“We all have to be diplomats in the new age, Harry.”
As the ‘intelligence professionals’ of Torchwood shuffle shamefacedly off our screens, it’s time to welcome back the real pros. Yes, Spooks is back for its tenth and final (sob!) series. Often touted as the UK’s answer to 24, this is a show that started out with the intention of showing the agents of MI5 as real people, but soon realised that this was far less fun than an increasingly improbable succession of conspiracies, technobabble and illogical action shown in split screen. In other words, by now it is pretty close to 24, but has the advantage of being informed by a pseudo-John le Carre approach developed by someone who once saw an episode of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Over they years, this has made for an enjoyably bonkers show that’s never less than compellingly watchable.
Section Chief Harry Pearce is one of the reasons why the show has always been so watchable. Incarnated with pursed-lipped earnestness and a wit as dry as the Sahara by Peter Firth, he’s now the only one of the original cast left standing. Given that leaving Section D of MI5 usually results in death, madness or lifelong exile, he is perhaps wise to have stayed in his post. He has a murky Cold War past that the show has frequently delved into, but this year, fittingly, it looks like the plot is all about him. The pre-credits flashback shows us a succession of things he got up to recently as if to prove this.
As we enter the plot proper, it becomes clear that Harry has been suspended as head of Section D. The logical assumption is that this is a result of him having spent years working with Lucas North and not having figured out that he was actually another man who just happened to look like Lucas North. A bit. But no, it turns out that the powers that be are displeased that, last series, he traded the top secret Albany files for a hostage – his longtime flirtee Ruth Evershed, with whom he surely must get it on in this final series.
Standing up to enquiry chairperson Josette Simon (who enviably seems not to have aged since I last saw her in Blake’s 7 in 1981), Harry conclusively proves that his potential girlfriend is a more valuable national asset than the Albany project – true love justified in select committee. “Can I see what you wrote about me?” Ruth enquires, to which Harry growls, “Over my dead body”. Hmm. Hints about the ending, I wonder?
Nevertheless, Harry’s soon back on the Grid, and it’s time for us to see the team Section D is fielding this year. Gone from last year’s team is newbie Beth Bailey; ostensibly she’s been let go because of all those dubious connections that were somehow no problem last year, but in actuality I suspect actress Penelope Myles had other things on. Never mind, last year’s other new recruit Dimitri is still there, played as ever by that towering talent of Hollyoaks Max Brown. Tariq is still running the techie branch – I was disappointed to see that Shazad Latif has had a haircut as I loved his floppy hair – and has been joined by an intentionally irritating wanker called Calum Reed. Incarnated by Geoffrey Streatfield, Calum’s purpose is wind up everyone else. Going on a raid with Dimitri, he doesn’t have the experience to know that a conveniently left-behind laptop is probably booby-trapped; if there’s one thing we established Dimitri knows last year, it’s bombs. He may regret having pulled Calum clear of the resulting explosion. “Did you kill anyone in the SBS?” Calum later enquires. “Sometimes,” says Dimitri, looking pointedly at him. “I miss it.”
The most important newbie, however, is Lara Pulver playing tough but fair single mum Erin Watts, who apparently can’t get government childcare for her daughter and has to leave her at home with gran. Erin’s been standing in for Harry since his suspension, and if the show wasn’t ending would be the obvious candidate to replace him. In this first episode, she shows herself to be every bit as capable as Harry, chairing meetings, bollocking Calum, and infiltrating a formal dinner for a Russian minister posing as Dimitri’s date.
With this first episode setting the store for this year’s plotline, it looks like the shorter six week run will mean fewer standalone stories and more of a serial approach – hopefully one that will work better than Torchwood did. The plot seems to centre on Harry’s Cold War relationship with the wife of Russian finance Minister Gavrik, who’s over in England to cement a new ‘special relationship’ with Russia. In the usual improbable extrapolation of real world geopolitical factors common to the show, it seems that the UK is going to ditch the old relationship with the US and form a new one with Russia. A slew of topical reasons is given to justify this that, as usual, don’t really bear close scrutiny.
All of this is explained to Harry by returning Home Secretary William Towers, played as last year by the marvellous Simon Russell Beale. Whatever’s going on, Towers is mixed up in it up to his ministerial eyebrows; he smuggled Gavrik into the UK without Harry’s knowledge for the negotiations, and like everyone in the show gives the impression that he knows far more than he is saying. Given that Harry personally murdered the last Home Secretary, he should tread carefully – particularly if Harry pays him a home visit wearing his black murdering gloves.
Given that there’s a Russian minister in town, naturally someone will want to assassinate him. And so it proves. Raiding his shabby basement flat – apparently the assassin couldn’t get the usual deserted high rise office with big windows – leads our heroes to the conclusion that an attempt will be made at the formal dinner. And so in they go with dinner suits, and in Ruth’s case, a false name which lasts about five minutes until the Home Secretary turns up and recognises her. The assassin is posing as a wine waiter, but for some reason hasn’t considered the obvious tactic of poisoning the minister’s wine. No, instead, he puts everyone on alert by murdering one of the staff, then changes his clothes and walks toward the minister while pulling a gun. This not being the most covert of approaches, he is swiftly taken down by Erin with a sharp shot – oddly, he’s neglected to wear the same body armour that Dimitri discreetly has on under his dinner jacket.
Harry has other things to worry about though. Gavrik’s wife Elena (Alice Krige, an actress so prolific I’m only amazed she’s never been in the show before) used to be his best Russian asset during the Cold War. Now, it seems like someone’s pretending to be Harry to reactivate her. This bothers Harry, and his frown becomes more intense than usual – particularly when paid a visit by Elena’s son Sasha (the rather sexy Tom Weston-Jones). Sasha’s working for the FSB now, but understandably doesn’t want to tell anybody that his mum was Russia’s biggest traitor during the 80s.
It comes as no particular surprise to anyone (except perhaps Ruth) that, back in the day, Elena was more than Harry’s top asset, she was his lover – as hinted at in a series of soft focus flashbacks throughout the ep. Even more predictably, Harry’s not willing to ‘neutralise’ Sasha, because, gasp, Sasha is actually his son. Nicola Walker reacts to this with the usual subtlety with which she imbues her performance as Ruth – the mildest of facial tics on her pinched frown display the inner turmoil she’s presumably feeling.
So, business as usual for Britain’s most improbable spies, but sadly for the last time. We’re on familiar technobabble territory as Tariq traces the assassin on CCTV using ‘motion recognition’ software – apparently, “the way you walk is as unique as a fingerprint”. Harry’s grumble that Erin has undone the ten years of work he put into getting his chair just right is met with a rejoinder from Ruth about getting Q Branch on it – if only Desmond Llewellyn was still with us, it’s be great to see him fiddling around with Harry’s recliner settings. It’s all bonkers fun and comfortably familiar, and I’m looking forward to spending the next five weeks saying goodbye to a show that, despite its flaming insanity, I’ve come to love over the years.