BBC's The Secret Agent a 'horribly pertinent' tale of terrorism

Critics hail Toby Jones and Vicky McClure's performances in political thriller-meets-domestic tragedy

Secret Agent
(Image credit: BBC)

The BBC's new adaptation of Joseph Conrad's classic conspiracy thriller The Secret Agent, is pitched just right for our modern anxieties, say critics.

The three-part drama stars Toby Jones as Verloc, the beleaguered proprietor of a Soho smut shop who also runs a risky sideline spying on anarchists for the Russians.

He is married to the naive Winnie (Vicky McClure), who sees him as a safe bet to care for her and her mentally ill younger brother. When the Russians order Verloc to take a more active role in undermining the anarchists by orchestrating a bombing, his precariously balanced world starts to fall apart.

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The first episode saw Verloc under pressure to move from passive informer to active conspirator by procuring a bomb from a radical professor for a false flag bomb attack to implicate the anarchists.

It all seemed very relevant, to reviewers.

Back in the 1990s, adaptations of The Secret Agent channelled contemporary anxieties about the Provisional IRA, says Jasper Rees in the Daily Telegraph. Given recent events it's hardly a shock "its time has come again", although it is "unusual for a costume drama to feel quite so contemporary".

As drama, it is fascinating, adds Rees. This cat-and-mouse thriller features blackmail, betrayal and double-dealing "could be The Night Manager in bowler hats".

Indeed, Conrad's book, which jumps around chronologically, must have been a headache to adapt, so "full marks" for the team for making it work as a thriller, says Ben Dowell in the Radio Times.

Main man Jones is also excellent as Verloc, "teasing out a sympathetic understanding of a man trapped between powerful forces beyond his control", he adds, while, McClure as Winnie, the emotional heart of the story, "really has hit her acting straps" and her performance "feels utterly natural and moving".

Above all, Dowell says, The Secret Agent succeeds as much as a "domestic tragedy as a political spy thriller about a world in trouble".

The disappointment, though, is that "Conrad's great, strange, tonally complex novel is reduced to a psychological thriller", says Stephen Moss in The Guardian. You would never know from watching the BBC version that it is, in some respects, "a funny book, certainly a deeply ironic one".

Much of Conrad's oddness lies in his unwillingness to explain and by seeking to pin everything down, much is lost, including the comedy, adds Moss: "Having to show everything clearly, not being able to trust the mind of the viewer, is the curse of TV."

However, given that Conrad's terrorism satire is so "horribly pertinent", it is probably just as well this version "came out a little short on the black comedy that distinguishes the novel", argues Andrew Billen in The Times, even if some of the scenes feel a bit "talky and old fashioned".

Rob Smedley on Cult Box says it was a straightforward opener, with few twists or turns, just a "simple story told well".

But this is "a drama of great care and quality", he adds, in "a summer which so far has provided TV watchers with neither".

The Secret Agent: Toby Jones stars in Conrad's prescient tale

12 July

The BBC's new adaptation of Joseph Conrad's classic espionage thriller The Secret Agent - a bitter political satire set in the late 19th century - airs this weekend, so what can it offer viewers today?

The three-part drama stars Toby Jones (best known for his roles in Captain America and The Hunger Games films) along with Vicky McClure (Line of Duty), Ian Hart (Harry Potter, The Last Kingdom), Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire) and David Dawson (The Last Kingdom). Charles McDougall (House Of Cards, The Office) directs.

The psychological thriller follows the story of Verloc (Jones), who runs a seedy shop in Soho, London. Unknown to his loyal wife Winnie (McClure), Verloc also works for the Russians, spying on a group of anarchists.

The Russians, frustrated by the English establishment's indifference to the threat, devise a plan to put the anarchists in the firing line. Verloc is ordered to orchestrate the bombing of the Greenwich Observatory to provoke an anti-terrorist crackdown. If he fails, his real identity as a spy will be exposed and his life destroyed. When his anarchist colleagues prove reluctant, Verloc turns to his wife's intellectually disabled younger brother, Stevie, for help.

Though it was written in 1907 and set in 1886, the subject of this searingly satirical novel could hardly be more relevant today. Themes of covert operations, false flag conspiracies, radicalisation, Russians flexing their muscles in London and a vulnerable young man groomed for terrorism will no doubt resonate with contemporary audiences.

The BBC trailer shows a nervous-looking Jones walking the streets of London and looking over his shoulder. It cuts to a meeting in a carriage where a Russian embassy official tells him: "England is in need of a jolly good scare."[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"content_original","fid":"97184","attributes":{"class":"media-image"}}]]

In an interview with The Scotsman, scriptwriter Tony Marchant says he and director McDougall have fleshed out some of Conrad's more caricatured roles to give the story more direct emotional investment.

"There's a lot of scorn in the book and not enough pity... There has to be consequences, the domestic tragedy more felt," says Marchant.

They have given Verloc's wife Winnie a more crucial role in the story, he adds, and highlighted her infatuation with one of the anarchists, Ossipon (Raphael Acloque). "Her tragedy is that she always hopes. She hoped she'd have a life with Stevie, she hoped that her marriage would be OK... and she hopes that her relationship with Ossipon will work out," he says.

The Secret Agent starts on BBC at 9pm on 17 July on BBC1

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