Last Night's Viewing: Spies of Warsaw, BBC4,
World's Most Dangerous Roads, BBC2

 

It's surprising sometimes what you can do with stock materials. Take Spies of Warsaw, for example, an adaptation of Alan Furst's novels, set in Central Europe just before the Second World War.

From the opening scene, in which a young man is pursued through the woods by shouting guards, it's almost pure cliché. A tense-looking man in a vintage car asks, "How far to the border?" A plump industrialist with wire-rimmed glasses fans through a set of blueprints. A cymbal tishes steadily, a nervous tic in the background. And languidly predatory society women eye up two young officers as they fence in a grand salon. We can be less prejudicial, though. One person's cliché, after all, is another's classic detail, and there's a kind of reassurance in the way these details mount up. And Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' adaptation has another advantage too. Neither le Carré nor Deighton cast their long shadow over this world, because the British play no part in the spying at all. So, relatively speaking, their stock materials have a freshness to them.

The domestic equivalents of those languid ladies may not care either way, because they get David Tennant fresh from the shower, only a towel to preserve his modesty, as he talks a Polish princess through the bodily diary of his scars. Tennant plays Jean-François Mercier, a military-attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw and the only man in the building, it appears, who can see what's coming. As his boss tries to sell underpowered Renault tanks to the Poles, Mercier is trying to uncover the German plans for war with the help of a bogus countess and Anna Skarbek, a local woman who looks so stunning in a beret that even the soundtrack stops to say, "Ding-dong!" Throw in a tight-lipped Nazi or two and some stripy-pole border crossings and you've got the essential recipe.

It works pretty well, and when Mercier pulls on his hand-knit sweater for some cloak-and-dagger operations in the woods it can be tense too. But there's something a little too leisurely and palm court about the narrative as a whole, a faint sense that the story unfolds this way because this is how it was in the books, not because it's been constructed from scratch for television. It doesn't want to rush things because it loves the style and ambience of the original material. But a spy thriller that isn't rushed may not be quite a thriller at all. And since we know all too well that Mercier wasn't successful in his attempts to save Poland, we need some other urgent hazard to substitute for the missing uncertainty. Having Mercier bundled into the back of a Gestapo car, as happened at the end of last night's episode, certainly helps, but I'll still be going back for period panache, rather than because I just can't wait to find out what happens.

World's Most Dangerous Roads has a winning formula too – a rough travel series that takes celebrities just far enough out of the comfort zone to make them squeak. In last night's episode, Phill Jupitus and Marcus Brigstocke drove along Bolivia's Road of Death, prompting what has now become a staple piece of footage for this series. The one in the driving seat hoots with terrified laughter as they inch along a narrow mountain track while the one in the passenger seat, who has the best view of the awaiting precipice, swears reflexively at every twitch of the steering wheel. Truth to tell, this episode was just a tiny bit duller than some others because both Brigstocke and Jupitus were so well mannered – supportive of each other, polite to everyone they met and appreciative of the privilege of being in this wild and remarkable landscape. Didn't you read the bit about bickering in the contract, boys?

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