05 May 2015

TV: The Game - Episode One

The Game is a new six-part drama from the mind of one of this site's favourite screenwriters, Toby Whithouse. Although it was produced by BBC Wales (Brian Minchin was one of the original executive producers) this was actually screened in America and Australia prior to the UK, but - finally - it's here.

Being an avid follower of Whithouse on Twitter, I've been looking forward to this for a long time. The premise sounded fantastic, and I of course trusted in him both as a writer and producer to deliver. But the end result is far better than even I could have hoped. The series is based in 1972 London, and revolves around the activities of MI5 in desperately trying to ensure the Cold War doesn't get hot.

We begin with a slightly odd scene of operative Joe Lambe (played with mesmerising calm by Tom Hughes) in '71 Poland, apparently throwing it all in to become a double agent. When things turn nasty and the opposition shoot the woman he's with, we're given all the background we need to understand where this character comes from. Throughout this first episode, Lambe has a chip on his shoulder and seems something of an outsider. He has respect for head honcho Daddy (Brian Cox) but seems to resent the company of the remainder of his colleagues. I say that the first scene is slightly odd because it doesn't really blend well with the rest of the episode - there's a jarring jump between that and January of '72 in the next scene, which doesn't quite follow as well in the direction as in the script.

Lambe now has his enemy though, and of course, before long he turns up whilst MI5 are investigating a potential national threat - "Operation Glass". I don't doubt this operation will grow in significance across future episodes, but here it leads to the murder of former double agent David Hexton (the superb Scott Handy). The villain re-encounters Lambe after the agents make chase on the murderers and it's a testament to the overall quality of the production that less than forty-five minutes after first hearing of these characters I was waiting nervously and with baited breath for the second meeting. Simultaneously, I think I can see the general direction this series is heading in without having any real clue of what's next. Excellent.

Drafted in from Special Branch, Shaun Dooley as Jim Fenchurch is our eyes and ears. He's the new boy on the block, learning the ropes alongside Lambe, and it's refreshing how dismissing he is of the world of MI5 at first. Hexton's murder soon changes his outlook. Dooley really is good in the part though; you'd almost think it was written for him. There's a clever subplot to Whithouse's writing that no-one is comfortable with the world they inhabit. Daddy doesn't trust his agents - Lambe is the only one he thinks he can rely on, so expect a betrayal at some point - and Bobby Waterhouse (brought to life with aplomb by Paul Ritter) isn't satisfied with either world he inhabits. At work, he doesn't trust Daddy, and gives off the impression he dislikes his subordinates, and at home he is quite clearly uncomfortable with his relationship with his mother. Sarah Montag and husband Alan (Victoria Hamilton and Jonathan Aris) are getting itchy feet in the job - though probably the former for the sake of the latter - and finally Lambe himself seems to outwardly despise the climate the Cold War presents.

The visual aspect of this episode's direction is quite beautiful, so all credit to Niall MacCormick and Urszula Pontikos, and for the most part the story flows well. The moments of faster pace as handled as expertly as the slower scenes, proving that there really is a talented cast and crew behind this project. The soundtrack, composed by Daniel Pemberton, is skilful to say the least. It's a real delight to watch this series.

I think the lion's share of the credit for the success of this episode must go to writer/creator Toby Whithouse. It's an extraordinary script and conceit that he's come up with, and clearly one with legs. His opening episode is a real mix (there's several edge-of-the-seat moments mixed with some very witty dialogue) but works exceptionally well. The way characters such as Kitty who should by rights be bit-parts are given as much significance from Lambe's perspective (and therefore ours) is a great touch, and makes events affecting them all the greater. This is a very strong start to what looks to be an engaging, exciting and memorable series. I can't wait to see what's next.

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