I couldn’t put my finger on it at first and then I realised that was it. Watching The Game is like having a severe sense of déjà-vu (even for those of us who didn’t live through the 70s so have never thought patterned mustard wallpaper is a chic design choice). It’s the BBC ripping off its own seminal spy series: its 1979 adaptation of John le Carré’s Cold War thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – with its dingy dealings in jargon and misinformation, defectors crawling out of every shadow and medicinal tumblers of whisky – which of course has already been lovingly honoured in the 2011 remake starring Gary Oldman.
Where The Game’s heavy-handed homage fell down and became parody was the plot or, more specifically, its gaping holes and comic missteps. Would MI5 really have chased the KGB into a conveniently deserted fairground as they do in episode one? Why didn’t they position themselves between their targets and the escape route in the first place? Surely the PM’s secretary entrusted with the ‘letter of last resort’ in the second instalment could have just lied?
Our hero, intelligence officer Joe Lambe, is supposed to be a master at reading body language, but his usual interrogation tactic is to confess everything he knows as though he’s the one who’s been caught with his pants down. For that matter, he’s also supposed to be a virtuoso in bed – a honey-trapper as spy parlance has it – but in episode three, a KGB sleeper agent sees through his wiles quicker than you can stutter, “was it something I said?”
And yet I’m really hoping Joe’ll be back for a second series. The actor who plays him, Tom Hughes, is a beautiful creature with primped curls and sullen pout, which is never a bad thing. But the most attractive thing – to this fellow north-westerner at least – is that a Scouse accent has finally infiltrated MI5. Although northern accents are no longer a rarity in TV drama, it’s still rare to find a leading man daring to wear one, especially in a period piece.
But after The Game wraps up tonight, what I’ll miss most isn’t Joe but his sharply drawn colleagues: avuncular Daddy (whose Achilles heel was a conniving Chinese dancer), bluff idealist Jim, ambitious but repressed Bobby, perpetually flustered yet efficient Wendy, wry ‘Daddy’s girl’ Sarah, and geeky Alan who can’t hold a normal conversation without a how-to list from his wife (and even then fails). Writer Toby Whithouse has inked in their flaws and foibles so you come to genuinely care about them, far more than the KGB or Operation Glass.
Last but definitely not least, The Game deserves a second series for the theme tune alone. It’s also hugely derivative – there are undertones of Mad Men and The Hour – but like all the best theme tunes it makes your pulse skip that little bit faster. I especially like the way it sidles in elsewhere to underscore the action. Best of all was the slow motion bit in the last episode that was supposed to be portentous because the mole was about to be revealed, but became comic because it looked like Alan was brushing his teeth in time to the music.
Bumbling, accidentally funny, oddly endearing – how I hope the spies of The Game will be given a second mission.