The Secret Agent. Victorian clichés and a grim story ploddingly told

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The Secret Agent. Victorian clichés and a grim story ploddingly told

July 19, 2016 - 08:55
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Let’s travel back in time to a world of perpetual circuses featuring bearded ladies, men doffing their bowler hats and – judging by the impossibly crowded streets – everyone constantly on their way to a nearby football match.

The Secret Agent

Let’s travel back in time to a world of perpetual circuses featuring bearded ladies, men doffing their bowler hats and – judging by the impossibly crowded streets – everyone constantly on their way to a nearby football match.

This of course is Victorian London, TV style. A swirling mass of visual clichés to remind us that life was tough back then. And, as those stereotype urchins so evocatively prove, Britain was a ruthlessly divided society.

All of which brings us to the Beeb’s big new Sunday night series The Secret Agent. A workman-like adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classically depressing novel wrapped in a swathe of hackneyed images from the little book of how to do period drama unimaginatively.

Plodding through a grim story, the fine cast do their best with a doggedly straightforward approach that fails to add a whole lot to the party. Actors don’t come much better than Toby Jones and Vicky McClure. But despite their pitch-perfect performances, it’s all a bit slow and – in that dreary Dickensian way – dark. Miserable and unexciting.

While selling their wares in the uplifting environment of their seedy Soho sex shop, Anton Verloc and his loyal wife Winnie look after her mentally challenged brother Stevie. Neither Winnie nor Stevie realise that Anton is a closet revolutionary on the payroll of the Russian embassy.

Nor does Winnie’s mother, but she ships out early for reasons that aren’t made clear. As she clip-clopped into the sunset on an atmospheric horse and cart, I searched the background for passing penny-farthing bicycles. Disappointingly, there were none to be seen. Black mark for the props department there.

Conrad’s saga of intrigue is a work of literary genius that operates on a complex series of levels. Not so the disconcertingly simplistic BBC1 version which tells the tale in the manner of a grown-up Jackanory. One dimensional doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s almost as if the production team are so pleased with their vacuous Victoriana they’ve forgotten about the narrative.

But safe to say that in those days the police’s approach to terrorism was a little less sophisticated than it is in the 21st century. A potential suicide bomber shows his personal explosives to a detective in a bar and warns him he is not afraid to self-detonate. The copper shuffles away.

Meanwhile, Verloc begs the Russian ambassador not to make him blow up the Greenwich Observatory. To no avail. And so he hatches a plan to commit the deed and drags the hapless Stevie into the frame.

This three part unspectacular is by no means bad. But nor is it by any means good. It’s just passably okay. Maybe it’ll improve over the next couple of weeks. And who knows? We might just get a penny-farthing or two yet. Fingers crossed.

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Kevin O'Sullivan's picture

Submitted by Rufus the Dog on Sun, 17/07/2016 - 22:34

By Rufus the Dog  

"Here's the challenge chaps... I have literally hundreds of extras all dressed in period costume, horses, carriages, penny farthings and a bucket of street urchins and your mission is to find camera angles in London that still make it look a bit Victorianish" ... "Oh, and get toby to walk about a lot looking moody... BAFTA Gold!"



Kevin O'Sullivan's picture

Submitted by Anna May on Tue, 19/07/2016 - 00:31

By Anna May  

Toby Jones is one of my favourite actors. Having just watched him in Wayward Pines as David Pilcher, I’m already impressed with his ability to become just about anyone. However, he’s very underused here. In fact, all the actors are. I’m hoping the next two episodes will gather pace.

Jones’s role as Verloc is very well played out with a nice rugged London accent as we flick back and forth between his home life and secret dealings. His wife, Winnie, has an autistic brother who lives with them, along with their mother. We’re fed a few scenes of flat conversation between mother and daughter and pretty soon the mother leaves her two children...exiting on the back of a horse and cart. Bye kids, don’t worry about me, I’m off, see ya! So, yeah, that happened. I’ve forgotten her already.

Poor Winnie, played by Vicky McLure, is now left to run the family business, which of course is a sex shop, whilst also caring for her brother, Stevie. Meanwhile, hubby is organizing bombs and terrorist attacks, because that’s what all this is really about and, lucky for him, he now has a friend who’s a walking suicide bomber. It really couldn’t be any easier.

I’m not even sure I remember too much else, because the whole episode was…what’s the word I’m looking for…loose?

By loose I mean the editing seemed unnecessarily longwinded and there was an awful lot of wandering about to different locations in order to exchange a few lines. Added to this, I’m very aware there are often instances where a well-placed pause or lasting look can be essential for natural timing, but I honestly felt so drained by the end of it all…mostly because I was constantly being made to wait too long for someone to actually do or say something important. I hate waiting!

I had to keep reminding myself that just staring at the screen between crucial dialogue and thinking about the can of beans I couldn’t find earlier that I’m sure we hadn’t eaten, was not helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the story or the acting. However, considering this was an hour long, I’m pretty sure it could have been jollied along a bit and squashed into, say, forty minutes.

I will keep watching, because there are only three episodes and two more won’t kill me. Also, the look and feel of the Victorian setting really brings the story to life in that era, but, if I’m honest, those bowler hats were a bit too much for my liking and, during some of the more crowded street scenes, I just saw a bunch of Diddymen. Probably just me. I can’t help it.

Henrietta Knight's picture

The dark and sinister three-part series of The Secret Agent has a modern day theme of terrorism running through it. Set in Victorian London, The Royal Greenwich Observatory is targeted to be blown to bits by an evil power.

The man behind the bombing is an anarchist with a foreign-sounding name. Anton Verloc (Toby Jones) who, unlike today’s fanatics, has a conscience and doesn’t believe that innocent people should be killed for the cause.

Indolent Verloc holds political meetings, plotting the downfall of capitalism in his Soho sex shop where he distributes pamphlets called The Future of The Proletariat with his trusting wife Winnie (Vicky McClure). The exploitation of the vulnerable is echoed by his dim-witted brother-in-law Stevie (Charlie Hamblett) who is easily conned into the destruction of the symbolically significant building.

Double, or even triple agent Verloc visits his diplomat boss Vladimir (David Dawson) in a beautiful baroque embassy and is informed that they want more from him for their rouble.

“We don’t just want things stopped. We want things started,” snaps Vladimir.

“I was thinking of cutting you off. No work. No pay.”

If Verloc were to be exposed, he would certainly suffer the death penalty. He is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

The similarities with today’s terrorists continue when Verloc announces: “I will get my reward in heaven.”

“I didn’t think that was the stuff of revolutionaries,” replies Winnie.

In Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel Vladimir makes a riveting case for attacking science and time itself – since Greenwich makes the prime meridian. The idea is that the atrocity will shock and destabilise England. A vital theme which is ignored in Tony Marchant’s script.

Conrad’s complex book was based on a real life botched attempt to destroy the Greenwich Observatory by French anarchist Martial Bourdin, who accidently blew himself up.

The TV drama features a Victorian suicide bomber, which adds a contemporary touch. The bearded Professor, played by Ian Hart, has several bombs in his coat and a detonator in his hand which can explode at any time.

The atmospheric London fog which runs as a metaphor for fact and fiction throughout the book is also mysteriously missing from the series. It is so disappointing that such a magnificent novel has been transformed into a one-dimensional, slow-paced thriller.