Mr Palfrey of Westminster

We’ve just had a very enjoyable few weeks watching the spy drama “Mr Palfrey of Westminster” starring Alec McCowen – a classic ITV television series from the 1980s. “Mr Palfrey” is probably one of the most cerebral, intelligent spy series ever made.

Mr Palfrey (Alec McCowen) is at first glance a typical Westminster civil servant, well-suited and gentlemanly – the kind of man you see in droves if you wander up Whitehall during office hours. But Mr Palfrey isn’t some political pen-pusher. He’s the country’s best spy-catcher. The security services turn to Mr Palfrey when they want a traitor unmasked or a defector’s motives questioned.

Mr Palfrey is a polite, perceptive individual who uses his air of amiability and ability to fence verbally and expose the spies working for the other side. And when I say the other side I mean the Russians and the KGB, for this series aired during the last full decade of the Cold War. Intelligently, the Russians and those who work for them are not portrayed as villains – as in lesser dramas – but agents who, in their way, might be very similar to Mr Palfrey and his associates.

If you want shoot-outs or car chases this is not the spy drama for you. Mr Palfrey achieves his victories through verbal entrapment. Though like all spymasters he has a “Heavy” to do the physical work on the ground, Blair, played by Clive Wood. He does much of the tailing of suspects, breaks in to flats and offices to plant bugs, and is used to provide an element of menace when needed. Not that it usually is in the rational and intellectual world of Mr Palfrey.

You don’t need the fast action and you certainly don’t miss it here. The individual stories are so tightly scripted that they are gripping from start to finish.

Like all good spymasters Mr Palfrey has a boss, referred to simply as Controller, played with great skill and humour by the wonderful Caroline Blakiston. She resembles, in her bossy attitude and occasional silliness, Margaret Thatcher, and, given the time the series was produced, I suspect the likeness was deliberate. Though amusingly enough you occasionally see the Controller on the telephone to the Prime Minister and it is clearly intended that it is Thatcher she’s talking to, as she becomes increasingly exasperated by the Prime Minister’s political demands.

Rounding off the team is Mr Palfrey’s secretary Caroline (Briony McRoberts) who is, delightfully, the kind of secretary any civil servant might have and who happens to have come into the world of espionage almost by accident. A very clever performance. Most episodes have some terrific actors brought in to do battle with Mr Palfrey, including John Shrapnel, Leslie Phillips, Martin Jarvis and Clive Francis.

Mr Palfrey first came to our screens in 1983 in a Storyboard pilot entitled “Traitor”. This developed with some minor changes into two series of ten one-hour episodes broadcast in 1984/5. There was a kind of reprise for the character of Blair in 1989, with Clive Wood, in a sequel play called “A Question of Commitment”.

Alec McCowen’s portrayal of Mr Palfrey is brilliantly understated and totally believable. His technique for catching spies is rather like watching a grand-master play chess, the moves of the opponent are anticipated, brought into the trap, countered and checkmated. And McCowen makes Mr Palfrey just the kind of spy-master you’d want to confess to. A master-class in fine acting.

This really is a television series to seek out and, thankfully, all the episodes and the pilot and sequel are available on DVD. Not a typical spy series, clever and witty, plays that hold your attention by the minute. Well worth seeking out and a great pity that further series weren’t made.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Mr Palfrey of Westminster

  1. Will definitely look for this, sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the recommendation. Have had back surgery and not up to snuff but hope to be back to work in a week or two–not allowed to sit at computer yet!

  2. Sorry to hear about your back, Marni – good that the op’s behind you – no pun intended! Sending positive thoughts for a speedy recovery. Alec McCowen is a wonderful actor. Mr Palfrey is up there with Smiley. He adds so much to Hitchcock’s Frenzy – must blog that somewhen.

  3. Thank you, Marni, that’s very much appreciated, and thank you for mentioning the novella as well. Glad you are feeling better. Hope you have a good Christmas.

  4. I remember this series and loved it. Having worked in the FCO I could identify with the characters and I love anything spy related, and often include espionage in my crime stories. Fab actors and writing in this series. I enjoyed it but although I loved it, I hope they don’t ever do a modern remake. Thanks so much. 🙂

  5. We agree with you, Jane. It was very much of its time and I doubt that it could be rejigged for the modern world. And it was lovely to see a series where the scenes were properly explored, rather than the brief scenes we see these days. And refreshingly free of the blast of intrusive background music. A classic piece of television that should be enjoyed for years to come.

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