The IPCRESS File: The Spectator and the Faux Rebellion of Neoliberal Identity Politics

The United Kingdom’s ITV television network has just remade The IPCRESS File for global distribution. The new series draws on the source material of the original 1962 novel by Len Deighton about an unnamed every-man spy. The subsequent 1965 film starring Michael Caine has created marketing space for the contemporary series too. In this version the every man agent became the named working-class cockney spy Harry Palmer, whose ordinary class status was contextualised by reference to day-to-day issues of supermarket shopping and inadequate pay (part of an overall move—including the writings of John le Carré—away from sci-fi gadget-encrusted Bond-like supermen). The development of this central protagonist has been supported by a set of follow-up novels and films, which has created a meta-textual identity for Palmer, culminating in this remake.  What might we read in the changes evident in this new adaptation?

A significant pleasure of the original film for its contemporary audiences was how it dealt with its class-based subtext.  Harry Palmer was less a middle-class Queen-&-Country man than a working-class individual whose quirky talent for questioning, wheeling, and dealing elevated him into a civil service security job instead of a typical 60s state-sector job.  The climax of the film reveals how Palmer’s working-class contrarian anti-authoritarian orientation allows him to break from the orders of a foreign government’s brainwashing. His boss dismisses his complaints about his sacrificial endangerment saying, ‘it’s what I pay you for Palmer.  In this respect, working-class Palmer is a highly representative protagonist of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s 60s-era Labour government having a foot both inside and outside the system.

The new adaptation is quite a distinct restructuring of the original treatments, and while keeping Palmer’s narrative as an orientation point, moves the audience away from a single-protagonist engagement, offering instead multiple back-stories for characters Paul Maddox (Ashley Thomas), Jean Courtney (Lucy Boynton), and Palmer’s social opposite Major Dalby (Tom Hollander), some of whom appear in the original source material.  Essentially, multiple points of identification are being offered to align with current demands of supposedly multi-cultural, neoliberal niche-marketing. This however subverts genuine representations and generates a number of anachronisms.

One of these is the manufactured character of Black US intelligence agent Paul Maddox, supposedly operating internationally in the early 1960s. Plot reference is made to this being unusual but this doesn’t really cover the taboo-fracturing artificial nature of his presence.  Maddox is seen asked out for drinks by white American colleagues and dances with white-blonde Jean Courtney at a US military site without so much as a surprised racially motivated cough of reproach. While US Military segregation might have officially ended by the 60s,unofficially it persisted violently throughout the Vietnam War era.

If screenwriter/adaptor John Hodge didn’t know his social history, then Hollywood popular culture should have informed this representation. Hidden Figures (2016) revealed that during this era even NASA’s toilets were segregated. Brian’s Song (1970) treated the example of a close US inter-racial friendship during this era as so exceptional as to justify a biopic of the experience. Some years after the period setting of The IPCRESS File, the mixed-marriage drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) pointed out that anti-miscegenation laws banning inter-racial relations still existed in seventeen US states more than a third of the country.  Indicative of US racial phobias, a year later British chanteuse and actor Petula Clark sang a duet with Black American Harry Belafonte on her 1968 US television show.  Producers asked for another take of the duet because she’d inadvertently touched his arm. Characteristically for the present era of capitalism, the television series has absented this history of racial oppression, while seeking to elicit Black engagement in its cultural consumption.

This pattern is replicated in how women’s identity and historical marginalisation are similarly downplayed in the series.  Admittedly one character, indicative of the era’s limited contraception options, takes her own life after getting pregnant to a Russian spy.  But in the main, female characters demonstrate a level of agency historically and socially unusual, which is hard to find many equivalents of in popular culture from that period, including the source texts.  In the 1965 Icpress film, the female office veteran was a borderline sexist British ‘battleaxe’ stereotype. By contrast, the new series depicts this character as former lethal Second World War spy Alice (Anastasia Hille).  This affirmative tone runs counter to more authentic representations, found in films such as Plenty (1985) and Charlotte Gray (2001), which suggest that in the post-war era such women were often simply establishment-career dumped. 

In the original 1965 film, the main attributes of the younger character Jean Courtney, as played by Sue Lloyd, was sufficient experience to keep her head down in a potentially career-threatening competitively hostile patriarchal office environment.  As now played by Lucy Boynton, establishment careerist Jean is at least as sexualised as Lloyd’s earlier representation, though now broodingly aggressive about making it in a male-dominated world, which the production has her combat via a Princess Margaret-like accent and an implausibly expensive work wardrobe that seems to have come from Jackie Kennedy. Clearly the production is departing from the realist, anti-Bond, end-of-the-spy genre. Perhaps some viewers watching the dubious sequence in which Major Dalby hands out machine guns—equally implausibly representing basic intelligence-gathering staff as able to function as an off-the-cuff special forces tactical unit—might have wondered how a character, regardless of gender, could cope with heavy automatic weapon recoil while managing the logistics of an impractical Jackie-K hemline, with only the ground purchase provided by stiletto-heeled summer sling-backs.

