The Game – episode one, review

Slow down and test your espionage skills - BBC2's new spy thriller is a game worth playing

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British spy Joe Lambe stalks through Poland with a brunette on his arm and a cool blue turtleneck round his throat. He wants to defect, and arranges a meeting with a grim Soviet hood with an aversion to apple peel. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well. 

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Another year, another city, another girl. Lambe is a ‘honeytrapper’, an agent who spends his days “bedding secretaries and forgotten wives” for information. Until, that is, a KGB sleeper agent drops in his lap reports of a dangerous Soviet plot known only as ‘Operation Glass’.

“They are going to tear everything down,” the agent says. It’s Lambe’s job to fill in the blanks.

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The Game, written by Being Human creator Toby Whithouse, is calculatingly derivative. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shadows every scene, from the waft of an office cigarette to the whiff of nuclear annihilation. It’s a game that’s been played many times before, but that doesn’t make picking up the pieces any less enjoyable.

Maybe it’s because the Cold War just gives better mystery. Dead drops, classified ads in the Times, electricity blackouts – this case will be solved in Shepherd’s Bush rather than cyberspace.

The pace is resolutely analogue too. We know a Soviet agent called Odin is waking up sleeper agents across Britain. We know the Russians are up to something naughty. We know that someone inside MI5 is feeding the Soviets information. Other than that? Nothing. Clues stick like rocks in the sand, unable to be prised out.

Which leaves us plenty of time to get to know our murky band of spies. At the top there’s “Daddy” (Brian Cox), the cloying public school moniker for the head of MI5. Prim Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter) is his second in command, but the mysterious Lambe (Tom Hughes) is Daddy’s trusted confidant.

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Alan Montag, played by Sherlock’s Jonathan Aris, is what passes for a technical wizard in 1970s London, but his wife Sarah (Victoria Hamilton) is the real brains behind the operation. Jim Fenchurch (Broadchurch’s Shaun Dooley) is the grudging police liaison officer, Wendy (Chloe Perrie) the mousy MI5 secretary.

Seven agents against the might of Soviet Russia – doesn’t sound like a fair game does it? Especially when you look round the table and can’t trust a single one of them to play ball.

Actor Tom Hughes is a seductive leading man, making the most of the sedate pace and his sinister good looks. Whithouse has set up plenty of back story in this first episode, but it’ll need more than a shoving match between Lambe and Odin to keep The Game going.

Ah yes, Odin. The Russian spy who inspires fear just by paring an apple. “This must be hard, but don’t worry,” he tells Lambe. “Soon everything will become clear.” 

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Not too soon I hope. I’m looking forward to fumbling around in the dark for a while longer, with just a Zippo to light the way.

The Game continues on Thursday 7 May at 9pm on BBC2