Spies light up dark corners on British TV

by Tirdad Derakhshani

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

5 May 2009


If you thought British TV was only good for overwrought costume dramas, look again.

Look no further than last weekend’s 10th highest-grossing flick, “State of Play.”

Starring Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe, “Play” is a felicitous, if radically condensed, remake of a six-hour BBC miniseries from 2003 that attacks corporate manipulation of government.

The original miniseries is part of a wave of superbly produced British political thrillers from the last two decades that far outstrips anything Hollywood has created when it comes to dramatic and political sophistication, relevance — and, most notably, critical bite. (They do have less gunplay, fewer explosions, and nary a car chase — if that’s your thing.)

So what’s there to learn from Brit TV?

Irony, impertinence, even insolence in the face of the powers that be.

American films and TV shows avoid complex issues such as poverty, drugs, and the erosion of civil rights and other governmental abuses for fear of offending an interest group — and, more recently, for fear of appearing unpatriotic.

British filmmakers don’t hesitate to critique the establishment when they perceive abuse or injustice.

Recent productions (all available on DVD) include the incendiary 2006 miniseries “The State Within,” which condemns America’s Middle East policy; “The Last Enemy” (2008), a dystopian look at the culture of surveillance; the superb spy show “MI-5” (“Spooks” in the U.K.); and “Incendiary”, a remarkable tragedy in which the British government allows terrorists to kill hundreds of Londoners in order to save an undercover agent.

The acerbic satire “A Very British Coup” (1988), a miniseries made during the height of Thatcherism, stars Ray McAnally as Harry Perkins, a socialist who becomes prime minister in a surprise landslide win. Though he has the public’s backing, Perkins is undermined by the entrenched economic, military and government establishment, which wants him out.

By comparison, the struggle between conservatives and liberals in NBC’s “The West Wing” (1999-2006) was about as dangerous as a tweens’ sleepover pillow fight. Each episode ended with a reconciliation of opposing views whose aim was not political, but therapeutic — it was supposed to make the characters and viewers feel better about their beliefs.

Fox’s thrilling espionage series “24” alludes to controversial issues but never addresses them head-on. It maniacally focuses on the procedural details of the characters’ missions and never addresses their political implications.

Kiefer Sutherland’s infamous “24” hero Jack Bauer, for one, regularly resorts to torture and assassination, yet the show never bothers to discuss the legitimacy of any of the policies Jack enforces.

There is nothing wrong with dramatizing how soldiers and federal agents risk their lives for their country — but not if every single show about them is so myopically focused on the daily grind.

BBC’s “MI-5,” about Britain’s domestic intelligence service, includes plenty of awesome spy action while also addressing some of the troubling aspects of the job. The show carefully follows the larger implications of the spies’ missions.

One of the show’s central themes is also a hot topic in American politics: Whether the intelligence services should be independent of partisan interests, or whether they are arms of the administration which happens to be in power. The latter, one spy points out, would make the service indistinguishable from the secret police in dictatorships.

The British shows also tend to be grounded in a tradition of social realism that seems to elude Hollywood.

“Traffik,” the six-episode drama from 1989 that inspired Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 Oscar-winner, “Traffic,” looks at the international drug trade not only as a problem for law enforcement, but also as a global economic issue.

It examines how the prevalence of poppy-growing in Afghanistan affects farmers whose lives depend on it. Soderbergh’s version traces the source of the drugs to Mexico and focuses only on the ruthless dealers who traffic it across the border.

Reducing everything to a mano-a-mano fight is a prevalent approach in American stories, to the exclusion of all else. Political thrillers such as “Eagle Eye,” the “Bourne” trilogy, “Traitor” and “Enemy of the State,” all of which raise intelligent issues, so radically individualize the central conflict that it becomes little more than a duel between the white-hatted hero and the black-clad baddie — at high noon, of course.

The larger questions are forgotten by the final battle.

Like the James Bond stories that set the template, these stories shift responsibility onto the shoulders of a maniacal individual.

“Eagle Eye,” which features Shia LaBeouf as a regular Joe who helps to avert a coup, raises questions about government’s power to spy on every detail of our lives. Yet its villain is — a computer gone mad.

Sure, the machine symbolizes the system of surveillance we’ve allowed to run rampant in our lives, but the symbol is destroyed by the sheer puerility of the story.

There are exceptions to the rule, most notably HBO’s extraordinary drama “The Wire,” which owes more to Dickens than to “Law & Order.” “The Wire” shows how individuals — cops, drug dealers, politicians, teachers, journalists — fit into the complex social webs that define who we are. It deconstructs the city of Baltimore by focusing on the systems that make it run, including the police, organized crime, labor unions, city hall, public schools, and the press.

Show creator David Simon’s critique of the media is instructive. He says on the show’s Web site that the press has abdicated its responsibility to examine the “depth and range of (the) problems” that plague us, including a flawed educational system, crime, and political corruption.

But isn’t dramatizing these issues the job not just of the press, but also of our filmmakers and TV producers?



Here’s a list of some DVD distributors that specialize in British films and TV shows:

Acorn Media Group




BBC Video


B.F.S. Entertainment




Topics: british tv | mi-5
//Mixed media