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René on Television: A Review

Ashenden


review by Laura Ringuette

I recently had the opportunity to see this series on television. Of particular interest is the work of character actor René Auberjonois, who is featured in the third episode, entitled "Mr. Harrington's Washing". For those who have not had the chance to see it, I include some background, a synopsis, and some comments.

Background

Ashenden was first telecast in Britain in 1991, as four fifty-minute episodes. They were combined into two films (Ashenden Part 1, episodes 1 & 2, and Ashenden Part 2, episodes 3 & 4). They were shown on A&E on June 7-8, 1992. This series is based on the semi-fictional work Ashenden, which is a thinly veiled description of some of the espionage activities of author Somerset Maugham.

Introduction

Set amidst the geopolitical intrigue of Europe during the first World War, this series of vignettes follows the exploits of John Ashenden. Rejected by the military, Ashenden is invited to work for British Intelligence, where his fluency in languages and his writing skills are welcome assets.

[Spoiler warning: The following synopsis describes this episode in detail. If you prefer not to know the full story or the fate of René's character, please skip ahead to the "Review" section.]

Synopsis: Episode 3
"Mr. Harrington's Washing"

This episode opens with playwright-cum-spy Ashenden meeting with his political superior "R" (Ian Bannen). Ashenden is assigned the task of bringing one million pounds in U.S. currency into Russia, in order to support the government and forestall the rise of the Bolsheviks, whose aim is to take Russia out of the war. As his cover, he will provide assistance and an interpreter to an unwitting American businessman on a trade mission to Petrograd (St. Petersburg).

Prior to his departure, Ashenden receives a sobering lecture from the chief of the Intelligence Service, Cummings (Joss Ackland). Concerns are being voiced about the misuse of the Service at the hands of its political masters, who are fostering "constructive deceit and manipulation". Cummings warns that a price will be paid when results become more important than everything else. It is but "three short steps from disillusion...to...disaffection...to...defection."

Upon his arrival in Vladivostok, Ashenden is informed of rumours that, along the route, the train is being attacked by bandits and bridges are being blown up.

We first encounter Mr. John Quincy Harrington (René Auberjonois) on the crowded station platform. He is brash and disdainful...if the Russians want to consider themselves civilized they should speak to him in English. Arguing loudly, he invokes the wrath of the President of the United States, if he is denied his compartment. Ashenden quietly dispenses the necessary bribes, and they depart.

While passing through Siberia, the train comes under the threat of rebel attack. The passengers may be turned out onto the steppes, but advice from Ashenden to wear warm clothes goes unheeded. Mr. Harrington is a picture of blissful ignorance. Rifles are fired at the train, yet he is completely oblivious of the dangers around him, maddeningly so. Mr. Harrington is a man of opinion and a self-professed student of conversation. Whether he is relating a particularly pithy passage that he is reading or the state of his tonsils, he never lets an opportunity pass to express his views...much to Ashenden's chagrin.

There also is a touching side to Harrington...he is so taken by the local children that he is nearly left behind at a station. When he relates how much he misses his family, we can see it on his face and hear it in his voice.

After reaching their destination, and meeting with a Czech agent, Ashenden learns that the situation is grave. The army is ready to mutiny at any time...there are Bolsheviks everywhere...there is no food in the shops...and there are rumours that the Germans will march on Petrograd. Ashenden makes contact with Alexandra (Susanna Hamnett), an old flame and socialist sympathizer. She will help him arrange for the handover of the money, and act as interpreter for Mr. Harrington. The American has a letter of introduction to the socialist leader Kerenski, which they hope to use to their advantage.

Mr. Harrington, accompanied by Ashenden and Alexandra, tries in vain to get his contracts signed. One can't help but admire Harrington's doggedly persistent attempts to out-manoeuvre the paper-pushing bureaucrats. "Come back tomorrow" is their only reply, but he is not deterred. There are a few moments of light-hearted banter between Mr. Harrington and Alexandra, as she tries to enlighten him about Russian life, and he starts calling her "Delilah". This takes place amid rather bleak surroundings, while they are queueing up for tea.

They come tantalizingly close to meeting with Kerenski, due to Mr. Harrington's insistence, even when confronted with that most fearsome of obstacles: a Russian grandmother with knitting needles and a stony glare. "She can knit her way to hell" as far as he is concerned and he persists. They are granted entry but, once again, they are told to come back tomorrow.

The political situation is becoming more tense, too dangerous for Ashenden to hand over the money. When he meets up with "Delilah" and Harrington in a cafe, the windows are strafed by machine-gun fire and they are forced to take cover on the floor. After "Delilah" smacks him hard on the head to keep him down, Harrington grimaces. His pride is injured...he doesn't like Russian ways. While fleeing to the security of their hotel, they discover an armed soldier beating a helpless elderly woman. Without thinking of the consequences, Harrington rushes to her assistance, striking the soldier repeatedly with his briefcase. He is quivering with outrage and the soldier points his gun to shoot! It is only through Alexandra's pleading and offer of money that they escape retribution.

The atmosphere in the street, one of fear and uncertainty, is palpable.

A final attempt to distribute the money is planned, but it is too late. Overnight, the revolution has finally happened. Alexandra awakens Ashenden to tell him of the news. The government has fallen, officials are being killed, and she fears that both their names are on the list. There is a sudden, surprising knock on the door and Harrington enters. With much self-satisfaction, he happily reports that he has signed his contract with the government, and is eager to return home. At first he can't comprehend what has really happened, and is shocked to see so much money. Harrington is appalled when he sees Ashenden burning it...to keep it out of the hands of the Bolsheviks. "Delilah", despairingly utters the words "poor Samson", and the truth begins to dawn on Harrington. The contract is worthless. He has been cheated, used, made a fool by the government and, worst of all, his friendship has been betrayed.

