Film, Socialism, Espionage and The Secret State: A Special Guest Blog By Alan Burton

20 March 2017

History

This post has been written by guest blogger Alan Burton. Alan Burton is Honorary Visiting Fellow in Art History and Film at the University of Leicester. He has recently published The Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction (2016) and has served as a consultant on the Adam Matthew resource Socialism on Film.

Socialism on Film, the new archive resource recently launched by Adam Matthew Digital, offers many fascinating insights into the practice of cultural propaganda during the Cold War period. It also tantalizingly poses intriguing questions about censorship and repression as the authorities would evidently have mobilized against what would have been seen as subversion in its midst. Hopefully, the new availability of the resource will prompt an intrepid historian to venture into the relevant papers at the National Archive in the anticipation, if perhaps not the overwhelming expectation, of unravelling the official response to the appearance in Britain in the 1950s of a film library dedicated to promoting international communism. Here, I would like to offer a little context and a few insights which help to situate the film collection in its historical moment of suspicion and political conflict.

The founder and general manager of the Plato film library (later Educational and Television Films) was Stanley Forman and he has left an impression of long-term surveillance by the security services which clearly interested themselves in what he was up to. A lifelong communist, the persecution started early when he was undertaking cultural work for the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s. A comment, for example, in his obituary in The Times recalled ‘a visit from MI5 [which] left his mother terrified that he would be arrested’ (4 March 2013). In an interview in 2000, Stanley Forman was more specific when commenting on the period when he operated the film library. Responding to the question, ‘Did your political filmmaking help or hinder your career?’, he gave the following reply:

‘I’ve always considered myself political, and if you are political what you do reflects. I was quite well-known, and we were dealing with the Soviet Union. My phone, I don’t know if it’s tapped now, MI5 don’t write and say ‘we are now tapping your phone’ or ‘we have stopped tapping your phone’. Certainly letters were opened. Certainly my phone was tapped, both here [the office] and at home. Certainly the CIA came, whenever we had an interesting film from Vietnam: “we are interested in Vietnam. We don’t care what it costs; we would like to purchase a copy of the film”. The difficulties were harassment. MI5 was the governmental set-up to track down Communists. They would say ‘and fascists’, but it’s mainly the Reds that they’re after’(1)

 

               Life is Not Black and White © British Film Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

From what we now know about the secret state in the Cold War, it is unsurprising that a left-wing organisation with strong links to the Eastern Bloc was subjected to scrutiny and hounding by Western Intelligence. There are a number of other submerged layers of secrecy and intrigue which lie below the surface of the story of Plato/ETV, film and the secret state, which add to the fascinating prospects as to what lies buried in the National Archive and what is yet to be revealed. It has recently emerged, for example, that Ivor Montagu, the most important figure on the Left in Britain as far as film was concerned (and for table-tennis oddly enough!) and a mentor for Stanley Forman and Plato Films, was a Soviet agent during the early war period, and perhaps at other times (Macintyre, Ben. Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War I, 2010: 83-90). The Austrian refugee film cameraman Wolf Suschitzky sometimes filmed brief items for Plato, including the unveiling of the Marx Memorial in Highgate Cemetery in 1956. While wholly innocent of espionage himself, he was the brother of Edith Tudor Hart, a Soviet agent who more than likely recruited Kim Philby through her friendship of his then wife Litzi Friedmann (Yuri Modin, My Five Cambridge Friends, 1994: 52-3).

 

Educational and Television Films title card © British Film Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The full story of the ways espionage and aspects of the secret world criss-crossed the British film industry has yet to be told. It has been alleged, for example, that leading film producer Alexander Korda may have performed secret wartime services for Britain, perhaps acting on behalf of the British Security Co-ordination in New York. After the war, Korda’s London Films provided commercial cover for Secret Intelligence Service agents working for the ‘Z Organisation’ in foreign countries (Nigel West, Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, 2005: 294). MI5 could well have been suspicious of Plato/ETV operating some sort of similar role in reverse. The security services would certainly have taken notice of the prolonged court case dealing with the film Operation Teutonic Sword (1958), which involved the East German authorities and had defence implications as it accused a leading NATO general of nefarious activities for the Nazis.

Seemingly more liberal attitudes to official secrecy has recently led to the more widespread declassification of government documents and even authorized histories of the secret service. Let’s hope that the leniency extends to the papers dealing with the overlap of the secret world of government and the operations of British cinema. Especially the activities of Plato/ETV, a left-wing body which must have attracted a manila envelope in the file marked ‘subversion’, and which would have sent shivers down the collective spine of MI5.

(1) Interview with Stanley Forman.Available at http://www.netribution.co.uk/features/interviews/2000/stanley_forman/6.html [Accessed March 2017]

Socialism on Film, Module 1 is available now. For more information including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Full access to this resource is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a licence.

 

About the Author

Alan Burton

Alan Burton

Alan Burton is Honorary Visiting Fellow in Art History and Film at the University of Leicester. He has recently published The Historical Dictionary of British Spy Fiction (2016) and has served as a consultant on the Adam Matthew resource Socialism on Film.

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