Ungentle – Studio Voltaire

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Huw Lemmy

Directors:  Onyeka Igwe and Huw Lemmy

There were the ‘right kind of chaps’, the Cambridge spies, model members of the Establishment who over decades rose to illustrious positions in the British government and Secret Services while all the time working for the NKVD. Onyeka Igwe and Huw Lemmy’s fascinating new film Ungentle available to view at Clapham’s Studio Voltaire, gives poetic voice to one of their stories, a double agent and traitor reflecting on the nature of deceit, devotion to socialism and the price of love in the 1930s and 40s, in which the directors place his words over contemporary footage of the country he betrayed.

A young man starts to feel contempt for his class and the country he was born into, so when a romantic encounter with a fellow ‘Apostle’ at the University Cambridge takes him to The Red House, the man is welcomed into a network of Russian spies. Inveigling their way into high office and spilling its secrets, forced to hide in daylight and at night, the man cannot forget his first love.

Lemmy’s script is beautiful, a soulful and sometimes quite touching exploration of a man breaking the law in every part of his life. The parallels that Ungentle draws between spying and concealed homosexuality are sensitively managed, indicated in Lemmy’s text with the same locations and means of encounter – taps on the shoulder, London parks and shadowy doorways – where all kinds of betrayals take place.

But this is no sentimental story and while the audience feels for Lemmy’s subject who speaks directly to them in the first person, there is no apology, sorrow or regret for his actions, just the quiet sadness and pragmatic acceptance of a life half lived, but one the narrator never wishes to exchange. The unnamed speaker is never seen, and, although his proximity to the Cambridge Five is clear, this is less about the mechanics or even the idealism of spying and more about the context, the nature of the life he inhabited and what it cost him.

Using 16mm film, Igwe and Lemmy create the feeling of archival footage to accompany their piece and only slowly does the viewer recognise the contemporary. Filmed in St James’s Park – a place close to both MI5, MI6 and government departments, and a known cruising ground after dark – as well as the Hampshire stately home of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and, in a charming nod to John le Carré, at Cambridge Circus, Ungentle’s visual choices reference the heart of the secret world and the continuing effect of those betrayals 60-70 years on.

But it also underscores the very things that the narrator betrayed, his mellifluous tone playing over shots of English countryside, of rose gardens and plants swaying in the wind, the physical beauty of nature that the Cambridge set sold-out. Igwe and Lemmy also suggest the betrayals cut through the Establishment with its symbols of Britain – Parliament and Buckingham Palace – as well as the very people of the nation going about their business on a London street, unaware of the secret lives and treacheries done to them and around them.

Ben Whishaw is an ideal narrator, he reads Lemmy words with a gentleness, almost a melancholy that is as matter of fact about the easy duplicities and the disgust with Britain that caused them, as it is pained at the long unrequited love for the man who uses and discards him. Duplicity and disloyalty take many forms in Whishaw’s reading, the personal and the public intertwined in a superbly paced reading.

Running at the little over 30-minutes, Ungentle is a version of the Cambridge spy story that paints a broader picture not only of the era in which these men operated but uses the visual style of the film to explore all the secrets men had to keep.

Ungentle screens at Studio Voltaire from 16 September 2022 – 8 January 2023.

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  1. On the subject of spies, traitors et al, if you’re as interested in the Secrets of Spies like John le Carré, Philby et al as we are you are going to love this non-promotional anecdote about real spies and authors from the espionage genre whether you’re a le Carré connoisseur, a Deighton disciple, a Fleming fanatic, a Herron hireling or a Macintyre marauder. If you don’t love all such things you might learn something so read on! It’s a must read for espionage cognoscenti.

    As Kim Philby (codename Stanley) and KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky (codename Sunbeam) would have told you in their heyday, there is one category of secret agent that is often overlooked … namely those who don’t know they have been recruited. For more on that topic we suggest you read Beyond Enkription (explained below) and a recent article on that topic by the ex-spook Bill Fairclough (codename JJ). The article can be found at TheBurlingtonFiles website in the News Section. The article (dated July 21, 2021) is about “Russian Interference”; it’s been read well over 20,000 times and is very current: just ask Donald and Boris.

    Now talking of Gordievsky, John le Carré described Ben Macintyre’s fact based novel, The Spy and The Traitor, as “the best true spy story I have ever read”. It was of course about Kim Philby’s Russian counterpart, a KGB Colonel named Oleg Gordievsky, codename Sunbeam. In 1974 Gordievsky became a double agent working for MI6 in Copenhagen which was when Bill Fairclough aka Edward Burlington unwittingly launched his career as a secret agent for MI6. Fairclough and le Carré knew of each other: le Carré had even rejected Fairclough’s suggestion in 2014 that they collaborate on a book. As le Carré said at the time, “Why should I? I’ve got by so far without collaboration so why bother now?” A realistic response from a famous expert in fiction in his eighties.

    Philby and Gordievsky never met Fairclough, but they did know Fairclough’s handler, Colonel Alan McKenzie aka Colonel Alan Pemberton CVO MBE. It is little wonder therefore that in Beyond Enkription, the first fact based novel in The Burlington Files espionage series, genuine double agents, disinformation and deception weave wondrously within the relentless twists and turns of evolving events. Beyond Enkription is set in 1974 in London, Nassau and Port au Prince. Edward Burlington, a far from boring accountant, unwittingly started working for Alan McKenzie in MI6 and later worked eyes wide open for the CIA.

    What happens is so exhilarating and bone chilling it makes one wonder why bother reading espionage fiction when facts are so much more breathtaking. The fact based novel begs the question, were his covert activities in Haiti a prelude to the abortion of a CIA sponsored Haitian equivalent to the Cuban Bay of Pigs? Why was his father Dr Richard Fairclough, ex MI1, involved? Richard was of course a confidant of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who became a chief adviser to JFK during the Cuban missile crisis. So how did Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky fit in? You may well want to ask John Profumo but it’s a tad late now!

    Len Deighton and Mick Herron could be forgiven for thinking they co-wrote the raw noir anti-Bond narrative, Beyond Enkription. Atmospherically it’s reminiscent of Ted Lewis’ Get Carter of Michael Caine fame. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic espionage thriller.

    By the way, the maverick Bill Fairclough had quite a lot in common with Greville Wynne (famous for his part in helping to reveal Russian missile deployment in Cuba in 1962) and has also even been called “a posh Harry Palmer”. As already noted, Bill Fairclough and John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) knew of each other but only long after Cornwell’s MI6 career ended thanks to Kim Philby shopping all Cornwell’s supposedly secret agents in Europe. Coincidentally, the novelist Graham Greene used to work in MI6 reporting to Philby and Bill Fairclough actually stayed in Hôtel Oloffson during a covert op in Haiti (explained in Beyond Enkription) which was at the heart of Graham Greene’s spy novel The Comedians. Funny it’s such a small world!

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