Friday, 29 November 2013


The trouble with Cold War spy thrillers is that the genre is a minefield of cliches.  Mr. Le Carre has a lot to answer for.  Paula Milne has adapted Alan Judd's novel of the same name into a 90-minute prime-time BBC2 thriller which throws Judd's hero Charles Thoroughgood (based on Judd himself, perhaps?  He shares his army and diplomatic background.) in at the deep end of MI6 during the dark days of 1970s Britain.  He's given the task of 'turning' his old Oxford friend, Russian diplomat Viktor Koslov (Andrew Scott, aka Moriarty), only to find on making contact that Viktor has a card up his own sleeve which calls Charles's bluff in a very personal way.

For fans of 1970s nostalgia there are the cars, the blackouts and the abominable fashions and hairstyles (but only, we note, sported by peripheral characters: MI6 weren't so undercover that they grew their hair or wore kipper ties, clearly) and there's also the inevitable love interest, in the form of unhappily married fellow spy Anna March (Romola Garai who, let's face it, adds class to everything she appears in).

Exploring his own father's alleged betrayal, his feelings for Anna and his assignment with Viktor via the latter's prostitute lover Eva (Olivia Grant, slightly miscast as a 24-year-old), Charles ploughs a leisurely furrow accompanied by a jerkily zooming camera which had the effect of distracting from the dialogue.  Is this lack of subtlety in filming in vogue?  We hope it passes.  Luckily for him and us, Charles has solid support from Simon Russell Beale as senior operative Hookey.  SRB does not grace our small screens often, and his every appearance is a memorable event.  When he is allied to Geraldine James as stalwart Martha, there's no switching off.

Perfectly good of its kind, but not landmark television in the way of, say, 'Tinker Tailor...' or 'Smiley...'.  Perhaps it's the fact that the novel was published in 2012 and this was made in the same year.  Le Carre's stories were, after all, just about contemporary to the Cold War, albeit at a late stage, and there was, if not a grubbiness, then at least a seediness to proceedings.  In the UK we are used to equating the 1970s with the down-at-heel, which is maybe why James Bond didn't work so well in that decade (and he was mostly abroad, and let's not mention Roger Moore).  Glamour, so long associated with espionage, was largely absent from the average Briton's shores, having fled with the 60s and only returning, to a degree, with the garish 80s.  Somehow these pretty young things in their stylish clothes with their cool attitudes seem at odds with both the era and the rather workaday image we now have of the security services.  Beautifully moody shots of rainy alleys and gloomy seasides add style, but not substance.