For all I didn't particularly like London Spy, it has a certain authenticity

Right now, a lot of BBC drama feels like it was written by numbers. London Spy is different. ITV's Downton, sadly not.

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A man heads to a party. As he arrives, Donna Summer is playing; by the time he leaves, he can hear dustbin vans. Wired and sweaty, he crouches on a pavement by the Thames and makes a call. Are any of his mates still up? It seems not, which leaves him with a problem. Where to take his twitches, his chemical wakefulness? But then, over the bridge comes a runner. The two men exchange a few words and the athlete, sensing the other’s physical and mental depletion, offers our wrecked party boy his energy drink. The grey of his tracksuit is a perfect match for the early-morning London sky.

This is how it begins: the relationship between Danny (Ben Whishaw) and Alex (Edward Holcroft), the odd couple. Danny is restless, in a rut. He lives in a horrible shared flat and has a dead-end job in a warehouse. His only true friend is Scottie (Jim Broadbent), a slightly sinister older man whose feelings for him are proprietorial, his kindness not without motive. Alex is – or so he says – an orphaned and closeted investment banker with a memory for numbers and a full set of Ordnance Survey maps in the boot of his car. Soon these two loners are in bed together and not too long after that – about eight months later – they’re in a kabuki bar with Scottie, hoping for his blessing.

As I watched London Spy (Mondays, 9pm, BBC2), which was written by the novelist Tom Rob Smith (Child 44, The Farm), irritation bubbled inside me. Something about Whishaw’s performance, so mannered and pathetic, set my teeth on edge, and when Broadbent appeared all I could think was: “Does good old Jim have to be in every British series and every British film from now until the end of days?”

At the same time, something else happened. Various details snagged my attention: that Danny does not have a smartphone; that all the apples in Alex’s fruit bowl were so uniformly green; the feeling, later on, that the storyline must have been inspired by the mysterious death of Gareth Williams, the GCHQ employee whose body was found at an SIS safe house in Pimlico, Westminster, in 2010.

Also, the hypnotically minimalist dialogue. “At school, I was old. At university, I was young,” Alex said, trying to explain his self-imposed human quarantine; how, until Danny, he had been a virgin.

Right now, a lot of BBC drama feels like it was written by numbers: the new police series Cuffs, for instance, and the plodding River. But this is different, for all that I can’t say I particularly liked it. Creepy, bleak and daringly slow for something that purports to be a thriller, it has a certain authenticity. It is not trying to be anything else, even if the shade of Ian Fleming did briefly hover above the kabuki bar. Its fourth or fifth most important character is London, which always works for me. If it can deliver on plot, too, it might just be a keeper.

And now . . . “Bertie Pelham is the new Marquess of Hexham! Goody gumdrops, what a turn-up!” This is not a Private Eye spoof. It comes directly from the last ever episode of Downton Abbey (9 November, 9pm, ITV) – though there will be a Christmas special in which, I predict, Lady Edith will tipsily snog the aforementioned Bertie over a large vase of Mrs Patmore’s eggnog.

Were you fooled? I expect not. Julian Fellowes has been dialling in his execrable plots and ineffably boring dialogue – “Well, his lordship has always loved his dogs!” – for years now. Anyone who has watched Downton for even five minutes knows what a fiesta of laziness and buffoonery it has become. All the same, its not-very-exciting climax, in which Lady Mary married her stupid racing driver – yes, the one with no money – came with a knowing cheek, a properly funny dose of camp, almost as if Fellowes were finally owning up.

“What was it about Tangiers that your cousin liked so much?” asked Isobel Crawley, as the family struggled to digest the news that the old Marquess of Hexham had died, without ever having married, in Morocco. The new marquess spoke passionately of the sun setting over the beach. But we all know what his cousin was really up to, don’t we? The naughty boy. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

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