Page Eight, written and directed by David Hare and currently available on BBC iPlayer, demonstrates just how inadequate bite size labels like “spy thriller” can be. In a story that lasts one hour and forty minutes on screen, we are never truly thrilled or excited by events. This is not an all action look at MI5, such as Spooks, but a strangely amusing study of character and bureaucracy.
The whole thing is bookended by cool, retro jazz and Bill Nighy strutting around in a suit. But whilst Nighy’s character Johnny does have an expensive, privileged and high flying lifestyle, and he does look charismatically assured for someone in his early sixties, Page Eight isn’t a tale that glamorises the intelligence community much either. In the opening twenty minutes we meet Johnny’s key work colleagues and observe his solitary home life. He could be working in any public office for a living. But for the shots of Thames House, familiar to Spooks fans and spy buffs, there isn’t a lot to mark him out as an “intelligence analyst”.
The plot basically has two strands. Early on Johnny meets his neighbour from across the hall for the first time. Played by Rachel Weisz she may or may not be interested in him for devious reasons relating to his work. She might just be lonely. Meanwhile at work Johnny’s friend and boss Ben (Michael Gambon) has passed a potentially explosive file around. At the bottom of page eight a casual sentence from an unknown source drops the bombshell that Downing Street knew about information extracted by the Americans through torture, and decided not to share it with the security services. Ben then dies of a heart attack.
Page Eight’s overwhelming quality is intrigue. The two plots grow more complicated and intermingle, as we learn about Johnny’s messy personal life with his daughter and former lovers, all strained by his tendency to suspect everyone and always remain on guard. Nighy is excellent and Gambon delivers his lines with comic relish. A meeting with the Home Secretary about a top secret subject, surely a tense situation, turns out to be a hilarious platform for Nighy and Gambon’s playful chemistry, as well as advancement of the plot. Indeed the entire cast is impressive. James Bond fans can rub their hands together with glee as potential Bond 23 villain Ralph Fiennes pulls off a sinister Prime Minister.
Aside from the drama, Page Eight also has some interesting and thought provoking points to make. Despite its heightened elements of collusion and conspiracy, it feels oddly accurate and close to the world we live in. It simultaneously takes a swipe at the consequences of elitism, the implications of everyone important graduating from the same Oxbridge college, and defends fading ideals of honour espoused by such institutions. Most revealingly of all it highlights the conflict between those who believe in “pure intelligence” delivering facts and the challenges of too much information in the modern world, requiring interpretation, perhaps for political gain, as opposed to searching for impossible truths.
Overall Page Eight is an intelligent and satisfying watch. Somehow Hare wraps everything up in a flash, just as it seems time will run out on the plot. The dialogue is delightful in the hands of veteran performers and refreshingly free of exposition, apart from a few clunky lines for Weisz. Best of all is the characterisation of Johnny that focuses on the real, human results of spying. Just don’t expect stunts, guns, fight scenes or car chases.
I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by the term “event television” at first. Apparently we don’t have much of it over here. Whereas they have loads of it over there. Here of course is, well here, and there is America, the US, the United States, the land of the free. I suppose now they can call themselves the conquerors of terror. Nevertheless, whatever our inferiorities on the hunting down madmen front, I thought it was a harsh and unfair assessment of our television schedules.
Course no one reads schedules anymore though, no one sits down to watch anything at the allotted hour. We’re all addicted to endless self gratification. We get up to have an iPoo, flush it down the iBog and wash our hands with interactive iSoap, ambling into the kitchen through the iDoors that open with that Star Trek noise, to sit down to our perfectly timed iToast. Then we float to work on our iMagicCarpets, reading an article about the latest iPod on our iPads. When we’ve got a spare moment we’ll catch up with our favourite shows, saved straight to our favourites automatically on iPlayer. Or we check out some new comedy, whenever we want, on 4Od. Thankfully ITV is pretty much forgotten online. Someone told me there was an itvplayer, but I didn’t believe them. What would be the point?
Anyway back to my point. Even if we did read schedules we’d just shout “SHIT!” and toss them down somewhere. But it’s ridiculous to say British TV lacks events. The Royal Wedding was an event that the whole world, especially the Yanks, wanted to see. And they couldn’t replicate it even with their superior budgets and 22 feature length episode series. Quite often BBC Sport will show some horses jumping about the place and that’s actually called Event-ing! How can things get more eventful? Even ITV has the odd football match. Football matches are events, I’ve been to some. And just because baseball has more interesting bats than cricket, and the Super Bowl is so good people watch it for the adverts, does not mean British sport is any less diverse and eventful than American ones.
I eventually discovered that “event television” refers to the scale and quality of drama, as opposed to sport or documentaries. American imports like The Wire, The Sopranos and Lost have become cultural staples in recent years on this side of the pond. Meanwhile good British drama is of the costumed variety. Only wrapped in frilly frocks will British drama make it from here to the bigger apples on the other bank. Other countries don’t care about our storytelling unless it’s Downton Abbey (there’s a persistent rumour that ITV made that!). Everyone wants the classy execution and paranoia driven plots of American drama though.
Being the dinosaur that I am, I haven’t watched any of the American series I mentioned above. I couldn’t possible tolerate the colonies beating us in terms of quality. I’m quite content to chuckle along dreamily to a familiar episode of Friends but that’s because such a programme has no far flung aspirations. It’s simply crude and silly humour.
In all seriousness though, I may not be familiar with The Wire and other renowned US drama but I have seen the higher production standards of American creations and the flaws of British drama are plain. Part of the reason Doctor Who is being so lovingly welcomed back is that it’s one of just a handful of shows capable of “event television”. Off the top of my head I can only think of Spooks as another show, not dependent on a typically BBC period setting, capable of generating awe inspiring thrills and twists for the duration of a series.
The controller of BBC One recently refused to authorise a second series of Zen, about an Italian detective played by Rufus Sewell, on the grounds that the channel had too many detectives. I believe this decision to be a mistake. Zen was not “event television”, its pace was too pedestrian, but for British audiences in particular it filled in some of the weaknesses of TV drama. It was filmed on location in Italy and set in the present day. It had sophistication, a strong cast and good scripts. It might well be true that crime as a genre in this country lacks impact because there are too many identikit competitors, but Zen genuinely stood out. It was certainly superior to Luther, which will continue.
The latest addition to Britain’s list of crime based programmes is The Shadow Line, which for what it’s worth, is on every Thursday at 9pm on BBC Two. It arrives with the bold claim that it’s bringing that elusive “event television” quality, to these shores. And this is no import. It’s written, directed and produced by the man behind Rob Brydon’s Marion and Geoff, Hugo Blick. It’s unquestionably his brainchild and therefore primarily his problem if the bold claims disintegrate into disappointment. It’s frequently compared to The Wire in all the hype, which was of course fairly meaningless to me.
At first glance The Shadow Line is at least interesting for taking an alternative angle and a refreshing approach. It’s about a murder investigation from both sides of the law. It requires you to stick with it for its seven episode run for secrets to be revealed. Its opening scene, however, has the potential to alienate the undecided viewer. Far from going out of its way to hook you, it drops you into a rather sparse and moody scene. Two policemen discover a body in a car, with the more experienced man quickly assessing the grim situation. He has a cold and detached manner that’s slightly unsettling and mutters under his breath as he recognises the victim with multiple gunshot wounds. The rookie with him is clearly naive. The old timer declares that they’ll be leaving this one for someone else to deal with.
It may be a slow burning and confusing set up but it was enough to draw me in. The realism to the dialogue and the detail of the camerawork is some of the best in the episode. Sadly The Shadow Line doesn’t always walk the line of successful “event television”, straying into the shadows of OTT stylisation a number of times. Not all of the acting is good and the script sags at points and tarnishes its excellent features with the occasional god-awful line of dialogue. The most memorable example is when a “tough female detective” decides to dress down an ordinary cop following procedure a little too closely with a speech about the first syllable of “country” and “constable”.
These lapses let down what is otherwise a promising episode. The characters range from the rounded to the farfetched. Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph is a front man for heroin dealers, running a flower and fruit company built from scratch with his own cash. He has a wife with early onset Alzheimer’s and is more sympathetic than any other character. He’s trying to unpick things from the criminal side, and is clearly more powerful than he’s letting on. On the side of the (clearly corrupt) law, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is a detective with a bullet lodged in his brain. He can’t remember anything about the assignment that got it there, or the suitcase of money in his wardrobe, which is a well handled climax to the episode. Both of these leads do a good job and get some good lines, with Eccleston coming out of it particularly well.
The Shadow Line has so many influences and so many paranoia driven secrets that it could be too much. Its emphasis is also so firmly on looking and sounding classy that at times it simply looks ridiculous, and will come across as arrogant and up itself. But I’ll keep watching because it’s a bold idea with good looks, that now and then, does feel like top notch telly. And “event” telly at that.
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With no Doctor Who to look forward to on British television screens each Saturday I have been despairing that there is no serial drama in which to immerse myself. A good weekly show with a strong, engaging narrative arc can allow me to escape the troubles of life for an hour, completely losing oneself in the characters and then having something to look forward to through the mundane disappointments and lows of the next week. With the return of the ever reliable and amusing New Tricks on Fridays to BBC1 my cravings were eased, but now the MI5 spy drama Spooks returns to our screens, starting this Monday at 9pm. Whilst New Tricks is well acted and comforting it is rather samey TV. Spooks has that rare dusting of glamour and exciting action for a British series, as well as being bold enough to reinvent itself each time it returns. In Spooks no character is safe from being killed off and the tense action usually plays out against tantalising shots of the sophisticated London skyline. Tonight’s opening episode of the ninth series takes place in Tangiers however and as ever introduces a raft of new characters and plotlines.
Richard Armitage, who played Guy of Gisbourne in the BBC’s Robin Hood series, has taken well to the spy drama playing Lucas North, a mysterious figure who returned from the cold of Russian imprisonment to effectively replace Adam Carter, Spooks’ long term leading man played by Rupert Penry-Jones. Replacing Jones was no mean feat but in the last series Armitage managed it, convincingly playing the disturbed, Bond like key man of Section D. This new series looks set to focus on the character of Lucas and may represent an interesting new direction for Spooks more focused on the personal story of one man, as opposed to new, distinct terrorist threats being dramatically thwarted each week. The exotic location of the first episode sets a more James Bond like tone of action and isolation for the spies, with Armitage saying in interviews that this series will delve into the questions of identity surrounding the operatives. The new series is also stripped of Hermoine Norris, who played Ros, a character I always found slightly annoying, and especially so by the end. Norris’ version of a spy always seemed a cold, uninteresting caricature. Constants like Ruth and Harry, and Harry’s relationship with his political masters are welcome leftovers however. Below is a trailer for the first episode, I hope it lives up to expectations!
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