'Spooks' is nothing like real life. But who cares?

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Agents frantically "raced against time" to prevent bombings, assassinations and terrorist kidnappings. Back at headquarters, colleagues tracked the unfolding dramas on electronic gadgets with stern faces, occasionally breaking into twitches of emotion. The twists and turns of every plot involved double- if not triple- or quadruple-crossings and multiple betrayals.

After a decade on air, Spooks is being retired by the BBC at the end of its next series, which starts next month. The programme's makers, production company Kudos, said it had reached a natural end and was being concluded to reflect "the changing world around us".

Spooks, of course, had little to do with real life and the storyline behind many of the episodes has often been risible. But visits to MI5's website triple from 500 to 1,500 an hour every Monday night when the show is on and the rising numbers of applications to join the service is credited, at least partly, to the interest generated by the series.

Spooks came at just the right time for MI5. The end of the Cold War had resulted in a scrabble for curtailed resources among the various agencies, with turf war skirmishes breaking out.

The 9/11 attacks announced the arrival of Islamist terror to the public and the security service could be shown to be in the forefront of countering the threat.

Those in the other arms of security field, MI6 and GCHQ, were at first dismissive of the series.

But as its popularity continued to rise, there were mutterings that they, too, should get in on the act. Scriptwriters were sounded out and projects embarked on, but Spooks went from strength to strength.

Part of the draw of the show to viewers has been its portrayal of action, often of a fatal kind. In the very first series agent Helen Flynn, played by Lisa Faulkner, died by having her head plunged into boiling fat. In another episode Ros Myers (Hermione Norris) was blown up while trying to rescue a drugged Home Secretary, but not before she had shot Jo Portman (Miranda Raison) while she was restraining a terrorist. Some of the scenes led to complaints from viewers, but also to publicity for MI5. Some media suggested the mayhem was making women worried about joining up, creating a staff ratio of 41 per cent female to 59 per cent male.

A "senior Whitehall source" told one newspaper: "Spooks is a great TV show, but the violence can put women off applying for jobs at MI5... A career in the Service is about brains not brawn."

The Service, meanwhile, let it be known that one recurring question submitted on its website was: "How realistic is Spooks?"

MI5 has, of course, had a number of women in senior positions, including two high-profile director generals, Dame Stella Rimington and Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller. The latter, in particular, has attracted controversy and, at the same time, gained kudos for helping to expose the falsehoods propagated by the Blair government over Iraq and speaking out about the torture of terror suspects by US authorities. An indication of how spy drama has become interwoven with real life spying came in Dame Eliza's critique of America's conduct, in which she implied that the leadership in Washington was inspired by the macho Jack Bauer.

"Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld certainly watched 24. The Americans were very keen that people like us did not discover what they were doing," she declared.

One of the leading female characters in Spooks, Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) will play a central role in the final series along with the chief, Harry Pearce (Peter Firth). The two spies are involved in an unrequited romance which may finally be resolved.

But this is Spooks after all and BBC drama controller Ben Stephenson said it would bow out with "what promises to be a fittingly high-octane thrilling finale". Firth said gloomily: "They could kill me at some point. I wouldn't rule it out."

I got the call only minutes after I purchased the DVD of series nine to take back to America with me. The BBC had canned my favourite TV series. Spooks is dead. Goodbye Harry Pearce. The MI5 chief was practically the only survivor of the series that kept me on the edge of my seat for a decade, from the moment of its pulsating theme tune and I can't believe that the next one will be his last.

Spooks was beyond gripping. Its adrenaline rush provided water-cooler fodder and telephone conversations that led from one episode to the next.

For me, Spooks had three key ingredients. Firstly, it was bang up to date with modern threats, be they Islamist terrorism, the Ruskies up to their old tricks or the Iranians bent on building a bomb. One episode in which Iran had acquired a nuclear trigger seemed almost prescient. There were inevitable tensions between Harry and his political masters in the Home Office.

Secondly, in my limited experience, there has never been a TV series which has been prepared to kill off its protagonists with such nonchalant ease: take the woman whose head was boiled in oil in the second episode, which provoked protests from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, for instance. The most memorable moments for me since 2002 were the tragic death of Adam's wife in his arms and the horrible but deserved end of Connie, Harry's most trusted aide-turned traitor.

The characters were believable and rounded, despite the dizzying number of sub-plots and new characters that tested our memories. Lucas North, for example, returned after an absence lasting for several series. Ros literally came back from the dead.

But despite losing so many of its characters, Spooks never ran out of steam. It had a stable of writers who remained true to the tightly written brand. Several of the actors said the show was bigger than the characters and that was a hallmark of its success.

Its best episodes mixed betrayal (amongst colleagues, of course), suspense and pathos.

I gather from the writers that former spies were consulted on the background, although even I can see that this was a series of entertainment that we were not necessarily supposed to take seriously.

So now I am contemplating a life without Spooks. I will soon enter the netherworld of a recovering Spooks addict. The only cure will be a return of the series I crave. Harry, are you listening?



Anne Penketh

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