mon 19/02/2018

Page Eight, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Page Eight, BBC Two

Page Eight, BBC Two

A good old-fashioned spy drama from David Hare

Bill Nighy as Johnny Worricker: 'a senior MI5 intelligence analyst with the complexion of yesterday’s porridge'

I think I owe David Hare an apology. When I sat down to watch Page Eight, last night – being, as it is, his latest probing of our moral and political universe – I just assumed that our national intelligence services would be in for a trendy-lefty-type shoeing. But I was wrong.

Enter Johnny Worricker, a senior MI5 intelligence analyst with the complexion of yesterday’s porridge and a heart as warm as today’s (this much is established very quickly). He was a late-middle-aged man, in a reassuringly tailored suit, on a nondescript evening in London. You might have been forgiven for missing him in a crowd, were it not for the camera pointing right at him. Also, he was played by Bill Nighy, which makes him a pretty easy mark.

Worricker came straight out of the classic George Smiley mould (also slightly surprising, not least, because there’s an actual Smiley movie in the offing). He was an old-school, instinctive type, for whom caution was evidently a natural enough default setting but equally evidently hadn’t been the key to much happiness. He seemed to have only one friend, his boss, Benedict Barron (a wonderfully weary Michael Gambon, [pictured below left]), MI5’s Director General and the man credited, in the thinly fictionalised, very recent past, with making the Security Service more transparent (though quite how one wouldn't be sure…)

“Not too clever, right enough; but you are quick” – we speak, here, of a man with a Double First – Worricker knew his trade, from lock-picking to negotiating his way around civil servants; he had the usual Cambridge connections; he was, almost of professional necessity, divorced. Several times. He was, of course, very keen on jazz (never into reggae, are they, these MI5 types?), and there was a hint of the poet about him. He talked with the slightly slowed speech of someone very carefully choosing his words.

The plot? Well, it appeared the Americans may – may – have been using “black sites” to extract information from suspects under torture. Alright, yes: they were. And perhaps some of our guys knew about this. And when we say “our guys” we mean “at the very highest levels”. There was a dossier that proved this (skip to page eight: you’ll see what they did there). There was a prime minister determined to bring the intelligence services to heel. Oh, and there was a nice-looking girl. With Syrian connections. Who lived right next door to Worricker.

Because Worricker was played by Bill Nighy, we worried about him

Page Eight was billed as a thriller, but wasn’t really. Just good old-fashioned drama that happened to involve spies. And from the relationship between Worricker and Nancy Pierpan (Rachel Weisz), howsoever accelerated as it must be in a 90-minute format, we witnessed the pain of a life spent having to sacrifice, to not care too deeply. The nightmare of not being able to trust anybody. Worricker seemed unhappy. And because Worricker was played by Bill Nighy, we worried about him.

There was a steady trickle of right-on moments: Nighy’s hijabbed secretary; jokes about bankers running/ruining the world; arms dealers raising money for “the party”; a persistent anti-Israel theme. And lots of ringingly, quotably righteous lines like: "The purpose of intelligence is to find out the truth, not to confirm what we already believe."

In fairness, though, these grandiose sentiments were all duly scoffed at within the script, and there was more than enough humour to provide a counterbalance. The DG watching X Factor (or not). Discreet meetings held in the stationery cupboard. An ambitious and unpleasant Home Secretary quietly and politely put back in her box.

We couldn't help but be on their side. But what with all the slippery allegiances, hanky-panky of every shade, and dodgy ground wherever you put your feet, I spent the better part of an hour and a half waiting for the twist. I didn’t want the whole edifice to come crashing down about them; I just assumed it was going to happen. 

But there wasn’t one. Of all the people in this equation, it appears Hare thinks the security services are the good guys (he has decent contacts, it is said. But then who knows what they might be telling him!). And so we had ourselves a quiet, modest breed of heroes, decent old chaps trying to keep national security on the straight and narrow, epitomised by a man who wouldn't rest until he had completed the mission left him by his oldest friend. It was all really rather charming and nostalgic. Certainly when compared to the politicians.

If Nighy’s inflected deadpan mirrored the very face of the intelligence world, Page Eight echoed its tried-and-tested MO by not wasting any breath divulging unnecessary particulars. Everyone, politicians included, looked just the way they should look without becoming caricatures or starting blind-alley guessing games about real-life counterparts.

The only character I couldn’t find convincing was Ralph Fiennes’s prime minister (pictured above right). Under Hare’s direction (it has to be said), in his efforts to be personally menacing he strayed a little too close to his gangster character in In Bruges (“It’s a matter of honour”). The idea that a prime minister – a British one; not, say, a Russian one – might physically intimidate a senior officer of the Security Service just didn’t quite ring true. There’s only one PM in memory who might conceivably have fitted that bill – and she loved MI5.

Comments

More of the same dished up by the BBC I'm afraid: anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-men, pretentious...and boring.

"anti-men"? evidence?

How appropriate that this should be reviewed by some one named ASH Smythe! This is just another in a long line of BBC/tobacco industry collaborations to promote smoking by means of product placement. I switched off after the third main character lit up, just as I switched off 'Silk' and 'Monroe'.

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