The BBC must have been beside themselves with joy when World Productions and writer Tony Marchant came to them with the idea for The Secret Agent.
Here was a story about a man who dabbles in espionage but is then thrust into a deadly plot when his paymasters want him to commit an act of terrorism.
The Tsarist government in Russia believes that the British are too soft on the radical left and asks our (anti) hero Verloc (Toby Jones) to commit an act of terror on a grand scale, blowing up the Greenwich Observatory in order to waken (as they see it) the Brits from their liberal slumber.
Written by Joseph Conrad in 1906 and set in 1886, it is, let’s face it, full of enormously prescient and farsighted thinking, given modern anxieties about global terror and our response to it.
As Tony Marchant puts it: “The contemporaneity of it just hit me in the face.”
One of the characters, the gruesome anarchist The Professor (Ian Hart), also has a bomb strapped to him in one scene in episode one – one of the first literary depictions of suicide bombers, which have become an unfortunate commonplace these days.
So it’s ahead of its time. But as drama, does it work?
Joseph Conrad’s book must have been a headache to adapt. His text jumps around chronologically and does not lay out its narrative in clear linear terms. It has multiple points of view, going backwards and forwards in time and between events. So full marks to Marchant, who has done a good job on the structure, ironing out all the reported speech and time jumps to make it work as a thriller.
Our main man Toby Jones is also excellent as Anton Verloc – the secret agent of the title who does his work while running a seedy Soho sex shop. It’s a tricky role: he is forced to dominate proceedings but is, given what he does, very hard to love. (Quick note: in the book Anton is actually called Adolf Verloc; no guesses as to why they have changed it.)
Jones modulates his performance well, teasing out a sympathetic understanding of a man trapped between powerful forces beyond his control. He has nowhere to go: there is a particularly excellent scene at the end of episode one when he looks at a circus lion trapped in a cage and can’t help but identify with the poor animal.
The most sympathetic character in the book and on screen is Winnie, his put-upon wife: here she seems to be the emotional heart of the story. Line of Duty star Vicky McClure really has hit her acting straps these days and her performance here feels utterly natural and moving.
Winnie’s younger brother Stevie, the mentally impaired young man who is groomed by Verloc to do his bidding, also elicits a strong, touching performance from Charlie Hamblett.
Obviously, Stevie’s story also has modern relevance, given how suicide bombers are often co-opted these days. But there is also in Hamblett’s performance a profoundly human sense of his his need for love, his eagerness to please, his vulnerability.
Director Charles McDougall has also done a good job. It is filmed in a very modern way – no bonnets or bustling, very natural and vibrant – like a modern thriller, while remaining true to the spirit of the book.
The anarchists are also vividly depicted, dirty and menacing – not the misguided idiots they can sometimes feel like in Conrad’s writing.
Above all, this succeeds in making this as much a human domestic tragedy as a political spy thriller about a world in trouble. I am looking forward to episode two.
The Secret Agent continues Sundays BBC1