Given that he thinks of it as an update on classic British spy fiction, David Hare began Page Eight in an oddly old-fashioned manner.
As Bill Nighy walked home along the Embankment, a jazz trumpet squealing on the soundtrack, it looked like a pastiche of a famous Sixties cigarette ad (itself a pastiche of Cold War thrillers). You're never alone with a Strand. And, if you're the type of character Bill Nighy tends to play, you're never alone for long, whatever you're smoking. As he lets himself into his flat, Johnny – MI5 intelligence analyst, jazz buff and fine art collector – finds himself recruited for a rescue mission by his young neighbour Nancy (Rachel Weisz), who has got herself stuck with a boring date and needs a cover story quick.
Johnny has analysed enough intelligence to know this might not be what it seems. Initially, at least, he's as sceptical as we are that the gorgeous Nancy would seem to be making a play for a dry old stick twice her age. And he can't help wondering whether her approach has anything to do with a problem that's cropped up at work, where a secret report on extraordinary rendition and torture by the Americans has just unhelpfully become less secret. Page eight, incidentally, contains the killer detail – a line that implies that the Prime Minister knew all about it and has lied to Parliament. Johnny finds himself squeezed between the old school values of his boss (Michael Gambon) and the new broom pragmatism of a less fastidious colleague.
With a cast this good it was never going to be less than stylish. As the disillusioned and disengaged Johnny ("The sun will rise in the morning. I'm going to have a drink at six. That's my faith"), Nighy underplayed even his understatements, muttering his lines in that distinctive, even tone, which implies a wary knowledge of how risky emotion can be. Gambon, playing a man licensed by the knowledge of his imminent death, was more puckish and mischievous. It's not hard to gather intelligence, he points out, at one point, they're awash with the stuff: "The difficult thing is to notice when someone finally tells you something important." As the Prime Minister, Ralph Fiennes added a dash of Voldemort to a large slug of Putin, and gave off a convincing air of latent power. Is there any other British actor who can look so lethally furious?
But the sense of retro pastiche conjured by that opening never quite dissipated. It wasn't just that all these actors were playing well within their own capacities, but also that Hare's script too often settled for lines that sounded worryingly familiar. "Remember, people get killed in the middle of the road," Johnny is warned by his boss, after insisting on his own studious neutrality. Later, a revitalised Johnny turns the tables on Nancy by getting her to help him escape. "You coming with me?" he asks. "Try and stop me," she replies. She's seen too many spy thrillers, I think. Or we have. More seriously, Hare's plot seemed to divide between middle-aged male wishful thinking (Nancy's interest isn't a honeytrap at all, but the real thing) and revelations that were no kind of revelation at all, if you knew anything of Hare's politics.
Ironically, the central charge of the drama was that of wilful blindness. "We're meant to look for what's there. Not what we want to be there," says Johnny, angry that political expedience has trumped the truth. And the charge was echoed by Gambon's character too. "We were never telling him what he wanted to hear," he says of the PM. "We kept bothering him with facts." And yet Page Eight itself never risked disturbing its audience with anything that might upset its existing world-view. In his play about the invasion of Iraq, The Vertical Hour, Hare tested himself and his audience with genuine moral dilemmas. Here, there was never a doubt about who we were meant to cheer and who we were meant to hiss. On this occasion, I'm afraid, his intelligence service let him down.
Doctor Who is back -- a fact you may have seen subtly hinted at in the Radio Times and broadcast trails. Rather daringly, Steven Moffat had decided to bring on Adolf Hitler for a bit of comic relief – the Doctor and his sidekicks arriving in Führer's office at the same time as a team of inter-temporal war-crime hunters. It was lively and inventive, but either by accident or design (Moffat hates spoilers) my preview copy froze about 35 minutes in and I found I could live with the lack of resolution.