Theme: Film – Incognito

I am sure that this has been the title of some film at some point, but I have a broader point to make.

Benedict Cumberbatch in 70’s cool, upstaged (again?) by his co-star

My one-time step father used to work for the Met Police and frequently came home in squad cars of an incredibly nondescript nature – a brown Hillman Avenger, a yellowy beige Morris Marina, etc. You may be getting my drift (incidentally, having been Hendon trained, he was quite adept at creating his own drifts, but that is another story).

Most memorable were a couple of white vans, a Marina (again) and a Mini which were used for observation details. These had false wooden divides between the front cabin and rear load area, covered with electricians tools and amongst these were spy holes through which unseen eyes or cameras could take note of their target. In case you are concerned, we are talking late 70s/ very early 80s, so I’m not exactly revealing anything current. This was the real world of undercover police work – cars which are mundane, commonplace, ordinary … invisible.

Why is it, then, that film producers can’t resist injecting a touch of glamour for their police or spy heroes to tear around in? The most obvious examples are just that, obvious, so I won’t recount them again here. My favourite recent(ish) example is the gold DS used in the (Gary Oldman) film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The film was excellent and I love DS’s – so what’s not to like?

A lovely, but all-too-conspicuous, DS

If you have not seen the movie, the thing that really stands out is how well the mood of the 70s is captured. The fashion, the boozing and smoking, the crap technology … the ‘murk’ enveloping everything about everyday life. It’s brilliantly evocative. Adding to my delight was the unexpected and, initially, welcome appearance of a lovely, late DS in gold – owned, it seems, by the Benedict Cumberbatch character.

But then, as my mind dwelt on it, much as I thrilled to the sight of what was clearly a well-preserved and lovely DS, it struck me as one of the most unlikely spy cars they could have chosen. Can you imagine trying to stay incognito, either parked up outside a terraced council house on a stake-out, or tailing a suspect through the streets of Slough in a DS? It’s not likely, is it? So, actually, the use of the DS, lovely as it was (did I already mention that?), kind of ruined the effect for me.

Reality is dull, no matter how interesting the job may sound. Cars in police and spy films should really reflect that. My step-father always claimed his job was 99% boredom and excruciatingly, painstakingly, dull ground work, with the odd 1% burst of excitement. Actually, on reflection, I can’t see anyone flocking to a film like that …

So, if anyone out there is reading this and planning to cinematise “Smiley’s People”, have you thought of placing a nice SM in the midst of it? I think we might know of someone who could be interested in helping you out (once he’s solved a chronic starting problem).

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

6 thoughts on “Theme: Film – Incognito”

  1. I noticed that too S.V. and it irked me also. I think that the Mark Strong character drove an Alvis (to tow a caravan in one scene) which also seemed a little unlikely. I agree though that it was a very evocative well made movie.

  2. In the 1979 TV version of Tinker Tailor, the same character drives a Morgan. When he has to give (P6 driver) George Smiley a ride in it, Smiley says something like “What a ghastly little car”. In reality, as for the DS, he might also have been thinking “How on earth does he afford this on a lowish civil servant’s pay”. In the TV sequel Smiley’s People he drives a Porsche 924, so I guess Karla kept the cheques coming.

    I remember being stopped by a yellowy beige Marina after driving rather quickly over the single lane overpass at Hogarth Roundabout on the A4 in Chiswick. I was also stopped by a green 2.8i Capri on the M4. And a maroon Hillman/Chrysler Hunter in Holloway Road. The first two would have been hard to spot, but the Hunter was obvious. Although unmarked, the Met seemed to have bought the complete final run in that colour.

    In London, it’s common to see a variety of reasonably high spec unmarked cars racing through traffic, blue lights lit behind grilles and lenses. They seem an arbitrary choice, Lexus , Audi, Mercedes, none of which obviously stand out, but neither do they look like pool cop cars. Actually, in parts of London, the best unmarked car would probably be a Bentley Continental.

    1. Being a member of the highly exclusive Jaguar X351 Enthusiasts Club (they won’t just let anybody in, you know?*), I was very pleased to see M’s XJ with the hidden blue lights in action in Skyfall. Even the fact that they used a diesel version for filming the sequence couldn’t spoil it.

      (* Does anybody spot the super-slick movie reference? The first one to get it right will be rewarded with a signed copy of ‘The Purity of Lineage – A History Of The Callum Family’.)

    2. I’m temped to suggest the movie ‘Let the Right One In’ by the same director as TTSP Kris, but having never seen the film it’s something of a wild guess.

      “The Purity of Lineage is a beautiful book, it’s the essence of what a book can be nowadays. It’s full of incredibly disciplined lines and surfaces, called pages. I don’t think there’s been a better time for pages than there is now.”
      (Ian Callum)

    3. I’m quite impressed, Eoin! Please send me your address, so I can send you the book. I might even be able to get you a Special Collector’s Edition, which comes with a gratuitous side vent.

  3. Tomas Alfredson’s version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy actually ranks among my favourite films of the past five years or so. It’s a masterclass in subtlety and flair, which is why I see S.V.’s point, even though it didn’t irk me as badly. To me, the one shot that didn’t feel authentic was of Mark Strong walking through, if I’m not mistaken, Budapest, through a surprisingly busy – in a slightly off way – stretch of road.

    Is there anyone else around here who’d describe himself as a Hoyte van Hoytema fanboy, by the way? And not just because his name sounds like that of a Maaarwel (Dutch for ‘Marvel’) character?

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