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


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The Independent Culture

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.