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21 July 2016

Why Jeremy Corbyn would fit into the BBC’s The Secret Agent

The BBC's new Joseph Conrad adaptation is wonderful, and more pertinent than I'd expected. Plus: Fleabag reviewed.

By Rachel Cooke

Into this febrile summer, the BBC has quietly dropped Tony Marchant’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent (Sundays, 9pm), starring Toby Jones as Verloc – who works both as a spy for the Russian embassy and as an informer for Chief Inspector Heat of Scotland Yard – and Vicky McClure as Winnie, his pragmatic wife. You can see why this one was commissioned: the dread word “relevance” must surely have passed more than a few editorial lips; for here, among other things, is a political extremist who likes to wear the 19th-century version of a suicide vest (the Professor, played by Ian Hart).

Events have since taken the idea of pertinence to a whole new level. When the anarchists meet up in the seedy Soho shop of which Verloc is proprietor, and start shouting their various versions of political purity in pseudo Russian accents, I can’t help but think of one Jezza Corbyn. Truly, he would fit right in. In fact, dear old chuckle-poo that he is, he’d probably be the fun one.

Still, it’s rather good. I’m unsure about the casting of McClure; the flat delivery that works so well in Line of Duty seems mostly not to match her corset – though it serves her better when she’s coolly handling the dildos that Verloc sells to his customers. Everything else is pretty stellar. Stephen Graham is on great form as Heat, and it is happy-making that my beloved David Dawson is playing Vladimir, the Russian agent provocateur who, hell-bent on waking the liberal English from their complacent slumber in the matter of London’s wannabe revolutionaries, has decreed that Verloc must bomb the Greenwich Observatory, or be exposed to his anarchist friends for what he really is. I only wonder about tone. How will Marchant convey Conrad’s irony as the plot descends into melodrama? Or is that where McClure’s voice, uninflected, deadpan, comes into its own?

Meanwhile, on BBC3 – by which I mean, on your laptop – there is Fleabag (21 July, 9pm), a series written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Broadchurch, Crashing). It’s a version of her very rude one-woman show of a few years ago, and already everyone’s comparing it with Lena Dunham’s Girls, though it has nothing whatsoever to do with female friendship: Fleabag is a lone wolf, and perhaps a lonely one, too, given how horrible she is. Not that her being horrible is a problem for me. I don’t need characters – no, not even female characters! – to be likeable, and it irks me that so many people claim only to be able to identify with, and by extension to enjoy watching or reading about, those who are.

Why, then, do I feel so resistant to Fleabag, with her season ticket to a series of feminist lectures (“Women Speak”), her bossy sister and her ghastly stepmother? The problem, I think, is that her bad behaviour feels ersatz, a put-on job by a writer so desperate to shock that she throws an anal sex gag into her opening scene. She’s so mean, I just can’t believe in her, for all that Waller-Bridge tries to intimate that her up-for-it attitude – to pretty much everything bar kindness and the occasional early night – is born of grief (a dead mother) and the refusal of her newly married father to show her the merest flicker of warmth. (When she pitches up at his house in the small hours he makes her wait on the doorstep while he gets her a taxi.) I should be pleased that her self-love seems to outweigh her self-loathing; I wish that had been the case for me when I was younger. But the spite that accompanies it soon cancels the feeling out.

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Sometimes her antics did chime with me, as they would for pretty much any woman: the pretence, when a boy calls up late at night wanting to come over, that, no, she’s not remotely in bed; the horror when, having flirted on a bus with a good-looking guy, he suddenly smiles and shows a set of incisors that wouldn’t look shabby on a fully grown beaver. Yet in the end, her mean side seems to be a by-product of a certain kind of privilege. Fleabag really doesn’t give a toss, and that goes not only for hapless blokes on buses, but also for the audience to which, eyebrow raised, she occasionally likes to speak directly.

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt