This glossy, made-for-TV espionage thriller with an all-star cast, comes from the late-eighties when the Cold War was drifting towards its final stages; Edward Woodward may be striking all sorts of Bond-style poses in the accompanying publicity materials, but the detached cynicism in John Hopkins’ three hour-plus TV adaptation of the novel by John Trenhaile couldn't be more evocative of the weary, defeated mood of the time. Despite all the gelled and styled hair and the trendy jackets with their sleeves rolled up, and not withstanding the thudding, synth-based light rock score and the slick, sophisticated treatment of the material evident in Ian Sharp’s (“Who Dares Wins”) smooth and mega-stylish ‘80s direction, this is a twisting tale of Le Carre-like complications, with the same edgy characterisation and tense divided loyalties underpinning a plot that’s more like a giant game of chess -- and often needs a chess player’s visualisation skills in order to follow the serpentine motivations of its main characters. Like all great spy thrillers, trust and betrayal are its central themes. By this late stage in the game though, both sides have so thoroughly infiltrated the other's organisations and schemes that the whole enterprise of international espionage appears as nothing more than an absurdist game: everyone is being manipulated by someone on the opposing side it seems, and they're probably being manipulated themselves, in their turn. Unfortunately, there are always innocent people unwittingly caught up in this great, ridiculous game who're liable to get hurt … or killed!
When MI5 pick up a large stash of arms being stored in London by a KGB treasurer called Loshkevoi (John McEnery), and intended for use by terrorist Cells all around the world who are working against the UK, the agency calls in Michael Royston (Edward Woodward) one of the top men in London Station, the headquarters of MI6, to organise the operation to find out just what the man knows. Royston has Loshkevoi picked up by the police on some trumped up charges, then calls upon a man called Sculby (Richard E. Grant) -- an ‘independent’ lawyer, who actually works for the British secret services, gaining his clients’ trust and then telling Royston everything he hears from their lips! Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Chairman Stanov (Peter Vaughan), is dismayed to hear that Loshkevoi has been picked up. He believes there to by a spy in Moscow Centre, working for the British, right in the very heart of the KGB, and Loshkevoi may have vital information that can help Stanov expose him. He organises a daring and hugely cunning plan with the aid of one of his most loyal and trusted men, Colonel Bucharensky (Ian Charleson). Bucharensky must pretend to defect to the West, leaving behind a notebook, written in his own hand, in which he claims to be aware of the identity of the spy in Moscow.
To make the plan convincing, only Stanov, his deputy and Bucharensky himself know that this is all just a cover story, with the real intention being to force the traitor to make a move against the colonel (who is to be given the codename ’Kyril’) in case the KGB catch up with him before he defects -- for in doing so he will unwittingly expose himself. Kyril must therefore act alone, without help from Stanov, and make himself known to both sides -- the British and the Russians (who will now be trying to kill him, because they don't know his true mission) -- while avoiding being picked up by either. Complicating matters further is the fact that Stanov has his own spy right at the heart of London Station, who also doesn't know that Kyril isn’t really defecting. If he is picked up by the British, though, Kyril will be able to expose this man’s true identity; so, reasons the British traitor, he must also work to have Kyril killed before MI6 can allow him to defect. That traitor is none other than Royston himself!
This intricate and slick-looking series was originally broadcast in four parts of fifty minutes duration each. Later edited into a severely truncated movie version, this DVD from Network instead presents it in two parts, each running at a feature-length one hour and forty-five minutes -- which means, in effect, unlike much modern television, the story gets to unfold in leisurely style with all due attention paid to characterisation and subtleties of plot.
This is not a story that is all that concerned with surprise twists and revelations; by less than half-way through the first episode, we know the identities of the traitors on each side and we know the content of each side’s plan to combat the other. Thus, we are made spectators, viewing events from above as the clever machinations and ploys and long cons by all the various players unfold, knowing more at any one time than any of the characters themselves do. There is, then, inevitably a detached irony about proceedings; but that never detracts from the suspense and our emotional engagement with the characters. Indeed, one of the more striking things about Hopkins’ treatment of the material is the subtle way our sympathies are manipulated throughout. Ian Charleson (fresh from filming Dario Argento’s “Opera”) isn’t the stone-faced Kremlin killer we might expect: he has a tender relationship with Catherine Neilson’s masseur love interest for example, and strikes up a faltering friendship with the blind old tenant of the flat downstairs as he hides out in a shabby, booby-trapped London back-street, waiting for assassins on both sides to come calling. When the crunch come though, he instantly reverts to the ruthless killer he has to be in order to survive.
Denholm Elliott, meanwhile, is excellently cast as the perpetually nervous traitor in the Russian camp, weary from all the lying but cunning and wily all the same, with his devious method of smuggling secrets out of the country via microdots concealed in the notation of a guitarist’s music score. Richard E. Grant’s character, Sculby, is caught in the middle of some extremely devious power play on both sides and so one instinctively sympathises with him, even though he is breaking every lawyer confidentiality clause in his profession in order to help the British services (although he’s being played by the treacherous Royston the whole time anyway!). Edward Woodward is no stranger to the espionage genre of course, having starred in one of the greatest TV spy shows of all time as the eponymous “Callan”. Here he plays the kind of dickie bow wearing mandarin who would have got David Callan’s back up for certain; but it’s a clever performance he gives here, since, although Royston is utterly ruthless and an unashamed traitor, Woodward gives him loads of humanising touches which make it hard to dislike him completely. And since we come to care about all these characters, while knowing full well that there is absolutely no way they can all possibly make it to the end of the film alive, the stakes are that much greater and the tension palpable by the final ultra-tense scenes.
Shot on 35 mm film and exhibiting a lush ’80s feel and a whole host of locations that take it from London and Bristol (doubling as London), to Amsterdam and Oslo in Norway (doubling as Russia), this is glossy prestige TV at its height, but with the kind of attention to character detail you don't always get to see these days. Ian Charleson is effectively appearing in his last major role here, while old hands like Denholm Elliot, Peter Vaughan and Joss Ackland (who plays MI6 boss ‘C’) are a pleasure to watch even if most of them are stuck with fairly light roles in comparison to everyone else. Network’s new DVD release comes with a large selection of stills in a gallery that runs for over eight minutes, and a fairly decent looking transfer which does feature one or two blemishes here and there, but nothing to detract from the overall viewing experience. Well worth a look.