The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the core of spy thriller The Little Drummer Girl.
Set in 1979, John le Carré’s story pits Israeli spymaster Kurtz (Michael Shannon) against a Palestinian revolutionary kingpin who is coordinating terrorist attacks on Jewish targets across Europe.
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Florence Pugh stars as an aspiring English actress called Charlie who is caught up in a web of espionage. She says that many people initially questioned how much of the original 1983 novel would make it into the BBC adaptation, given the politically sensitive subject matter.
She recalls: “I remember having conversations with people, and people saying: ‘Yeah, I wonder how much of that you’ll be able to do, though? I wonder how much of the story you’ll actually be able to tell without people getting upset or angry?’
“That was a reason as much as any for me to go, ‘Oh no, this is totally important and this does need to be played out.’ You don’t want it to be taboo.”
“What was great about the storyline, and something that we all loved, is it never once tells you how you should feel,” she adds. “At no point do we feel like we’re being lectured by the lead on how we should settle or feel a certain way.”
Pugh’s character Charlie’s life is changed after meeting a mysterious man (Alexander Skarsgård) on holiday in Greece. Joseph is actually a Mossad agent sent to recruit her for a special mission, but there’s more to his story than that.
“It was very important that it wasn’t good versus evil,” Skarsgård says. “He’s not the heroic Mossad agent fighting the evil Palestinians.”
All six episodes are directed by South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, who has said he found personal resonance in the story having grown up watching the conflict with North Korea across the divided peninsula.
“I’d met director Park a couple of times before this so I knew that his heart was in the right place and that he’s a very compassionate man,” Skarsgård says. “I’d read John le Carré’s novel, so I know that he’s a man that believes in moral ambiguity and conflicted characters. There’s no way he’s going to make this into a B-action ‘good guy versus bad guy’ story.
“Even Becker, my character, is conflicted about it, and I think hopefully the audience will feel that and understand why he’s having a hard time with what he has to do.”
He adds: “I think the Palestinians are portrayed in a very real way, and with a lot of depth, and I just really hope that people understand their plight and their struggle and what they’ve gone through.”
The drama shows the human cost of Palestinian bombs, but also the other side of the conflict in Palestine’s refugee camps.
“You have to be aware that it’s a scary topic, because it’s so painful and it’s gone on for so long,” Pugh says. “And you have to re-educate yourself. And for me especially, when I started this project, I didn’t know nearly as much as I do now.
“I knew that in order to play this character, I couldn’t be daunted by the history.”
The Little Drummer Girl airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1