Shots are heard and they must leave the country immediately, but Harrington adamantly refuses to leave without his laundry. It becomes a point of principle. His wife would never forgive him, and he is "damned if he going to leave it to the Bolsheviks!" An argument over payment erupts when they try to claim the washing. There is something ludicrous about watching this take place as chaos unfolds around them.

While making their way through a crowd which has gathered, a woman begins to scream. An armoured vehicle has entered the street and gunfire erupts! Bodies are collapsing to the pavement and the people scatter. In the ensuing panic, Ashenden, Alexandra, and Harrington become separated. Harrington turns every which way, calling out for Ashenden. Everyone must run for their lives. When it is safe, Alexandra and Ashenden return to a scene of carnage; dead and injured sprawled in the streets. Suddenly, they find the lifeless body of Mr. Harrington lying in a pool of blood, his vacant eyes staring upward, still clutching his "precious" washing. There is a brief, poignant moment when Alexandra picks Harrington's briefcase off the ground and vows to stay with his body until it is taken to the mortuary. She pleads with Ashenden to go.

Upon his return to London, Ashenden makes his report and discovers that the loss of the money is of little consequence. In fact, Ashenden's superior expresses a certain cynical satisfaction. The mission has not been a complete failure. Unbeknownst to the Americans, their messages have been decoded and their concerns about Bolshevik activity at home are known to the British. In a casual, almost gleeful tone, he notes that Harrington "didn't have much idea". Now the Americans have "something that all that money couldn't buy; a genuine American casualty at Bolshevik hands". This is generating all manner of cable traffic.

Ashenden appears to show a twinge of regret. He knows full well, that in this particular game of political chess, Mr. Harrington was merely another pawn. Perhaps the seed of disillusionment has been planted.

Review

This British production tries valiantly to bring the 1928 work Ashenden by Somerset Maugham to life. Filmed on location in "Hungary, Yugoslavia, Austria, and England", this period piece vividly captures the atmosphere of World War I Europe.

These are subtle stories, which is underscored by one character's observation that "people's motives in war, as in peace, are rarely straightforward".

These vignettes try to capture moments, events in the life of one who worked for the Intelligence Service. Agents were part of the the global chess game, but were rarely privy to the "big" picture. They practiced their art in the shadows, doing work which was often monotonous and mundane, yet had the potential to change the course of history.

Alex Jennings, who plays the title role of Ashenden, has the unenviable task of interpreting a character who is aloof, cerebral, dispassionate, and, at times, ruthless. What little emotion this character displays is shown in small ways; the arch of an eyebrow, or a dark glance. There is a fairly restrained style to the acting in this series. More emphasis is placed on the guarded look, and the drawn-out pause. What drives these characters tends to be just below the surface, implied rather than overtly expressed.

In this episode, Susanna Hamnett nicely captures the essence of the Russian spy, Alexandra. I thoroughly enjoyed the work of René Auberjonois as featured performer in "Mr. Harrington's Washing". In the hands of a less skillful actor, the character of Mr. Harrington could easily have been presented as a two-dimensional stereotype of the "ugly American abroad". However, in Mr. Auberjonois's interpretation, this character is a richly textured, fully formed creation.

Many adjectives come to mind to describe Mr. Harrington. He is by turns disdainful, irritating, obtuse, oblivious, pedantic, kind, persistent, chivalrous, stubborn, and brave. Like a Cirque du Soleil juggler, Mr. Auberjonois keeps all these aspects in play, using his mastery of expression and body language to full effect.

All of his mannerisms and facial expressions are "tuned" perfectly to show the various facets of this character...from the conspiratorial wink while discussing his stories of masculine interest, to the fastidious cleaning of his nails, to the look of bemused embarrassment while discussing his interpreter's love life. A look of hurt and betrayal crosses his face when Harrington realizes that his "friends" weren't really trying to help him...it seems appropriate that the names Samson and Delilah, a biblical allusion to betrayal, are used.

This character leaves us with a kaleidoscope of impressions. We are irritated by his disdainful manner, exasperated by his ignorance, impressed by his persistence, astonished by his bravery, sympathetic to his betrayal, and finally saddened by his tragic death. Mr. Auberjonois finds the "truth" in this character and this resonates throughout his interpretation.

This is a quite truthful portrayal of a man caught up in events beyond his grasp...a man in the wrong place at the wrong time...caught up in circumstances not of his making and "used' by others. I found his performance very compelling. He has created a "real" person in the character of Mr. Harrington. He has substance. When he is killed in such a brutal and senseless manner, we feel a real sense of loss.

I think this beautifully produced series is worth a look, to see an interpretation of one of the earliest novels of the "spy" genre. I highly recommend this episode in order to see a finely crafted performance by Mr. Auberjonois. You may soon forget Ashenden, who fades into the shadows, as all good spies should, but I don't think you will so easily forget Mr. Harrington.

Trivia

  • Apparently, Maugham gave a character in the book the name Somerville, the cover name used during his real-life espionage activities in St. Petersburg.
  • Alfred Hitchcock's film Secret Agent was inspired by the book Ashenden.
  • Jason Isaacs, who acted in the film The Patriot with René Auberjonois, also appears in an episode of Ashenden.

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