The Secret Agent, BBC1

Programme Name: The Secret Agent - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Verloc (Toby Jones), Vladimir (David Dawson) - (C) World Productions LTD - Photographer: Mark Mainz

Twisted loyalties – Verloc (Toby Jones) and Vladimir (David Dawson)

Claustrophobic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s heartbreaking spy saga

★★★ BBC1, Sunday, 17 July, 9pm

COSTUME DRAMAS are two a penny on British TV, but occasionally one comes along that really has a feel for period, rather than being a piece of fancy-dress nostalgia. This is one of the better ones.

It is, of course, based on Joseph Conrad’s classic spy novel, which Alfred Hitchcock also turned into a modern-day suspense flick.

For this three-parter, the BBC has lined up a fine cast and returned events to era of the novel – London, 1886.

Toby Jones as Verloc

Programme Name: The Secret Agent - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Winnie (Vicky McClure), Stevie (Charlie Hamblett) - (C) World Productions LTD - Photographer: Graeme Hunter

Family – Winnie (Vicky McClure), Stevie (Charlie Hamblett)

Taking the lead is Toby Jones as the horrible Verloc, owner of a seedy Soho smut shop. He is married to Winnie, played by Vicky McClure. Verloc is a second-rate agent-provocateur on behalf of the Russian government. When he is summoned to meet the new First Secretary, his cushy number is over.

Played with a mixture of evil and charm by David Dawson, Vladimir demands more of Verloc. He blackmails him into organising a bomb outrage that will be blamed on the anarchists Verloc is spying on.

Victorian London is evocatively recreated and filmed (without cloying chocolate-box tweeness), and the performers are extremely good. But it is the dynamics between the characters and the claustrophobia of unfolding events that makes the drama so gripping.

Programme Name: The Secret Agent - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 2) - Picture Shows: Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham) - (C) World Productions LTD - Photographer: Des Willie

Terrorist hunter – Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham)

Stephen Graham as Insp Heat

Vicky McClure is particularly affecting as Winnie. She sticks by her unappealing husband because he is ‘good to her’, an important consideration for a Victorian wife dependent on a man. When cowardly Verloc abruptly shows an interest in Stevie (Charlie Hamblett), Winnie’s adult brother, who has the mental age of a child, we know his intentions are not good.

Programme Name: The Secret Agent - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 2) - Picture Shows: Professor (Ian Hart) - (C) World Productions LTD - Photographer: Mark Mainz

In full flow – Danger-man the Professor (Ian Hart)

Stephen Graham is Chief Inspector Heat. He believes he has the anarchist cell that Verloc is spying on under control. However, he is soon horrified to encounter the disturbing Professor, played by Ian Hart, who brandishes a body bomb and then disappears.

The Secret Agent echoes the modern world with its terrorist cells and atrocities, but it is as a matrix of compromised characters, dependent on the actions of the others, that makes it a compelling and emotional drama.

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