Official Secrets

Everyone should watch the 2019 film Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, and Ralph Fiennes.

It’s the true story of Katharine Gun, who in 2003 was working as a translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham. At that time the American NSA were trying to facilitate President George W. Bush’s determination to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with the aim “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” As we soon learned, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and far from the Iraqi people being freed, they were subjected to decades of terror for themselves and the whole region, with the rise of so-called ‘Islamic State’ and the bloody wars that then followed to overthrow it.

The NSA emailed GCHQ requesting them to help with surveillance of the delegates from non-permanent member nations of the UN Security Council , with a view to putting pressure on them to support the 2nd resolution that was necessary to legitimate the invasion of Iraq. Katharine Gun was appalled by this, convinced that it was wrong for our security agencies to be used to support the policies of a foreign government, especially when this meant going to war without just cause. (Remember that millions of people all over the world, even in the UK and USA, were demonstrating against Bush and Blair’s policy.)

After great heart-searching, Gun sent a copy of the email to an activist friend, who in turn sent it to the Observer newspaper. The Observer had until this point supported the war, but when they investigated the email and found it genuine, as well as confirming that evidence of Iraqi WMDs was doubtful, they published it.

GCHQ staff were immediately questioned to identify the source of the leak, on the basis that it contravened the mighty Official Secrets Act. Katharine Gun could not bear her colleagues being subjected to this treatment and quickly confessed. She was immediately arrested and questioned. One of the minor heroes of this film is the (unnamed) young woman duty solicitor at this first questioning, who admits she usually only represents petty criminals on drugs and shoplifting charges, yet recommends that Gun should get in touch with the human rights advocacy group Liberty.

In a cruel twist, it was many months before Gun was formally charged — months in which the authorities left her in suspense about what would happen to her. When she was eventually brought to trial, the question was, How should she plead? She was clearly guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act, yet she opted to plead Not Guilty on the grounds of necessity: that she had acted as she did in order to try to prevent an illegal war.

Here’s a Spoiler Alert, but I can’t resist it and it won’t spoil your enjoyment of the film: When the trial began, the prosecution announced that they would not be bringing any evidence. They gave no reason for this decision, though it’s pretty clear it was because the defence had asked to see the records that the Government had received during the run-up to the war giving legal advice about whether the war was lawful. Since these records would reveal that the Attorney General had originally ruled it unlawful (until he visited Washington DC where he was presumably pressured by the Americans to change his mind), the Government didn’t want this to be revealed. The astonished judge had no alternative but to dismiss the case, and Katharine Gun walked free.

Katharine Gun is a hero whistle-blower, and of course has had to live with and suffer the consequences. Though admired by millions and the recipient of awards, Wikipedia notes

After she was acquitted in 2004, she found it difficult to find a new job. As of 2019 she has lived in Turkey with her husband and daughter for several years.

This is an accurate presentation of a young woman who stood up to protest against one of the most evil decisions taken by British Government during my lifetime. Not only was it illegal and wrong, but it has unleashed violence and suffering on the world which we have yet to see the end of. But it is also an exciting and thought-provoking thriller.

If you haven’t yet watched this (it’s free on Amazon Prime) you should watch it as soon as possible. You really should.

The Inbetweeners and Sex Education

Here’s a reflection I’ve been pursuing about contemporary culture, sexual attitudes, mores, popular entertainment, and humour, inspired by two TV sitcoms. You could frame it as an essay question:

Compare, contrast and evaluate The Inbetweeners, (2008-2010) and Sex Education (2019-present).

See the source image
The Inbetweeners
See the source image
Sex Education

They are apparently similar in being British comedy dramas about teenagers coming of age, and especially exploring their sexual identities, doing their best to look cool to their contemporaries, and to get laid as often as possible.

