London Spy is why I pay my licence fee

Alison Graham applauds the gripping drama with a realistic gay relationship at its core

I’ve turned into one of those people, the sort of person I always promised I would never become. The sort of person who sits comfortably as she nods sagely before declaiming, “Now this is why I pay my licence fee.”


I tend to say this about Radio 4 Extra, The Great British Bake Off, documentaries about canals, Only Connect and so on. Now I’m saying it a lot about London Spy, which ends on BBC2 tonight. Can you imagine any body other than a publicly funded British broadcaster making a spy thriller and murder mystery with a tender, explicit gay love story at its heart? Can you imagine it ever appearing on Russian television? (Hello Vladimir! Want to see a couple of lovely boys going at it! No? Shame!)

But here it is, on BBC2, complete with graphic sex scenes. Not many, mind you, not enough surely to make anyone’s eyes water, but enough to illustrate the love affair at its heart.

Because London Spy, though notionally a murder mystery/thriller, is really a romance between two misfits from different worlds, who collide, literally, on the Embankment in London. The fact that they are gay doesn’t define their emotions. Love is love in Tom Rob Smith’s thriller, a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the Wikileaks generation.

Danny (Ben Whishaw, who’s amazing in it) is a rootless, feckless young man who spends empty nights lurching around the capital’s gay demi-monde looking for love but finding only pick-ups and drugs and the occasional orgy. And Alex (Edward Holcroft) a rigid, obtuse, closed-down spy. Neither Danny nor Alex has ever been in love, and both are desperately unhappy.

But they find one another and discover they are meant for one another. So they have sex – and it’s graphic, but rather gorgeous: a bit like a Caravaggio painting that moves. It feels real and right, unlike most television drama sex, which is embarrassing. Remember the lifeless couplings of the supposedly mad-for-it Mellors and Connie in the recent Lady Chatterley’s Lover? I’ve had more fun watching someone make a trifle.

Having seen the first London Spy episode I made the assumption that no one would surely be het up about the love scene. After all, BBC2 warned about graphic content and besides, it’s not Paw Patrol, it’s a post-watershed drama. It’s 2015, no one’s going to sob into their crinoline over two men sharing affection with their clothes off.

Of course, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in a couple of newspapers, but the stories were cor-blimey, tasteless confections. Otherwise, no one was bothered. At the time of writing Ofcom, television’s regulatory body, has received three complaints about the scene and won’t be investigating. Clearly, because there’s nothing to investigate.

This is so heartening. The world has opened up for gay men and women: they can marry, they can adopt children. They are entitled to see even the most intimate aspects of their lives reflected on television. Russell T Davies did it with brilliant, life-affirming exuberance in the recent Cucumber and Banana (though with a death scene that will haunt me till I am on my own death bed as my husband Aidan Turner weeps noisily into a hanky).

There’s still a way to go. It would be nice to see a mainstream TV-drama gay couple actually live happily together, rather than one of them dying (London Spy, Last Tango in Halifax) or having a cycling accident and forgetting she’s gay (Call the Midwife). But hey, a touching representation of male sexy times? It’s not going to kill you.


London Spy concludes on BBC2 tonight (Monday 7th December) at 9.00pm