Tom Hughes is a young, talented actor with the most astonishing cheekbones. So astonishing, in fact, that it’s hardly surprising his character in BBC2’s groovy new cold war spy drama (first episode: 30 April), an MI5 operative called Joe Lambe, doesn’t carry a gun: to pinch from the Labour leader, he could probably weaponise them if he wanted to. Certainly they seem to be in a show all of their own. Amidst the Seventies gloom of The Game – everything is sludge green and Farah brown – Hughes’s cheekbones alone catch the light. Flares aside, he is straight out of a painting by Caravaggio. In this sense the character is well named: already I think of him as a Lambe to the slaughter.
The Game (Thursdays, 9pm) is perplexing, and for many reasons. It’s by Toby Whithouse, a writer who induces much excitement among Doctor Who nuts (they believe he might one day replace Steven Moffat as the Doctor Who show runner, and not all of them are happy about this). Whithouse, who also wrote BBC3’s Being Human, must have been thrilled to get such a plum commission, but then his masters went and screened it on BBC America first (it debuted there last year). When I read about this I thought it suggested a lack of confidence on the part of the BBC. Why delay its outing here? Why mute the potential fanfare? However, it seems the decision may have been linked to The Americans, FX’s own period spy drama, on whose success the BBC wanted to trade. Was The Game a hit in the United States? Whithouse has talked about its critical lauding there, but when I looked up the reviews they seemed pretty mixed. So perhaps he’s only putting a brave face on things.
Stranger still is the feeling that The Game is just another facsimile. It reminds me of The Hour, BBC2’s doomed Man Men knock-off. It looks wonderful, various brutalist buildings (I believe the old Birmingham Central Library is one of them) having been put to fine use (the series is set in 1972). But there is something underpowered about it, too: a slightly cardboard quality that stems at least in part from the awareness that we’ve been here before (I’m talking about the BBC’s 1979 hit Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and, to a lesser extent, The Sandbaggers, which ran on ITV from 1978 to 1980). I feel that I know some, if not all, of its moves. For instance: I think I’ve already worked out which of its characters is the mole who is passing secrets to Russia. Even its weirdnesses have a second-hand quality. One of the MI5 team, Bobby Waterhouse (played quite brilliantly by Paul Ritter), is closeted and lives with his mother, Hester (a superb Judy Parfitt). But when she began physically to abuse him, tugging his ear in her rage at his lack of ambition, I was perhaps less surprised than I should have been.
This is a highly claustrophobic, interior sort of series: either our team, led by a man known only as Daddy (Brian Cox), is at MI5 surrounded by filing cabinets, or it’s in hotel rooms, interrogating defectors in a fug of cigarette smoke. The threat from Russia will seem overdone to some, but I remember that icy fear of cold war all too well, and entirely buy it in this instance (the word “invasion”, offered up in meetings, serves only to underline MI5’s essential powerlessness). I like both these things, just as I like the way Whithouse has upended the natural order by giving us DC Jim Fenchurch (Shaun Dooley), who is on secondment to MI5 from the Met. Far from being a Life on Mars-style brute, Fenchurch is appalled by his new colleagues’ methods and more deeply and patriotically shocked by treachery than any of them (in a past life, Lambe, too, may even have tried to defect).
This twist, though, would be much more effective if those around Fenchurch were not – so far – merely a series of brooding outlines. The acting in The Game is fine, pitch-perfect and transfixingly low-key. Every character sounds just right, from Hughes (a young John Lennon) to Ritter (patrician, but dubiously squeaky). Yet no one has anything very intriguing to say. Chasing a le Carré vibe, the dialogue suffers from being underwritten. Its characters’ psychologies, complicated or otherwise, may be read only in their faces.