Spooks: A look back at the BBC spy series’ best episodes
Ivan Radford | On 04, May 2015Reading time: 11 mins
We look back at the BBC’s spy series, from favourite characters to the best episodes.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 13 years since Spooks first arrived on our TV screens. iPhones hadn’t been invented yet. Netflix wasn’t around. But for all its love of numerical keypad phones and laptops as cutting-edge gizmos, the BBC’s spy thriller never relied on technology to make its programme relevant: the series’ real secret weapon was its focus on character, which was driven by increasingly far-fetched plots.
What made it even more thrilling was that the show was equally happy to kill characters without warning: at any given moment, someone might get poisoned, blown up or hanged from the roof of a van. It was a fact that creator David Wolstencroft didn’t shy away from: in only the second episode, someone’s face fell foul of a deep fat fryer, a sequence so nasty and unexpected that it sparked complaints to the BBC.
But if characters were in constant danger of being written out or bumped off, that only seemed to attract more impressive cast members: over the years, Spooks has been the training ground for a roster of rising talent that ranges from the always-impressive Keeley Hawes and the Oscar-worthy David Oyelowo (as Zoe and Danny) to Mr. Darcy 2.0 Matthew Macfadyen and Hobbit heartthrob Richard Armitage. All of them are household names now, not to mention existing legends such as Peter Firth as MI5 chief Harry Pearce, Nicola Walker as Ruth Evershed from GCHQ, Jenny Agutter as dodgy, old-school spy Tessa, and Gemma Jones as the dangerously ruthless Connie. The fact that Tim McInnerny has even returned for the movie to reprise his role as sinister government official Oliver Mace is testament to how effective even the smallest guest roles were.
Combined, the ensemble made the contrived silliness convincing, living up to the show’s tagline “MI5 not 9 to 5” with an engaging balance of work and personal life. Romances between characters – be it Danny and Zoe’s largely unrequited love or Harry and Ruth’s long-standing affair – helped to anchor the series, as it progressed through an ever-shifting line-up. By the time a new face appeared at the start of a season, you could bet on an older one disappearing soon – a tradition only topped by someone saying “Welcome to MI5” after a risky moment paid off, or a season ending on a cliff-hanger, normally involving an apparent, surprise death. (There’s only so many times you can believe Harry is about to have his brains blown out.)
That’s not to say, though, that Spooks was without style: it was steeped in the stuff, from the camera crew’s endless use of split-screens (if you didn’t see a cup of tea made from four different angles, someone wasn’t doing their job properly) to the recognisable negative freeze frame at the end of each episode, which wiped to black like a security tape being erased. Explosions and guns felt low-key and practical – nowadays, you can imagine CGI taking the edge off that deep fat fryer – and its production values were top-notch, backed by Jennie Muskett and Paul Leonard-Morgan’s cinematic music, which blended electronics and orchestra to pulse-pounding effect. Spooks was, in many ways, Britain’s answer to 24 – and it was every bit as thrilling. Even the constant scenes of people sitting down around tables to talk exposition were gripping; an old-fashioned approach that gave the UK’s spy series more credibility than America’s Jack Bauer, despite being no less ridiculous.
After almost 10 years, 10 seasons and 86 episodes of espionage, Spooks impresses because it remains relevant to the modern day. Firstly, it’s topical. Issues tackled range from racism in politics and our grey relationship with the CIA to both domestic and foreign terrorism (the IRA and environmental groups were as omnipresent as Al-Qaeda and the Russians). Throughout, the question of “the greater good” was raised – it’s no coincidence that the 2015 film uses that phrase as its title, because no matter what year it is, the moral quandaries surrounding our secret service will always be pertinent. Secondly, it’s engaging, thanks to its superbly acted array of likeable, despicable and dependable characters. And, most of all, partly thanks to the bonkers twists (especially in the final few, desperate seasons), it’s hugely entertaining.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 13 years since Spooks first arrived on our TV screens – because it’s just as brilliant today as it always was.
How, though, do you do justice to over 70 hours of television in a single article? With the role of Section Chief constantly changing, we look back at MI5’s brightest and best team leaders and pick out some of their top moments.
