We say it every year: when it comes to drama, Summer TV is a desert.
And in a year which has already turned every screen around you into a rectangular kaleidoscope of gibbering politicians, ball-moving sportsfolk, and Gregg Wallace shouting the time at people, terrestrial telly feels especially parched.
Yes, there’s the odd drop to slake your thirst – The Living and The Dead, The Musketeers, and that BBC One promo that features three picoseconds of Poldark Season 2 footage – but there’s not been much to shake you from the idea your TV is trying to bludgeon you slowly with depressing reality.
Which is why hearing the phrase ‘Toby Jones in a primetime, Sunday night BBC One period drama’ really whets the appetite. Hello there, The Secret Agent. You’re very welcome. And it’s not just Toby Jones to get excited about. There’s also Vicky McClure from Line of Duty.
It’s an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, directed by Charles McDougall, and the whole thing comes from Line of Duty‘s producers, World Productions. Safe hands at the pump, then.
Jones is protagonist Anton Verloc, a bitter Soho pornographer who makes a little extra on the side working part-time for the Russian Embassy, spying on dissident Russian Anarchists. It’s comrades and chums among the tits n’ bums, although it’s never made explicit where Verloc’s true loyalties lie – is it in simple profit or the struggle of the proles?
His face never quite betrays him. Verloc is a man who’s weak and bitter and impotently angry, and Toby Jones operates wonderfully, subtly, on that scale. I don’t think he smiles once. Watching an actor looking anxious and annoyed in so many different combinations for a solid hour has never been so entertaining.
Suddenly the Russians want him to be more proactive than sitting with/snitching on the socialists. They want him to orchestrate a bombing at the Greenwich Museum; an act of violence which will mean the British will pass a law to crack down on the anarchists. It’s a plan that’ll ring familiar with anyone who saw Peaky Blinders earlier this year.
Trapped between his family obligations to his wife (McClure) and her developmentally disabled brother (Charlie Hamblett), and Russian threats, Verloc flounders. Toby Jones’s face gets even more interesting. He courts the help of the fractious Professor (Ian Hart), a man idealised to nitroglycerin and ready to be the 19th century’s first suicide bomber.
Hart carries the anarchist’s glee in the corner of his eye and the twisting corners of his mouth. He’s as unstable as the materials he’s pouring into jars; a twitching spark to Verloc’s guttering flame. It’s a great performance.
The Professor’s not afraid to open his coat and show off what he’s packing to the heat either, specifically to Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham), and officer who doggedly pursues without ever appearing effective at his job. Were I the Greenwich Museum, I’d probably be worried.
Verloc takes advantage of Stevie’s learning difficulties and naivety to persuade him to eventually deliver the bomb. Verloc’s a coward as well as a petty little spy, and just like with any wreck, it’s impossible not to stare as you pass by. The Secret Agent doesn’t rely on Toby Jones, but it’d be a far less remarkable drama without his presence.
If there’s one thing that doesn’t quite work, it’s the relationship between Verloc and his wife Winnie, who never feel like they’re a couple with any history.
That’s not Vicky McClure’s fault, so much as her having to play a character who’s far too accommodating to her unpleasant husband. Perhaps it’s just after seeing her being uncompromisingly awesome in Line of Duty, but she feels reigned in by the script, even when engaging in low-level flirting with Comrade Ossipon.
But that is a small criticism in a drama that carries all the hallmarks you expect of a good BBC drama, and has a storyteller’s eye for detail (the motif of the circles, from Stevie’s drawings all the way to Greenwich clock, is a nice expansion from the book).
It’s a straightforward opener, with no twists or turns, no flash (or bang, yet), but what do you expect when it’s based on a novel called The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale?
So far, it’s a simple story told well. And while it isn’t the kind of stunning TV that’ll set the ratings alight (though with no competition on a Sunday night it deserves a fat audience share), it’s a drama of great care and quality in a Summer which so far has provided TV watchers with neither.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 17 July 2016 on BBC One.
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