An Englishman Abroad

Alan Bennett
BBC Audio
(2006)

Joining Kafka's Dick and Forty Years On in the Alan Bennett Three Plays set is his short drama about a meeting between the Australian-born actress Coral Browne and the spy Guy Burgess in Moscow in 1958.

Augmenting the play is an introduction delivered by Bennett himself, in which he explains some of the processes by which he wrote to the play and also Alec Guinness' introduction to Miss Browne, which started everything off.

The writer is blessed with two fine actors in the central roles. Sir Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton seem perfectly cast, which is just as well given the competition. Many will still remember John Schlesinger's 1983 filmed version starring Alan Bates as Burgess and Coral Browne as herself.

Guy Burgess is now forever paired with Kim Philby but, as he says in this play, that is more coincidence than anything else, brought about by the need to "jump" across the Iron Curtain at the same time.

Everything about the former diplomat is quintessentially English and that is his tragedy. He may live in Moscow, drink too much and have a Russian male lover but his every thought and deed remains in the Home Counties years after he effectively precluded the possibility of another visit to his home country.

Bennett though makes a telling observation when he says that, had Burgess lived for other couple of decades, he would have become a TV celebrity in the United Kingdom, with his past sins regarded as nothing more than the following of a rather odd whim.

However, that was not to be the case since Guy Burgess died in 1962 and, if he is remembered at all, it is as one of the rotters who betrayed their country as The Cambridge Spies.

Coral Browne was an actress with the RSC, who formed part of moves towards détente in a cultural exchange that led to a production of Hamlet in Moscow, attended by the homesick former spy.

He was more than just homesick because, as a result of alcoholic excess, Miss Browne discovered him throwing up in the basin of her dressing room.

Their relationship was an odd mix between prurient distaste, on her side, and friendship. The actress was interested enough to learn about this Englishman abroad and was kind enough to send him parcels, especially of clothes from his tailor.

At the same time, she was well aware of the crimes that he had committed and, while understanding his motives, at least to an extent, could hardly approve of their perpetrator.

An Englishman Abroad only lasts an hour and is commonly paired with Bennett's play about Anthony Blunt, A Question of Attribution under the title of Single Spies.

However, despite the brevity, it makes enjoyable listening on its own, particularly to hear both Sir Michael Gambon and a very deep voiced Penelope Wilton at their best.

Ideally, it is recommended that enthusiasts buy the Three Plays set, which offers excellent value for money with five discs costing £20 or less.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher