BBC Drama – The Game

We’re hugely enjoying The Game – a period spy thriller which reaches its conclusion on British television tonight. Created by Toby Whithouse, it was written by him, Sarah Dollard and Debbie O’Malley. Unusually the view date was held back and it was shown on BBC America last year.

Set in London in 1972 when the Cold War was at its height and security services plotted move and counter-ploy like a game of chess, we both feel The Game is on a par with John Le Carre’s famous spy classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And we don’t say that lightly.

The gripping storyline concerns a KGB (remember them!) plot in London, whereby a secret committee of MI5 spies must uncover the purpose of Operation Glass. Potentially terrifying in a world when nuclear attack was thought to be a possibility. A Russian defector may or may not be a gambit in the game, Soviet ‘sleepers’ are being activated, the trail is devious and the clock is ticking…

The characters are extremely well-written and cast, the acting so good it’s hard not to give everyone a mention. You get fine actors like Anton Lesser in a tiny cameo as the head of MI6. Guest Steven Mackintosh gives a chilling performance as a civil servant who enjoys beating women. (The violence is mostly off-scene and all the more effective.)

The great Brian Cox plays the enigmatic head of MI5, known only as ‘Daddy.’ Paul Ritter is the louche head of counter-espionage, in a performance so finely-judged you want to savour every gesture and Judy Parfitt does a wonderful turn, playing his domineering mother.

Victoria Hamilton as a high-flying field agent, Jonathan Aris, playing her diffident husband, Shaun Dooley as a plain-speaking Special Branch liaison and Chloe Pirrie as a gauche, young secretary are all superb.

The action is seen from the viewpoint of Joe Lambe, compellingly played by Tom Hughes . A brilliant young spy, seemingly detached yet haunted by events seen in flashback. He has a secret agenda and may well be that interesting device, an unreliable narrator.

The setting is beautifully done, visually and written. Seventies-set dramas often get the details slightly wrong but – as someone who remembers those times well – the clothes and homes look authentic. So is the slight whiff of paranoia in the air. This was the time of reds under the bed and public service broadcasts on how to build your own anti-nuclear shelter.

The feeling of early seventies Britain is vividly evoked. Evening scenes plunge into darkness with the power cuts, typewriters are clattering and the ashtrays are full in the offices at MI5. Spies play tape recorders with big revolving spools in seedy hotel-rooms and contact one another from K6 scarlet telephone boxes.

The photography is really effective with lovely moody shots of sombre spies under dripping umbrellas, grey city streets and dull suburbs. You don’t see iconic London sights as The Game was filmed in and around Birmingham. Using anonymous settings fits well with the shadowy theme, so does the edgy score by composer Daniel Pemberton.

All the classic espionage motifs are there, chases along swaying corridor trains and dark alleys, dead-drops and handovers, tailing suspects, frantic house searches, suspicion, tension and danger. This is a shifting world of secrets, lies and betrayal – and that’s just the office politics. MI5 has its own game within the greater one being played through the Iron Curtain.

Sadly British viewers don’t get enough programmes of this calibre these days. The Game really is a reminder of the Seventies, harking back to the golden age of British television when writing was intelligent and allowed more screen time to develop. Toby Whithouse has given the grown-ups a real treat.

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