Log in

No account? Create an account
parrot_knight [userpic]

Fellow Traveller. Written by Michael Eaton. Directed by Philip Saville.

July 18th, 2008 (11:07 pm)

Fellow Traveller was made in 1989 for the BBC and HBO. It's very much a piece of its time, reflecting the anxieties of the British left at the end of the 1980s as well as British broadcasting professionals at the dawn of the multichannel era. This is a sign of its ageing well; the settings are in the 1940s and 1950s, but the subject matter might be held to represent the fears of the BBC/ITV 'duopoly' that its founding myths not be forgotten, as well as a left whose legends were starting to lose their totemic relevance.

This particular founding myth is the story of how the early filmed adventure series on ITV in the 1950s were in part written by American exiles, who had fled their country rather than testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and sought clandestine work from the emerging commercial television sector in the UK. The film's lead character is Asa Kaufman (Ron Silver, later Bruno Gianelli on The West Wing, and much else besides) who has left Hollywood for London rather than testify before the committee. The narrative is non-sequential, moving effortlessly and coherently between London in 1954 and Hollywood at various points between 1943 and 1954, as the suicide of Asa's best friend since childhood, a fellow Jew from the Lower East Side, Hollywood star Clifford Byrne (Hart Bochner) prompts him to look back at his relations with the Communist Party, the film industry's left wing, with Byrne and with Byrne's former girlfriend Sarah Aitchison (Imogen Stubbs), whom he meets again in London.

There's a curious ethnic sensibility to the film. One character's treason is foreshadowed by the revelation that he is not a Levi but a Leavey - not Jewish, but Irish. The ITV company making the Robin Hood series on which Asa goes to work is 'Independent Allied Telefusion'. Unlike its real world original, ITC, it's not run by an array of showbusiness entrepeneurs - many of them from Jewish immigrant stock, which might have made the contrast between Asa and his new environment less pronounced. Instead IAT is headed by Sir Hugo Armstrong, a kilt-wearing Scot played by Richard Wilson (given the accent it's presumed that he is meant to be a self-made man) who had a pro-Soviet Communist brother, killed in World War Two, and who lives in a moated fortified manor house.

It always rains in London, of course. Asa's digs for the early part of the London sequence seem to be in a fading nineteenth-century house in Paddington or Bayswater, presided over by the future Mrs Warboys of One Foot in the Grave, Doreen Mantle, as a repressed and repressive prying relic of the Victorian era who won't allow her tenants to entertain guests in their rooms. He's thrown out when entertaining Sarah to tea and whisky, leading to what must be one of the most successful dramatic depictions of an unsatisfactory sexual encounter. Sarah is part of the British left and a disarmament campaigner, but the conversation of her friends is removed from the practical experience of Asa, an exile from his homeland on a point of principle who has then had to compromise principle and lie to earn a living, and who has exchanged the prospect of imprisonment at home for harassment by the secret service in Britain.

The two sets of fantasy sequences are of variable effect: Asa visits his mother in the attic a couple of times too often. However, the Robin Hood sequences are made as a clear and largely loving homage to the original Richard Greene series, with every scene being stolen by the Sheriff of Nottingham, here Jonathan Hyde, though the Robin of these sequences is less charismatic than was Greene, and lack of conviction in places lets these scenes down. While Kaufman's ideas for the series are initially batted aside and he is humiliated by having to lease a pseudonym from a crony of the producers, he deals with his problems by dramatising them in Robin Hood episodes. There is a definite championing of London-based practical therapy over a cynical Californian psychotherapy here.

Despite its occasional flaws and, I think, wobbly sense of period (perhaps a legacy of co-production), Fellow Traveller confronts a time and place where three situations where there was an 'other side' - Britain and America, McCarthyism and the American left, BBC and ITV - combined to punishing effect. It is an impressive television film that deserves to be better remembered nineteen years on.


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: July 22nd, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC)

I chatted to Eaton a couple of years back about this film, lovely guy, great writer.

It's obviously a fictionalised '50s, and I think it's for legal reasons that we get a not-quite Sapphire/ITC doing a slightly more Flynn Robin Hood. Having said that it we should also remember the blacklisted writers appear to have actually just sent in their work from Hollywood, which isn't half as much fun!

Really I'd say it's a piece about artist finding a way to work in a system that stifles and represses them, how you can smuggle messages through between the lines, so very much about the TV era that spawned it, and for simplicity it gives us the MCarthy pressures over and above the real complexities of a UK produced but US-UK backed series made for consumption by two audiences at the start of ITV, which are actually fascinating if perhaps a lot less film shaped.

Delighted someone else has seen this film!

Ian Potter