UK DVD RELEASE OF ROBERT TRONSON’S “RING OF SPIES” (1964) FROM NETWORK
BEHIND THE LACE CURTAIN: SOVIET SPIES IN SUBURBIA
Robert Tronson’s ‘Ring of Spies’ (aka ‘Ring of Treason’) is the 1964 film version of the true-life Portland Spy Ring case. From the late 1950s until 1961 the five-strong ring passed secrets to the Russians from the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment at Portland in Dorset, ‘the most hush-hush joint in the country’. Bernard Lee – who is best known for his role as James Bond’s M, played Harry Houghton, an ex-naval officer who is shipped back from his post in Warsaw following a drunken incident at an embassy party. Houghton is posted as a clerk at the secret naval base at Portland and is approached by an agent from ‘the other side’ who convinces him to commit treason and steal them ‘a few titbits’. Houghton befriends his co-worker, Elizabeth Gee (played by Margaret Tyzack), whom Harry calls ‘Bunty’. In reality spinster Gee’s first name was Ethel. Pleased with Houghton’s attention and fuss, the two begin courting and Houghton convinces her to take ‘Top Secret’ documents from the safe. Gee thinks she’s helping US intelligence to keep tabs on the Royal Navy, but their contact in London, Gordon Lonsdale, is actually a soviet agent.
[Harry and Bunty become part of a Ring of Spies]
Lonsdale (played by William Sylvester, later of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’), masquerades as a jukebox dealer in London, but in reality he takes the ‘borrowed’ documentation to antiquarian bookseller Peter Kroger (David Kossoff) and his wife Helen. There, behind the lace curtains at their bungalow at 45 Cranley Drive, Ruislip, Middlesex – inconspicuously nestled in suburbia – the pilfered secrets are photographed, documented, then sent behind the Iron Curtain, reduced to diminutive microdots which are hidden as full stops in such collectable books as ‘Songs of Innocence’ by William Blake. Houghton and Gee become wealthy for their sins, buying a bungalow and a new Zodiac car. But their boozing and conspicuous generosity in local pubs attracts attention. The police and secret service calculate that their joint £30-a-week incomes don’t match their extravagant lifestyle. Their home is bugged by an agent posing as a gasman and the spy ring’s full extent begins to be revealed. Anyone interested in rare 1960s British cinema and low-fi monochrome espionage is in for a treat with this engrossing rendition of a fascinating true story. Told with the minimum of flash and no distracting score (the only music is from record players, or odd atonal data electronica) ‘Ring of Spies’ deserves to be better known. Bernard Lee is well cast as the hard-drinking Houghton, who feels the world owes him something and has no loyalty to ‘Queen and Country’, in sharp contrast to his M character in the 007 films. Tyzack and Sylvester are also ideal for the roles of timid spinster and ice-cold spymaster. The supporting cast is good, with Thornley Walters as Houghton’s cheery commander, Winters, and familiar faces such as Paul Eddington and Geoffrey Palmer present in the background. Edwin Apps plays Blake, ‘a minor cog in the Middle East department’. One of my favourite 1960s actresses, Justine Lord (Sonia in ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ spy spoof episode of ‘The Prisoner’) appears early in the film, as Christina, Harry’s lover in Warsaw. Gillian Lewis played Harry and Bunty’s co-worker Marjorie Shaw, whose beauty has earned her ‘Runner up, Miss Lyne Regis’. The realistic settings and authentic filming locations – Chesil Beach, various London tube stations, the Round Pond in Kensington Palace Gardens, the magnificent roof garden at the top of Derry and Toms department store on Kensington High Street – ensure the story is always interesting and the monochrome cinematography adds docu-realism to the action. Interiors were shot on sets at Shepperton Studios.
[Kensington Roof Garden, formerly known as Derry and Toms Roof Garden, London]
Don’t expect 007, nor even Harry Palmer, but the film’s depiction of low-key, cloak and dagger espionage is edgily exciting, as the spies are tailed on English country roads and suburbia by British agents disguised as builders, ‘News of the World’ newspaper van drivers and nuns. This is a must for fans of 1960s Cold War spy cinema. The story proves that fact is often much stranger than fiction. In reality, after being sentenced to 15 years in prison each, Houghton and Gee were released in 1970 and married the following year.
This DVD release is part of Network’s ‘The British Film’ collection, a five-year project to release over 450 British films via a deal with Studiocanal. The project commenced in April 2013. ‘Ring of Spies’ is from British Lion and includes the original trailer (a ‘U’ rated trailer advertising an ‘A’ certificate film) and a gallery of publicity stills.
DVD format: Region 2 Rated: PG RRP: £9.99 Screen ratio: 1.66:1 87 mins Black & white