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6 March 2022

Why remake The Ipcress File?

Despite there being so many good spy novels waiting to be adapted, ITV proved it has no imagination by commissioning a reworking of the classic film.

By Rachel Cooke

Talent and charisma may well be equally elusive qualities, but they are not, alas, precisely the same thing. Plenty of actors, though highly skilled, remain charisma-free zones for the entirety of their careers, fantastic in an ensemble, but a gaping hole of nothingness if placed centre stage. On the other hand, while some wildly charismatic types can just about act their way out of a paper bag, a cardboard box might prove a struggle.

I can’t tell if Joe Cole (Skins, Peaky Blinders) is highly talented; I haven’t seen enough of him to know, and in The Ipcress File, ITV’s (to me, entirely gratuitous) adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy novel, great acting is not, in any case, what’s primarily required – or not all of the time. The character of Harry Palmer is a wonderful creation: the kitchen sink drama/angry young man version of 007, with the added twist (so unexpectedly feminine at the time) that he can cook. But he’s not exactly Hamlet, or even Willy Loman, is he? Charisma, then, would appear to be very important here – if a man is without depths, at least let his facade be alluring – but I don’t think that Cole has any. He looks so young and seems so callow, and when the camera lingers on his face, desperately seeking a pair of come-to-bed eyes, you’re struck by his absolute lack of sex appeal. Why do all these gorgeous, pouting women fall for him like ninepins? I’m damned if I know.

At least one male critic, having seen a preview of this series (it’s written by John Hodge of Trainspotting fame) has already helpfully pointed out that Cole isn’t trying to impersonate Michael Caine, the actor who played Palmer in the Harry Saltzman-produced 1965 film adaptation (incidentally, it was Caine who came up with the name Palmer; in Deighton’s novel he goes unnamed). Well, no, he’s not, and ten out of ten for observation. But this fact alone doesn’t make his performance any good; if anything, it only makes you long all the more for Caine, who wears his charisma like an expensive watch (his talent is a slightly different matter). Palmer’s spectacles – those thick, black frames – work like a neon sign here, drawing your attention repeatedly to the feeling that there’s something more than a little ersatz about this series, as well as something quite boring.

On the plus side, Palmer’s establishment handler, Dalby, is played by Tom Hollander, who has talent and charisma. In every scene he appears, Hollander oozes patrician superiority even as he suppresses a smile (Dalby knows that Palmer is trouble, but can’t help liking him). And the production looks gorgeous: the greasy pavements and anxious checkpoints of Cold War Berlin; the postwar hotel lobbies, all parquet floors and Sputnik lighting; the bowler hats (men) and the pillbox hats (women) perched on heads so neatly (I miss hats). Hodge has given Palmer a new backstory – the familiar disregard for authority is tempered by the revelation that he was a hero in Korea – with the aim, I suppose, of making the character seem more complex. But what good is this if the actor playing him is unable to evoke darkness, or to sufficiently suggest repression? This series may long to be its own thing rather than a replica, but the women characters belong to the Sixties in more ways than one. Jean (Lucy Boynton), another of Dalby’s spies, is as smoothly blonde and as woefully stiff as a Thunderbirds puppet.

It’s a tedious question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: why make The Ipcress File again? There are so many good novels – so many good spy novels – waiting to be adapted, and Saltzman’s movie is beloved. Couldn’t commissioning editors show some imagination and look on the next shelf down? A step away from the Cold War might do us good. Contrary to what some critics seem to think, the terrible events in Ukraine make this series less, not more, vital. As I watched the first episode crank slowly through its gears – the minimalist dialogue, the inevitable shoot-out – I found that I couldn’t care less what was going to happen to the British nuclear scientist the Russians had abducted. The world has turned, and turned again. These old games feel a bit silly, a bit staid: misplaced nostalgia masquerading as thrilling sensation.

[See also: Rest in peace, “Peaky Blinders”. We will miss this magnificent show so much]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror