Sunday 17 June 2012

Another brick in The Wall ...

Can life be played out on a board?

I remember The Game of Life as a child. That was fun. Monopoly can introduce children to the tough world of capitalism, maybe. But can you re-create the global tensions and ruthlessly violent and distrustful world of Cold-War era espionage on a board with a dice and a few counters?

The good people at Birmingham Games thought so.

The Wall is a board game from 1986, created to "commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall".

All around the side of the box are printed the names of men who will be forever linked with the Cold War: men like Philby, Blunt and Maclean on the British side, and Sharansky, Karpov and Daniloff on the Russian side.

None have anything to do with this game, despite its aim of being a recreation in stiff board of the heroism, duplicity and cover game that was spying on both sides of Berlin. That doesn't matter. What this game proves to be is a wonderfully evocative symbol of a time when the world was that bit more simpler.

Two sides: Russian and American. A Wall, dividing those two sides. One city, the focus of it all. Brave (foolish) men. These are in the DNA of this board game. The Cold War as a game. In real life, that particular game had globally fatal consequences.

But game it was: the 'players' had pieces - agents. There was a 'board' on which the game was played out - Berlin, and other global hot-spots. There were rules (not always followed). There were tasks and missions. And there was a finish. Supposedly. And a winner.

It seemed ripe for turning into a board game. How the game makers tried to do that is interesting, showing both the possibilities and the limitations of trying to fit the global battle between superpowers onto a 60cm square board.

The board itself has a wall running down the middle of it. A 2D wall. That's straight. Both sides of Berlin are similar, the roads on a grid system to compensate for easier game play. There is no Ku'damm. No Alex. Just a representation of the city.

There are, too, no familiar landmarks: one cannot exchange prisoners on the Glienickebrücke; nor look over the wall at Potsdamerplatz. What players moved towards instead are embassies, special weapons bases, safe houses and decoding areas. All the motifs of the spying game are there.

The basic 'moves' of spying are also open to the players: there are coloured boxes on the board called 'assassination points', 'agent eliminated' and 'border patrol'. Each player - Agent - is represented by a plastic tube with a cap on the top - blue for Allies, Red for Soviets - into which secrets are put. The aim - and here life imitates art - is to track and expose a double agent amongst the other players, while simultaneously reaching the embassy of the enemy and ending the game.

The parallels with real spy-craft are necessarily limited: few spies ever received their orders by turning over a small two-inch long card marked "Top Secret". However there is danger. Or, at least, a series of red danger squares when the player is required to roll the danger dice, from which six actions are possible. Roll one? 'Shoot to kill - remove any of your enemy's agents from the board'. In that respect, there are parallels with the real thing.

There is, too, on the board a 'Checkpoint Charlie' though it lacks any of the dramatic presence as a conduit between East and West of the real thing.

This board game follows the familiar format of all board games: board, token, dice, moves, secrets instructions and chases, all dependent upon a big heap of randomness. Maybe, then, it's not that far off what reality was back then in Berlin?

The Wall is a great find, a throwback to a time when espionage and Berlin were front and centre of the news papers and nightly bulletins.

As a game, it's fun but has limitations; as a piece of Cold War ephemera, it's very collectable.

Friday 15 June 2012

Spies, 1970s style ....

A wonderful copy of a rare trailer for the 1976 film by Lindsay Shonteff of Len Deighton's Spy Story novel:

The narrator is fabulous - he has the sort of advertising voice that could sell a three piece sofa at two-hundreds yards. The film - which is pretty average, truth be told, given that the budget was limited (no submarine shots in the Arctic) - is nevertheless replete with 1970s charm. Its look and feel - even such things as the colours and the cars - seem so dated, yet it's only 36 years ago.

It's no Quantum of Solace, clearly, but I can see definite stylistic looks back to The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, even though Patrick Armstrong - the hero - is only a 'cousin', shall we say, of Harry Palmer.

Bomber looms large....

An interesting video I've just spotted up on the ubiquitous YouTube: someone has invented an opening sequence - with original music - for an imagined film version of Len Deighton's Bomber.

It's rather good. Atmospheric, brooding, sparse. Well worth checking out:

Thursday 14 June 2012

New and improved website takes flight

The Deighton Dossier website version 2.0 (beta website) is now up on my new hosting partner and running free. I do encourage all readers of this blog to take a trip over to the new website and test it out. It's got:

  • A nicer, clearer overall site design
  • Easier navigation
  • New interactive picture galleries
  • Plenty of scope for expansion and adding videos etc.
  • Lots of room for all the content that I haven't currently put up yet online (and there's plenty of good stuff)
I will look through all my books, files, magazines, cuttings and other bits and pieces over the next few months and make sure they're up online for readers to check out and then comment about on here. 

Do please also share feedback about the website, and report any problems too!

Sunday 3 June 2012

Twin Town ....

Trends are ephemeral. So are the magazines and media that seek to define them.
The lost Deighton book cover

In the swinging sixties, it was Town magazine that was the magazine that recognised men were becoming increasingly interested in fashion, food, culture, cars and all the other offshoots of a consumer culture.

Recently, I found on eBay a very rare copy of Town magazine from 1965, the cover of which references the filming at the time of The Ipcress File. It contains a superb article about Len Deighton in which, among other things, we learn that he thought the James Bond stories were a little "childish"!

The magazine - published by Michael Heseltine, before he became an MP - lasted only a few years, but in that time it was a unique part of London's scene. The magazine was never a money-spinner. However, it failed to meet the challenge of the colour supplements that appeared in the Sunday papers from 1962 and as a result it closed in 1967, having rarely made any money.

Town's 2012 incarnation
Imagine my surprise when last week, in WHSmith I discovered that Town magazine has been reborn. It's much thicker than its predecessor, and more expensive (£5, sir!), but in its DNA is the history of its earlier form. That means, articles about London trend-setters, tips on great restaurants, interviews with celebrities (although, I'm not sure if Pixie Geldof counts). One imagines that this new version of the magazine will be interviewing today's up-and-coming writers and film-makers, as it did in 1965. 

The cover of April 1965's edition of Town is definitely 'Bond-esque' and could easily be a cover of one of Fleming's novel. It has all the right elements: the girl, the gun, the micro camera, the knuckle-duster. Only this time it's referencing the new kid in town, Len Deighton and his 'unnamed spy'. Reading the credits on page 3, I discover who designed the cover: of course, it's Ray Hawkey, Deighton's friend and designers of the iconic covers of his first four novels! This is the great un-used Deighton book cover.