I quite enjoyed The Inbetweeners when it was first aired. I can’t say the same about viewing it again on Britbox, where it is currently available. Each episode opens with the moral health warning: Contains strong language and adult humour. This isn’t exactly true. The humour is relentlessly adolescent, and I would add, aimed at adolescent males. In the ten years since it first came out, there has been a huge sea change in the way we (or at least, I) react to this brand of humour. Perhaps it has been the effect of revelations about the abuse of women perpetrated by men, the whole #Metoo phenomenon, the language used by Donald Trump and others that sets out to humiliate, degrade and objectify women. I can no longer listen to Will, Simon, Neil and Jay’s conversations with even the wry recollection, “Yes, that’s just what being a spotty adolescent was like, my body raging with lust and hormones.” Now it’s just repulsive and gross.

Sex Education is different. It’s still about teenagers at a sixth form college agonising about sex, identity and the rest. It’s still a jungle in there – why is it that teenagers are often so outrageously cruel to each other? But it’s so much funnier, cleverer, more adult in fact, but without repelling in the same way. You might say, perhaps, that it’s about what the title says it’s about: these young people know more about sex (well, not always – witness among other examples the chlamydia “plague” panic in series 2, episode 1), and it’s also, seriously, about how they learn more. It’s also much more inclusive: girls have sexual desires and experiences as well as the boys. There are lots of strong female characters in the comedy, and they are often shown in a better, more sympathetic light than the boys. Adults have sexual desires and experiences too, and they form an important part of the action. The adults elicit our sympathy but also our disapproval, as they mistreat their pupils or children.

I thoroughly enjoy Sex Education and can watch it again without that disgust that not only The Inbetweeners, but other more vintage ‘comedies’, arouse.

What do others think?

Lewis: Wild Justice

Thanks to the magic of Netflix, we’ve been enjoying our way through the nine series of Lewis. And – dare I say it, for it sounds very much like heresy – I enjoy it more than I do Inspector Morse. I mean, I love John Thaw as Morse: I love his love of music and his disapproval of freemasons, I can smile at his curmudgeonabliness, (I’ve been known to get a bit grumpy myself, just occasionally), I can tolerate his constantly falling in love with unsuitable women, many of whom have a habit of ending up dead. What I found increasingly annoying was the running gag of his stinginess, never paying for a drink and expecting Lewis to pay every time. Robbie Lewis is altogether a much more likeable character, and I especially like the developing dynamics of his relationship with Hathaway, which so often reminds me of me and my brilliant curate.

Last night’s episode was Series 5 Episode 2, Wild Justice. I think this may be my favourite episode ever. It has just about everything, recycling many of the well-worn themes and conceits of all these dramas ‘inspired by the works of Colin Dexter’. Set in St Gerard’s, a mad religious institution in Oxford, where the crazed ‘not monks, they’re friars’ are all ferociously reactionary and resistant to, especially, the idea of women priests. The sinister Italian Father Mancini reads from Dante’s Inferno (in Italian) to the dying nasty English millionairess. The first victim is a black American woman bishop, so suspicion naturally falls on the mad misogynistic friars. There’s the woman academic, a specialist in Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies, which provide the manner of death for all the four murders that reveal Oxford, yet again, to be the Murder Capital of the World. (“Four murders in five days, Robbie!” exclaims Chief Superintendent Innocent. She should surely be used to it by now?) There’s the bitterly contested college election for the post of Vice Regent, where the (male) forces of reaction are pitted against the (progressive) women candidates. There’s the former violent criminal transformed by the love of a good woman into a gifted best-selling writer. There’s the woman who, aged 10, committed a gruesome murder, now grown up and given a new identity, and astonishingly transformed into a gifted academic. There’s the posh wedding reception held in the stunning new atrium of the Ashmolean Museum. There’s a kind of reference to two paintings by Fra Angelico that were discovered in Oxford shortly before the episode was filmed. And perhaps best of all (because I don’t remember this happening anywhere else in the whole oeuvre)


it was the butler who did it! in revenge for the long-ago murder of his grandparents, by the now-rehabilitated child murderer.

Really, how could you not love all this? We may not yet have had The Kiss (that comes a bit later in the series); but I’m sure you can see why I love this one so much.