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31 October 2018

The BBC’s The Little Drummer Girl is an atmospheric delight

Plus: the new series of House of Cards.  

By Rachel Cooke

I realise that in the era of #MeToo this is probably completely inappropriate, but just to say that in the BBC’s new adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1983 novel, The Little Drummer Girl (9pm, 28 October), Tom Hiddleston’s bum does not appear – nor any other part of him, alas. All the same, I rather like it. This series, dramatised by the playwright Michael Lesslie and directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), might not have the glitz of The Night Manager, in which the aforementioned derrière had a small but extremely stirring cameo, and it’s a lot slower. But the plot is vastly more involving, and at centre stage is the utterly marvellous Florence Pugh, who plays a struggling actress called Charlie.

It is 1979, and a bomb has exploded at the residence of the Israeli attaché in West Germany, killing his small son. The device was the work of two Palestinian brothers, the al-Khadars – men whom a senior Israeli agent, Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon), wants to take alive rather than dead (given the choice, his colleagues would simply assassinate them). His plans for achieving this are complex. Seeing himself as some kind of intelligence auteur, his traps are elaborate to the point of theatricality – which is where Charlie comes in. Dispatched with the rest of her crummy theatre group to Greece by a mysterious patron, on a Naxos beach she meets a sphinx-like but gorgeous man played by Alexander Skarsgård (name obscure, though he’ll soon be revealed as Gadi Becker, one of Kurtz’s gang) who whisks her off to Athens where… well, we shall see.

There’s so much to admire here: the performances, of which Pugh’s is by a mile the most assured; the writing, knowing without being affectedly mysterious; the sense, running through it all, that the stakes are high. But what I like most of all is its atmosphere. Thanks to the tattoo on Kurtz’s arm – he is a holocaust survivor – we’re reminded early on that in the late Seventies the war was not just some BBC Four documentary; it was vividly alive in the memories of those who’d fought it, informing so many of the decisions that people, and states, made.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian question was still just that: a question, something that might one day be answered (it doesn’t feel that way now). Hidden in a cushion in a flat recently abandoned by one of the al-Khadars, Mossad’s agents find a book of verse by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, an elegant touch that I’m glad Lesslie just left to float there for the time being (a more ham-fisted writer would have had one of them say: “Ah, yes, Darwish. Born in the Galilee, exiled in Lebanon. Widely considered the Palestinian national poet.”) Add to this all the period details – the corduroy, the orange telephones – and you have a smoky authenticity that’s rare in British television.

“Do you miss Francis?” asks Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in the sixth and final series of House of Cards (2 November), addressing the camera directly just as her husband used to. I’m afraid there’s only one answer to this question: yes. Kevin Spacey having been written out of the show following allegations of sexual assault against him – uh oh, #MeToo again – the action now revolves around the new president, his widow. (How did Frank die? As yet, we don’t know.) This should be Wright’s finest hour, but watching her all alone in the Oval Office you suddenly realise how much she and Spacey needed one another. Now her foil is gone, her performance seems underpowered to the point of drabness, and not even her new blonde bob and military-style dresses are enough to distract you from it.

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It’s not entirely her fault. The writing is dire: the plotting convoluted; what should be only subtext now made ploddingly explicit (cue a few heavy Lady Macbeth references). The producers clearly long to take us back to the series’s mildly shocking glory days: in an early episode, Claire enjoys a witty little incest joke with her oldest female friend. But the porky spectre of Trump combined with dialogue that’s so half-baked you occasionally wonder if the actors are improvising, work powerfully against this. God, it’s boring. Oh, well. At least it will be out of its misery very soon. 

The Little Drummer Girl (BBC One)
House of Cards (Netflix)

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This article appears in the 31 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow