Saturday, 5 January 2013


This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 5th January 2013.

Wednesday, BBC4, 9pm

Today, BBC4, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

It's probably fair to say that, unless you're terminally befuddled, SPIES OF WARSAW isn't a title that implies a great deal of ambiguity. It's a drama about spies, set in Warsaw. Of course it is.

That this blunt, say-what-you-see title hovers over a work penned by legendary comedy partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais is perhaps surprising. After all, Porridge never traded under the name of 'Prison Men'. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet wasn't called 'Geordie Builders in Germany' for good reason. The Likely Lads wouldn't be so fondly remembered if it was called 'Actors Speaking Comedy'. I could go on.

But Spies of Warsaw is an inherited title, taken from a novel by Alan Furst, who specialises in atmospheric, detailed evocations of Second World War espionage in Eastern Europe. Shown over two feature-length parts, this unyieldingly dramatic piece also doesn't contain a shred of the wit that Clement and La Frenais are renowned for, although you could argue that its sense of slightly heightened realism is a droll joke in itself. Because make no mistake, this is a spy drama that's seen lots of other spy dramas.

Set in the late 1930s, with Hitler's invasion of Poland hovering malignantly on the horizon, it contains all the elements you'd expect: furtive conversations at lavish embassy balls; pinch-faced Nazis brandishing barking wolfhounds; tense border-checks with barbed-wire trimmings; glamorous women smoking cigarettes seductively; solemn spies drinking reflective brandies; drunken Russian poet dissidents railing against the system; ominous knocks on the door at midnight; and impressively choreographed covert missions. At one point there's even a leather-gloved Gestapo officer stroking a cat (I kid you not).

But these familiar motifs actually add up to a fairly absorbing whole, with David Tennant on taciturn form as an impressively decorated war hero working as a military attach̩/undercover spy. Whenever he isn't floating through polite diplomatic functions, he spends most of his time spying on Nazis Рthey're up to no good in the Black Forest - and trying to protect his various informants.

Something of a cold fish, he's nevertheless honourable and ethical, at one point refusing to murder a teenage Nazi assailant because war has yet to be officially declared. Yes, he's a damn good oeuf. But as a character he isn't especially fascinating, so although, as a tale of heroism and intrigue, Spies of Warsaw gradually exerts its grip, one never feels particularly engaged with Tennant's underlying heartbreak – his beloved wife dies of consumption before the action gets underway – nor his burgeoning romance with a beautiful, brittle Parisian lawyer.

You may also have to get used to the curious spectacle of a Scottish actor adopting an English accent to play a Frenchman, although perhaps we should be thankful that he didn't opt for the full Clouseau. Few things are more distracting than actors earnestly intoning dialogue of the “ah wuz pizzing on mah boocycle” variety.

A co-production with BBC America, it's clear that little expense has been spared here. The whole thing gleams with a richly textured, cinematic hue. And the soundtrack – swathed in mournful brass, woodwind and plucked piano strings – is an almost too fitting accompaniment to the prevailing mood of paranoia, contempt and fear.

Oh, and for no good reason – other than, I suppose, to show off his character's war wounds – Tennant removes his shirt quite frequently, which will doubtless curry favour with fans who enjoy his work in “that way”. And that, I think, is one of the most important pieces of information I've ever imparted in a preview. No need to thank me for it.

If you're mourning the loss of the recently departed Forbrydelsen (aka The Killing), then you may be comforted by the return of Danish political drama BORGEN, especially as the actor who played the troubled Prime Minister in the most recent series crops up as a grieving car salesman. Oh, there's literally seconds of fun to be had imagining he's playing the same character, after deciding to leave politics for a quiet life in the motor trade.

It begins with female PM Birgitte Nyborg – the sort of principled, liberal, uncorrupted and sympathetic politician who only really exists in fiction – visiting Danish troops in Afghanistan. Forced to flee following a Taliban attack, she returns home to a frosty reception from all sides when an unprecedented number of soldiers are killed in one day.

Meanwhile, her ambitious spin doctor Kasper is on the verge of moving in with his new partner, following the breakdown of his relationship with principled, liberal, uncorrupted and sympathetic journalist Katrine. The latter is used – quite effectively – as a device to explore media ethics with regards to dealing with the bereaved during times of tragedy, while Nyborg's conflict over whether to withdraw from Afghanistan is handled with the thoughtful nuance typical of this series.

Sure, some of the exposition is a tad heavy-handed – those explanatory news reports are awfully handy, are they not? - but this is so much more than merely a Danish version of The West Wing. It's mercifully lacking in suffocating piety and schmaltz, for a start. And don't worry if you missed series one, as it more or less starts afresh. Tak!

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