Code name: Fancypants

The eccentric story of the FBI provides fertile ground for a documentary series

Radio 4's history of the most famous acronym in the world must never end. At the time of writing, we are two-thirds through this ten-part series of 15-minute documentaries and deep into the bureau's struggle with the Hell's Angels - brought down in the 1980s by an undercover agent called Vernon, who was subsequently relocated and rewarded by having his tattoos drilled off. Stories like this make up for the fizz going out of things a little when J Edgar Hoover copped it back in episode six.

The FBI at 100 (broadcast daily, ends 14 March) presents the bureau as a kind of genius casting agent - adjusting its enormous fedora before selecting from a new crop of applicants precisely the right guy to wrap a body in rubber cement and pose as a draft-dodging millionaire at a South American casino. The series shivers with interviews with several of these snoops, articulate to a man, recalling how they were issued with hankies to keep their hands dry ("Hoover did not like a sweaty palm"), or the non-pleasures of sitting for days watching local dentists the boss was convinced were pinkos.

One of these guys had the same uplift in his voice as James Stewart - as if any inherent goodness within him were raising it up in sweet surprise at the world. He also had the code name Fancypants and he'd faced down the Mafia in an operation called the Pizza Connection. Fancypants was definitely the kind of guy you want in your tent pissing out. He once had a man under surveillance who proceeded to have sex on a desk with a woman who was not his wife. Fancypants called him up mid-act and said: "This is God. And ain't you ashamed?"

Mostly the agents kept defaulting to the subject of J Edgar, like smokers scanning the room for an ashtray. That Hoover was weird is no secret. He had very little chat. A solid veneer with concrete behind it. But the sweep of his moods was super-mysterioso. People with small heads made him gag, as did those who made left-hand turns in cars, and he once sent Martin Luther King an anonymous note that said: "You are no clergyman and you know it. You are an evil abnormal beast."

Not that Hoover had any time for the Ku Klux Klan, either. He would sit, pudgy in his Washington office, fingering his secret files, despatching his Nazgû to Mississippi, ordering them to "play with no rules" - by which he meant they were allowed to wear cowboy boots and chuck snakes into moving vehicles. They in turn recruited from within the Klan more than 20,000 informants, counter-agents and counter-counter-agents, so that by 1966 nobody could quite remember who was who or on which days they were required to be racist.

The crowning achievement of the series has been to allow its presenter, Tom Mangold, to speak in whole paragraphs. Man, he digs his subject. Like a director in a chair waving a megaphone, Mangold wields total control with his electric delivery, stopping off for a bit of contemplation, throwing up images of things to come. Wiretapping and Russkies, warrants and women, all the paranoid forces straining against the well-worn leash. And Vernon and Fancypants doing a right turn in a dark car, and then continuing on their way.

Pick of the week

1968: Myth or Reality?
Until end August, Radio 4
A season of programmes that explores the famous year of social and political upheaval.

Afternoon Play: The City Speaks
19 March, 2.15pm, Radio 4
First in a six-part series in which each episode is accompanied by a downloadable film.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide