This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14th November 2015.
London Spy: Monday, BBC Two
Josh: Wednesday, BBC Three
A few years ago Ben Whishaw starred in Criminal Justice, a gripping BBC drama about a young man trapped in a waking nightmare after being wrongly accused of murder. Last week he starred in London Spy, a gripping BBC drama about a young man trapped in, well, you get the picture.
It's easy to see why Whishaw, a fine, interesting actor, gets cast in such roles. His ability to project boyish, vulnerable charm makes him an ideal candidate for torture of this kind. The scrawny sod, he's innately sympathetic.
In London Spy he plays Danny, a lonely gay romantic on a path of self-destruction. Early one morning by the Thames, after a solitary night of hedonism, he has a chance encounter with Alex, a fellow lost soul.
In typical romantic fiction style, they couldn't be more different. Danny is garrulous and indie-kid scruffy, while Alex is an inscrutable model of Savile Row elegance with the face of a sad-eyed camel. After a faltering start, they eventually embark upon an intense eight-month relationship.
Socially maladroit Alex claims to be a virgin, so Danny – who has a complex sexual past – takes care of that. They fall madly in love. It's all rather touching, and hardly what you'd expect from a drama titled London Spy. We're all expecting some sort of thriller twist, of course, but the slow-burning build created an unexpected, disarming mood.
Then one day Alex mysteriously disappears. Danny is heartbroken. Under curious circumstances, he eventually manages to enter Alex's apartment, where he's shocked – as you would be – to discover a secret attic full of bondage gear drugs, sex toys... and Alex's corpse squeezed inside a trunk.
Suddenly, and quite brilliantly, a sensitive love story has transformed into a bizarre, dark conspiracy thriller. Naturally, Danny is suspect number one, but how can he answer questions about a partner who'd apparently lied to him all along? It's a classic Hitchcockian 'Wrong Man' premise, made all the more effective for taking its time to establish character first.
Handsomely shot, thoughtfully written and superbly performed – Jim Broadbent, without a hint of “old queen” cliché, is wonderful as Danny's wealthy saviour/mentor – London Spy is one of the boldest dramas of the year so far. Despite playing along with standard spy conventions, it's emotionally richer and more offbeat than yer average thriller.
Writer Tom Rob Smith is the partner of Ben Stephenson, the Controller of BBC Drama Commissioning. Normally that would set off the nepotism klaxon to cacophonous levels, but in this case it's clearly been commissioned on its own merits. No, really. It's excellent.
By contrast, Josh, a new sitcom vehicle for comedian Josh Widdicombe, is entirely standard stuff. Based around three flatmates in their early thirties, plus their know-it-all landlord (Jack Dee, clocking in), its humour is almost exclusively based around tired, overdone pop culture puns and references: vaguely amusing pub banter at best.
It's also cursed by a particular kind of 21st century comedy performance style that's like Kryptonite to myself and anyone else who's latched onto it. It's basically an irksome marriage of Alan Partridge emphasis, Martin Freeman awkwardness and Bill Nighy vagueness, which around 80% of British comic actors under 40 have appropriated in the last decade.
Widdicombe is particularly guilty. He sounds like a helium-addled Partridge with lockjaw.
Still, nice use of Big Maybelle's version of 96 Tears over the end credits. I'll give them that.