Epitaph For A Spy
BBC 1963
BBC Television continued its preoccupation with espionage throughout the 1960s with a wide range of original thrillers and adaptation of popular works of fiction. The 1950s had seen a brief smattering of original works, with predominately literary-based adaptations as the primary fodder for this genre.

One of the most notable programmes was Epitaph For A Spy which, in March 1953, had proven to be a popular adaptation of Eric Ambler's third novel and, over the course of six weeks, had afforded starring roles for Peter Cushing and Philip Leaver under the production stewardship of Stephen Harrison and adapted for television by Giles Cooper. Ten years later, the serial returned to BBC Television, albeit in four episodes which provided a truncated version of the story now stripped of any inconsequential scenes and basically a more hard-bitten and heightened thriller serial.

Adapted for television by the popular Welsh scriptwriter Elaine Morgan (who had forged a career for herself with the popular serial A Matter Of Degree and made a notable thriller contribution by way of Barbara In Black), the series featured Colin Jeavons (later to famously appear as Tim Stamper in the Michael Dobbs Francis Urquhart trilogy of films in the 1990s) as a photographer called Vadassy, on a touring holiday in France where he elects to pursue his hobby of taking pictures of landscapes and landmarks.

When he completes a roll of film and hands it in for development, he is arrested shortly thereafter under suspicion of espionage as large sections of the film contain pictures of military installations. Whilst Vadassy adamantly refutes the claim that he took the pictures himself, the authorities are suspicious - though they allow him the opportunity to clear his name by becoming engaged in an undercover operation to flush out the apparent "real" culprits.

He is allowed to return to his hotel, which is populated by an extremely cosmopolitan array of guests, and he is instruction to find the party responsible for the pictures - his only lead being it is one of his fellow guests. If he fails, he will be deported under suspicion of espionage. If he succeeds, his reputation will remain in-tact. However, as an ordinary citizen he has no legal rights and as a traveller he is not afforded the police protection of a citizen. Vadassy embarks on a dangerous game of cat and mouse, in which the police are prepared to use him as a pawn, and his own pursuit of the villainous party responsible for his predicament brings himself and his companion, Mary Skelton (Janet McIntire), into the gravest of peril…

A remarkable novel for the time (Ambler wrote the story in response to the changing attitudes in society during the years of the Second World War) and considered a contemporary literary classic, Epitaph For A Spy translated easily to television and emerged as one of the more highly-regarded early-evening thrillers the BBC produced in the 1960s (low on violence, high on drama and potently entertaining).

Produced and directed by Dorothea Brooking, accompanied with a musical score by the prodigious Dudley Simpson, and matched with high-calibre supporting performances from Burnell Tucker, Peter Ducrow, Barry Shawzin and Frederick Jaeger, the four-part series enjoyed global exportation, though its commercial realisation was limited to the novel from which it had been adapted for television.

Text © Matthew Lee, 2007.

Portrayed By
Colin Jeavons
Warren Skelton
Burnell Tucker
The Chemist
Geoffrey Hibbert
The Commissionaire
Peter Ducrow
The Gendarme
John Devaut
Barry Shazwin
Herr Heinberger / Schimmler
Carl Jaffe
Derek Smee
Major Clandon-Hartley
William Fox
Mrs Candon-Hartley
Hanna Pravda
Monsieur Duclos
Henry Oscar
Frederick Jaeger
Odette Martin
Sandra Barry
Robert Crewdson
The Detective
Jack Smethurst
Paul Whitsun-Jones

The series was written by Elaine Morgan, adapted from the novel of the same title by Eric Ambler. The series was produced and directed by Dorothea Brooking.

TX : 19th May 1963

Publicity : Epitaph For A Spy - With Colin Jeavons in the leading role: Joseph Vadassy, the reluctant hero of tonight's new serial, is a hard-up young language teacher who arrives in the South of France for a much-needed holiday clutching his most valuable possession - a camera. Lizards are his target; he watches them for hours. A roll of film is completed, and is ready for collection at the village chemist. His reception there, and the subsequent adventures which befall him, lead this bewildered little man to behave in a way he would never have thought possible. In his hotel Vadassy is faced with a strange assortment of guests: men and women, old and young, of many different nationalities. "All very fishy characters," as he wildly exclaims. The story is, of course, based on Eric Ambler's famous novel, which was published in 1938. First televised by the BBC in 1953 as a six-part serial dramatised by Giles Cooper, Epitaph For A Spy has this time been made into a television drama by Elaine Morgan, whose numeous plays and series for television include A Matter Of Degree and A Chance To Shine. There are, however, a number of differences between the two dramatisations of Ambler's novel. Since 1953 the pace of the average television serial has accelerated and the problems of the 1930s have grown remoter; so it was decided that the best way of retelling this entertaining story would be in four instalments and with a setting in the 1960s. To do so nationalities have had to be changed, attitudes modified, new motives provided, relationships readjusted. "In fact," says Elaine Morgan, "the most appalling liberties have been taken with the original story. I don't know whether Eric Ambler's fans will consider this attempt was justifiable - but I hope they will find enough of the original spirit of the novel alive and kicking in the serial". (Radio Times, May 16, 1963).

Notes :
Episodes were originally transmitted 5:40pm to 6:10pm on BBC 1. Music for the series was provided by Dudley Simpson.

TX : 26th May 1963

Synopsis : Monsieur Vadassy, a reluctant detective, having lost the decoy camera without finding his own, witnesses a violent family reunion, and enjoys a romantic encounter.

TX : 2nd June 1963

Synopsis : Monsieur Vadassy stages an unconvincing theft, and attempts a less successful bit of sleuthing. Inspector Beghin makes an arrest.

TX : 9th June 1963

Synopsis : Inspector Beghin pursues the spy to his meeting with an accomplice in a timber yard. Monsieur Vadassy shows unexpected heroism when Mary is in danger