Spies of Warsaw on DVD

Spies of Warsaw DVD

DVD: ★★★½ 

David Tennant reveals another side of his versatility in this 1930s-set thriller when he turns dashing French spy in pre-war Poland. This BBC4 production was shown in January but is now already available on DVD.

It’s a beautifully produced drama with an unusual wartime setting, focusing on a French cultural attaché, Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, who is based in Warsaw. To the diplomatic community, Mercier appears to be the slightly bored military hero, having to attend evening balls in full dress uniform and other dull functions.

David Tennant and Jane Montgomery
But there’s more to the colonel than that, as he develops a network of double agents, scouts the border with Germany and comes to a conclusion that is unpalatable to his political masters – that Germany is planning to invade Poland (and threaten France).

Jane Montgomery stars as Anna Skarbek, with whom Mercier becomes entangled in a tricky, dangerous, romance.

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
Spies of Warsaw was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who are better known for their comedies (The Likely Lads, Porridge) but who became fascinated with this story, which is based on Alan Furst’s novel.

Warsaw had to be rebuilt brick by brick following the Second World War, and this series was filmed there. It makes an atmospheric setting for what is something of an old-fashioned, but still engrossing, wartime thriller.

There are no extras on this DVD, which is a shame. However, the Beeb’s online media centre has a media pack about the drama here.

• Also just being released are series 1 and 2 of The Hour, the 1950s drama set in the early days of TV news, with a fine cast, including Dominic West, Romola Garai, Ben Wishaw and Peter Capaldi.

Both DVDs are available from BBCShop.com

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Restless BBC1 with Hayley Atwell, Michelle Dockery, Rufus Sewell, Charlotte Rampling, Michael Gambon PREVIEW

Hayley Atwell as Eva in William Boyd's Restless on BBC1
Shady character – Hayley Atwell as Eva. Pics BBC

Rating: ★★★★½ 

BBC1: Starts Thursday, 27 December, 9pm 

Story: One day in 1976, Ruth’s mother Sally suddenly tells her she has been living a double life. She is not respectable Sally Gilmartin but in fact Eva Delectorskaya, a spy for the British Secret Service who has been on the run for 30 years.

Most of us would burst out laughing if our mum told us she used to be a spy. But in Ruth Gilmartin’s case, her mother has always been a bit off-kilter.

As Ruth’s young son says, ‘Is Sally your real mummy… She’s so strange.’

Charlotte Rampling and Michelle Dockery star in BBC1's spy thriller Restless
Charlotte Rampling and Michelle Dockery

So when Sally tells her daughter that her real name is Eva Delectorskaya, that she spied for Britain during the war and that someone, 30 years after the war, is now after her, we know we’re in for a highly intriguing drama. And this beautifully made and wonderfully cast two-part film lives up to its terrific premise, being one of the must-see dramas of this Christmas season.

Michelle Dockery and Charlotte Rampling
Ruth, played by Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery, is still incredulous as she learns more of Sally/Eva’s story. When she demands that her mother then speak Russian to her and her mum does so, Ruth realises that she barely knows her. Sally then says Ruth’s father also never knew of her secret past.

‘We all have secrets,’ says Sally, played by Charlotte Rampling. ‘No one knows even half the truth about any one else.’

Rufus Sewell as Lucas Romer in the spy thriller Restless on BBC1
Shadowy Rufus Sewell

The drama flashes back to 1939, when Sally was Eva – and looked a lot like Hayley Atwell, the Captain America actress who is also cropping up a lot on TV, having just been in Sky Atlantic’s Falcon and soon to star in ITV1’s Life of Crime next year. However, her casting here jars a little, as she and Charlotte Rampling in no way resemble each other (particularly with Charlotte’s pale blue eyes clashing with her younger self’s brown eyes).

Rufus Sewell is the mysterious Romer
But once this is forgotten, the plot thickens nicely. We learn how Rufus Sewell as the mysterious Lucas Romer recruits Eva in France after her brother is murdered by fascists. Reluctant at first, Eva turns out to be excellent spy material – she’s bright, resourceful and multi-lingual (as a Russian emigre in France who once had an English nanny).

The old spymaster Lucas Romer played by Michael Gambon in Restless
Michael Gambon as the older Romer

She trains in Scotland and impresses her spy masters. Having initially enjoyed the thrill of it all, she gets a terrifying reality check when her first operation on the German border goes lethally wrong for some British agents and she is chased by Nazi goons.

She ends up with Romer’s team in the USA, planting news stories intended to tip public opinion in favour of Uncle Sam joining the war. This is all suspenseful stuff. Eva does well but feels a bit like a pawn at times, with the added peril of possible betrayal by a British team member when a Russian agent passing them information turns up dead.

