Deja vu

Television - Andrew Billen on a new but spookily familiar spy drama that fails to thrill

It has gone beyond embarrassing, the times I have reviewed a new BBC1 drama series here and found it wanting. So let me get in early what praise I have for Spooks (Mondays, 9pm, BBC1). The first two stories are intelligent, pacey, well worked out, and attempt to deal with a recognisably contemporary world in which single-issue politics is more dangerous than nation states. The camera-work and editing are particularly strong and, had we not got used to the split-screen techniques of 24, we might even call the visual grammar fresh.

In last Monday's debut episode, for instance, about a paramilitary pro-life organisation, a doctor's car was blown up but for once we did not see the moment of explosion. Instead, we followed the terrorist as he detonated the bomb by using his mobile phone. Only slowly did we realise that the noise behind him was coming not from the soundtrack but the explosion. The camera followed the speed of our thoughts and slowly, slowly turned to witness the blasted car doing aerobatics above the street behind our man. A terrible beauty, and all that.

Here, however, the nice things I have to say about Spooks run out and I'm back to doing my dreary duty by the BBC drama department. You can have flashy direction and smart plots, but if your tone and characterisation are all over the place you still don't have a show. Spooks looks like a pilot in need of radical rethink, rather than a major offering advertised, at the British taxpayer's expense, on road hoardings.

Its root problem - symptomised by its title - is that it does not know what to do with the cliches of its chosen genre: whether to embrace them or mock them. This indecision particularly affects the dialogue, which is so terrible that you wonder if it is deliberate. As if we were morons, the first episode included a public relations woman taking a group of journalists round MI5 in London. "Our main function is to protect Britain's national security," she explained for us children, before a stooge asked if things had changed since 11 September. "Our workload has exploded," she said. Any PR stupid enough to use that verb in that context should be working for Stephen Byers.

But these guys only talk in cliche. In the second episode, we are told that a far-right extremist intends "starting a race war", a concept familiar to us not only because the phrase "a potential race war" has been used a few minutes earlier but because, in episode one, the anti-abortionist also stood accused of "planning a war".

Even when the writer-"creator", David Wolstencroft, tries to write something topical, all he manages is a brand new cliche. So we are told there are enough explosives in a holdall to "turn this place into Ground Zero". Normally, however, he sticks to what he, and we, know. So his spies say: "As far as you're concerned I don't exist" and "When I joined up I knew who the enemy was."

Even their romances are conducted as a verbal colour-by-numbers. "You are," says the spy who falls in love, "the best thing that's ever happened to me."

If only we could be sure that this festival of hackneyed phrases was a deliberate joke. But it is just as likely that they have fallen thoughtlessly out of the writer's head as they do, satirically, from the mouths of his characters. The same with the sets: the high-tech chrome-and-glass MI5 offices could pay playful homage to James Bond and Q, but the right side of Spooks's brain is hung up on verisimilitude. So we get tedious technical banter ("ABC gets better coverage on a grid system." "Let's hope so!") and bogged down in the mechanics of how to bug a house.

Operating in this no man's land between spy genre and real-world espionage (whatever that might actually be like), are the actors who, unable to judge whether to camp it up or add grit to their performance, retreat into minimalism. I have not seen three leading characters so dull and so charmless in a long while. It is as if The New Avengers had returned with Steed and Purdey as well as Gambit being played by Gareth Hunt.

Chief bore is Tom Quinn, played by Matthew Macfadyen, so good last year in The Way We Live Now. Tom is so robotic that, on 20 May, you'll see him refuse the sexual overtures of his lovely but expendable clerk Helen Flynn (Lisa Faulkner). Under his false (yet, curiously, also his real) name of Matthew, Tom is in love with a single mum called Ellie, who periodically asks why his job in IT requires him to be away so much and come back so bruised. His co-Gambits are Zoe Reynolds, played by Keeley Hawes, who can be identified by her being a gal, and Danny Hunter, played by David Oyelowo, who has a small but uninteresting chip on his shoulder about being black.

"Remind me, Helen," Tom asks, "why do I do this job?" "Because you like a secret life," Helen replies, in one of those moments of on-the-nose dialogue that leave your eyes watering. But why do I do this job, I wondered. Because American shows such as 24 prove that genre drama can make amazing television. Every one of its characters has a story to tell. As a critic, I have the privilege of not having to suffer in secret when the BBC pretends that Spooks is the best it can do in reply.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times