Monday, 27 October 2008


Spooks: Behind The Scenes
Orion/BBC 2006, £17.99 ISBN075876104

Note: With the latest series of Spooks launching on BBC tonight, it seemed time for Crime Time to finally run this essay prompted by the BBC's Spooks compendium published two years ago! You will find it at Crime Time, but in the meantime, here it is, somewhat updated...

Spooks is one of the few television shows I watch regularly (though the last series was a distinct step downward), and I do so because it’s a reasonably inventive spy series featuring some very good scripts, which are particularly sharp in tweaking the deep politics of the security services, as well as providing some good takes on the corruption of that world. It’s generally well acted by the leads, though the younger agents tend to be about as believable as spies as your local estate agent might be (the Alsopp sisters, double 0 zero!). In fact, its biggest and most interesting battles tend to be those along the corridors of Whitehall, and the dramatic highlights are usually the confrontations between Peter Firth as Harry Pearce and Tim McInnerny (actual quote from this book: ’can this guy do serious? Can he ever.’) as his MI6 counterpart Oliver Mace, who does a nice job with smug self-satisfied bullying. But that's because the story in espionage hasn't changed, even though the BBC's target audience has.

But of course the biggest thing that makes Spooks work is that it follows the old American formula of creating a family ensemble to enact its dramas. This goes back to series like 77 Sunset Strip in the 1950s, but began to reach its paradigm with programmes like The Waltons, Hill Street Blues, and St Elsewhere. They learned to combine their action, presented ever more realistically with each new variation on the theme (and remember, in this country, for all the chest-puffing over shows or comedians gone to the States, there would be no Bill without Hill Street, no Casualty without ER, no This Life without Friends). The formula was upgraded when first ER, and then West Wing, added long takes with hand-held cameras to the mix, but even the best of American ensemble drama retains the family set-up: The Sopranos, of course, because it is THE family, as well as a family, a la The Godfather, and best of all The Wire, whose brilliance lies in part by treating each of the institutions or groups it dissects as families. But at the base, soap opera needs family conflict to make the romantic dynamic beneath work, to give it an anchor to the bigger plot. The problem with that, as far as Spooks goes, is that the soap opera has actually tailed off as the series has progressed.

Despite that, this book, produced just in time for series five and Christmas 2006 (not necessarily in that order), assumes its target audience is made up exclusively of people who trudge to Tesco to buy their soap mags every week. This is particularly irritating when the book adopts the soap opera broadcasters' convention that the audience is too feeble to figure out that the characters are actually, wait for it, ACTORS! Have I spoiled this for you? Granted, actors are a lizard-brained lot who can’t help falling in love and marrying each of their co-stars in succession, but even so, they aren’t really the characters they play! I mentioned that the soap element has been toned down in the most recent series; even Adam’s affair with the exotic nanny who wandered around in shorts and wife-beater T shirts all day was finally, to my dismay, down-played. I was totally convinced she was an agent of some organisation more dangerous than Agent Provocateur, but as you know if you watched, I was wrong, and she was cruelly written out. I say cruelly not simply from self-interest as an interested observer in the career of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, but realistically speaking, because if Olga Sosnowska dies in your arms, would you really want to rebound into the arms of Hermione Morris, whose Ros resembles the suspicious desk-clerk checking you in at some seedy suburban resort hotel. Or am I confusing the actors and the characters they play? But if one considers that most of Spooks Series 3 revolved around ZoĆ«’s (Keeley Hawkes) affairs, and constant opportunities to present her in sexy evening wear as she played honey trap roles (remember Tipping The Velvet?), the lack of such opportunities in the past season were a serious deficiency.

Among the odd things addressed in this compendium is the reality that the police can’t actually (yet) tap into to security cameras (most are recording onto tape or chip, not broadcasting--but that's a problem that has plagued scriptwriters ever since Didion and Dunne had Michelle Pfeiffer broadcasting live inside a prison with an ENG camera with no RF or cabled output, ie recording to a cassette) for live, intercut tracking, and they can't actually depend on weeks-old security VCRs from old peoples' homes to fight terrorism. But let's not get technical...among the other odd things unaddressed by Spooks is why MI5 appear to employ only about five agents, plus a lot of rent-a-cops to man the front desk and the corridors. If you say it‘s because Adam‘s group are the elite: well, they include a girl he recruited straight from uni who, about three weeks later, was suddenly qualified with firearms and breaking into the London Library threatening to shoot people in the stacks. And BTW, if BBC is paying the London Library a facilities fee, how come my subscription there just doubled?

And then there is the aforementioned Ros, daughter of the right wing newspaper tycoon, who walked right into MI5 after betraying MI5, and within days seemed to be running the place. Kind of like Alistair Campbell in drag, but more honest, a cross between Ruth Kelly and Maggie Thatcher. The book doesn’t tell you what they pay in MI5, but in the early shows, agent Tom had a massive house in what seemed to be St John’s Wood, while agents Danny and Zoe appeared to be sharing a bedsit in Bethnal Green, eating off a baby Belling, and putting shillings into the meter for electricity. I suppose MI5 are exempt from unions or the national minimum wage. But this is exactly the sort of question that might engage the serious fan. Perhaps this is meant as a serious comment on the changing nature of Britain's intelligence services. Gone are the days when honourable school boys were still enslaved by the days they'd spent bent over in school, when betrayal meant something on a whole different level. As I say, Spooks is usually at its most interesting (absent Ms. Mbatha-Raw in underwear) when it is dealing with the feuds of those at the top, exactly the sort of people Le Carre wrote about. It's when it gets down to field work it needs to spice things up, which is something Ian Fleming understood.

But I'm afraid this volume, like the show itself, signals the same kind of paradigm shift in audience expectations and BBC aesthetics as the presence of Daniel Craig as James Bond as John Terry of Chelsea does. It is what it is. On the practical side, this volume does supply plot synopses of all episodes from the first four series, (but without cast or other credits), some actor information (of the soap magazine kind), and the sort of background in spying tradecraft info you could glean off Wikipedia or the back of some children's cereal box in about ten minutes. Which is probably what those young Spooks do while rushing to catch the number 73 bus to save the nation.

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