Engrossing adaptation of William Boyd’s novel
This strand is juxtaposed with the older Eva appealing to her daughter for help in finding the older Romer, as she believes he is only man who can help her now that her decades-old cover has been blown. ‘Someone’s going to try to kill me very soon,’ she says.

Hayley Atwell as the spy Eva in BBC1's Restless
Eva must seduce an ally

The first of the two 90-minute films ends on a suitably teetering cliff-hanger, with young Eva having been pressed into an assignment similar to Ingrid Bergman’s in Notorious – she has to sleep with a contact close to President Roosevelt – and Ruth having tracked down old Romer, who’s now in the House of Lords and played by Michael Gambon.

Restless is, of course, based on a novel by William Boyd, the man behind the next 007 novel. The alternating modern and wartime intrigues are both engrossing, and the characters grow convincingly into their dangerous lifestyles and keep us wondering how they will get through (and what would we do in their place?).

It’s an accomplished, rich drama. You can afford to miss two hours of Dullton Abbey this Christmas – but don’t let this spy thriller stay undercover.

Cast: Hayley Atwell Eva Delectorskaya, Rufus Sewell younger Lucas Romer, Michael Gambon older Lucas Romer, Michelle Dockery Ruth Gilmartin, Charlotte Rampling Sally Gilmartin

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Page Eight with Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz BBC2 PREVIEW

Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy. Pics: BBC/Heyday Films/Runaway Fridge/Carnival/NBC Universal

Rating ★★★★
BBC2 Sunday, 28 August, 9pm

Story: Johnny Worricker, an MI5 intelligence specialist, discovers that his best friend and boss, Benedict Baron, has died. The fall-out is that a dossier Benedict has left behind contains damaging information that could de-stabilise the security service – and perhaps the country.

The Beeb is chuffed that playwright and Oscar nominee David Hare has written and directed his first film in 20 years for them, and the result is a beautifully performed spy thriller with dialogue that rips along.

The terrific cast – headlined by Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes and Judy Davis – play characters with such sharp wits and hidden agendas about them that it’s almost like an episode of Yes, Minister at times.

Rachel Weisz as the beautiful neighbour
Bill Nighy is the centre of the storm as Johnny Worricker, a senior MI5 veteran with an ex-wife, a distant daughter and an illicit affair on the go. His boss and friend, Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon), circulates a top secret dossier that contains damaging information about our American allies and illegal torture victims around the world.

When Benedict dies suddenly, Johnny is left to deal with the dangerous repercussions of Benedict’s secretly sourced dossier. At the same time, Johnny is both intrigued by and suspicious of his beautiful next door neighbour, Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz). ‘She was putting out the rubbish,’ he says of their first meeting. ‘Pretended it was a coincidence.’

Welcome to Johnny’s world, where a chance encounter with a delightful woman must be deemed suspicious. Trust is a recurring theme here. ‘Do you have any honest relationships?’ says Johnny’s daughter.

Michael Gambon – the smart, calculating MI5 boss
Amid the suspicions, there are many nice throwaway moments. ‘Mum always knows where you,’ Johnny’s daughter says early on. ‘Does she?’ he replies. ‘Paranormal is she?’

And Michael Gambon is a force of nature as the calculating, slightly cynical Benedict. ‘Things got so bad last night, I watched The X Factor.’

Elsewhere, Saskia Reeves is terrifically prickly as the Home Secretary, and Judy Davis is baleful as Johnny’s spiky MI5 colleague. It is after an ominous exchange with the latter that Johnny slips out of his job to dig for the truth about Benedict’s dossier.

Overtones of Tony Blair
Events can only take a fateful twist when a smiling Ralph Fiennes turns up as the Prime Minister. When an actor who specialises in characters such as Voldemort, Amon Goeth, Francis Dolarhyde and Hades appears, it could be time to start hissing.

There are heavy overtones of Tony Blair here, the former PM getting another fictional battering after Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. And when the double-talk gets treacherous – ‘If it can’t be corroborated, it can’t be correct’ – events turn murky and vindictive.

Page Eight is a world away from much of today’s mainstream crime/thriller fare, such as the adrenaline rush of Spooks or frights of Luther. It is what David Hare calls a human drama, character strong, and he is apparently so intrigued by Johnny Worricker’s predicament that he’s working on two more films about him (the BBC originally wanted a series).

Can Johnny trust anyone, and can he act with integrity? Watching him try is engrossing and even fun at times – and the jazz soundtrack really swings. 

Cast: Ralph Fiennes Alec Beasley, Rachel Weisz Nancy, Felicity Jones Julianne Worricker, Bill Nighy Johnny Worricker, Michael Gambon Benedict Baron, Ewen Bremner Rollo Madeley, Judy Davis Tankard, Tom Hughes Ralph Wilson, Holly Aird Anna, Saskia Reeves Anthea Catcheside, Richard Lintern Max Vallance

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