Tag Archives: Spooks

Codename Kyril

Codename Kyril is a British television spy series first broadcast in 1989 and based on the novel A Man Named Kyril by John Trenhaile. I have to admit, I haven’t read the book, so I’m not sure whether the television series is close to the book.


We recently acquired this on DVD. For some reason I missed it on its 1989 transmission. But beware: the TV series was edited down for a TV film after the original transmission, and a great deal cut out. So if you get the DVD, make sure it’s the full version – 209 minutes.

Codename Kyril was probably the last great addition to the canon of Cold War spy dramas, and has the feel of a John Le Carre, though with more action sequences. This is a real edge of the seat programme, so take the phone off the hook and don’t answer the door. It was scripted by John Hopkins, who also co-scripted the TV version of Le Carre’s Smiley’s People.

It has some wonderful actors, notably Edward Woodward, Peter Vaughan, Ian Charleson, Denholm Elliot, Richard E. Grant and Joss Ackland – all perfectly cast and thoroughly believable in their roles.

Unlike a lot of Cold War spy dramas, you get to know who the traitors are early on. But this doesn’t take anything away from the tension. Indeed, it increases the suspense as you wonder when they’ll be found out.

Marshall Stanov, head of the KGB – a mesmerising performance by the late and great Peter Vaughan, discovers that there’s a traitor in the Moscow Centre leaking secrets to MI6. He despatches KGB agent Ivan Bucharensky (Ian Charleson) to London as a supposed defector with the codename Kyril. Stanov fakes a diary, purportedly by Bucharensky, which might suggest who the traitor is. The idea being to lure out the traitor.

The head of MI6 (Joss Ackland) orders his best agent Michael Royston (Edward Woodward) to capture Kyril and prevent the KGB from getting him back, lest he betrays the British mole in Moscow Centre.

In reality, of course, Kyril knows nothing, but his supposed knowledge makes him a target for both sides in this exciting war of nerves. Kyril is hunted both by MI6 and the KGB and his evasion methods and the use of tradecraft makes for gripping viewing.

And is the KGB the only organisation with a traitor in its ranks, or have the Russians penetrated MI6 as well?

Rather like in the best of Le Carre, the Great Game is played out like a game of chess, one move forwards and then another backwards.

I’m not going to say any more about the plot, because this is a programme you really do need to see for yourself.

The production values are excellent, the script literate and the direction by Ian Sharp stunning.

I’m thrilled the Cold War is over (I think!), but how we miss those Cold War spy dramas.


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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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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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