Spied: the best TV espionage thrillers

As Spooks bows out, we celebrate the top five most tense spy dramas in television history

We may never see the likes of Spooks again. But if you’re already missing the gang in Thames House, search out these great TV espionage thrillers.


24 (US 2001-2010)

Jack Bauer became a synonym for tough heroes – really tough. He didn’t act hard – he just did what needed to be done, he rarely looked back and he never ate or went near a loo. The 24-hour, minute-by-minute format strained at times but it was fresh in 2001 and never outstayed its welcome. Watch one of the original trailers explaining the unusual format and guess which brief shot was then removed from the series – after 9/11.

Mission: Impossible (US 1966-1973)

Just picture Hustle with a dash of Leverage, split-second timing, 1960s panache and always, always those silly rubber masks that make you look like other people. It was fantastic in its day and many of the stories still stand up.

Critics ruined the 1996 Tom Cruise film version, though: they called it complicated so the sequel was forehead-slappingly dumb. The third film took a step back up but still didn’t reach the surprises of the original. Watch our first sight of Cruise as Ethan Hunt and that brilliant update of the theme in this trailer.


The fourth film, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is due in UK cinemas on Boxing Day.

The Sandbaggers (UK 1978-1980)

Beat this. Roy Marsden as Neil Burnside. Not only could The Sandbaggers turn people talking in offices into hold-your-breath tension but its creator was an ex-secret service man who went missing, presumed dead, in a mysterious plane accident. Seriously. Look him up: Ian Mackintosh. In 1989 The New York Times called this the best spy series of all time and while every single one since has been far glossier, few have matched it.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (UK 1979)

It now feels very slow at first – and it is twice the length of the 2011 film remake – but 30 years on, this BBC dramatisation of the John le Carré novel still seduces you, still makes the most of every moment – and its title sequence is still as striking. As good as the new film is at re-creating the period, this was made in the time it was set, just five years after the novel was written, and every frame is now evocative as well as taut and tense. Alec Guinness is so strong, so memorable as George Smiley that, after all these decades, he was still the standard for Gary Oldman to match.

Spooks (UK 2002-2011)

It changed cast so often and killed major characters so regularly that you genuinely never knew who would survive to the end of the episode. But like the very best television of all, we might not really have appreciated what we had until it was gone.




Anyone for a Spooks movie..?

Which is your favourite spy drama of all time? Post a comment below and let us know.