Endgame, Channel 4
Inspector George Gently, BBC1

The end to apartheid is hammered out in the most unlikely setting in a starrily cast historical drama

People might have stopped building them a century ago, and mostly stopped living in them half a century ago, but the English stately home still looms large in the dramatic imagination. It has structural benefits: as a location for bringing characters together, or for keeping a narrative within simple confines. And it has a Waughian thematic resonance, too, as a symbol of an old, fading world.

In 1988, Mells Park House in Somerset hosted a quiet revolution. Michael Young, then an employee of the British mining company Consolidated Goldfields, chose the estate as the setting for secret talks he'd organised between South Africa's Afrikaner establishment and the African National Congress.

The housekeeper planned to separate the two delegations when assigning them their quarters, but Young insisted she mix them up, "to maximise the opportunity for chance meetings". The stakes were high – the end of apartheid, no less – and it was crucial that he assembled and arranged his players meticulously.

The makers of Endgame, a one-off drama about those talks, did the same. William Hurt, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jonny Lee Miller (as Young) led a formidable cast that also included Sir Derek Jacobi as Young's boss, Timothy West as P W Botha, Clarke Peters of The Wire as Nelson Mandela, and Mark Strong as Botha's intelligence chief Dr Neil Barnard, the sort of fellow who ripped the filters off his cigarettes before smoking them.

Hurt and Ejiofor played the men staring at one another across the negotiating table at Mells Park, university professor Willie Esterhuyse and Thabo Mbeki. Both were predictably magnificent; Hurt may just have pipped his opponent to the acting honours, but the nobility and charisma of Ejiofor's Mbeki were effective rejoinders to the departing South African president's present-day detractors.

Paula Milne's script skilfully interspersed talk with action. The film opened with Young smuggled into Soweto in the back of a van to seek out the ANC leadership. Car chases, explosions and espionage ensued. And director Pete Travis made good use of the Greengrass aesthetic – handheld camerawork and an edge-of-the-seat soundtrack – to ramp up the tension.

Endgame made a powerful argument for engagement rather than isolation. What began as a ploy by the Afrikaner government to undermine the ANC became, instead, a serious negotiation – thanks, in part, to Young's calm ingenuity. After the meetings, he encouraged the more informal "Glenfiddich diplomacy" that allowed the delegations to get to know each other as (in his words) men, not enemies. Miller, whose boyish looks are at last maturing, gave a performance as admirably discreet as his real-life counterpart's.

In the film's moving final moments, Esterhuyse, Mbeki and their colleagues gathered in Mells Park's plush drawing room to watch the drama they'd facilitated unfolding on television: the release of Mandela, and the lifting of the ban on the ANC. It felt a little like watching Poirot round up his suspects for the big reveal.

For Martin Shaw's latest televisual incarnation, Inspector George Gently, the decrepit Harrison House was a particularly pertinent crime scene. Gently, an old-school copper relocated from London to Northumberland in the Sixties, spends much of his time coming to terms with that decade's speedy social change. In "Gently with the Innocents", the first episode of this second series, what began as a typical country-house mystery metamorphosed into something darker and more modern. An old man had been killed in a frenzied attack at his home, a former orphanage. At first, the detectives assumed financial motivations for the crime; the house, a listed building, had just been sold for redevelopment, and the dead man had opposed the sale.

But as they dug deeper, Gently and his sidekick, Sergeant Bacchus, uncovered a dreadful history lurking in the boarded-up cellar of Harrison House. Emphasising the innocence of the times, Gently had to ask one witness whether they understood the term "paedophile".

The fictional case resembled the real events recently exposed at Haut de la Garenne children's home on Jersey, though the original novel, by Alan Hunter, was published presciently in 1970. Hunter, who died in 2005, wrote roughly a book per year between 1955 and 1999, and there are still some three dozen or so Gently stories for Peter Flannery, writer of The Devil's Whore, to adapt for the screen. Thanks to Flannery's script, the perennially watchable Shaw, and the understated period detail, the inspector is a worthy addition to TV policing.

Just as the credits rolled on Endgame, we were told the IRA consulted the ANC on the party's methods when it entered talks with the UK government. And the earlier scenes of chauffeur-driven Jags transporting men to momentous meetings at a country estate recalled the BBC's recent drama Five Minutes of Heaven, about a reconciliation between two rivals from the Irish Troubles. As long as warring factions choose to hold talks in country houses, production companies will continue to make landmark dramas there. Hunter's Harrison House, meanwhile, was torn down – and the denials and self-delusion of the old world with it.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform