The Secret Agent: Episode 1

The Secret Agent is not your typical spy drama. The lead isn’t played by a buff Hollywood actor, nor are there dramatic gun duels atop moving vehicles. Yet, somehow, The Secret Agent is one of the most exciting spy dramas I’ve seen this year. Based on Joseph Conrad’s 20th Century novel of the same name, Tony Marchant has adapted the thriller for a three-part television series with Charles McDougall directing.

Against a backdrop of 1886 London, the first episode centres around Verloc (Toby Jones), a sex shop owner who spends his time lazily reporting the activities of his anarchist friends to members of the Russian embassy. Keen to dispel the growing presence of anarchism in Europe, Russian minister Vladimir (David Dawson) hatches a plot to implicate the group in terrorist activities, and who better to commit the act of terrorism than one of their own? Verloc is charged with the almost impossible task of blowing up Greenwich Observatory whilst under the vigilant scrutiny of Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham). All of this must also be conducted without the knowledge of Verloc’s wife Winnie (Vicky McClure), a task made even harder when Verloc employs her ‘defective’ brother Stevie (Charlie Hamblett) to help.

Watching the exploitation of Stevie reminds us that there is no true hero in The Secret Agent and, as much of a protagonist as Verloc is, he is also this series’ antagonist. Charlie Hamblett is wonderful in his role, he provides a character with which we can empathise with even though we know that he is probably the individual who will be hurt most by all of the internal politics.

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Toby Jones fits the role of Verloc so perfectly that it’s almost as though Joseph Conrad created the character just for Jones. His clumsy mannerisms make watching him navigate awkwardly through dingy London streets quite humorous. It’s hard to fully like Verloc because of his weakness that is his naivety and vulnerability to almost every political group, but he is an entertaining character to watch.

Vicky McClure plays Winnie, a role in which she excels. Not only does she act as another source of scrutiny for Verloc, but she also adds intrigue to the drama with the possibility of an affair with one of her husband’s anarchist friends.

Over the past year, it seems that espionage has become a popular theme in television. The Night Manager, Deutschland 83 and London Spy all succeeded in entertaining the nation and achieving critical acclaim. I would, however, argue that the best spy series of this year premiered earlier tonight. The Secret Agent takes the British spy drama, turns it on its head, and still manages to keep things relevant to today’s audience (even with it being set in 1886). The only question I have yet to ask is… Anyone else thinking Toby Jones might make a good James Bond?

The Secret Agent continues next Sunday (24/07/16) at 9pm on BBC One.