Kremlin by the Cam and recruiting in a gay cruising ground: Ungentle’s secret history of sex and spying | Art and design

A drowned deckchair floats in a scum of dead algae and weed on the lake in St James’s Park. Young men punting on the river Cam, with King’s College Chapel basking in the sunshine, redolent of a world of continuity, whose fractures are invisible. It could be a scene a century old. Nightlife on the street in central London, on the edge of Soho and theaterland, seen from above. Perhaps this last is a view from a smeary window in John Le Carré’s fictional home of the intelligence service on Cambridge Circus. Who is looking out?


Windows and shadows, buildings we can’t enter and rooms whose purpose we can only guess at. Shadowy paths, a bosky dell hidden from prying eyes, the edge of a cornfield after harvest. We flip from place to place, following rumors and bedevilled by uncertainties.

Ungentle is a sort of psychogeographical tour of a spy’s England, mapping the collisions and intersections of at least two secret worlds. As writer and artist (and sometime contributor to the Guardian) Huw Lemmey writes in his Utopian Driver blog, “the skill-set of homosexuals and spies in mid 20th-century Britain had a significant degree of overlap”. Lemmey’s Ungentle explores the territory, both physical and psychological, through the voice of a lone off-screen protagonist, an unnamed double agent played by Ben Whishaw. He recounts his intertwined sexual and political awakenings, and what led him into his life of intrigue, while the camera roams the places of his trysts and betrayals. Whoever this man is, the fabric of his world is real enough, as are his fellow secret agents, apart from one, another Cambridge student and future spy, and also the narrator’s lover, named Edwin.

54 Broadway, London, where Secret Intelligence Service had its offices.
54 Broadway, London, where Secret Intelligence Service had its offices. Photograph: Steve Brown

Almost nothing happens in this formidably rich yet deceptively simple and beautifully shot 16mm film, filmed and edited by artist Onyeka Igwe. There are blind windows and ducks on the water, country estates and swanky hotels, buses passing, taxis loitering, men meandering towards covert assignations in the park, cows in the field and buildings in the sun, roses blooming in their beds, a fountain in the courtyard, a summer-house overlooking the Solent.

All prosaic enough, except for the voice: the narrator is a man whose moral compass waves and misleads at every turn, in Whishaw’s lulling, evenly cadenced, precisely enunciated voice. There’s a certain price there, and what we are being told is both heartfelt and self-serving. Careless in confession, Lemmey’s narrator leads us from post-first world war youth, fucking with a laborer in a field at harvest-time, to Cambridge, and his membership of the Apostles and his seduction into his secret lives as double-agent and queer . Is the narrator a fifth, a sixth or even seventh Cambridge Comintern agent, along with the Cambridge Five and their associates, Blunt and Philby, Burgess and Maclean, Cairncross and Liddell?

It is a story of collisions and spirals, the worlds of intelligence officers and double agents, and an illegal gay world that hid in plain sight. Collisions too of class and empire, architecture and heritage, academia and politics. Ungentle maps assignation points and affinities and codes of recognition, and habits of intrigue and dissimulation.

Filled with idealism and desire, secrets and self-justifications, indiscretions and unmaskings, Ungentle takes us to the Red House in Cambridge, “a little red-brick Kremlin by the Cam”, and to St Ermin’s Hotel in Mayfair, where the Special Operations Executive was founded, and where Philby and Maclean met their Russian handlers, to 54 Broadway, where the Secret Intelligence Service had its offices, to St James’s Park, where spies would meet and queers would cruise, and to the beach house on the Beaulieu estate in Hampshire, where the young Lord Montagu was arrested following a police raid, before receiving a year-long prison sentence in 1954 for holding a gay party there.

St Ermin's Hotel, London, where the Special Operations Executive was founded.
St Ermin’s Hotel, London, where the Special Operations Executive was founded. Photograph: Studio Voltaire

The narration is only interrupted by George Butterworth’s setting of Is My Team Plowing from A.E. Housman’s 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad, sung by Bryn Terfel. Butterworth was killed by a sniper’s bullet on the Somme in 1916, while Housman’s poem concerns youth and love and loss, and death in the cause of empire. Housman was gay, and the music here is far from merely incidental. There are echoes and allusions everywhere in Ungentle. The only other interruption is the muted sound of a cell door clanging shut as the narrator talks of his confession. For all the bucolic views and the scenes from the city there is no birdsong, no traffic, nos from the late-night West End revellers spied from the window on Cambridge Circus, no footsteps resounding on the Tin and Stone Bridge shout in St James’s Park , where new recruits were welcomed into the secret service, right in the middle of the historical cruising ground.

What we have instead is consummately visual: a slow camera pan, a lens homing in (on a window, a rose), or speeding and jumping as it scans pavements and pedestrians, as if looking for a tail or a contact. The camera delves into shadows and cornices, corners and paths into the woods, and scans the landscaped courtyard of Dolphin Square, home of many MPs and lords and members of the secret world, both real and fictional. The camera becomes almost paranoid at its glances, seeking either a face or a way out. I watch Ungentle as if searching for clues and alert for misdirections, seduced by the camera and by Whishaw’s voice. At the end of Ungentle the camera settles on two Isle of Wight ferries as they merge and part in the sunlit haze, plying in opposite directions, crossing sides, and back again.

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