They were in St James's Park, watching ducks on the lake. Defectors, spies, tramps and shady-dealers congregated in twos on the benches. Wardens who picked up litter with spiked sticks here had a higher security clearance than the Secretary of State for Defence. Old government secrets, obsolete weapons plans and two-way mirror compromising filmstrips were always found in the grass.
Paradoxically, the best way to hide a secret meeting is often to hold it somewhere extremely public
. Locations like this can be selected to be unpredictable to anyone who you might want to avoid, are almost certainly bug-free, and can provide a layer of plausible deniability when the people in question aren't supposed to be meeting each other at all.
The classic situation where this occurs is meetings between members of two different secret government agencies; in that case they're not only dodging eavesdroppers, they're also making it more difficult for either agency's goons to do anything untoward.
Stock locations for this kind of meeting include:
- A park bench.
- On the banks of a river, downstream from a bridge.
- In a noisy Italian restaurant.
Of course, while this kind of meeting decreases the odds of being noticed by the specific people you're trying to avoid, it substantially increases the odds that your conversation will be overheard by random passers-by. This is generally glossed over
, though sometimes it's nodded at by selecting an exceptionally loud meeting place, or by having the characters speak in some way that appears innocuous: Trouble Entendre
, Talking through Technique
, Spy Speak
, or the like.
If the messenger doesn't show up for the meeting, the situation has changed into a Doomed Appointment
Compare Public Secret Message
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Anime and Manga
- In The Big O, Roger always met with his street informant Big Ear in a bar.
- There's an interesting example of this in Death Note. Misa is trying to find Light, so she sends a diary page to the task force saying that they should "show off their notebooks in Aoyama" on a certain day. On that day, Light goes to Aoyama with Matsuda and meets friends whom he hangs out with expecting to perform this trope. Misa, however, finds him first and leaves before he can see her.
- The first episode of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex features two park bench meetings between Chief Aramaki and an associate in another government branch who needs his help.
- Lampshaded in Hot Shots!, where a conspirator mentions that he finds public places to be the best place to have secret meetings. While they're at a boxing match.
- Parodied in the made-for-TV movie Two on a Bench, which is about two people who strike up a conversation on a park bench and are consequently Mistaken for Spies.
- James Bond
- In Fatal Instinct, a woman meets with her lover in a park to plot the death of her husband.
- In The Departed, whenever state police Queenan and Dignam need to chat with Costigan, their mole in the mob, they meet him in some park/riverbank area. This worries Costigan, because if anyone sees him with them, he's pretty much dead.
- The Conversation begins with the protagonist bugging the titular conversation between a surveillance-conscious couple in a public place. He uses a combination of rifle microphones and operatives walking by them at random intervals to assemble a complete recording of what they're saying.
- A favourite tactic of Jason Bourne who typically scouts out the area first and uses this to his advantage if his contact has been followed.
- Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Believing Professor Moriarty might have her killed, Irene Adler arranges to meet him in a crowded restaurant. Averted when in a chilling display of Moriarty's wealth and power, everyone else gets up and leaves at his signal.
- This also happens in a meeting between Yakuza and The Mafia in The Punisher (1989) — everyone in the restaurant turns out to be a Hired Gun of the Yakuza.
- In Notorious, the lead couple (American agents) are seen meeting up strictly in public, at the horse races and on a park bench in the city of Rio.
- In The Russia House Sean Connery's character is given some basic spy training.
"Crowds are good, if you keep moving. Open spaces are good. Talking in the street is OK, if you have to. Never ever talk in a car, or your hotel room except for the benefit of their
microphones. If you've read anything about playing the radio or running the taps
, forget it!"
- There's a duck pond in Good Omens which is specifically the place in London where spies from different agencies (and Crowley and Aziraphale) go to meet.
- In The Bartimaeus Trilogy Nathaniel is asked to meet the British agent in Prague at a cemetery at midnight. Complaining about the melodrama, he insists that their next meeting being somewhere more ordinary and they agree to meet in the main square around six - "Harlequin" had wanted to pick the old plague pits. He does cope with the change well, and Nathaniel receives his information in a hot dog bun he bought from the disguised agent.
- Discussed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Harry, Hermione and Ron have a secret meeting in a public location, but choose the less-frequented Hog's Head over the Three Broomsticks. Both the Order and Umbridge learn what they're doing, making things that much harder. Sirius tells them should have chosen the Three Broomsticks, because while they could never know if someone was watching them, in a noisy crowded place any spies would have trouble hearing them.
