The Secret Agent: 1.01

The Secret Agent with Toby Jones and Vicky McClure, a Victorian spy thriller set in the same timeframe as Peaky Blinders, and with a related plot involving Russian terrorism. But is it more of a Bolshevik Night Manager or Four Lions?

One of the things the BBC does very well is period dramas; probably because they’re too big and too risky for any of the advertising supported UK networks to tackle. The Secret Agent is one such, a spy drama set in late 19th century London amidst a complex plot that reminds us of similar elements covered in season 3 of Peaky Blinders. Though perhaps Peaky Blinders got their plotline from the same sources: Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, and the real life Greenwich Bombing of 1894.

Anton Verloc, played by the splendid Toby Jones runs a seedy shop in the heart of London’s Soho. Unknown to his loyal wife Winnie (Vicky McClure, from the excellent This is England and Broadchurch) Verloc is paid by the Russian embassy to spy on a dangerous anarchist cell. Pay which he desperately needs, and has hardly had to earn. Until now.

Summoned by the new Russian ambassador, he is given a mission: orchestrate a terrorist bombing that can be blamed on the anarchists and provoke a political crackdown by the British. Verloc must source a bomb from The Professor (Ian Hart), but hide his actions from Winnie and Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham, also of This is England and Snatch’s Tommy) of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Division. Unable to persuade his anarchist ‘comrades’ to help, Verloc sets his sights on Winnie’s simple younger brother Stevie (Charlie Hamblett, currently best known as Daisy Ridley’s boyfriend) as his accomplice.

The subtext of political terror and false flag operations is barely veiled, an unsubtle allusion to our times, troubles and narratives. Verloc and his bumbling anarchists make this feel almost more of a Victorian Four Lions. Between these two facets, The Secret Agent, beautifully shot and filled with acting talent as it is, always feels like it’s just on the verge of breaking into farce, into satire. The men and very few women of the cast are all frightfully serious, but somehow it doesn’t quite manage to convince. The feeling of threat from the plots, from Verloc’s taskmasters, seems thin at best, so far. But hopefully things will pick up in the remaining two episodes, and the actors are let off the leash a little.

Stephan Burn

Updated: Jul 17, 2016

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