Charlotte Bingham has had an extraordinary writing career. She wrote her first book, Coronet Among the Weeds (newly republished by Bloomsbury), when she was just 19. It was a memoir of her life as a 1950s debutante — the ‘weeds’ were the chinless wonders she met at debs’ dances — and it became an instant hit in 1963. She then wrote another 33 bestselling novels and co-wrote, with her husband Terence Brady, various TV series, including Upstairs Downstairs. But when he was dying of cancer two years ago, she suddenly skipped back to the 1950s and picked up the story of Coronet Among the Weeds where it left off. The result was a very surprising memoir called MI5 and Me, published last year, to which Spies and Stars is the follow-up.
She mentioned in Coronet Among the Weeds that her father was a Lord — the 7th Baron Clanmorris. What she didn’t tell us was that, as John Bingham, he was a section head of MI5 and the model for John le Carré’s George Smiley. After she had completed her debutante season, he recruited her to work as a secretary at MI5, which she wrote about in MI5 and Me.
Now, in Spies and Stars, she is still working at MI5 but has fallen in love with an actor, Harry, and starts writing scripts with him. Her father encourages her because he thinks it is important to infiltrate what he sees as ‘the communist hotbed of British theatre’. (Remember this is the 1950s when there were reds under every bed.) He also recruits Harry to act as an undercover agent at Communist party HQ and sell the Daily Worker. But Harry still wants to be an actor and ‘starve for art’, so Charlotte’s father pulls strings to get him a film role.
Charlotte — or Lottie as she calls herself — is thrilled to meet a film producer and his wife because they were so obviously, ostentatiously rich: ‘Their clothes, their wrist- watches, jewellery and footwear, seemed to be staring out at the rest of us with pity.’ Her father’s family were quite rich too, but they were discreet about it, whereas she liked flash. She and Harry wrote a film script called The Happy Communist and sold it for a ton of money. But they were told it needed more sex because ‘how can you be happy without sex?’Unfortunately, Charlotte was too prudish to write sex, so the script was handed over to another. But it was the start of a very successful joint writing career.
Much of the charm of this book for me is its evocation of aspects of the 1950s I had forgotten: the newly arrived coffee bars that seemed the height of glamour; the blind men selling matches outside Tube stations (Bingham claims that MI5 used them as undercover agents); and the weird euphemisms — ‘Uncle Dick’ for being sick, ‘the aunt’ for loo, and ‘Oh sugar!’ to express annoyance.
Television was still a new invention and subject to much snobbery. Posh people didn’t have television sets, or only in the nanny’s room, and were terribly shocked that the Queen allowed her Coronation to be televised. So vulgar! People who did have television sets covered them with a cloth and had to switch them on early to give them time to warm up. When ITV started in 1955, all the existing sets had to be converted to receive it, with a clanking handle at the side. Actors were terrified of appearing in television dramas because of course they were live, and if they dried or fluffed their lines there was nowhere to hide. Anyway, appearing on television was considered naff, and appearing in TV commercials was beyond the pale. But Lottie loved television and was thrilled when asked to write for it.
The great joy of Bingham’s prose is its youthful insouciance. She writes like a teenager, but an exceptionally observant one. She notices that someone’s butler is wearing women’s nylons and has ‘a shifty look to his nostrils. People always go on about a shifty look to the eyes, but nostrils give away a great deal.’ She notes that the English are suckers for over-the-hill performers:
Somerset Maugham said the English would never go and see a ballerina dance unless they knew she had only one leg, or an actress unless they were in agony that she was going to forget all her words.
And some of her similes are almost worthy of Wodehouse:
Harry sighed, deeply. It was the kind of sigh that might easily be heard over the radio waves when a tractor had broken down on The Archers and there were no spare parts to be had even for ready money.
Stars and Spies is very much a period piece and perhaps for that reason unlikely to appeal to the young. But I loved it.