The private lives of spies: TV series MI-5 shows operatives with domestic issues
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 28 October 2003)

Is there something a little odd about the fact that MI-5, the agency responsible for internal security in Britain, operates its own Web site? Not long ago, that idea would have been outlandish. Spies traditionally live in the shadows, but now MI-5 blatantly advertises its presence: "Welcome to the official SECURITY SERVICE (MI5) website." It blandly directs those seeking careers in counter-espionage to a separate recruiting site, promising to send a pamphlet outlining qualifications.

Last year, shortly after BBC television started running a one-hour fictional series about MI-5, employment applications doubled. One reason was that the BBC program's own site, casually vaulting the barrier between fiction and reality, provided convenient links to the real MI-5. More important, the TV series has become a hit with young British viewers.

The BBC calls the series Spooks. But A&E, importing it into North America last summer, changed the title to MI-5 because many Americans consider "spooks" a derogatory term for blacks, as the professor in Philip Roth's The Human Stain learns when he destroys his career by using the word as a synonym for ghosts in his classroom. A&E runs MI-5 on Tuesday nights and usually repeats it late on Saturday; tonight it's about a corporation with connections to terrorists and drug dealers.

The producers, bringing espionage fantasy up to date, clearly consider decor a key element. In the old days, British spycraft tended to be pretty grungy, what with all those undergraduates getting seduced by dons in dusty Cambridge colleges while drunk on bad sherry. And the gents directing James Bond's activities worked in what looked like dubious import-export firms. But the characters in MI-5 use an office (they call it the Grid) that's as stylish as a designer's studio in Milan.

Matthew MacFadyen, the star, defines the show as "three young people saving the world every week." That sounds deadly, but MI-5 moves with such speed and charm that it's always entertaining. MacFadyen is a RADA grad and former Shakesperean actor who recently gave a delicious performance as Sir Felix Carbury, the young scoundrel in Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. He plays Tom Quinn, the dour leader of an MI-5 counter-espionage team. Tom and his helpers, Zoe and Danny, seem to have erased the lines separating analysts, controllers and operatives. They do a lot of thinking and planning, but they also go out and get shot at.

In one show Tom has to negotiate with a notorious Irish terrorist who offers to help MI-5 keep Muslim terrorists from blowing up a nuclear power station. When Tom meets the IRA man in an isolated field, the two of them strip down to their skins to show they aren't armed or wired for sound, producing an odd little tableau. The terrorist gives Tom a laptop revealing the plans for the power-plant attack but turns out to be pursuing his own scheme to blow up a London tube station. And he's booby-trapped the laptop, which Tom foolishly takes home and leaves with his girlfriend and her daughter.

MI-5 embraces the most popular narrative theme in recent spy and detective stories: the struggle between work and love. How can you "sustain a relationship," as we now say, when duty may call you away on a moment's notice to do something you can't explain to your life partner? That never came up with James Bond or for that matter Hercule Poirot, but in recent times countless TV shows and novels have explained that pursuing terrorists and murderers can lead to marital strain. The divorced detective or lonely secret agent, wary of further entanglements, has become a familiar character on the landscape of pop fiction.

Scriptwriters love this predicament because it lets them import soap-opera emotion into action shows. Producers love it because it attracts women to programs that might otherwise bore them. David Wolstencroft and Howard Brenton, who write MI-5, are crazy about it, and sometimes Tom's romance seems to concern him more than, say, a plot to assassinate a visiting U.S. president.

Early in the series the writers produced a nice elaboration of the basic idea. What if you fall deeply in love while working undercover with a false identity? Your new girlfriend and her child get to know you as a computer specialist named Matthew. When the undercover assignment ends, you have to break the news that you're actually named Tom and you're doing vital government work, which, as it happens, you can't even explain.

Certainly the work is vital. Tom, Zoe and Danny deal with a potential mutiny in the British Army, an American pro-life killer who has brought her crusade to England, a breach in the firewall around MI-5's own computers, and a bank that's laundering money. They also have to handle, occasionally, something called an Extreme Emergency Response Initiative Exercise (EERIE).

One show, about a mullah training suicide bombers in a Birmingham mosque, angered the British Muslim community. Muslims petitioned the BBC not to show it, but it aired anyway, and produced about 1,000 complaints. One Muslim spokesman said, "It is sad the BBC is doing this. We are trying to condemn this kind of involvement in our community." (But didn't the BBC show support the worthwhile process of condemnation?)

If the series looks stylish and sexy, the dialogue often bogs down in technospeak. Keeley Hawes, who plays Zoe, says she finds it a bit of a challenge: "Some of the time you have no idea what you're actually talking about. It's just a matter of remembering it all and getting it in the right order."

But the writing can occasionally be succinct. This is the kind of series in which the CIA liaison officer in London turns out to be a beautiful blond named Christine. She's also, of course, insufferably arrogant. At one point she demands that Tom turn over to the Americans a terrorist the British would rather hold for a while. Tom, a bit whiny, says he thought that MI-5 and the CIA were equal partners. Christine says: "We are, which means you don't get to stand around and mean well, Tom. You actually have to get off your butt sometimes and do exactly what we tell you." It's a fantasy, for sure, but elements of reality creep in here and there.

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