In my review of the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I commented on how the real world of spying was so much more banal than how the movies portrayed it. Another thing they rarely show is what happens when spies get old and their secrets become worthless. A Question of Attribution examines a few weeks in the life of Sir Anthony Blunt, just before the British government announced that he was the notorious “fourth man” in the Cambridge Spy ring who passed official secrets to the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 50s. This revelation effectively destroyed his career as an art historian, losing him both his knighthood and role as the Surveyor of the Queen’s paintings.
The play doesn’t dwell on what he did or why, but on the wall of secrecy created by the state to protect and later expose him. It heavily implies that Blunt’s identity was revealed because journalists were close to the truth, and that MI5 wanted to hide the fact that many more diplomats and civil servants had been spies, but had gone undetected and unpunished.
This is ground Alan Bennett had covered before in his earlier work An Englishman Abroad, about Guy Burgess in exile in Moscow. While he Maclean and Philby all deflected to the other side of the Iron Curtain, Blunt remained and was protected from prosecution in return for a full confession and intelligence on other Soviet sympathisers. At the plays start, his handlers in the security services are beginning to lose patience with his continued lack of co-operation. A new case officer is appointed with the proviso that if he can’t get any new information out of Blunt, the authorities will be forced to name him.
Throughout the play the question that it repeatedly asked is what makes something a fake? Blunt in his role as Surveyor of the Queen’s pictures is examining a painting that may or may not be by Titian. Originally only showing two figures, cleaning and restoration reveals a third person and X-rays the possibility of two more. Does it really matter if parts of the painting are fake or not as long as people believe it’s the real thing? This is a beautiful metaphor, not just for Blunt’s life, but for British society throughout much of the 20th century where artifice and deception were the order of the day. As one of Blunt’s younger assistants cheerfully admits, “I could pass as privately educated until I opened my mouth”. Secrecy is still one of the chief elements of British political culture and even thirty years on it remains deeply embedded.
Possibly the most interesting scenes are those involving Blunt’s encounter with Queen Elizabeth while examining a painting in Buckingham Palace. The Queen is often depicted in works of fiction as a mere figurehead, and not a particularly bright one at that. Here she’s frighteningly sharp, easily the equal of Blunt and well aware of her place at the top of the social and political hierarchy. “I suppose for me Heaven’s going to be a bit of come down” she muses at one point. The dialogue also suggests that she was aware of Blunt’s treason but simply didn’t care.
A Question of Attribution was turned into a TV movie in 1989 by the BBC, with James Fox as Blunt and Prunella Scales as the Queen. I highly recommend you track down a copy if you can as it’s a brilliant piece of TV drama.
Here is a short clip of Blunt and the Queen having a very loaded conversation about artistic fakes: