Licking Hitler is a television play about a black propaganda unit operating in England during World War II, broadcast by the BBC on 10 January 1978as part of the Play for Today series. Written and directed by David Hare, it featured performances by Kate Nelligan and Bill Paterson. Photography was by Ken Morgan and John Kenway while the producer was David Rose for BBC Birmingham. Described as a work of "outstanding and unsettling power", it won the best single television play BAFTA award for 1978.
Hare intended the work as a companion piece to his stage play Plenty (staged at the Lyttelton Theatre in April 1978 with Nelligan in the lead role of Susan Trahearne) and he wrote Plenty as he was editing Licking Hitler, scene and scene about.Its theme is similar to that of Plenty: the effect of war on individuals' private lives and treating their experiences as a metaphor for the England of the present.
As with Plenty, the events Hare places in the context of war are intended as a metaphor for the post-war betrayal of the collective ideals of pre-war society, with the necessary deceits of the disinformation broadcaster representing the corrupt values of modern England.
The play's theme is the cruel relationship between Archie, the chief writer for an isolated black propaganda unit broadcasting to Germany in World War II, and his assistant and lover Anna. With the war won and the unit disbanded, neither Anna nor Archie can reconcile themselves to their new, mundane lives. Anna longs for the violent and abusive Archie, and for the excitement and meaning of her former work. Some critics have found this aspect of her character unrealistic, but Hare quotes poet Alan Ross to explain the spirit of the era: "The sadness and sexuality and alcohol were what everyone was wanting ... war was suddenly real and warm ... worth all the suffering and boredom and fear". To this he added his own romantic view of the period, with its undercurrents of violence and sexuality.Feminist writers have attacked the depiction of Anna, the wartime heroine, as flawed in that she passively continues to submit to Archie. Hare dismisses this view as "a clamour for a simpler morality" that fails to take account of his characterisation of a naive, vulnerable woman for whom sensuality is totally strange. It is in this abject predicament that she becomes "the conscience of the play".
After the war Anna establishes herself as a successful advertising copywriter but resents lying for no higher purpose than profit, a situation she comes to look upon as symbolising the post-war political life of England. Archie becomes a campaigning documentary film-maker, but he soon declines into a writer and director of derivative and poorly regarded action films.
Hare's immediate inspiration for the work was a chance encounter with Sefton Delmer, a former adviser to Winston Churchill and wartime broadcaster to Germany from Soldatensender Calais . Delmer's book Black Boomerang provided the factual basis for the play; but, using the same techniques he was to develop for his later verbatim theatre pieces such as The Permanent Way , Hare travelled Britain interviewing former propagandists and broadcasters to enhance his script.
|Anna Seaton||Kate Nelligan|
|Archie MacLean||Bill Paterson|
|Will Langley||Hugh Fraser|
|John Fennel||Clive Revill|
|Eileen Graham||Brenda Fricker|
|Herr Jungke||George Herbert|
The film was shot during the summer of 1977 at Compton Verney House, Warwickshire. This was Hare's first work behind the camera and he deliberately restricted himself to such camera techniques as were available in the 1940s. He notes that, as the writer, he had a clear idea of how scenes would relate to each other and so he shot no spare footage to allow for any adjustments while editing—a "highly dangerous" method.
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Denis Sefton Delmer was a British journalist of Australian heritage and propagandist for the British government during the Second World War. Fluent in German, he became friendly with Ernst Röhm, who arranged for him to interview Adolf Hitler in 1931. During the war, he led a black propaganda campaign against Hitler by radio from England. It was so successful that Delmer was named in the Nazis' Black Book for immediate arrest after their planned invasion of Britain.
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