Watching Spooks can give you diplomatic bags under the eyes… and does nothing for your bank balance
Winter. Mondays are the dead land. I cling to life after 10.30 pm, slippers-and-cocoa, only to watch Spooks. Other nights, I prefer to floss my toenails and pop the dog’s fleas before bed. I can transect my own entrails with muffled curses, thanks. But with the carthen of night spread over from teatime ‘til lunch, sempiternal West Welsh drizzle, dank leaves clumpy with fox-poo – the hole-in-the-wall telling me ‘Today, you may take out £0’, a sobering reality – I’m desperate for human warmth. Going out is fiscally not an option. Rattling around my employer’s abandoned Georgian dacha, its plasma screen the size of a bus-side on standby in the deserted bar, softly exhaling carbon, tempts me for once to make a concession to multiculturalism and follow something, anything, on TV, just to say I have (in case I meet anyone who does). Randomly, there being no such thing as coincidence, all life is plot, I have chosen Spooks.
But why the late nights? Paradoxically, timeshift technology has passed me by. After watching the first of the new series on BBC1, I greedily pre-viewed the second episode the same night, running a week in advance but an hour later on BBC3. Now, I’m stuck in 3’s weekly timezone, otherwise I should find myself having to re-pre-view an episode I have already pre-viewed in order to post-view it in real time, whatever, thus missing a week; while downshifting to BBC 1’s more viewer-friendly time slot would mean having to… no, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Reviewing the same episode of Spooks twice is one of the known precursors of early-onset dementia. One can tolerate so many repetitions of the same ludicrous narrative, played-out at five Bournes a minute (a ‘Bourne’ being the ever-reducing unit of dramatic time elapsing between jump-cuts to any two equally implausible plotlines in a Hollywood actioner). Emerging from rheumy-eyed contemplation of past operational cock-ups just long enough to figure out that they have only nine Bournes left in which to mount a large-scale policing operation to save London from a small can of BBC petrol being cautiously ignited by a trained Health & Safety officer on a patch of waste ground behind TV Centre, unlikely geeky teenager’s dad-type webmaster Malcolm has to crack the 27-digit code that tells handsome-but-wobbly agent Lucas which number bus will get him from Seven Dials to Highgate cemetery in under two Bournes, so he can once again test the seldom-doubted loyalty of his soulful, ex-KGB, ex-wife Natalka Doubleagentskaya by persuading her to text her controller in Moscow State Circus to ask nicely where the dirty bomb is planted?
Meanwhile, cynical, semi-retired Connie (what’s in a name?) is being waterboarded to reveal her past associations with Guy Burgess. Harry, the henpecked ‘M’, perpetually undergoing his mid-crisis life, finally persuades this week’s version of the bumbling Home Secretary to accept prune-faced Ros’s febrile hunch that Britain risks annihilation unless the Government surrenders unconditionally to Osama bin-Laden, and has been given half a Bourne in which to save civilization for capitalism. We find him in the Charing Cross Road, browsing through secondhand books, looking for grizzled mole Richard Johnson, who’s been feeding him duff gen about Connie’s murky past in order to throw him off the scent of Operation Codswallop, a defunct Cold War mission whose name no-one must mention, being hurriedly resurrected to provide a surprise denouement for the final episode. One phone call to John le Carré would surely clear all this up, but the enemy is jamming the mobile signal from a nuclear submarine off Torquay and no-one can get through, not even the Controller of BBC Networks.
It’s farce, Jim, but not as we know it. I once met Richard Johnson. I’d engaged my school chum Mike Davies’s sister Libby to type up my first and only novel. Ask me about it another time, I’m still drinking to forget. At about five o’clock, this unlikely boyfriend turned up to whisk her away, and it was he. Who’d have thought one day he would be in league with the Devil?
The secret of Spooks’ success is, I believe, that at the heart of each episode is actually the nub of a not-too improbable conspiracy, exposing the truth behind some real-world apocalypse currently unfolding on the BBC’s 10 o’clock Stuff We Think Happened Today show. This makes Spooks a satire, and I feel comfortable with that. It’s surely not too far-fetched to think that our First and Fourth Estates are conspiring to create an impression of false reassurance, lest we should all rush into the streets and start eating one another’s faces. It seems entirely plausible that, with the tacit approval of the Kremlin, the Russian mafia has been bankrolling HBOS’s dodgy mortgage lending book; and that, through a phoney hedge-fund run by heartless Masters of the Universe, anxiously glaring at plunging graphs while announcing clever financial things like ‘the ATMs are going into meltdown!’, in case we hadn’t already noticed the ominous pop-up saying ‘Today, you may take out £0’, has precipitated the worldwide financial crisis in order to get even with the capitalist West over the Perestroika thing. Logical, even.
From there on, I begin to defect. I know we’re in the midst of a darkening depression that makes Robert Mugabe seem like a modestly competent financial manager, but does MI5 really have such a tiny budget that it can afford to employ barely half-a-dozen emotionally squamous operatives, armed only with an Orange ‘Dolphin’ contract, to take on al-Quaeda, the CIA (worse), and sort the sheepish renegade cell that want to work with the West from the goaty ones who’ve gone over to the Dark Side, and are even now prepping the ICBM launchers in an unnamed medieval theocracy? Has Harry mentioned anything to Jacqui Smith[i] about this? Or is he in Hay-on-Wye’s book-hell[ii], admiring (as we do) over the mouldering tomes, the aged but still ruggedly chiselled Mr Johnson’s impressively world-weary eye-luggage, surely an obvious device in which to smuggle the microfilm past Health & Safety?
[i] Labour Home Secretary, 2007–2009. She had been in office for only one day before someone apparently tried to set off bombs in London, resulting in an unprecedented increase in police powers. She was eventually undone by an expenses scandal involving payments for her husband’s online pornography. Not even in Spooks!
[ii] A small market town in rural Herefordshire, Hay’s retail infrastructure consists almost entirely of secondhand bookshops.