Ian Curteis

OLIVER WAKE

Television career overview

BTVD_Curteis_Row docu 1
This piece was revised and updated in 2014 and 2015.

Ian Curteis is an fascinating figure in the world of British television drama. He achieved great success in the 1970s as a writer of plays exploring real events and historical figures but thereafter found his work sometimes frustrated, with cancelled projects and related controversies. Accounts differ as to whether these frustrations were the result of political censorship or the more mundane reasons common in broadcasting. This essay presents an overview of Curteis’s television career, incorporating material from a variety of contrasting sources, including Curteis himself, which illustrates why his work is so interesting and, sometimes, divisive.

Traitor (1971)

DAVID ROLINSON

Play for Today Writer: Dennis Potter; Director: Alan Bridges; Producer: Graeme McDonald
John le Mesurier with Dennis Potter (photo © Radio Times)

“I had to turn my back on all that I had been brought up to love…”

Western journalists visit Moscow to interview Adrian Harris (John Le Mesurier), a former controller in British intelligence who was also a Soviet agent passing on vital information, and who has now defected. Harris believes in both Communism and Englishness – he believes that he has betrayed “my class, yes… my country, no” – but the press find these beliefs incompatible, and want to find out why he became a “traitor”. Harris is plagued by anxieties over his actions and his upper-class childhood, and drinks to a state of collapse. Describing Traitor by using a synopsis gives the misleading impression that the play has a straightforward attitude to Harris’s psychology, just as its staging can be too easily seen as conventional – apart from a few filmed scenes and flashbacks, much of the play is based around dialogue-heavy confrontation on one set, which led some reviewers to find it “heavy going”, a “static and verbose” piece “long on self-conscious speeches and dialogue tussles which depended for their effectiveness upon liberal use of literary quotations”.1 It is no surprise that it was later remade for radio.2 However, Traitor is one of the most thematically ambitious of Dennis Potter’s early plays, tackling family psychology, patriotism and, through nuanced use of literary quotation, the way culture and institutions reinforce political values.