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I saw 'Licking Hitler' by David Hare when it was originally transmitted in 1978, and I recently saw it again at BFI. I almost wish that this drama's title was literally accurate, and the play would be about someone's tongue licking Hitler. But of course the title means 'Defeating Hitler'.
This slowly-paced but excellent drama is set in an English country home that has been commandeered by the War Office as a base for a counterintelligence unit that sends into Germany subversive messages known as 'black propaganda', which we would now call 'disinformation'. The two main characters are Archie Maclean (Bill Paterson), who before the war was a Glaswegian journalist ... so of course he's an alcoholic, and Anna Seaton (Kate Nelligan), a Sloane-ish young woman who serves the unit as a translator. The other members of the unit form a supporting cast who are largely unsympathetic; these are clearly a disparate group of people who have been thrown together by the needs of wartime.
There are some Pinteresque silences throughout this drama, abetted by slow camera work and occasional snatches of slow-tempo piano music on the soundtrack. The stodgy pace actually works in this drama's favour, as the characters here are working slowly and doggedly as part of a war effort that seems to be interminable.
Naturally, the characters engage in debates and outright arguments about the work they're doing. If we're the goodies and the Germans are the baddies, then why are we lying to them? Oughtn't we to be conducting our war effort at a higher moral level than the Nazis'? Inevitably, since this workplace sets so little value on the truth, the members of the unit start lying to one another about their personal lives.
There's a rather bitter postscript, in which we learn what became of each member of this unit after the war. Inevitably, those who lied as a matter of course prospered, whilst those who only lied as a necessity of war did less well afterward.
It's been said elsewhere that truth is such a precious commodity that in wartime it must be protected by a cordon of lies. Playwright Hare raises some difficult moral questions here, but offers no easy answers. I found 'Licking Hitler' absolutely fascinating, and I rate this drama a full 10 out of 10.
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