The Weekend's TV: This Cold War drama isn't worth spying on

The Company, BBC2; This is Civilisation, Channel 4

"Make no mistake about it: Western civilisation is under attack. It is a war of attrition and a very thin line of patriots mans the ramparts." Welcome, Class of '53, to induction day at the CIA, where you will discover that your Ivy League sense of elite commitment has just fed you into the grinding gap between two great continental plates: Soviet Communism and American capitalism. You've had Russian friends at Yale, you've even joked with them about the competing claims of democracy and Bolshevism, but now it's time to take sides. And don't think it's going to be fun, either. "It is less glamorous and a lot more dangerous than any fiction writer can imagine," warns the human welcome mat.

That said, the trenchcoats look fabulous, the whole world is a noir sound stage and there seems to be no shortage of gorgeous women. You might fear that your first Berlin asset will be a dumpy Fräulein in a coat made of coal sacks, but actually you get Lilli, a lissom ballerina who practises her entrechats while handing over the state secrets. And if you enjoyed Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai, there was even a chance to dodge around your very own hall of mirrors while giving your KGB tails the slip. If all this is less glamorous than the fiction, then one can only assume that that CIA functionary had been reading Casino Royale, published just before The Company begins. Next to Bond, it might just look drably realistic. Next to Le Carre, it looks like Bond.

Indeed, for British viewers accustomed to the bone-dry fino of something such as Smiley's People, The Company is going to come across as vulgarly uncomplicated on the palate, however strong their appetite for the moral complexities of tradecraft and double-cross. It's a pastiche of a genre rather than a real attempt to shake up its conventions. Which is a pity, because the Cold War does for the transatlantic alliance what the Trojan war did for the Greeks. It provides the crude ore for a national epic, a tale in which heroism and human flaws intermingle to ask serious questions about what matters. The Company never rises close to epic levels. What matters is looking good and getting the right kind of gnomic steeliness in place. Occasionally, it's so in earnest about this, it gives you the giggles. "There's an old Russian proverb," someone says darkly at one point. "'You're supposed to wash the bear without getting its fur wet.'" Yes, well, that makes things much clearer.

Even the premium casting can't save it. Michael Keaton is compelling as James Angleton, the CIA's chief of counter-intelligence, reinforcing the ramparts with colour-coded index cards and cross-reference systems, and Tom Hollander makes a plausible Philby, a mole assigned to chase his own tail. But Alfred Molina's hard-boiled Berlin chief, all "goddamns" and "buddy" and "phoneys", looks like an unconvincing Kremlin plant and Chris O'Donnell's Jack is little more than a recruitment-poster image. Judging from next week's episode, in which you get re-enactments of the Hungarian revolution and the Bay of Pigs landings, they've spent a lot of money on the action. But a bigger investment in the quiet, early-hours duels between two men trying to work out what's true and what isn't would have been more sensible.

In This Is Civilisation, Matthew Collings is back with his now-familiar rhetorical style, a blizzard of urgent, blokey questions so briskly stitched together that you could easily miss the fact that virtually none of them get an answer. Watching Collings at work, roaming around and tugging the camera behind him, you get the sense of a man skating over the thin ice of his own commentary. Will this phrase bear the weight that's being put on it? Isn't that an ominous creaking we can hear, as a broad cultural generalisation sends fissures snaking out around the presenter? Never mind, he's already glided smoothly onwards and shifted the weight to another question mark. Let's have a look at a Grünewald altarpiece, with its bleeding thorn wounds and cadaverous tints: "Hello, dead man. We've got to drink your blood and eat your flesh every Sunday. We've got to believe you died and rose again. What on earth are you?"

Collings is good at this kind of figure skating, and the difficulty of some of the figures he pulls off shouldn't be underestimated. It isn't easy to maintain a sense of assurance while simultaneously condensing cultural history into soundbites and ensuring that you line up perfectly for the visual echo. But because the script is off the cuff, you can't entirely suppress the suspicion that some of what's said is just an intellectual arabesque, intended to fill space ornamentally. Like the Islamic patterns with which Collings finished, you follow the convolutions around every twist and turn only to discover that you're back exactly where you started.

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