On a recent trip to Belsize Park I walked past the Isokon block of modernist flats built in 1934, it has an English heritage blue plaque that reads: Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy as previous residents. On a separate sign tacked to a wooden fence for the Isokon gallery it lists: Agatha Christie and ‘several soviet spies’ as residents- not your usual bragging rights I thought.
An hour prior to passing by the Isokon I’d visited Burgh House up the hill in Hampstead London NW3, whereupon they have an event for George Blake. George Blake was an M16/KGB double agent who was imprisoned in 1961 for 42 years but escaped in 1966 from Wormwood Scrubs. Most people assumed he’d legged it to Moscow but in fact he was hiding with an old couple in Hampstead within spitting distance of Burgh House.
The current devastation in Ukraine and NATO's 'official' involvement kicks up Cold War reminiscent feeling. We've even had a failed inaugural British satellite launch from Cornwall - how cold war is that! I can see Michael Caine doing the countdown in the Netflix series already.
It got me thinking about the suave spies and how the cold war had influenced the ‘look’ from original sharp mod suits to the Two Tone records FBI/CIA Walt Jabsco suited character, trilby and shades and pretty much every decent modish style 1960’s onwards TV and film wardrobe.
The life span of original modernism ran alongside the era of the Cold War and newspaper cover stories of mad cap spy stories- much like George Blake. The years following the second world war remained a time of anxiety and optimism in equal measure and unprecedented technological development. The cold war was in short the backdrop in the battle between communism & capitalism and the international competition to be modern.
Spies have been around for time and memorial, Judith a Simeonite living in Bethulia gets a shout out in the Old Testament bible, is quite possibly the first double agent tale. Forward 1K + years: Daniel Defoe, Ben Johnson, Baden Powell (yes him of dib-dib-dib-dob-dob-dob scouts fame) and Christopher Marlowe also dabbled in spy craft.
Within the confines of modernist subculture the film genres that are to inspire you are as slim as the strides you are expected to wear. Top of the pile are possibly: Quadrophenia, The Italian Job, Bronco Bullfrog, Blow-Up, The Small World of Sammy Lee and then it naturally slinks over into the smartest of mod savvy cold war spy films & TV series. Only the other day flicking through the channels I happened across Vendetta For The Saint on ITV4, Roger Moores spy character being chased by Trilby hat & shade wearing mafia in various Italian line suits and tailoring in 1969 on Lambretta scooters to a jazz soundtrack. I sat through the ads until the bitter end, I had no idea there was an ITV4.
(The Ipcress File soundtrack by Jane Birkins ex-husband Mr.Barry maestro of Brit spy flick sounds)
Films and TV with a shifty character in a raincoat and shades making a click-clack noise along a damp pavement accompanied by the sound of an East European soundtrack immediately grabs our attention.
The gadgetry of the spies has also in some form come to fruition, the very phone you may be reading this post on would have seemed extremely futuristic in say Man from U.N.C.L.E. In 2008 The V&A (Victoria & Albert Museum London) held an exhibition titled Cold War Modern. With over 300 exhibits of the usual Sputniks and Dieter Rams stuff was also clothing by: Cardin, Paco Rabane, Cristobal Balenciaga and furniture design from Eames to Ernest Race, it might be their best attempt at a clothing expo yet.
(Above Mod revival xerox fanzine and original flyer from the V&A coldwar modern exhibition 2008)
In no particular order our list of spy vibe cinema and TV series are (NB in no shape or form do we condone the watching of remakes of original 1960’s film or TV):
The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Modesty Blaise, Harry Palmer (trilogy), The Conversation, The Saint, Fahrenheit 451, La Decima Vittima, The Champions, In Like Flint, Odessa File, North by North West, The Third Man, Mission Impossible TV series, The Avengers, The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, James Bond, The Prisoner, Get Smart, The Presidents Analyst, The Quiller Memorandum, The Silencers........
(Original copy of Action Cook Book - writer of the Harry Palmer trilogy once food critic Len Deighton)
Modzines as I've mentioned before 'Radical Modernists' I-D magazine November 1990 posted here 2/11/2021 mentions the relevance of spy vibe style. And so to predictably bring it back to print heres a write up in The Observer 7th August 1966...............
Danny La Rue on the cover here taken from the spy spoof "come spy with me" - photographed by John Freeman