PBS is pulling back the curtain on one the 20th century’s most fascinating personalities: the British writer — and secret agent — Graham Greene. Equal parts literary darling and blockbuster machine, he cut a 54-book swath ranging from the thriller “Brighton Rock” to the noir classic “The Third Man” and the celebrated anti-war novel “The Quiet American.”
“Dangerous Edge,” the first American-produced documentary about the author, airs March 29 at 10.30 p.m. ET. Actor Bill Nighy (“Love Actually”) voices Greene. Other star turns include novelist John le Carré, writer Paul Theroux, and Frederick Hitz, a former CIA operative and author.
“Graham Greene spent a lifetime searching for his most elusive character: himself,” Narrator Sir Derek Jacobi (“Gladiator”) intones on the show’s preview trailer. “He was a British spy, a dowdy Catholic, a manic depressive, a celebrated writer.”
Greene was always a restless soul, explains Father Ian Boyd, a Greene scholar and Catholic priest who teaches at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “Even when he was a teenager, the family considered him mentally unstable, and he ran away from home.”
The author’s adult life was always cloaked in adventure and instability. After a stint at Oxford University’s Balliol College, he copy-edited for The Nottingham Journal and then The Times of London. He remained in the city during the Blitz of World War II, working for the Ministry of Information. In 1941, Greene served on his majesty’s secret service, MI6, which packed him off to Sierra Leone for 16 months — an experience he later spun into “The Heart of the Matter.”
As a journalist, he plunged into many of the last century’s most dangerous events: Kenya’s Mau Mau Uprising, the Vietnam War, Haiti’s “nightmare republic,” the rise of Castro and the fall of the Soviet Union.
“He rather mocked the British establishment, but he behaved like an establishment figure,” Boyd says. “He would always drop in at the embassy in any country, expecting information and a sort of protection.”
Greene lived to 86, despite his thrill-seeking personality and repeated suicide attempts. He died in 1991, but his works continue to thrive on shelves and screens. Around the world, journalists still quote the author an average of 100 times a month. And the British Film Institute voted “The Third Man” the greatest UK movie of the last century.
Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone, an author and creative writing instructor at City University London, explains: “His fascination with the everyday drama of living with a moral conscience keeps Greene relevant and riveting.”
Entranced by international settings, this cosmopolitan author set many of his works abroad. But visitors can still shadow the literary legend at some of his English haunts.
The writer’s birthplace and childhood hometown 30 miles northwest of London hosts a Graham Greene Festival each year (September 26-29, 2013). The program romps from films to pub quizzes and scholarly panels.
Year round, enthusiasts can saunter along a trail tracing Greene’s Berkhamstead roots, past the canal, old cottages, a humpback bridge and the boarding school where he was bullied horribly as the headmaster’s son. His conflicted loyalties resurfaced time and time again in his characters — the hunter, the hunted and the betrayer — says Dermot Gilvary, playwright and editor of “Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene.”
Though Greene kvetched about Nottingham — famously writing that it “makes one want a mental and physical bath every quarter of an hour” — the city grew into the setting for the novel “A Gun For Sale.”
Greene named his seedy racetrack thriller, 1938’s “Brighton Rock,” after this popular day-trip town’s signature candy. University of Sussex historian Geoffrey Mead leads city walks of “Greeneland,” threading from alleyways to the carnival atmosphere of Brighton Pier (about 75 minutes, £30 for groups of up to six, email firstname.lastname@example.org).
“Brighton has long been a bolt-hole [place of refuge] for London-based writers,” Mead notes. “The town is a great 'character' in its own right, too.”
British Heritage celebrated Graham Greene with a blue plaque at the home where he wrote “Brighton Rock:” 14 Clapham Common Northside in London. A WWII bomb gutted this elegant Queen Anne building; luckily, the author’s wife and children had evacuated and Greene was dallying elsewhere with a lover. A similar scene unfolds in “The End of the Affair,” which nods and winks at his romance with Catherine Walston, the American-born wife of a British politician.
Wrap up any Greene pilgrimage with a toast to this brilliant, but troubled, writer’s power and glory at Rules: established in 1798, it claims to be London’s oldest restaurant. A favorite haunt, especially for the author’s birthday celebrations, the eatery maintains a Graham Greene room displaying his books and letters to his sister Elisabeth, another Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) operative.
Getting there: The national carrier British Airways flies into London and 23 other UK destinations.
by Amanda Castleman