He likes his Martinis shaken but not stirred. Beautiful women hang on the arm of his tuxedo and a gun with an endless magazine of bullets is nestled in his right armpit. He is the Great British Movie Spy.
In James Bond movies, Spooks, The Ipcress File, even Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the “great game” is played out on screen by SAS-type action heroes or clipped-colonel gentlemen of the realm fiendishly conspiring with their rolled up brollies along the Thames Embankment.
In the movies – with the exception of the character Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty – spying is pretty much a man’s game. Apart from the role as obligatory arm candy, a woman’s place is usually firmly flat on her back in the hero’s hotel suite.
As the producer of Complicit, a new Channel 4 drama about MI5 and torture, I have spent the past three years of my life meeting real-life British spies, former spies, whistleblowers, Muslim extremists and assorted security experts. And for the decade before that I roamed around the Middle East and Northern Ireland making documentaries about the history of suicide bombing and the rise of the car bomb, meeting Hezbollah chiefs and Israeli spymasters.
In Complicit, written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Niall MacCormick, we’ve tried very hard to portray a far more accurate picture of the bureaucratic constraints of the modern spy trade and the troubling moral complexities of relying on intelligence from foreign regimes who routinely torture suspects. Guy was rightly more interested in our hero’s character than the calibre of his bullets.
If you are fighting a global jihad, one clue does not necessarily lead to another but merely adds further to a pattern of suspicion that could be nothing more than hot-headed bluster in some internet chatroom yet could also be the first indications of another 7/7 attack.
Sadly, the glamorous life of the spy normally depicted on screen bears little resemblance to the mundane reality of intelligence work. For every hour spent in the wilds of Afghanistan meeting turbaned tribesmen, the average MI6 man or woman is going to spend months, if not years, sitting at their desk in London writing memos and answering emails.
If James Bond operated in the real world, before he got round to firing his gun, he would have had to fill out in triplicate his exact travel plans, who he was meeting, and what the potential health and safety risks were. Even when they are based in Kabul or Baghdad, most modern spies in the CIA or MI6 rarely leave the safety of their fortress-like bases for fear of being kidnapped or shot. They never meet the men and rarely smell the worlds they are spying on.
Modern-day spying, even more so than the average accountancy office, is a world of memos, reports, requests for permission to act and usually memos denying such permissions. It is difficult enough for most of us to weed out our own junk mail from our personal inbox. Imagine wading through the email boxes of a score of fired-up fanatics kvetching every hour on the alleged crimes of western governments ever since Richard the Lionheart headed east to retake the Holy Land in 1189.
Worst of all, MI5 officers in Britain are not supposed to be armed and have no powers of arrest. Instead of shooting the baddie, they have to call in the police to slip on the handcuffs.
If movie-makers were more truthful, they would be making Jane Bond, rather than James. Most of the employees of MI6 and the CIA are actually women analysts, who work nine to five in offices that hum with the sound of air conditioners rather than handguns being readied for shoot-outs.
Intelligence work still, of course, remains a fascinating area for film-makers. In Complicit, Edward (David Oyelowo) follows the trail of his adversary Waleed (Arsher Ali) via a chain of informants, including an imam, in London’s East End Muslim community.
As we know from Northern Ireland’s Troubles and various Islamist terror trials in the UK, a good MI5 officer is only as good as the last informant he recruited from within the Catholic or Muslim communities under surveillance.
Persuading people to betray their friends, their families and their whole community is an interesting psychological art in which money, blackmail, extortion and deceit all play a part. According to one very senior intelligence chief I met, the best informants are always disgruntled, abandoned wives: careless pillow talk can still damn the most hardened terrorist operative.
Spy movies, like spy novels, allow us to explore a world most of us can only imagine and the serious moral dilemmas that confront our spies. One of those big questions is the theme of Complicit. Can torture bring you to the truth? Is it right for democratic states to resort to torture to defeat an implacable enemy prepared to murder indiscriminately on the London Tube or on a passenger airline? Or do we betray ourselves and the values we cherish most by resorting to the rack, the wheel or waterboarding?
Complicit won’t be the last British spy movie but it does show a more complex portrayal of the professional life of a MI5 agent than anything previously shown on British screens. It’s a new marker into the ways in which film-makers use the great art of film to take us all inside the hidden world of the British spy.
Kevin Toolis is a journalist and author of Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s Soul
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