- Also discussed in An H-Bomb for Alice by Ian Stewart when the British protagonist meets his ASIO counterpart in a noisy Australian pub. When he worries that someone might overhear them, the ASIO agent points out a young couple (each from rival political parties), and a businessman meeting with a trade unionist, and suggests that they may also be making an illicit deal, or just sharing a friendly drink, but it's impossible to tell.
- However in The Specialist by Gayle Rivers, the mercenary protagonist complains when he has to meet a British agent in a pub as it means masking your conversation in ambiguous terms, which is difficult if you're not on the same wavelength as the person you're talking to.
- Serpico's corrupt police colleagues discover he's not been taking bribes (his partner has been pocketing the money 'for when he wants it'). They order him to turn up to a meeting, and Serpico is dumbfounded to find it's in a park across from the courthouse, with an entire squad of detectives discussing the matter while a stream of prosecutors, cops, and judges walk by.
Live Action TV
- In The Sandbaggers, most of Burnside's meetings with his American counterpart Jeff Ross happen while strolling in the park.
- Stargate SG-1 has a few examples.
- General Hammond has a park meeting with one of his contacts who's so paranoid that he refuses to talk even while they're sitting on a park bench; they have to be actually walking before he'll say anything.
- Sam and her NID contact Malcolm Barrett first meet in his office, where he vocally denies having any interest in what she has to say while passing him a note that says to meet in the park instead.
- In Stargate Atlantis, Sheppard meets his ex-wife — who works for the Department of Homeland Security — on a park bench, in order to ask her to illegally dig up some classified information for him.
- In "Spies Five", an unaired sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Tony and Control meet on a park bench because there's a mole in their department.
- Subverted in 30 Rock. Jack meets Lenny, a private investigator played by Steve Buscemi, along the banks of the river, in view of the Queensborough Bridge. Lenny thanks Jack for driving out there, Jack says he doesn't mind because discretion is important. Lenny replies "Also, my gym is right over there."
- Spooks: In seasons one and two, the characters frequently have meetings on the benches across from the Houses of Parliament.
- Drug deals in Breaking Bad take place in public places, but for another reason in addition to secrecy: if negotiations go badly, people are less likely to shoot each other in public in broad daylight. Walt, in the first drug deal he participates in, sets it in an abandoned junkyard because that's where drug deals take place in the movies.
Jesse: This, this is like a non-criminal's idea of a meeting place. This is like, oh I saw this in a movie, look at me.
Tuco: What are we doing way the hell out here? What, did they close the mall or something?
Jesse: (meaningful look)
- Burn Notice:
- In "Fight or Flight" Michael meets Egyptian spy Akhom Thabet in the cemetery where Michael's father Frank was buried. Thabet is discomfited by this, but Michael justifies it to him: It's quiet, there's plenty of cover, and two guys in business suits don't attract much attention.
- In 'Do No Harm' Michael and Fiona meet with a particularly Genre Savvy Mark of the Week in a hot tub at a public pool, which has the added benefit of making it more difficult for someone to wear a wire.
- In another episode, Ambiguously Gay baddie Gilroy meets with Michael in a hot tub at a public pool pretty much for the Rule of Funny of making Mike uncomfortable.
- In the 1990's Australian cop show Phoenix the head of Major Crime Division meets a colleague in the park to discuss an undercover operation.
- Played for Laughs in an episode of Hunter where a small-time crook steals a package of drugs from a crime boss, and says he'll sell it back to him. To avoid his inevitable death, the exchange takes place in the foyer of a police station.
- In The Neo-Anarchists' Guide to Real Life it was recommended that runners meet with their Mr. Johnson (employer) at a public place such as a McHugh's restaurant.
- Many of the adventures published for the game had runners meeting with their Mr. Johnson in public places such as restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
- In Covert Action Player Character can meet local informants simply in the lounge of his hotel. Not that it was necessary or alert-safe.
- In the intro to Civilization IV's expansion, an image of Lincoln giving the Gettysburg address Match Cuts to his memorial, where two spies are passing along photos of Soviet missile sites.
- In Pay Me, Bug!, getting Meaghan Sythe out of Ur Voys requires a meeting in a bar. Unfortunately, she is seen there by other bar patrons, which allows Mavis' agents to connect her with the Fool's Errand. Since they already suspect her of being part of the theft of the artefact, they naturally go after her, which sets up the climactic battle.
- The Simpsons: When Homer is forced into working for the feds he meets his handler in a public park.
- Spies meet contacts in parks because they're difficult to bug.
- Or sometimes in coffee shops.
- Organised crime members also meet in the open for this reason. One of the ways the FBI sought to get around this problem was to hire lipreaders.