Why it’s safe for Spooks to spook us

After 9/11, the BBC1 spy show used to be high-minded and gritty. Now it's absurd and consequently far more fun.

David Bowden

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New Labour may have been dispatched from office, Big Brother gone to the big nostalgia clip-show in the sky and Oasis on permanent hiatus, but at least we can rely on Spooks.

The MI5-based drama returned to BBC1 this week for its ninth series, and before the opening credits we’d already seen the death of one of the star characters and the assassination of two home secretaries. By the end of it we’d seen Somali pirates, the head of MI5 set off an electromagnetic bomb which apparently is stored under Parliament for defence purposes and one of the cast had been revealed to be someone else entirely.

For the uninitiated, Spooks began life back in 2002 as a classic slice of high-minded primetime entertainment. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 and revelations around the shady behaviour of intelligence services in the Middle East had whetted the appetite of the public for grittier and more ambiguous depictions of spies far removed from the glossy world of James Bond and Mission: Impossible. America gave us the high-concept and ultra-violent 24 and the Bourne films; Britain produced Spooks and, er, a slightly grittier version of James Bond.

In fairness, Spooks has outlived them all. The British public has always had a curious affection for its secret services, partly because they act as a perfect symbol of the public’s attitude to the establishment. There is a certain colonialist pride (the cerebral and repressed Brits make the best spies, who only torture the bad Irish and Muslims). But there’s also the apparent reality that an organisation so naff that all of its senior figures during the Cold War were actually KGB agents and which employed tubby oddballs like whistleblower David Shayler couldn’t possibly be all that sinister and threatening. Only the British public could engage in the nudge-wink facade of pretending the MI5 and MI6 buildings in London weren’t really the MI5 and MI6 buildings for as long as they did; and only we Brits could overlook the fact that one of these buildings is based in the middle of a hardcore gay bar district. Well, this was overlooked until the tabloid coverage of the recent puzzling death of intelligence officer Gareth Williams, but that somehow only seems to prove the point.

Back in the late Nineties, the heady days of early New Labour, we were encouraged to learn to love our security services, rather than fear them and occasionally laugh at them. They were, after all, the elite arm of the cuddly British state, always running off on humanitarian missions to save troubled countries. Spooks very much fitted the mood of the times: the spooks in question were attractive young professionals, more adept with computer terminals and data analysis than Walther PPKs and poison-tipped umbrellas, trying to balance busy personal lives with dedication to their careers.

Despite the climate of post-9/11 fear, there was actually something quite reassuring about the early episodes. Coming from the politically correct Beeb, and with writers such as noted left-wing playwright Howard Brenton, Spooks was very careful not to fall in to Islamophobia and stigmatising of other groups. Even when they resorted to an Irish bomb plot in the first series, the ultra-liberal MI5 was able to hook up with its old friends in the IRA to sort everything out (it was a rogue cell, naturally). Most of their foes initially were almost comical in their low ambitions: racists and animal rights extremists. In fact, so low-key were the villains, the writers had to work overtime to make the series shocking, notoriously killing off big-name pin-up and presumed star Lisa Faulkner in an early episode by dunking her head in a deep fat-fryer. A willingness to kill off its stars, and keep a revolving cast of bright young things, has been one of its defining features ever since and quite possibly accounts for its endurance: today’s secret agents are flesh-and-blood like you and me.

It was a fine drama in the early days, offering a platform for excellent British character actors such as Matthew Macfadyen, Jenny Agutter and renowned young Shakespearean actor David Oyewelo. One of the best episodes centred around the latter character’s first extra-judicial assassination – a reminder that away from the wilder imaginings of thrillers and some wild-eyed conspiracy theorists, such incidents of the services getting their hands dirty are (probably) rare.

Interestingly, in the wake of 7/7, the debacle surrounding the shooting of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes and the various data-loss scandals – surely evidence that our spooks are not among the elite – the plots of Spooks have grown increasingly outlandish, with almost every episode seeming to centre around a dirty bomb, international spy rings and corrupt politicians. At the height of the Bush years, post-Iraq, it seemed the CIA were at the heart of all evil (it was them and Tony ‘Bliar’ wot tricked us into war in Iraq after all). Then, as Obama rose in the ascendant, everything became the fault of a rogue agent in Mossad. The Russians are still very interested indeed in destroying global capitalism (they’ve attempted it twice) and starting a nuclear war. The last series ended with the discovery that they’d been running a Supra-international Superspy ring which ran to the very top of government (hence the knocked-off home secretaries).

What is odd is that when we were being assured by the government that we really did have a lot to worry about in the wider world, Spooks seemed keen to reassure us that actually we were going to be fine. Now that al-Qaeda has largely been revealed to be a bunch of inept sad-sacks more likely to blow up their underpants than London, we have to be reassured that actually our spies are superheroes constantly risking life and limb to protect us on a daily basis, all without our knowledge. I think the latter fantasy is probably healthier: more importantly, it makes TV a hell of a lot more entertaining.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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