The first series of Spooks makes clear its intent to glamourise the spying profession with a fast pace and a stylish visual identity.
In a new retrospective article series, The Digital Fix looks back at the BBC spy drama Spooks.
My memories of watching Spooks are laced with nostalgia. In Australia during the late 2000s, the series was broadcast late on Sunday evenings after the latest episode of Doctor Who. For a teenager such as myself, Spooks provided an exciting opportunity to enter a world of television aimed at a more mature, adult audience (and to avoid being sent to bed early ahead of school the following morning). The intrigue, action and drama inherent in the spy premise piqued my wide-eyed interest.
The first series of Spooks, broadcast in 2002, makes clear immediately its intent to glamourise the spying profession with a fast pace and a stylish visual identity. Across a total of 86 regular episodes and one film, the series, which was created by David Wolstencroft, depicts the machinations of MI5’s counter-terrorism division in a post-9/11 world, alongside its employees’ attempts to juggle a frequently dangerous work environment with the ups and downs of their personal lives. Episodes regularly raked in well over six million viewers each week, and the series even won a BAFTA in 2003.
In retrospect, the series has the distinct tone of the early 2000s: think of the soundtrack, the costuming, the many Dutch tilts – or the fact that Danny Hunter, played by David Oyelowo, is portrayed, worringly, as the only person of colour working for MI5. Still, the slick pace and dynamic split-screen editing sets an engaging tone from the outset, and the through line is clearly visible from Spooks all the way to the action thrillers of the present day.
Danny is one of two junior case officers at MI5, the other being Zoe Reynolds, played by Keeley Hawes. Matthew Macfayden’s Tom Quinn, their team leader, is afforded the most narrative attention, owing to his relationship with girlfriend Ellie being the core personal story line of this series. Despite the equally high enthusiasm of both Hawes and Oyelowo in their roles, Zoe and Danny are often relegated to supporting status, and indeed start off with minimal development (although extra dimensions to their characters do begin to emerge across the course of the six episodes). Thankfully, each of them (spoiler alert) make it to the end alive and well, setting up further growth to occur in subsequent series.
Owing to this skewed focus, the ensemble feel of the regular cast – one of Spooks’ primary strengths – at this point is still evolving. Jenny Agutter appears as Tessa Phillips, who has a story line of her own running phantom agents and pocketing their pay for herself. Hugh Simon and Rory MacGregor both go on to have long tenures as technical analysts Malcolm Wynn-Jones and Colin Wells, but little is known about either of them at this stage beyond their technical expertise or encyclopaedic knowledge. Peter Firth does provide a deliciously snarky and often understated performance as the team’s superior Harry Pearce, and is the only character to appear in every episode of the series from premiere to finale.
Individual episode plots prove sufficiently distinct, each dealing with a different counter-terrorism setup, from race riots to anarchist plots to hostage situations. What proves surprising is just how topical the issues addressed in the series remain today: beyond the broad counter-terrorism setup, episodes explore topics such as the pro-life movement, racism and the far-right, and Kurdish independence, all of which continue to make – or should make – headlines in 2020.
The guest cast is an area where the series truly excels, reading like a who’s who of British acting talent of the early 2000s. Kevin McNally (whose twisted performance as the antagonist in episode two, Looking After Our Own, proves an early standout), Anthony Head (giving a nuanced and detailed performance in episode four, Traitor’s Gate), and Hugh Laurie (sparking interdepartmental conflict within British intelligence as the condescending MI6 Section Chief Jools Siviter) are just a few. Doctor Who fans are also thrown a bone, with Ken Bones and Naoko Mori both appearing in minor roles.
As stated above, the balance between the ‘spy’ and ‘drama’ components of this spy drama is paramount to its success. The episode that best exemplifies this fusion is the fourth, Traitor’s Gate, in which Tom is engaged in a complex cat-and-mouse game with Head’s character – Tom’s former mentor – who is suspected of working with anarchists plotting to assassinate the U.S. President. At the same time, Tom struggles to balance his work life with his relationship with Ellie, who is increasingly upset by his subterfuge and provides an upsetting ultimatum: tell her daughter that he’s a spy, or she’ll leave him. The result is an intriguing character study, fuelled by Head’s fantastic performance, contrasted against some difficult real-life deliberations.
As Ellie, Esther Hall isn’t given a lot to work with outside being the doting romantic interest who grows disgruntled about Tom’s unreliability and keeping of secrets; she is characterised solely within the boundaries of that relationship or as the mother of Maisie. Despite this, Hall shows her mettle in scenes such as the one where Tom tells Ellie he is a spy, giving a brilliant and relatable reaction to the news; shock and anger would be entirely justifiable emotions when informed of such an extended deceit from the man she loves.
The first series of Spooks is an impressive start, laying the groundwork for nine successive series where the show’s character balance is further improved, and the tone refined. All in all, Spooks achieves its remit of depicting the action and excitement of spies in defence of the British Crown alongside the complicated personal lives of its protagonists.
Series One’s Best Episode: Looking After Our Own (1.02)
Looking After Our Own is only the second episode, but it sets the tone of danger and volatility even better than the opener. This is down to the controversially violent – but dramatically effective – death of MI5 operative Helen Flynn, plus a deviously evil performance from Kevin McNally. The combination of these two elements makes Looking After Our Own a highly impactful piece of television, regardless of palatability.
Series One’s Worst Episode: One Last Dance (1.03)
One Last Dance, although not necessarily the “worst” episode of the series, proves the least impactful in comparison with the remaining five. Picking a real “worst” episode would discredit the quality of this debut series, but while the other episodes contain more satisfying resolutions or more impactful sequences, One Last Dance simply does not stand out as memorably.
Series One’s Best Guest Performance: Anthony Head (1.04)
Any of Anthony Head’s scenes as Peter Salter in Traitor’s Gate rank among the best of the series. Whether sitting together in a train station as old friends, or in the midst of a disguised interrogation in Harry’s office, the interplay between Peter and Tom – fuelled by Head’s charismatic and beguiling performance – helps the episode stand out in a strong way.
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