The memory of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looms heavy over this new spy thriller set in MI5 during the early 1970s, originally shown last November by BBC America. And by that, I mean specifically it’s the presence of the 2011 feature film directed by Tomas Alfredson starring Gary Oldman that we feel breathing over our shoulder rather than the original John le Carré novel or the acclaimed BBC mini-series starring Sir Alec Guinness.
The Game follows the film’s mise-en-scène so closely that it almost feels the one was an unofficial pilot for the other, much as Gosford Park was a de facto try-out for Downton Abbey and The American President similarly an early go at the first episode of The West Wing. But whereas those two prior examples had strong connective tissue (Julian Fellowes created both Gosford and Downton, and Aaron Sorkin was responsible for both American President and West Wing) there is no such link between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Game,: the latter is created and written by Toby Whithouse, who has jumped genres from his normal home amidst cult outings including Doctor Who, Torchwood and of course his own creation Being Human.
Even so, the look and feel of The Game is uncannily close to the Tinker movie, surely too much so to be accidental. I genuinely did a double take when I saw director Niall MacCormick’s overhead shot looking down over the main MI5 ‘bullpen’ not to mention the sound-insulated conference room in which the principal characters meet, so near was the match to the film’s own locations. In a similar vein, I kept misremembering the TV show’s Operation ‘Glass’ as Operation ‘Testify’ from the le Carré story.
Even the characters have eerily close equivalents between film and series: Brian Cox as MI5 chief Daddy is a close match to the film’s Control played by John Hurt; Sarah Montag (Victoria Hamilton) is a younger, more glamorous version of Tinker’s Connie Sachs while the mother-dominated Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter) put me in mind of the book’s scheming but inept Percy Alleline. And as for the central character of the youthful Joe Lambe, played by Tom Hughes – who is he a counterpart to?
Here we finally glimpse what might be Whithouse’s core central idea in The Game, because at this point Lambe could go in one of a number of directions. He could end up being a future Jim Prideaux, or age into becoming George Smiley, or perhaps become the next Bill Haydon. At this point we don’t know which way the story will take him, and it is this aspect that breathes new and original life into The Game and starts to steer it away from le Carré pastiche country.
Hughes is rather spectacular and compulsively watchable in the role of Lambe. I’d expected his character to be the young, naive and inexperienced new boy out of his depth, but that’s emphatically not the case here: instead, he’s a sure-footed professional and a master of reading people while ensuing that he himself remains inscrutable to all around him. He does however have a rather massive black mark on his service record known only to Daddy, one big enough to make us wonder just how far even we ourselves can trust him if the story does indeed comes down to an inside-MI5 mole hunt along similar lines to Tinker. The final scene of the first episode even has someone out-and-out accuse him of playing for the other side, so why is Daddy so sure that he’s trustworthy? Who exactly is playing whom in this game of dog, cat and mouse?
The set-up in episode one is nicely done and had me hooked, and kudos also for the production design that worked hard to give an authentic period feel and that also got many of the telling little details spot on (even down to the correct double decker bus route going down Shaftesbury Avenue.) Much against my expectations I was totally drawn in and have booked a spot in front of the screen for the next five episodes to find out how it all unfolds.
The Game continues on BBC 2 on Thursdays at 9pm.