BBC Radio 7, 9 May 2009
This short play about the actress Coral Browne's encounter with Guy Burgess
while perfoming Shakespeare in Moscow in 1958, was first performed on television three decades later, with Browne playing
herself and Alan Bates playing Burgess. Directed by John Schlesinger and filmed amid the forbidding Victorian grandeur of
the city of Dundee, An Englishman Abroad won several awards and has subsequently been repeated several times.
This radio version from 1994, adapted and directed by Hilary Norrish, starred Penelope
Wilton as Browne and Michael Gambon as Burgess. As in the television play, the principal focus of attention centred on a series
of encounters between the two, as we learned about Burgess' views, his life and his desire to order new suits of clothing
from his favourite Savile Row tailors, despite being persona non grata in his country of birth.
Norrish focused on Burges himself - a complex character living a half-life in enforced
exile yet determined not to repent for what he had done. Although a dyed-in-the-wool Englishman with a passion for Craven
A cigarettes, Shakespeare and John Betjeman, he felt no loyalty to Britain, loathing the veneer of politeness and
respectability that dominated public life. Hence his decision to spy for the Russians. Burgess knew how to manipulate
people through sheer charm; this is what rendered him simultaneously attractive yet dangerous.
By contrast Browne was a down-to-earth figure who hated pretension yet perfectly
well aware of what Burgess had done. Her line referring to how he pissed in his country's soup - one of the most memorable
in the play - was delivered with withering contempt. Nonetheless she agreed to carry out Burgess' wishes - partly out
of pity, and partly out of sheer admiration for a man who remained resolutely true to his beliefs, despite what had happened
The production ended with Browne exposing the hypocrisy running through late 1950s
Britain: while the upmarket tradespeople were quite willing to do business with miscreants of various kinds, they balked at
the idea of serving a convicted spy. After, he had sacrificed his country's interests. Browne scoffed at this, believing it
to be a legacy of Empire when the citizens of the "Mother Country" thought they could do as they wishes, so long as their
remained patriotic. Burgess' principled stand seemed somehow admirable; at least he stuck to his ideological guns, however
insignificant they might have been.
An Englishman Abroad ended on a melancholy note, as Browne informed
us that Burgess died in 1963 as a lonely recluse without having the chance for forgiveness. Had he lived longer, he might
have been welcomed back with open arms.
Listening to the play once again, I got the impression that Bennett, like Burgess,
is at once proud of his national identity yet supremely contemptuous of his country. Perhaps it is better to remain 'an Englishman
abroad' rather than continuing to live among them.