An elegant but occasionally soporific portrayal of love, paranoia and secrets
Have the BBC taken their promotion of London Spy just a little too far? Fair enough, journalists can’t always be trusted. But was it really necessary to have an implied warning of dire consequences should us hacks reveal certain details within each episode that we were allowed to view? Perhaps the idea was to plant just the right amount of paranoia into the viewing and reviewing process so that we get a sense of what main character Danny (Ben Whishaw) must be feeling through the majority of London Spy.
We first meet Danny as he prepares for a night out at a London club before emerging worse for wear and wandering by the Thames as daylight threatens to break. His ordinary life is about to end when he stumbles upon a mysterious stranger out jogging. But is Alex (Edward Holcroft) all that seems? Well, obviously not: we’ve already discussed the ‘London’ bit of the title; so one of these two chaps must be in the espionage business to fulfil the other half of the drama’s name.
The opening episode does take an interminable amount of time building up to the moment when life turns 360 degrees for Danny when he loses the man he has fallen in love with. How does he lose him? Well, it wouldn’t be worth facing the Wrath of Beeb to say too much about this, except to note that Whishaw does a wonderful line in fear, anger, distress, anxiety and worry as it appears that he could be in the middle of a conspiracy where he is being framed good and proper.
Then again, Whishaw should be used to this sort of thing having previously been at the receiving end of bad treatment at the hands of scriptwriters: in 2008’s Criminal Justice he was arrested for a terrible crime he couldn’t remember committing while in Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s Nathan Barley he received psychological and physical torment from the titular moron.
Written by Booker-longlisted author Tom Rob Smith, the piece is directed by Jakob Verbruggen whose last work for the BBC was The Fall. While London Spy shares that show’s stately pacing and brooding sense of dread, it probably halves the dialogue quotient to the point where you might need to double check the screenwriter credits to make sure that it’s not from an original idea by Harold Pinter. It also does include some obtrusive camera work which tells you that this is ‘an important moment’ and might remind you of the kapow! direction in the original Batman TV series.
As well as a fine central pairing (though Holcroft’s ‘inscrutable’ performance does occasionally drift into the soporific) we have appearances from the glittering likes of Charlotte Rampling, Jim Broadbent, David Hayman, Mark Gatiss, Clarke Peters, Kate Dickie, James Fox and Adrian Lester. But if I told you what they do in London Spy, I’d have to then kill you.
London Spy starts on BBC Two, Monday 9 November, 9pm.