The last 10 years have been lean ones on television for those secretive characters who exist in a twilight world of deceit and defection, betrayal and blackmail, moles and murder.
Old-school espionage dramas, once a staple of TV drama, gradually dried up. Spies seemed to fall out of favour, pushed further into the shadows by a seemingly endless stream of gloomy crime dramas featuring detectives with rocky personal lives.
The BBC’s glossy hit Spooks ended in 2011. The excellent US series The Americans, about a pair of KGB sleeper agents posing a suburban couple in the 1980s, wrapped up in 2018, the huge acclaim it received never matched by its relatively tiny audience.
These two series, along with occasional treats like BBC2’s gripping, 1970s-set spy thriller The Game, which ran for six episodes in 2014, suggested a large-scale revival of the genre might be about to happen.
Now it finally has. This year was the one when spies truly came in from the cold. Leading the pack is the Apple TV+ series Slow Horses, based on Mick Herron’s best-selling espionage novels.
Season two, an adaptation of the second book in the series, Dead Lions, arrived Friday, December 2, a mere eight months after the first. It’s a testament to the streamer’s belief in it that two further seasons have already been commissioned.
That confidence is entirely justified. Slow Horses (my favourite series of the year) is both gripping and mordantly funny and boasts one of the greatest characters in espionage fiction: the irascible veteran MI5 agent Jackson Lamb, brilliantly played by Gary Oldman.
Lamb is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a pig. He’s scruffy, seems to exist on Chinese takeaways, whiskey and cigarettes, and has terrible personal habits. We first see him being rudely awakened from his afternoon nap by the sheer ferocity of his own farts.
Lamb may be a slob, but he’s also one of the best agents in the business, maybe the best, a Cold War warrior with a mind like a steel trap.
But whatever old skeletons are rattling around in his closet have led to him being banished to a grubby backwater office informally known as Slough House, where he oversees a motley band of MI5 screw-ups and washouts who fill their days with menial and apparently meaningless tasks.
The hope is they’ll grow so bored, they’ll quit. It doesn’t quite work out like that, of course, as Lamb and his unloved charges — who are deceptively better at the job than they first seem — have a habit of shoving their noses in where they’re not welcome.
Apple didn’t have the field all to itself, though. This year also saw ITV’s gloriously retro adaptation of Len Deighton’s novel The Ipcress File, featuring former Peaky Blinders and Gangs of London star Joe Cole as chippy working-class spy Harry Palmer
How could this new version possibly compete with the iconic 1965 film version with Michael Caine? The answer was by sticking more faithfully to the complex plot of the novel, large chunks of which the film had jettisoned, and by adding a few new twists of its own.
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Chief among these was beefing up both Palmer’s backstory and role of his fellow agent Jean Courtney, played by Lucy Boynton. In the original film, Courtney, played by Sue Lloyd, was little more than eye candy. Here, she’s a skilled and seasoned operative who outranks the novice Palmer and has to save his neck a couple of times.
Espionage is clearly no longer just a boys’ game. The shift is also evident in Slow Horses, where roughly half the ensemble cast are women, including Kristin Scott Thomas as ambitious MI5 second-in-command Diana Taverner and Saskia Reeves as recovering alcoholic Catherine Standish, who was once the boss of MI5’s most trusted aide.
It emerged at the end of season one that Lamb is keeping a terrible secret related to their shared past from her. Expect it to be a source of tension in the seasons to come.
And 2022 isn’t quite done with spies just yet. On December 8, ITV unveiled new seven-part fact-based thriller A Spy Among Friends, starring Guy Pearce as the traitor Kim Philby and Damian Lewis as his close friend and colleague Nicholas Elliott, who’s left in turmoil when he learns Philby is a double-agent and has defected to the Soviet Union.
For now, it’s available only on the new streaming service ITVX, which replaces the ITV Hub, but will be coming to ITV — and, most likely, Virgin Media 1 — some time in 2023.
This sudden spate of espionage dramas doesn’t look like it’s going to be yet another false dawn. A couple of years ago, the BBC announced that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Aidan Gillen as jaded agent Alec Leamas, would be its next John le Carré adaptation, following the success of The Night Manager and The Little Drummer Girl. The project appears to have been stalled by the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the current climate, however, it’s likely it will be reactivated.
Amazon’s purchase of MGM means it now controls the James Bond franchise. With 007’s next big-screen incarnation two years away at the very least, Amazon is said to be planning a number of streaming spin-offs set in the Bond universe, possibly featuring supporting characters from the films.
Personally, I’d love to see a series featuring Lashana Lynch, who played Bond’s brief replacement as 007 in No Time to Die.
All this is great news for those of us who remember the heady days of the 1970s when television was positively crawling with spies. The granddaddy of them all was John le Carré’s George Smiley, the wily, watchful spymaster superbly played by Alec Guinness in 1979’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — which will be repeated in BBC4’s vintage drama slot in the near future – and it’s 1981 sequel Smiley’s People.
But there were plenty of other first-rate British spy dramas both before and after Smiley. From 1969 to 1972, Edward Woodward starred as Callan, a downbeat agent and expert assassin whose conflicted conscience continually caused him to question the motives of his bosses at “the Section”, a shadowy government agency concealed behind the front of a scrap business.
When the pilot for Callan, a play called ‘A Magnum for Schneider,’ was screened on ITV, the TV critic of one British newspaper lamented that television had made a hero of “a psychopath”. Viewers disagreed and Callan became one of the biggest dramas of the time.
ITV’s excellent The Sandbaggers ran for three seasons between 1978 and 1980. Sadly, it ended on an unresolved cliffhanger when its creator and sole writer, Ian Mackintosh, died in a light aircraft crash. ITV decided not to continue the series without him.
Best of all was the BBC’s 1987 A Perfect Spy, based on John le Carré’s masterpiece.
It told the life story of spy Magnus Pym (Peter Egan) from his recruitment to British intelligence to his eventual exposure as a long-time double-agent.
The resurgence of interest in espionage dramas is possibly a reaction to the turmoil the world is in at the moment. The geo-political landscape has changed drastically. What we took to be the political norms have been shattered.
There’s something also most comforting about a return to the old certainties of the Cold War, when you knew who the good and bad guys were... unless they turned out to be double-agents, that is.