In The IPCRESS File, the historical problem of invisible career women being reduced to the unofficial status of office ‘tea-ladies’ has, eschewing issues of sexual objectification, apparently been solved by Jean’s intensive use of lipstick. It’s worth recalling, in comparison, that during this depicted period a generation of anti-establishment, subversive revolutionary women, such as Angela Davis, Germaine Greer and Selma James, were coming to maturity. For the purposes of marketed cultural consumption, women are being offered points of identification in this current adaptation, though the fight against sexual objectification, struggles for agency, and the real historical restrictions they experienced at the hands of the patriarchy are like the representation of Black ethnic oppression; that is, largely absented.

Intelligence office boss Major Dalby (Tom Hollander) is Palmer’s class counterpoint in the text.  In accent, iconography and deportment he is overtly of the ruling class. In the source materials he is depicted as corrupted. By contrast, the new series portrays him as tempted into national betrayal by love, the orthodoxies of his position in society having trapped him in an uncommunicative, stagnate marriage. And while it might be true that being a member of the patrician class is bad for your emotional well-being; this representation does have the effect of creating another identity point of narrative entry. In essence, a viewer can now enjoy identification with a narrative, supposedly about Palmer, even from an elevated class position. It is Dalby that also recognises Palmer’s talents and promotes him into intelligence. So, even though for the purposes of demonstrating Palmer’s worldliness he’s shown occasionally quoting Karl Marx, Dalby’s function in the text in relation to Palmer helps undermine the sense that class exists at all as a constraining oppression.  Here class is just part of a set of identities. 

British Screen journal of the 1970s created some of the more important film theories on how in Lacanian psychoanalytic terms, the spectator (viewer) is sown or knitted into a visual text, and therefore potentially into its ideological project.  Stephen Heath’s Notes on Suture (1978) is a prominent source applicable here.  Perhaps more useful for this analysis is feminist Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975).  Very crudely and inadequately summarised Mulvey suggests spectator engagement is generated by two types of scopophilia – sexual visual pleasure.  One of these is voyeuristic pleasure in sexualised objectified representations of femininity. Mulvey cites the image of Lauran Bacall in To Have, and Have Not (1944), an example we find replicated in Lucy Boynton’s portrayal of Jean Courtney.  The other pleasure offered is male narcissism.  The spectator is Oedipally encouraged to identify with the central male protagonist or his doubles/surrogates within the narrative. The IPCRESS File adaptation, demonstrates that in our era of neoliberal niche-marketing capitalism, the cultural iconographic vocabulary of these narcissistic points of identification have been significantly extended – even to the extent of Jean Courtney functioning as both sexualised object and idealised character.  However in terms of sidelining critical politics or oppressive reality, the service to power has not been changed.

This still leaves two ‘characters’, which are interrelated, in The IPCRESS File.  The first is the 60s itself, here represented in vivid lacquered strategies, using glossily restored London buses, part of an overall fetish for period fashion, and using expressionistic camera angles that invoke the 1965 film, and possibly CGI staging.  This is the 60s as emblematic of Baudrillard’s ‘hyperreality’, – a 60s as theme park ride, with numerous disciplined identities from within capitalism, provided their own special entry gate.  As hyperreality, this is an ideological safe zone where nostalgic and fetishised identities are shorn of the historical and social contexts that could say something about power

Indeed, this relates to the character that in later episodes is revealed as the villain of the piece: US General Cathcart. Potentially in this hyperreal safe zone, there is a postmodern joke inference that this might be the older version of Colonel Cathcart, the antagonist from the Second World War novel, Catch-22. The General is a borderline sociopath obsessed with developing a neutron bomb, and he is finally killed-off when Palmer breaks from his brainwashing. Here in this 60s theme park, the threat is over. In real reality, the ideology that Cathcart represents has continued in the use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam, in the imposition of numerous Fascist regimes and their death squads across South America, and in global mass civilian casualties and the use of uranium-based munitions in Iraq and elsewhere, the last producing a generation of Iraqi babies with birth defects.

In the real 1960s, the public protested US imperialism outside US embassies. What are the chances of the global audience as spectators of The IPCRESS File doing the same?  

About the author

Gavin Lewis

Gavin Lewis is a freelance Black British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race, and representation. He has taught critical theory and film and cultural studies at a number of British universities.

More articles by Gavin Lewis

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.


Joe Cole delivered a credible character in the Ipcress File with subtle nuanced differences. The Joe Cole version of the Ipcress File may well prove to be of the same enduring quality as the epic Harry Saltzman version starring Michael Caine. In a way though it is a shame that the film industry is producing yet another remake of a classic thriller. If success is to breed success the film industry must not polish old gems but mine for new ones. In the espionage genre, an example of such a new gem is Beyond Enkription, the first fact based spy thriller in The Burlington Files series by Bill Fairclough. I only mention that because, coincidentally, a few critics have likened its protagonist to a “posh and sophisticated Harry Palmer” and the first novel in the series is indisputably anti-Bond or at the least a tad Deightonesque. It’s worth checking out this enigmatic and elusive thriller … though not being a remake it may have eluded you.

Comments closed