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An Englishman Abroad

A British television play

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"How can he be a spy? He goes to my tailor."

  • Mar 31, 2011
So says Guy Burgess in Moscow, as he quotes the attitude of his former fellow British upper-class diplomats.
Burgess, the Englishman in An Englishman Abroad, is talking to Coral Browne, an Australian actress who was appearing as Gertrude in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet in Moscow. It's 1958. She has visited Burgess in his drab apartment which he shares with his government-sanctioned male lover, an aging youth who speaks no English. Burgess has barely learned a few words of Russian. "I know what I've done to deserve him," he says, "but I don't know what he's done to deserve me."
Burgess, along with Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt comprised the Cambridge Four. They were a group of Cambridge undergraduates who, in the Thirties, were recruited to become Soviet spies. Although they were products of proper English upper-class breeding, they disliked intensely the very aspects of English life that provided their own privileges. The Soviet system seemed so much better.
Burgess was a most unlikely spy. He was flamboyantly gay, often flamboyantly drunk and talked too much about what he was doing. But after all, he says, "There's no point in having a secret if you make a secret of it." Throughout WWII he and Maclean, working in Britain's Foreign Office, regularly delivered copies of secret Allied plans to their Soviet controller. Even though much evidence pointed their way, no action was taken. They eventually had to flee Britain in 1951 and finally showed up in Moscow in 1956. Kim Philby did far more damage before he finally was eased out in a gentlemanly way. And Blunt, an art historian, was publicly identified by the British government only in old age after years of cover-ups. After all, he was advisor to the Queen on art matters and had received a knighthood. The old-boy network wanted no embarrassments.
Coral Browne wound up in Burgess' Moscow apartment because he went to one of the Hamlet performances. As usual, he was drunk. He found his way to her dressing room by accident and proceeded to vomit in her basin. She was not amused and hadn't the slightest idea who he was. When she had to leave for the second act, Burgess managed to steal her soap, cigarettes and face powder before leaving. "One should have asked," he tells her later. "One is such a coward."
He slipped a note under her door asking her to lunch and to bring a tape measure. Burgess wanted gossip from London, but Browne didn't know anyone in his upper-class circles. He wants to be taken seriously, but seems merely charmingly superficial. Burgess is a self-destructive, self-aware drunk, yet also a proud Englishman.
More than anything else, Burgess wants Browne to take his measurements and order some suits for him from his Savile Row tailor when she returns to London. She agrees, but only because she sees no reason why anyone, even a traitor, shouldn't have a good suit if he wants. At the end of this marvelous one hour program, most of which is spent with Burgess and Browne talking to each other, we see Guy Burgess jauntily walking over a Moscow bridge wearing a perfectly tailored suit, hand-crafted leather shoes on his feet, a well-cut topcoat over his shoulders and holding up a black umbrella to ward off the beginning snow. Passing him are the comrades in their drab clothing and fur hats, some curious about this unusual creature in their midst. Guy Burgess has become a very well-dressed Englishman...well, English traitor...abroad.
This is a fine example of what an excellent, subtle writer Alan Bennett is. The tone is amusing and wry, but Bennett slips a sharp knife in as he shows the complacency of so many of the British upper-class, as well as the self-delusional foolishness of Burgess. And Bennett makes us appreciate the spine of Coral Browne, unwilling to paint people with the colors the British establishment would have her use. "I'm just an actress," she says, "I've never been interested in politics. But if this is communism I don't like it because it's dull...their clothes are terrible and they can't make false teeth. What else is there?"

"The system," Burgess replies, and he's serious.
As excellent as Bennett is, Alan Bates as Burgess and Coral Browne playing herself match him. Browne may have no great passion one way or the other toward English traitors, but she's not about to let others tell her who she can and can't see, even in Moscow. More to the point, she has Guy Burgess' number. People in England can call him anything they like; he'll make amusing conversation out of their anger or contempt. But the idea that they might think he now regrets having to live in Moscow makes him vulnerable.
Bates is so good an actor he lets us become amused by Burgess, even like him, but also become disgusted by him...all at the same time.

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C. O. DeRiemer ()
Ranked #32
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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