Last night's viewing - Modern Spies, BBC2; Damien Hirst: Thoughts, Work, Life, Channel 4

 

In Modern Spies, Peter Taylor was at pains to make it clear to us that contemporary intelligence work isn’t a bit like film and television fictions would have us believe. This will presumably come as a relief to the parents of young people who find themselves intrigued by the increasingly open recruitment procedures of the UK’s intelligence and security services. One British intelligence officer here revealed that when she’d told hermother what her new job was, she’d replied, “Oh my goodness, you’re going to end up with your head in a fat-fryer!” her knowledge of MI5 having been largely gathered from watching Spooks. Her daughter assured Taylor that it isn’t really like that, just a little wistfully, I thought: “Unfortunately, I’m not running around the streets of London, chasing terrorists, being nearly blown up every week,” she said. Apparently, there’s a lot of paperwork. But, despite such testimony, Taylor had a problem with his project of de-glamourisation, which was the deep devotion of television to the visual rhetoric of the spy movie.

So, a documentary that set out to correct cloak-and-dagger melodrama itself kicked off with one of those slow motion blossoms of flame so indispensable to screen thrillers, and kept defaulting to the much-loved tropes of the form. On-screen titles stuttered into place like a teletype machine sending through an urgent communiqué to a foreign embassy’s “naval attaché” and the heavily silhouetted contributors (some of them anyway) were filmed in empty offices with high views of the city. All quite Spooky, in fact. It didn’t exactly help that one of the contributors, “Shami” (they all appeared inside the cordon of quote marks), echoed a current spy thriller, Homeland, when he was asked by Taylor what he feared most when he was doing surveillance work. “Missing it,” the silhouette replied, “missing a vital bit of information, something that will go on to cause loss of life.” He’d surely have something to talk to Carrie Mathison about.

What followed was a slightly puzzling collage of recent spy stories, a bit of trade craft (surely there can’t be many viewers who need the concept of the “honey trap” explaining to them) and an introduction to some genuinely novel areas of inter-governmental skulduggery, most notably cyber-spying. It seems that the Chinese are exceptionally good at this. When they unveiled their latest jet fighter, the Americans noted with some dismay that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the Lockheed Martin F35 that they’d just spent billions developing. And the knowledge that cyber attacks could potentially decapitate a country’s organisational structure (as nearly happened to Estonia after it irritated some Russian patriots) means that considerable sums of money are now being spent on operatives who don’t bear much of a resemblance to the suave lotharios of classic spy fiction. “I do penetration testing,” explained a GCHQ officer who happily conceded that he was a “geek”. You could imagine Sean Connery saying that, with a suggestive lilt in the voice, but I don’t think the geek was even aware of the double meaning.

Damien Hirst: the First Look wasn’t available for review at the time of writing, but Damien Hirst: Thoughts, Work, Life later in  the evening offered a brief history of his rise to become the world-leading supplier of decorative conversation pieces to the world’s hedgefunders. It was an engaging watch, partly because Hirst himself is engaging on screen and partly because the archive recaptured the energy of the YBAs in the early days. But there was very little evidence in his conversation of the searching self-dissatisfaction that is often the hallmark of a great artist. By contrast, Hirst appeared here to be one of his own biggest fans. “I feel happy that the diamond skull exists in the world,” he said, when pressed on his most notorious piece, For the Love of God. Well, that’s nice, I guess, given that it cost him £40m to make.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
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.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering