Contains plot spoilers for episode 1.
Having seen Spectre only a few days earlier, I confess there was a bumpy initial transition to watching the first part of BBC2’s new thriller series London Spy. That’s because both feature Ben Whishaw, and while he delivers a commendably different and indeed exemplary performance in each, he nonetheless possesses something of a unique presence and appearance and consequently it was hard not to get distracted by thoughts of Q at times. It wasn’t helped by the fact that one of the first shots of Whishaw in London Spy has him framed against the looming bulk of the MI6 building in the out-of-focus background.
This and most of the other espionage aspects of London Spy were very low key for much of the initial 50 minutes of the hour-long first episode. If it wasn’t for the title, you’d assume that you were watching a rather sweet if slow-paced urban contemporary gay love story set in the capital. Whishaw’s character Danny is a late 20-something who up to now has been indulging in a life of partying, clubs, drugs, casual sex and brief but intense love affairs, while spending his days as a drone working solo in an Amazon-esque automated dispatch warehouse. However, early one morning Danny has something of an existential crisis about the state of his life while standing on Vauxhall Bridge, his misery so profound that it’s even apparent to a passing jogger who stops to ask him if he’s alright. (Hey, it could happen – even in London!)
This turns out to be Alex (Edward Holcroft), on the surface a suave and confident investment banker who has everything Danny doesn’t in terms of money, a stylish apartment, and computer, clothes and car to match. Appearances are deceiving however (indeed that could well be London Spy’s overarching mission statement) and after a tentative beginning, Danny finds that Alex is actually far more emotionally frozen and damaged than he seems on the surface. The two are completely different yet it seems strangely complimentary, and the relationship that grows is both deep and enduring as proved by an easy-to-miss jump forward in the timeline by several months. All in all, if it wasn’t for the title London Spy, there would be little to clue you in on what’s coming. However, since we’re primed for some cloak-and-dagger twists we soon notice that Alex is exceptionally guarded about revealing anything about himself or his past, is carefully watching out for cars tailing him when he’s with Danny, and how one of the other apartments in the building where Danny lives has a new tenant whose main preoccupation is being able to watch without being seen in turn.
Certainly something is not right in the world, but for Danny things could hardly be better in the garden of love – until without warning Alex is no longer answering his phone and isn’t to be found at his apartment. He has totally disappeared without trace. After 11 days, Danny is at work when he is mysteriously directed to a parcel in the warehouse which turns out to bear the keys to Alex’s apartment. When he goes there, he is astounded to find a sex playroom built into the attic complete with state-of-the-art S&M toys and (subtly, yet perhaps most disturbingly) fully kitted out with sound-proofing panels on the walls. Worst of all, there’s a locked trunk in the corner from which fluids are oozing – the kind of fluids you get from a decomposing corpse.
For some reason, without knowing anything about the series going in, I’d nonetheless always assumed that successful Child 44 author and first-time TV writer Tom Rob Smith was taking his inspiration for London Spy from the real-life unexplained case of Gareth Williams, the GCHQ codebreaker who was found dead in very similar circumstances in 2010. However, I hadn’t expected the inciting incident to be quite this close to its real-life counterpart. Everything else around it is Smith’s own invention of course, but you do wonder if this isn’t possibly a little too closely ‘ripped from the headlines’ for comfort.
The discovery of the corpse kickstarts the real story and sends London Spy on a dramatically different trajectory. Danny does what people in this sort of situation in TV dramas rarely do by actually calling the police who soon clue him in on what the audience pretty much knew from the very beginning – that Alex was never a banker, but an MI6 officer. His name wasn’t even Alex, it was Alistair. Apparently everything he’d ever told Danny had been a lie. Worse is to come when Danny returns home and finds his own flat ransacked, seemingly by someone who believes that he took something important from Alex/Alistair’s flat. Who are they, what do they want, and were they the same people responsible for his lover’s death or someone else entirely?
The obvious answer to the puzzle would be that MI6 had grown alarmed by the security implications of their officer’s gay relationship and put a stop to it by the most extreme measures imaginable, but it’s to Tom Rob Smith’s credit that the story details are sufficiently complex and tangled to make this basic plain solution a poor fit for the facts as presented. It’s genuinely uncertain exactly what is really going on here and moreover who is involved. Not knowing who we can trust puts us firmly into Danny’s head as the paranoia and claustrophobia quickly spirals to a dizzying and suffocating degree. Even Danny’s oldest, closest friend – elderly civil servant Scottie (the magnificent Jim Broadbent) – makes a comment that sets off alarms and make us wonder if he too might be part of the plot, especially since Alex’s disappearance happened soon after Danny had introduced him to Scottie for the first time. Coincidence, or something more significant? And if you’re getting really paranoid, then how much can we even trust Danny himself to be what he appears to be? There’s a tinge of No Way Out in play, should Smith chose to go in that direction.
Necessarily in order to maintain the paranoia the tale must be told entirely from Danny’s point of view – with Whishaw consequently on screen the entire time in pretty much every single scene. Much then rests on Whishaw’s shoulders, and he succeeds admirably in making Danny both realistically deeply flawed with dark secrets in his checkered past, but at the same time also endearingly likeable. There’s just something about him that makes you feel protective and supportive, so it’s perfectly believable that Alex would reach out in concern at their initial meeting. As Alex, Holcroft has a more difficult role to create and less time to do it in: he’s handsome but bland, closed and enigmatic yet vulnerable and exposed. He’s helped by his impossibly perfect square-jawed and high-cheekboned appearance, which comes across like an artificial android creation all by itself. Alex has been a genius prodigy his entire life and seemingly never really developed on the emotional or social side, admitting to Danny that he’s never even had a proper relationship or even sex before – which makes the presence of that well-equipped sex attic all the more incongruous, unless that too was all part of an elaborate lie he was spinning. But if so – why?
Despite some very tenderly played moments between them (and one rather strong gay sex scene) I’m not sure I ever fully bought the appeal between the wild party boy waster and the uptight genius ‘banker’ cypher; it was hard to see quite what each would see in the other to keep them together for quite so long once the purely physical attraction had run its course. Hard, but by no means impossible; it took only the mildest suspensions of disbelief to get me over this bump in the road after which the mystery and tension of the situation took over and gripped tight.
There are a lot of threads to keep hold of in this story and Smith does a good job in making sure that everything is kept pleasingly uncertain and shadowy but at the same time not so obtuse that it becomes off-puttingly confusing or unbelievable. I could have done without some of the more artistic directorial touches which tended to obfuscate unnecessarily, but overall Jakob Verbruggen (The Fall) does a nice job indeed with the visual feel and overall atmosphere of the first episode.
I’m certainly very intrigued by the story so far and want to know more; Whishaw’s turn as Danny also makes me want to find out what happens to him. Despite the controversy over its real life inspiration and the gay sex scenes (come on, it’s 2015, aren’t we over making such a fuss over this sort of thing by now?) London Spy is shaping up to be one of the best dramas of the year – providing it can maintain its suffocating air of mistrust and its narrative cohesion over the full five-part run, which I have high hopes that it will as the cast opens out to introduce the likes of Charlotte Rampling (Broadchurch), Clarke Peters (The Wire), Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) and Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones) as the line-up of suspects develops and expands.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
London Spy continues on BBC2 on Mondays at 9pm. As of time of writing, it is not scheduled for a DVD or Blu-ray release.