A Perfect Spy

Cast: (in alphabetical order)

Peggy Ashcroft
Jane Booker
Sarah Bullen
Madeline Church
David Clyder
Paul Daneman
Peter Egan
Alan Howard
Ray McAnally
Leonard Preston
Christopher Rozycki
Peter Sands
Ian Thompson
Francis White
Rüdiger Wiegang

Miss Duber
Mary Pym
Police Sergeant
Bo Brammel
Magnus Pym
Jack Brotherhood
Police Superintendent
Caroline Lumsden

School for Spying

All spy stories mystify me. I can never make out what spying is meant to be for, except to afford employment to other spies. All those secret drops, all those incredibly devious rendezvous, all that effort devoted to uncovering equally pointless activity on the other side, seem to be some sort of end in themselves, rather than the means to any profitable objective. A bit like information technology.

By "spying", of course, I mean the fictional variety, since that's as far as most of us get. The BBC, whose love affair with the works of John le Carré is now in its third spasm, has much to answer for. Sumptuously devoted film-making has turned Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People into shining works of art. Whereas one suspects that the real thing is pretty squalid.

A Perfect Spy (BBC2) differs from previous TV adaptations of the le Carré oeuvre in being a lifelong biography. It follows the story of Magnus Pym, latest in le Carré's gallery of subversive superstars, from cradle to grave. In doing so it places a heavy responsibility on the glamorous Peter Egan, called on to age by 55 years in the course of the narrative. But for a little help from the Haley twins and Benedict Taylor, that could have been 86.

As seen last night being formally recruited to the network of spymaster Jack Brotherhood, he was doing pretty well. Amazingly boyish-looking, I noted at the episode's start. The qualities that have made him celebrated in other roles - charm, deference, mockery latent beneath the surface, but only just - are being put to their sternest test. Pym has been schooled in plausible duplicity since his childhood. The interview session was a fascinating study in the play of wits: Magnus testing the answers that were required of him, the panel judging how far he meant them.

But like ITV's The Charmer, newly taken from us, A Perfect Spy - no disrespect to Mr Egan - seems to be getting its greatest value from the supporting roles. It is a pleasure to watch that splendidly versatile actor, Ray McAnally, working so well as Pym's rip-roaring old rapscallion of a Dad. As an evangelising by-election candidate last week ("If I know I am the man for Gulworth North, it is because He tells me so"), he was in his element.

Rüdiger Weigang, whose lugubriously lopsided features are elusively familiar (he had a major role in German TV's Heimat), complements the smooth duplicity of Magnus as a twist of lemon adds piquancy to the blandness of Dover sole. Throw in Alan Howard's infinitely world-weary Brotherhood and the busty exuberance of Sarah Badel, and Jonathan Powell's latest contribution (sadly, also his last) to the immensely distinguished lineage of BBC classics can hardly miss.

All the same, if I were writing this after Episode Two, with the action racketing round Europe and Benedict Taylor's muscular young Magnus looking most unlikely to turn into Peter Egan, I think I would have had reservations. Le Carré, even as alchemised for screen consumption by Arthur Hopcraft, continues to revel in complexity for complexity's sake.

Last night, out of the blue, we suddenly jumped five years. Not a great assistance to dramatic flow. Do any of his characters ever possess anything approximating to a human heart? Paradoxically, in this case, Pym père, a man who should hardly be let outside the confines of H.M. prisons. Perhaps that's what makes him stand out so joyously in the le Carré gallery of doomed obsessives. Congratulations to all concerned for the use of music at tense moments, which is to say, not using it at all.

Daily Telegraph, 26.11.1987

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