TV UK, 16 May

Post-9/11, TV dramas still stand or fall on how they handle personal life.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

When it started, I suggested that 24 was hopelessly pre-9/11, though nonetheless enthralling for that.

American readers will be in a better position to judge, since they know what happens in the end, but as things stand on BBC Choice (which is itself a week ahead of BBC2), the international dimension is coming alive with the involvement of Serb villains. This could be pretty crass, but I suspect that the whole thing won’t really make sense until the final episode.

The BBC’s answer to 24 is Spooks (BBC1, Mondays at 9pm). There are plenty of references to ‘September last year’, but I’m not sure that Spooks is any more on top of the new world order than 24. That’s hardly damning, though, since politicians and the media are equally at sea. Moreover, I have a hunch that the programme documents quite well the transformed character of intelligence work in the post-Cold War era.

Instead of dropping into exotic locations, learning the language and culture and toppling the government, these spooks ponce about Blighty in pursuit of politically incorrect losers (an anti-abortion nut in the first episode, a wife-beating racist in the second). And the characters are disturbingly easy to relate to. Judging from the first two episodes, none of them seems particularly talented. Indeed, one of them is praised for having three languages. Three languages? I mean, gold star and all that, but you’re no James Bond.

The adverts for Spooks have been based around the slogan, ‘MI5, not 9 to 5’, and for all its Britishness, the programme is not above glamming things up. After all, we are used to hearing nowadays that intelligence work is little more than glorified librarianship: when M15 started advertising publicly for agents a couple of years ago, it went out of the way to make the job seem normal, only adding the titillating advice not to inform friends of one’s application.

Maybe Spooks provides the artificial glamour that the department needs, including absurdly good-looking secret agents. (The main character Tom often appears to be wearing lipstick, but I’m sure there’s a good reason for that.)

Monday’s episode has a shocking ending that couldn’t have been better designed to win us round to the idea of extra-judicial killing. That, along with a hint that these impeccable Guardian-reader types are working for more sinister forces, might indicate that the programme is darker than it first appears.

An important part of the story hinges on Tom’s inability to ‘open up’ to his girlfriend, for security reasons rather than old-fashioned machismo. This is a pleasing twist to a drama cliché, though at this stage the personal dimension is less well-integrated than in 24, which is all about work hitting home with a vengeance.

Whatever else has changed since September last year, TV dramas still stand or fall on how they handle personal life. Dr Zhivago has won at last.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics


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