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
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.
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.
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.
- Check out BBC1’s page for The Secret Agent