sat 24/08/2019

The Secret Agent, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

The Secret Agent, BBC One

The Secret Agent, BBC One

Joseph Conrad swamped in melodrama and turgid music

Anarchy in the UK: Toby Jones as Verloc

Based on an abortive real-life attempt to blow up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 1894, Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent has sometimes been held up as a harbinger of the kind of terrorist attacks the world has been subjected to by the likes of Baader-Meinhof, Al Qaeda and Isis. Doubtless this was part of the BBC's motivation for making this new three-part dramatisation.

However, any real-world resonances weren't assisted by the sluggish pace and melodramatic air of the piece, and Tony Marchant's screenplay didn't give a high-quality cast much to chew on. In the leading role of Verloc, an informer secretly in the employ of the Russian embassy, Toby Jones trowelled on so many layers of seediness, shabbiness and self-loathing that the character almost disappeared altogether, his speaking voice a wheezy mumble reminiscent of a leaking cistern. As his wife Winnie, helping him to run his squalid pornography shop in Soho, Vicky McClure was required to supply little more than monotonous world-weariness. As her mentally impaired brother Stevie (destined for a catastrophic central role in forthcoming episodes), Charlie Hamblett was merely exasperating.

There was superior amusement to be had from the forces of officialdom and law and order. As the splendidly named Inspector Heat, whose chief concern is keeping tabs on the assorted anarchists and bomb-happy crazies inhabiting London in the early 1900s, Stephen Graham delivered muscular doses of Scouse chippiness. That said, his response to the revelation that The Professor (a wild-eyed Ian Hart, pictured above with Graham) habitually strolled around the metropolis with a bomb under his coat, ready to detonate it at a moment's notice, seemed astonishingly low key (something along the lines of "perhaps we ought to keep a closer eye on him in future").

My favourite  performance came from David Dawson as Vladimir, Verloc's new boss at the Russian embassy (pictured below). "He really is a fat pig" he snorted scornfully, as Verloc paid his first visit to him in his palatial office, but he said it in Russian so Verloc didn't understand what everyone was laughing at.

Then he got to the point. Verloc's previous low-key efforts at delivering information about London-based anarchists were no longer adequate. Henceforth the miserable functionary would be required to perform decisive interventions. In fact (Vladimir informed him, his lip curling into an icy sneer) he would organise the detonation of a device at the Greenwich Observatory, in a symbolic assault on modernistic ideas of progress and scientific advancement. The ideological reasoning behind Vladimir's sinister plan was to shock the complacent British, with their "sentimental regard for individual liberty" and nauseating bien-pensant support for terrorist criminals (from the likes of the patronising Lady Blackwood), into a repressive backlash with concomitant illiberal legislation. Mr Putin might perhaps approve.

We shall see what we shall see, but it's all doomed to be saturated in ominous music which tells us what we're supposed to be feeling and when, since the script and the actors clearly can't be trusted to convey the message. One has to wonder whether television is really the medium for Conrad's oblique and ironic writing, with its knotty abstractions and complexities.

@SweetingAdam

One has to wonder whether television is really the medium for Conrad's oblique and ironic writing

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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The music was dire. What a wasted opportunity. Dull, repetitive. 

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