Deja Vu: Andrew Billen on a New but Spookily Familiar Spy Drama That Fails to Thrill. (Television)
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
It has gone beyond embarrassing, the times I have reviewed a new BBC1 drama series here and found it wanting. So let me get in early what praise I have for Spooks (Mondays, 9pm, BBC1). The first two stories are intelligent, pacey, well worked out, and attempt to deal with a recognisably contemporary world in which single-issue politics is more dangerous than nation states. The camera-work and editing are particularly strong and, had we not got used to the split-screen techniques of 24, we might even call the visual grammar fresh.
In last Monday's debut episode, for instance, about a paramilitary pro-life organisation, a doctor's car was blown up but for once we did not see the moment of explosion. Instead, we followed the terrorist as he detonated the bomb by using his mobile phone. Only slowly did we realise that the noise behind him was coming not from the soundtrack but the explosion. The camera followed the speed of our thoughts and slowly, slowly turned to witness the blasted car doing aerobatics above the street behind our man. A terrible beauty, and all that.
Here, however, the nice things I have to say about Spooks run out and I'm back to doing my dreary duty by the BBC drama department. You can have flashy direction and smart plots, but if your tone and characterisation are all over the place you still don't have a show. Spooks looks like a pilot in need of radical rethink, rather than a major offering advertised, at the British taxpayer's expense, on road hoardings.
Its root problem -- symptomised by its title -- is that it does not know what to do with the cliches of its chosen genre: whether to embrace them or mock them. This indecision particularly affects the dialogue, which is so terrible that you wonder if it is deliberate. As if we were morons, the first episode included a public relations woman taking a group of journalists round MI5 in London. "Our main function is to protect Britain's national security," she explained for us children, before a stooge asked if things had changed since 11 September. "Our workload has exploded," she said. Any PR stupid enough to use that verb in that context should be working for Stephen Byers.
But these guys only talk in cliche. In the second episode, we are told that a far-right extremist intends "starting a race war", a concept familiar to us not only because the phrase "a potential race war" has been used a few minutes earlier but because, in episode one, the anti-abortionist also stood accused of "planning a war".
Even when the writer-"creator", David Wolstencroft, tries to write something topical, all he manages is a brand new cliche. …