This book explores the history of the spy and conspiracy genres on British television, from 1960s Cold War series through 1980s conspiracy dramas to contemporary 'war on terror' thrillers. It analyses classic dramas including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Edge of Darkness, A Very British Coup and Spooks. The analysis is framed by the notion that the on-screen depiction of intelligence services in such programmes can be interpreted as providing metaphors for broadcasting institutions. Initially, the book is primarily focused on espionage-themed programmes produced by regional franchise-holders for ITV in late 1960s and 1970s. Subsequently, it considers spy series to explore how many standard generic conventions were innovated and popularised. The relatively economical productions such as Bird of Prey demonstrated a more sophisticated treatment of genre conventions, articulated through narratives showing the collapse of standard procedure. Channel 4 was Britain's third and final broadcaster to be enshrined with a public service remit. As the most iconic version of the television spy drama in the 1960s, the ITC adventure series, along with ABC's The Avengers, fully embraced the formulaic and Fordist tendencies of episodic series in the US network era. However, Callan, a more modestly resourced series aimed more towards a domestic audience, incorporated elements of deeper psychological drama, class tension and influence from the existential spy thrillers. The book is an invaluable resource for television scholars interested in a new perspective on the history of television drama and intelligence scholars seeking an analysis of the popular representation of espionage.
The battle for consensus in A Very British Coup (Channel 4, 1988)
The 1980s had seen the development of a new kind of serialised conspiracy drama demonstrating great anxiety over the growing hegemony of Thatcherite politics. In the final years of the decade, however, a new conspiracy drama would take a somewhat different approach, beginning instead with the apparent defeat of Thatcherism. A Very British Coup (Channel 4, 1988) opens with the coming to power of a radical socialist Labour government in an imagined General Election of 1991 on a manifesto of reversing a decade of Thatcherite policies and unilateral nuclear disarmament. The victory of a socialist Labour government is therefore sited in an imagined popular disenchantment with the dominant political culture of the 1980s, and furthermore a reformed social-democratic consensus to reclaim the country on behalf of the economically marginalised. A Very British Coup converges two paranoid visions of the intelligence world.
Espionage as a public service in Spooks (BBC 1, 2002–11)
Although the 1990s proved something of a moribund period for the British television spy series, following the turn of the millennium the BBC would experience great success with Spooks (BBC 1, 2002-11), an ongoing espionage-themed drama developed as a new flagship programme for its majority interest channel BBC. In reality, however, by the time of the 9/11 attacks the initial six-episode run of Spooks had already been commissioned and largely planned out, with four scripts drafted. Although the series would come to position itself more strongly as a response to the 'war on terror' in later years, this chapter examines the first series in the context of its original broadcast in 2002. It explores how Spooks drew upon many new elements that had been popularised in a deregulated and globalised television era, including the popular form of the precinct series and a dynamic visual style derived from high-end American drama.
This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts covered in the preceding chapters of this book. The book focuses on how creative boldness in the spy and conspiracy genres has shifted between episodic series and 'novelistic' serial forms, and so the shift away from the series and towards the short-run serial might simply be read as part of this continuing ebb and flow. It may be the case that Spooks had provided such a thorough and definitive instance of the nation-centred spy series that other programmes have had to differentiate themselves simply to establish a separate identity. In this context, Spooks was devised as a new state-of-the-nation drama in the form of a procedural spy series, drawing together the counter-terror approach of Special Branch, the institutional politicking of The Sandbaggers and Tinker Tailor, and even elements of the radical politics and aesthetics of 1980s serials.
Procedure and bureaucracy in Special Branch (ITV, 1969–74) and The Sandbaggers (ITV, 1978–80)
This chapter examines two key programmes from the 1970s which were among the first to discard the thinly defined fictional agencies of the 1960s and make more serious claims towards representations of an ostensible 'real thing'. It also examines Special Branch (ITV, 1969-74), a series focused on the Metropolitan Police unit of the same name whose brief was focused on maintaining national security, gathering intelligence and protecting the state against threats of subversion. The chapter then describes The Sandbaggers (ITV, 1978-80), a series which focused on a fictional Special Operations section within SIS, which was notable for its unprecedented drive to demystify the bureaucracies of the intelligence world. The chapter provides some background information regarding shifts in the aesthetics of television drama over the late 1960s and early 1970s, arguing that this too had a key impact on changing conceptions of 'realism'.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC 2, 1979) as a modern classic serial
At the end of the 1970s, however, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) would, for arguably the first time, take the initiative in spy genre with a seven-part serialised adaptation of John le Carre's novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In deciding to adapt a le Carre novel as a classic serial, the BBC by implication accepted his literary status albeit in a consciously bold and daring move. This chapter expresses Tinker Tailor as a key moment of intervention in both the television spy genre and British television drama. It provides a close analysis of the serial, adopting what Sarah Cardwell describes as a 'televisual' approach to the classic novel adaptation through considering how features specific to the medium shape textual characteristics. Whilst Callan and The Sandbaggers have been relatively marginalised in the history of British television drama as somewhat ephemeral texts, Tinker Tailor is a far more iconic programme.
This chapter considers several dramas, all of which were produced by the BBC. With ITV showing little apparent interest in the conspiracy genre during 1973, these serials can be broadly positioned in a specifically public service impulse to provide challenging dramatic engagements with contemporary issues. Firstly Bird of Prey (BBC 1, 1982) is largely focused on anxiety surrounding the free market economy, particularly through the growing influence of sinister forces from an increasingly integrated Europe. The chapter explores the emphasis that the narrative places on computers and the surveillance state, adding new terrain for both individual agency and fear of political repression. It examines Edge of Darkness (BBC 2, 1985), a far more stylish and prestigious drama which mounts a sombre examination of the nuclear state in a climate of increased Cold War tension.
This introduction presents an overview of key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book provides a history of the spy genre in British television drama, alongside its cousin the conspiracy genre which also often focuses upon the world of intelligence but typically from an external and more critical perspective. It also provides a full diachronic account of the spy and conspiracy genres across British television from the 1960s to the 2000s. The book explores the long-term evolution of a genre, it mirrors analyses of the evolution of the spy novel by writers such as Denning, John G. Cawelti, Bruce A. Rosenberg and Allan Hepburn, as well as studies of the development of the James Bond phenomenon across different media by scholars such as James Chapman, Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott. It is also designed to complement more general diachronic histories of British television drama.
Callan (ITV, 1967–72) as an existential thriller for television
The arrival of the spy genre on British television came initially in the form of a cycle of adventure series focused loosely on themes of international intrigue which occupied a prominent place in the schedules of the 1960s. For the most part, this strand was overwhelmingly associated with the commercial ITV as product of its popular appeal to the growing working-class viewership and embrace of a mass public beyond that of the more paternalistic BBC. This chapter traces how the two areas later converged into the cynical, anti-heroic spy series Callan (ITV, 1967-72). This reworked the existential spy thriller tradition associated with novelists such as John le Carre and Len Deighton into an ongoing television format, adopting their tone of institutional alienation and moral ambiguity in the face of the Cold War. Production of a single episode of Callan typically lasted for a period of ten working days.