This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 23rd July 2016.
The Secret Agent: Sunday, BBC One
One Night in 2012: An Imagine Special: Sunday, BBC One
Terrorist cells. Suicide bombers. Russia flexing its muscles. Late 19th century Britain was a dangerous place. Thank God we’ve come so far since then.
Adapted from the novel by Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent is an alarmingly prophetic period thriller starring Toby Jones as Verloc, a Soho sex shop owner who moonlights as an informer for the Russian embassy.
Driven by profit rather than any great ideological impulse, he earns an extra crust by sharing fairly banal information about the anarchist gang whose trust he’s earned. But his life becomes a waking nightmare when the embassy orders him to commit an act of terrorism on the gang’s behalf, thus provoking the British government into hard-line action.
As explained by the Russian secretary, played with reptilian zeal by David Dawson, “England is in need of a jolly good scare, an outrage that will summon this country from its slumber. Then we unleash a law that will clamp down on the anarchist threat.”
This compelling three-part drama is full of such moments, when the prescience of its storyline and themes smacks us full in the face. Granted, there are times when writer Tony Marchant gets slightly carried away with this aspect, and practically turns to the audience to scream, “Do you see?! Do you see what I’m getting at?!” But given the overall strength of the piece, that’s forgivable.
The bold antithesis of most Sunday night period dramas, The Secret Agent is mired in a clammy fog of impending catastrophe. Jones is typically arresting as an essentially amoral, cowardly man who nevertheless invites a kernel of sympathy. After all, he’s in the grip of an appalling moral dilemma. If Verloc refuses his orders, the Russians will sign his death warrant by exposing his true colours to every terrorist group in Europe.
Ian Hart also shines as a truly unsettling nihilist with a home-made bomb strapped under his coat at all times. The crazed embodiment of a terror which can’t be reasoned with, he’s driven solely by a desire to cause pain and chaos for its own sake.
Given the relentlessly horrendous state of the world, this impressive adaptation of Conrad’s prophecy couldn’t be more relevant. Everything changes, everything stays the same.
Still, it was nice of One Night in 2012: An Imagine Special to remind us of that fleeting moment of national pride and optimism engendered by Danny Boyle’s justly lauded Olympics opening ceremony.
An in-depth documentary about the making of this triumphant event, it reinforced the fact that no one expected it to succeed. We expected the worst, because we always do in this country. It’s part of our national character. Disaster beckoned. The knives were out. Britain was about to humiliate itself in the eyes of the world.
Of course, what actually transpired was a heartening, powerful and subversive celebration of immigration, industrialisation, free healthcare and Britain’s vast contribution to world-changing innovations and popular culture. But it was ultimately a tribute to the everyday folk who shape British life.
Alongside revealing contributions from Boyle and his team, the programme devoted just as much time to the dedicated volunteers. They were the real stars of the ceremony.
It also revealed – quelle surprise – that Cameron’s coalition government were opposed to the glorious NHS sequence. To his eternal credit, Boyle threatened to walk if this tribute to one of our greatest institutions was cut. Thankfully, he won. We all did.