With a Nod and a Bow was broadcast on BBC Radio in 1993. It tells the story of the relationship between the MI5 agent, George Blake, who had been found to be spying for the Russians, and the Irish renegade and petty criminal Sean Bourke, when they met in Wormwood Scrubs prison. It was developed from a stage play on the same subject, called Says He Says He, which later became Cell Mates.

With a Nod and a Bow was first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 16th October, 1993. The cast was as follows:

GEORGE BLAKE – Jack Shepherd
SEAN BOURKE – Bill Nighy

Producer: Jane Morgan

Extract from Fat Chance: ‘With a Nod and a Bow’

Simon Gray describes the production of his radio play, With a Nod and a Bow, following a meeting with theatre producer, Duncan Weldon, about a stage production of the same piece:

Shortly after Duncan and I had had this meeting in Ivor Novello’s suite, which could also have been, from the look of it, Ivor Novello’s bedroom, there was a phone call or a card from Jane Morgan, a director of radio dramas at the BBC. She’d done a few plays of mine with consummate professionalism – she is also a cricket fanatic, which helps our collaboration enormously. I raised the subject of Blake and Bourke. We decided I should try my hand at converting it into a radio piece, directed by herself. I only had an hour’s transmission at my disposal – so further alterations and compressions were called for. The piece went out, still a two-hander – excellently performed by Jack Shepherd as Blake and Bill Nighy as Bourke. It was called With a Nod and a Bow and was well received, except by the Evening Standard, which rather oddly singled it out as the ‘Pick of the Day’ and then rubbished it.

For my own part, I enjoyed With a Nod and a Bow, thinking I’d got both the experience and the meaning for once. But I also thought, yes, that’s right, it’s a radio piece and I’ve done it on radio. It’s not, even yet, for the stage. The point being, I suppose, that if you can listen to the characters without feeling a need to see their faces, watch their movements, then on radio is where your play should be. So back to the drawing board.

Daily Mail review of With a Nod and a Bow

Moira Petty

There is a refinement of face and bearing about Bill Nighy which, in a visual medium, might not have found him cast as a coarse Irish small-time villain with a compulsion about his bodily functions. As Sean Bourke, the criminal who unexpectedly found fame when he sprung George Blake from prison, he was magnificently pitted against Jack Shepherd playing the spymaster in Simon Gray’s specially commissioned play for Studio 3 – With a Nod and a Bow (Radio 3, Saturday, October 16th).

Gray has focused on the odd relationship between the two men and in the course of just one hour brings us a vivid picture of two people whose fates have collided, making them mutually interdependent, despite a mutually acknowledged revulsion.

The play opens with Bourke giving a history of his particularly unaccomplished low life. In an attempt to give himself some glory he lies about a failed attempt to send a letter bomb to the detective sergeant who he claims has fitted him up. This is a man, we are shown, who is so pitiful that he later gets muddled about which is the truthful version of the bomb story.

Blake’s voice, urbane and educated, interjects, with a commentary on Bourke’s crude vocabulary and ineffectual grasp of grammar. As Bourke’s life unfolds in a continual progression from police station, to court, to prison and back again, Blake joins in the familiar litany. It now becomes clear that Bourke is speaking from a tape recording he has made, which Blake fast forwards and rewinds at his pleasure, clearly as drawn to his unlikely saviour as he is repulsed by him.

Blake is as fastidious in his personal habits and efficient in the way he organises his life as Bourke is haywire. But although Blake condemns Bourke’s method of springing him as “imbecilic” – (smuggling him to Moscow in a Dormobile under a child’s bunk bed) he has to admit it worked. The two are in each other’s thrall and, once in Moscow, Blake tries to force Bourke to stay with him. Directed by Jane Morgan, this was radio drama at it’s very best; Nighy’s passion, Shepherd’s coolness making the two men leap out of the set; and Gray’s writing, elegant, witty and totally gripping.