harmer as Ingram wants to have a character named Rosenthal, a sort of tribute to a friend of that name killed in the war. But Harmer points out that a Jewish character is a problem. Couldn't he be called something else? Meet me half way, he asks; how about a name that might be Jewish so you can think that if you want? Ingram says that it's important to him to memorialize Rosenthal, and says that the Jews "are just like us", a comment which is severely knocked back by Harmer.

The story becomes darker and darker over the three episodes. Ingram has two sons, who take different attitudes. One, Mark, is angry with his father's complacency, while the other, Henry, is supportive of his father and wants to work in television. One day Ingram comes home to discover Mark being arrested by the secret police as a terrorist. (The Special Police don't look quite as innocently British—they have white crash-helmet style helmets, and black straps.) In desperation he turns to Harmer, who has connections, readily conceding the point on "Rosenthal". Jill encourages him to do so, saying she would always put a person ahead of a principle. Harmer has enough pull that Mark is rescued. Mark (beaten up, but fortunately saved before they had seriously started on him) isn't grateful; he suspects that his father was the "delator", as the resistance call informers.

Jill tells Peter that delators are always killed if identified, or indeed suspected. It's necessary. (This sits a bit oddly with her earlier advice to put a person ahead of a principle, and you wonder if that was really a general opinion or just something she said to rescue a resistance member.) Then Henry, having got an introduction to Harmer, convinces him of his political soundness by revealing that it was he who denounced Mark. Harmer tells Peter this, but Peter does not pass it on. However, Henry is shot by the resistance. Peter is interviewed by the secret police, who eventually arrest him for the murder—who else knew, after all? Peter, in panic, reveals that Harmer knew. So they go and arrest Harmer. Then, Mark is killed by a letter-bomb meant for Peter.

The authorities pick Ingram as an interim Programme Controller—he has lost both his children to terrorism, so he has the personal hatred that they think makes for reliability. Harmer, Ingram is told, had committed suicide in his cell, in effect an admission of guilt—did he really kill himself or was it done by the Specials? Does it matter?

The slow build-up increases the power. The scene when Ingram is interviewed by the security police is quiet, yet suffused with menace. You can almost smell the fear. You don't know what to think about characters. Does Jill really care about Peter? She is fairly tough-minded, though you would hardly expect anything else from someone whose life depends on hiding their Jewish identity from the Nazis. She had been ordered to recruit Ingram—she says that the means was up to her (i.e. she didn't have to sleep with him), but is she just humouring the man they need? Is Harmer, who is in with the elite, one of them? After his death Jill seems to imply that he was in fact in the resistance. Presumably he is the one who reported Henry as a delator. There are several startling, even shocking, events that change the direction of the story. Eventually the resistance is ready to start its insurrection, and Ingram has to insert the code phrase in an episode. The episode is recorded. But rather than let Jill say it, he interrupts the broadcast (using the emergency facilities for the Programme Controller) and speaks it himself. Against the sounds of explosions and gunfire outside, the door is forced open, and the programme ends.

The two sons parallel the brothers in Ingram's soap opera, but the divergence between them is more extreme. The choice is now to oppose the regime, or to support it. There is no middle ground any more. And whereas one of the TV brothers representing Ingram lived on as a practical man, both of these brothers die.

Almost all the characters are interesting and memorable. Kenneth More plays Ingram as someone who, although successful, seems tired. Life is very comfortable for him at the start, but there is a sense of something lost. Most of the alternative world is just suggested. We eventually meet a politician of some sort when Ingram is appointed Programme Controller, but we have only a vague sense of the structure of the regime. There's a "prime minister", and it is said that Germany may be going to tighten its control as a result of the instability. The United States is turned away from Europe. But otherwise we get very little detail. It's all in the background. The programme doesn't waste time explaining the nature of the regime any more than an ordinary political thriller would stop to explain the American and Soviet governments. You just assume it.

Those who don't remember the 1970s will need footnotes for some aspects. This was a period of coups, right-wing dictatorship, and threats to democracy, and the regime in this series should be compared with other fiction on the theme of "it could happen here". Also, some of the similarities to the real 1970s are deliberately disturbing. There had been IRA bombings in mainland Britain only a few years earlier, yet the terrorists in "An Englishman's Castle", doing very similar things, are heroes rather than villains. Could you do something like that in a mainstream TV series now?

In a comment by a senior official to Ingram, the merit of the series as seen by the authorities is summed up. People watch it, say, "Weren't we brave then?"—then turn over and go back to sleep. Are you listening, viewers in real 1978?

Incidentally, the series is interesting now for some of the historical context. The making of the soap opera is shown in some detail and is apparently an accurate representation of the BBC programme-making techniques of the time. Also, the degree of sexism taken for granted. Harmer, being arrested by the secret police, manages to find time for an irrelevant bit of sexual harassment. Peter Ingram is no Harvey Weinstein but it is assumed that a powerful man like him will naturally have affairs with young actresses. (It seems from comments by his wife that this was far from the first.) It should be said that he doesn't pressure Jill, and hangs out with her even though she initially won't go to bed with him.

Overall this is a remarkably powerful series, which shows how suggested menace can be much more effective than overt action.

Copyright © 2024. Not to be reproduced without permission. ||  Sunday, 21 April 2024

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