MI5 and Me – A Coronet Among the Spooks by Charlotte Bingham
Back in 1963, the young Charlotte Bingham published a book of humorous memoir called Coronet Among the Weeds. The daughter of the 7th Baron, Clanmorris, it told of Bingham’s experience of ‘The Season’ as a debutante among the chinless wonders, or weeds, as she called them. It was a bestseller and nearly ten years later, she published a sequel, Coronet Among the Grass. These books were the basis of the mid-1970s TV sitcom, starring real-life couple Pauline Collins and John Alderton, No, Honestly which she co-wrote with her husband Terence Brady. Bingham has gone on to be a prolific author of romances and screenplays, including episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs.
Now in her seventies, Bingham has returned to memoir – but not for her a career retrospective. Instead, she has returned to her youth, and MI5 and Me recounts her first proper job as an eighteen-year-old in the 1950s. The book begins with a summoning to her father’s study:
…’I think you should know,’ he repeated, ‘certain facts.’
…’The facts are rather delicate,’ he continued, ‘and you must promise not to pass them on.’
…’I work for MI5,’ he announced.
‘Oh dear,’ I said.
He returned his gaze to me. I had abandoned my young and innocent expression and swapped it in for startled daughter.
‘What do you mean “oh, dear”?’ he asked in an even more chilly tone.
‘Well it’s not very nice, is it, MI5? It’s full of people spying.’
Sworn to secrecy, the conversation turns to Lottie:
‘It is time you got a proper job instead of drifting about in coffee bars and working for all sorts of people who your mother tells me she could never ask to dinner. So, I have made some enquiries and decided that the best place for you to work at a steady worthwhile job is – MI5.’
I stared at him in unbridled horror, there was no other way to describe the expression on my face.
…’I am not really suited to that kind of work,’ I said, and realising that the young and innocent face hadn’t worked, managed a slight sob in my voice.
But her father, who supposedly was the inspiration for John Le Carré’s George Smiley, won’t take no for an answer, and thus Lottie finds herself signing the Official Secrets Act, and being assigned as secretary to ‘Dragon’ Dewsbury, who eats new recruits for breakfast. Her first day is made more bearable by making instant friends with another secretary, Arabella, who takes her to lunch at Fenwick’s. Arabella knows all the tricks of the trade, and helps Lottie to master the Dragon and move on to work for Commander Steerforth later.
One of her father’s projects is to get communists to waste money – by putting on plays that will flop, things like that. A series of actors come to stay at their home who will be planted in these productions, and there are some serious professional rivalries between them, until they all gather for a singsong around the piano. Arabella’s mother is having a dalliance with suspected spy Sergei, (turns out she’s an agent too!) and she keeps getting mysterious phone calls. She goes off to the USA and Lottie moves in with Arabella to try to decipher what’s happening – the girls have a lovely time.
The whole organisation, as recounted by Bingham, has the feel of them all being serious amateurs playing at spying, in which she manages to make an impact now and then with some inspired ideas. Her father, of course, takes it all very seriously indeed. It’s just so terribly English. Lottie’s version is that it’s all very silly – yet she can’t help enjoying herself and ironically, becoming good at her job. Lottie is very different at MI5 to Kate Atkinson’s Juliet Armstrong in Transcription. although Atkinson’s 1950s BBC has some similarities – and I couldn’t help wondering if when Atkinson’s Juliet encounters a duke’s daughter, she had Bingham in mind?
Bingham has managed to get back into her eighteen-year-old’s brain really successfully, giving us an hilarious memoir full of froth, totally breezy, yet brimming with 1950s detail. You would never guess that the author is in her seventies now – the slightness and shallowness of the teenager is artfully recreated! As the book moves on, we also encounter Harry, a young actor recruited into her father’s company and Lottie falls for him. Just published, their further adventures together are recounted in a sequel to this volume, Spies and Stars: MI5, Showbusiness and Me which I’m now really keen to read. This book was just so much fun to read – I just adored her voice and giggled my way through this super book, making her other volumes of memoir a must. (10/10)
Source: Own copy. Charlotte Bingham, MI5 and Me (Bloomsbury, 2018) paperback, 256 pages.
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