14 November 2015

TV Review: London Spy - Lullaby

The first episode of BBC Two's new drama portrays it as more of a romantic mystery than a traditional spy thriller and is full of clever little touches, writes Tom Newsom.

You have to suspend your disbelief, even in the opening scenes. Ben Whishaw is entering a gay club - we know this because it’s populated by 90% men and 9% Donna Summer - yet none of the crowd recognises him. C’mon guys - this is big name casting! Q, Paddington! Star of the excellent drama The Hour! An exceptionally busy actor at the moment. But we’re not interested about the crowd, just about him, Danny. He leaves, much later, still high, and walks out into the shadow of the MI6 building. If that doesn’t set up the episode perfectly, I don’t know what does.

He meets Joe on the bridge and straight away from their slightly off behaviour we know that these two characters aren’t trying to emulate real people. Danny is awkward and says too much, the mysterious Joe stares, wipes some sweat from his face and gives him his water pack for free. I’m assuming here that encounters in the middle of London at five in the morning aren’t quite so homoerotic - but I don’t know.

If that didn’t feel real enough, then happily the rest of the drama does. They fall in love in a way that is rarely seen on TV - slowly, after they’ve met each other a few times and spent time in each others’ company (long walks, mumbling, endearingly cute groyne walking). The script specifies it’s over the course of weeks and months and actually yes, we feel that too. It’s as slow as relationships in costume dramas, even in an age where romantic opportunities are no longer limited to endless formal dancing.

So, it’s slow - but gripping, always gripping. The writer, Tom Rob Smith, is new to TV at least, and he’s very lucky that he teamed up with this director, Jakob Verbruggen. I honestly don’t think that any other director working in TV could have handled it this smoothly or brilliantly. I really enjoyed his work leading on the Gillian Anderson BBC Two drama The Fall and this is in the same mould, as a first episode at least: following only a few characters before the main conspiracy and drive steps in. It’s mainstream (read: actually watchable) minimalist. Indeed, this episode revolves around just three people, who thankfully are really good actors. Phew. And it earns its length: there’s an electric scene, one of Ben Whishaw’s best ever, in which he opens up and reveals some of his past. The writing is spot on too, but played slowly, in one take, gives it intensity and the extra time makes you read beyond the more subtle words and realise the importance of it.

It’s billed as a “spy thriller”, but it’s neither the high action of SPECTRE or even Spooks, nor the twisted logic of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Instead this episode is more like a “romantic mystery”. But there are spy elements if you’re a fan, in an episode full of small, clever touches - the hidden secrets, shadowy figures bugging and tailing you, hints of a greater force at work. It means that there are rules that we can expect, even though we’re not quite in that genre yet.

Other plot points appear to have been inspired by events in the news... I won’t say which events, however, because I felt that the plot was spoilt after I read a headline in a TV mag explaining it. The less you know the better - especially when there’s so little “action” that the trailers on TV midweek probably show you everything that happens anyway.

The promotion and trailers, Ben Whishaw’s presence, plus coming so soon after his role in the new James Bond film - well, it was going to be a hit, and it is - over three million viewers. For the first episode at least - less people will watch it by the end, as with Wolf Hall and every other drama on the channel. Not because of the central romance between two men (surprisingly rare to make a series around it - I always forget this) - but because this type of TV has a very particular style and pace, which this episode achieves beautifully.

No comments:

Post a Comment