The Game creator Toby Whithouse: My spy thriller is like “James Bond nearing a nervous breakdown”

The Being Human writer on why he's crossed Ian Fleming with John le Carré in his new 1970s-set espionage thriller

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In this world there are two kinds of spy drama – those descended from Ian Fleming and those descended from John le Carré. Broadly, that’s Bond v Smiley (or Jason Bourne v Harry Palmer). Fleming’s spies carry guns, have sex and win, while le Carré’s spies wrestle with inner conflicts, fall in love and lose; and never the twain shall meet – until now.

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When Toby Whithouse sat down to write new BBC2 spy drama The Game, his thoughts ran along the lines of, “What, genuinely, would be the ramifications for James Bond as a person if he really did the job he does?” he says. “I wanted to explore this notion that the deeper you get into that world – the more informants you seduce, the more lies you tell, the more emotions you fake, the more people you pretend to be – the more of your soul gradually gets eroded until you lose track of who you are. So I wanted it to be James Bond nearing a nervous breakdown.”

Bond in this particular case is Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes), Whithouse’s “good-looking, charming, lady-killer seducer”. Lambe is a fallen MI5 hero – a brilliant undercover operator in the middle of an identity crisis – called to battle Soviet sleeper agents in London in 1972. Because right now spies are so damn hip you wouldn’t believe it, with the success of the recent film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the influence of US drama The Americans.

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The Game has already been a hit in the US, where The Americans is a primetime smash. BBC America rushed it to air last autumn, with cries of delight from reviewers. However, Whithouse – a former actor who has written episodes of Doctor Who and created cult BBC3 hit Being Human – was attracted to the 1970s precisely because it wasn’t fantasy.

“My brother suggested I read le Carre’s novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and I absolutely loved it, “he says. “I was drawn to the notion of this secret war and the lo-fi nature of how it was fought. I thought, somebody should do a TV series about this. Then realised, actually, it’s quite within my power to do that.”    

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He admits there’s also a strong sense of nostal- gia involved. For a start, there’s the Cold War. “A couple of years ago, when Anna Chapman, that Russian spy, was in the news, people my age thought, “Yeah, Russian spies, they were brilliant, Russian spies! You knew where you were with them,” he grins.