Secret Agent

Secret Agent

BBC 1 Series (Sundays)
Written by Joseph Conrad

Reviewed by John Owen

The actor Toby Jones seems to be in everything, he plays the horribly likable central character agent Verloc, in hoc to the police. His cover is that he is running a Victorian equivalent of an Anne Summers shop, shifting respectable porn, catering to the penchant for French postcards, a euphemism for soft porn photographs.

His pragmatic wife Winnie (Vicky McClure) has no qualms, although it rankles his more prurient socialist associates. All are blissfully unaware of his dual role, playing with radicals meeting in his shop.

There are strong performances all round with Ian Hart playing the professor, a chemist, or bomb throwing anarchist to be precise, who strikes fear into all, wearing a couple of bottles of gelignite and a fuse all the time.

Like his previous novels Joseph Conrad dealt with the dynamic underbelly of polite society and strove to reveal the class tensions and politics, something he himself knew well. He worked among the lower orders, as a sailor, docker and later adventurer. Read his Heart of Darkness novel, the film Apocalypse Now was adapted from.

The performances manage to recreate the right amount of inward and intense psychological atmosphere, without appearing too claustrophobic. The drama has a suitable feel for the period, reminding me of “Ripper Street”.

The politics of pre-Labour party socialism and European anarchism are not the BBCs strongpoint, let alone revolutionary syndicalism for that matter. But never mind, the nuances, the specific ideological content, and the organisations like trade unions political parties ideas were dangerous. They were as much press shibboleths like today.

Nihilism or terrorism as terms terrified the upper classes; they were the antipathy to the bourgeois ordered world and respectability, where everyone knew their place in society.

Meeting secretly in basement back rooms with the constant fear of the knock on the door, the secret police tailing their every move and second guessing their activities. These conditions prevail as much today. More so the bombings and apparent mindless killings.

Though a certain licence is taken BBC drama wise, to make long tracts of proletarian emancipatory dialogue edifying to the middle class licence payers and assumptions asked of the audience to go with the flow. It’s not a documentary, so sit back and watch the film unwind and become the plotter, the politician, the copper, or the armchair revolutionary we all are. More tea vicar.

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