BBC Radio 4, 22-29 January 2012
James Fenimore Cooper came from a very prominent and dedicated pro-Independence
family, and dedicated his life to ensuring that the ideals of the American Revolution would not be lost to future generations.
The Spy (1821) was one of the first novels to be published in the United States.
In D. J. Britton's fast-moving dramatization, the action took place in the "neutral
ground" of the War of Independence; the area that frequently changed hands in Westchester County, New York. A gentlemanly
traveller, Mr. Harper (Timothy Watson) arrived at the home of Mr. Wharton (James Lailey); there he was met by Frances (Rose
Leslie) and Sarah (Francine Chamberlain), Mr. Wharton's daughter and niece respectively. Mr. Wharton's son Henry (Alex Waldmann),
a British officer, arrived at the door disguised as an Irishman, to avoid the danger of being arrested in neutral territory.
However his ruse proved futile; he was eventually apprehended by the American army commanded by Peyton Dunwoodie (Simon Bubb).
Another character, Harvey Birch (Burn Gorman), an itinerant pedlar, was despised by the Americans, who believed that he would
sell his soul for a bag of gold.
Much of the opening episode (of two) was taken up with establishing the characters in
relation to their socio-historical context. Henry Wharton was a good soldier, but was faced with the classic dilemma
of choosing between duty to his cause and love for Sarah. Eventually he accepted his fate - of being captured - hoping against
hope that Peyton (an old family friend, despite being on the opposite side) would ensure his acquittal. Harper remained suspicious
of those around him - especially Wharton (in his disguise as O'Brien). Harvey Birch seemed a rather sinister figure; throughout
the episode no one could guess his true motives. However this was perhaps a wise move on Birch's part, in a situation where
no one could quite distinguish between friends and enemies.
While the object of the battle seemed obvious enough (as the Americans tried
to drive out their British colonizers), each side contained different factions, each with their own particular objective.
Some Americans supported George Washington; others considered him too moderate in his aims, and dedicated themselves to the
cause of extreme nationalism. In this kind of context, as complicated and unstable as anything in a modern spy thriller (for
example, the stories of John le Carre), no one revealed their true motives.
Britton's dramatization showed how the characters' personal lives were inevitably
influenced by political developments. Any expressions of love - for example, between Henry and Sarah - had to be kept secret,
for fear of implicating the Wharton family in further trouble. Frances Wharton came across as a strong-willed woman who, although
attracted to Peyton, suppressed her inclinations in support of independence. Nothing could be really decided until the conflict
Director Yevtushenko used sound-effects - the sound of gunfire, the confused shouts
of men about to go into battle, or fighting one another - to recreate the atmosphere of Cooper's novel, a time of considerable
political and social upheaval when the only thing people could rely upon was their intelligence and courage. I can't wait
for the second episode, when we will discover more about Birch's identity and the pivotal role he plays in the story's resolution.