A Question of Attribution

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A Question of Attribution is a 1988 one-act stage play, written by Alan Bennett. It was premièred at the National Theatre, London, in December 1988, along with the stage version of An Englishman Abroad. The two plays are collectively called Single Spies.[1]

The one-act play formed the basis of a 1991 television film of the same name broadcast as part of the BBC's Screen One series. The film was directed by John Schlesinger and stars James Fox as Anthony Blunt, David Calder as Chubb, an MI5 officer, and Prunella Scales as 'H.M.Q.' (Queen Elizabeth II).[2] The film was produced by long-time Bennett collaborator Innes Lloyd, and is dedicated to his memory.

The New York Times called the film a "razor-sharp psychological melodrama" and it won the 1992 BAFTA TV award for Best Single Drama.[3] Prunella Scales was nominated for Best Actress.


The play and subsequent film is based on Anthony Blunt's role in the Cambridge Spy Ring and, as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, personal art adviser to Queen Elizabeth II. It portrays his interrogation by MI5 officers, his work researching and conserving art works, his work at the Courtauld Institute, and his acquaintance with the Queen. Bennett described the piece as an "inquiry in which the circumstances are imaginary but the pictures are real."[2]

While supervising the restoration of a dual portrait in which only partial attribution to Titian is thought credible, Blunt discovers a third figure that had been painted over by an unknown artist, and concludes by comparison with a better known triple portrait in London's National Gallery (Allegory of Prudence) that the newly revealed third figure was Titian's son. As Blunt's public exposure as a spy in 1979 draws near, the play suggests that he has been made a scapegoat to protect others in the security service. At the end of the film, the time of Blunt's exposure, Blunt tells Chubb that X-rays had revealed the presence of a fourth and fifth man.

One of the sub-texts in the scene with the Queen is whether or not Her Majesty knew that Blunt was a former Soviet spy. They briefly discuss the Dutch Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren, and how his paintings now look like fakes, but were accepted as genuine in the (early) 1940s, and touch on the nature of fakes and secrets. After she has left and an assistant asks what they were talking about, Blunt replies "I was talking about art. I'm not sure that she was."[2]

Main cast (film)[edit]

See also[edit]

  • Cambridge Spies, a 2003 BBC TV series about the Cambridge Ring, and how Blunt came to be a Soviet agent.


  1. ^ "Spotlight" (PDF). stageonetheatre.com. 2011. Retrieved 10 July 2011.[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ a b c A Question of Attribution, BFI Screenonline, retrieved 17 January 2006
  3. ^ New York Times review, retrieved 17 January 2006

External links[edit]