The Weekend's TV: This Cold War drama isn't worth spying on
The Company, BBC2; This is Civilisation, Channel 4
Monday 26 November 2007
"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.
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