Reader Bette emailed me and asked:
wondering: have you seen London Spy via BBC… if so, what do you think?
I just watched it and I’m blown away. sexy… mysterious… dangerous? I’ll be watching. you?
This is a mini-series of five episodes that have already run on the BBC in England.
I told her I hadn’t watched it.
My reason for avoiding it now seems very foolish. Because it was!
This was part of the description for the series:
‘London Spy’ is the story of a chance romance between two people from very different worlds, one from the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, the other from a world of clubbing and youthful excess. Danny (Ben Whishaw) — gregarious, hedonistic, romantic and adrift, falls for the anti-social enigmatic and brilliant Alex (Edward Holcroft). Just as the two of them realize that they’re perfect for each other, Alex disappears.
I’m compelled to rat myself out here.
I read that and my reaction was, “This is a gay thing. I’m not interested in seeing two men in love.”
Well, I’m damned glad Bette’s email got me curious after all. Because by the time I hit the theme visuals of the first episode, I was already hooked.
This is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year.
Usually I open with screensnaps of the credits. The hell with that. You need to see the video of the credits. That music!
So what got me past my initial avoidant reaction of this series being “a gay thing”?
Growing the hell up before half of the first episode was done and realizing it’s about two human beings who fall in love.
But if even that’s not enough to convince some of you, here’s the kicker:
This story could not exist without the characters being gay!
Although you wouldn’t know if from the top-of-my-head mostly-unedited shit I post here, I’m a writer. I know story. I analyze stories. I think about stories I see, hear, and read.
And no matter how I’ve thought about this series, from whatever angle I’ve approached it, it doesn’t work, can’t work, without the gay characters.
And trust me on this, you become so engrossed in this that the main characters being gay simply doesn’t matter. The performances, the writing, the directing, the music, are all excellent.
James Broadbent is incredible …
… and there’s Charlotte Rampling too …
… god bless her for her natural, un-Botoxed face. She cuts like a knife in this, proving it’s talent that matters, not appearance.
And then there’s Mark Gatiss …
… who you would think is becoming overexposed (no pun intended, given a scene in this), but he’s a goddammed acting chameleon and manages to make people forget all about him and see just the character. (How is this guy both an excellent actor and an excellent writer? The jealous is strong in me.)
The one disappointment for me came with the reveal of the secret. It wouldn’t have worked to prevent the example they provide. It took me just a few moments to see that. But most people won’t even stop to consider that one implication, so most people will probably be impressed by its patina of science. But for me? Harumph. But otherwise yes, it’s entirely plausible as a reason for murder.
And, at base, this has to be one of the scariest things I’ve seen on TV.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Episode three blew me away. The writing, directing, and performances in that were outstanding. It was disorienting, informed, and the scene at the club…
… made me catch my breath for its subtlety and layers of Classism. (I did understand the “joke” immediately, though. Harumph.)
And yes: Scary as hell. Really, this could almost be a propaganda series for the intelligence agencies. Instead of it being called London Spy, they’d call it Why You Should Shut The Fuck Up. Without any of the overt menace of The Shadow Line, this series managed to be even more terrifying. That’s one hell of a writing trick to pull off.
This is a must-see series.
The good news for America is that it’ll début on BBC America on January 21st.
Don’t miss it.
This just has to get a ton of BAFTA Awards.
Thanks, Bette, for getting me curious!
Same-day update: As usual, after hitting Publish I remember all the other stuff I wanted to write. But I’ll save that for any Comments that come in. But what I didn’t want to leave out is the writer himself, Tom Rob Smith, talking about the series [link, if embed is wonky]:
Especially since I want to say this to him: No sequel.
Second same-day update: The excellent BBC Writers Room has the script for the first episode.