Tom (Matthew Macfadyen – S1/2)
Season 1, Episode 2
A right-wing political movement hoping to gain favour among the wider British population? That theme, which still rings true today, is the kind of thing that grounded Spooks with a keen believability – which only made what happens to a colleague of Tom (Macfadyen) even more distressing. Fish and chips have never been less appealing.
Season 1, Episode 10
Matthew Macfadyen brought an icy resolve to Spooks’ first section chief, but this heart-wrenching season finale demonstrated how high emotions could run, as Tom’s partner and her daughter, Maisie, are put in harm’s way by Irish terrorists – a threat that gave us our first taste of the series’ fondness of explosive cliff-hangers.
Season 2, Episode 5
Tom’s eventual farewell – a dash to clear his name at the end of Season 2 – had a vigilante fun to it, but this tightly scripted hour gripped for precisely the opposite reason: Thames House goes into lockdown following the outbreak of a virus, requiring everyone to rigidly follow the rules. Who runs the country with no one left to govern? And is it all really happening, or is it just a training exercise? Even though we knew there was another episode the following week, we were left guessing throughout – an uncertainty that marked the start of Tom’s descent into moral disillusion.
Adam (Rupert Penry-Jones – S3/4/5/6)
Season 3, Episode 10
Out went Tom, in came Adam. But while Rupert Penry Jones was trying to make his mark, the show was being stolen by David Oyelowo. There’s been no career arc more satisfying to watch than David’s, who blew audiences away as Danny – a credit fraudster devoted to Keeley Hawes’ Zoe.
Their non-romance brought the first hint of feelings to the BBC’s secret service. Hot on the heels of her departure, then, it was even more heart-breaking to see Danny depart. Oyelowo delivered one heck of a closing monologue – “Fuck you, you death worshipping fascist!” – before disappearing from our screens. His arrival, therefore, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Selma was all the more rewarding. This was the end of a truly star-making turn.
Season 4, Episode 1/2
If Macfadyen brought a chill to the grid, Penry Jones was the heartthrob to make it swoon. He cemented his role as the David Tennant of Spooks with a strong double bill involving Martine McCutcheon. Wooing a guest star while still skirting the line between interrogation and murder? Yes, Adam, you can stay.
Season 4, Episode 10
Four seasons in and Spooks took its first steps towards the silly with this wonderfully loopy finale, which saw a conspiracist convince everyone that Princess Diana was killed by MI5 – and that Harry was somehow involved. The ensuing chaos – building up to a sniper rifle finale – was one of most absurdly thrilling hours Spooks ever produced.
Season 6, Episode 7
Nuclear weapons, a TV debate and hostages all combined for this belter of an episode. While it won points for the largely single location, though, with a strong supporting role for tech guy Malcolm (the wonderfully timid Hugh Simon), the strength of the story lay in the bond between Adam and Ros – Hermione Norris’ steely agent turned out not to be immune to Penry Jones’ charisma. Combined with her brief stint betraying the country for secret group Yalta, it gave the series another compelling (and unexpected) relationship.
Season 6, Episode 10
“The Greater Good. Isn’t that a convenient excuse?” Miranda Raison’s field officer Jo fell for Adam too (we weren’t kidding about the David Tennant thing) but her doe-eyed innocence made her loyalty all the more devastating, as the system chewed her up and spat her out. That came to a head with her tirade against Adam, followed by him appearing to strangle her out of kindness while they were held prisoner. The shockwaves of that continued for several seasons. Oh, and Malcolm discovers a hidden message from South America encoded in a recording of Beethoven’s 7th with a final three chords not written by Ludwig Van.
Lucas (Richard Armitage – S7/8/9)
Season 7, Episode 1
Richard Armitage. The only MI5 agent hotter than Rupert Penry Jones. But Lucas didn’t just have sex appeal – he had a whole history involving the KGB. A back-story tying a lead character to Harry? It was the start not just of a promising new run of episodes, but also of the growing importance of Harry Pearce. Together, it was almost enough to help us deal with the loss of Adam.
Season 7, Episode 7
An elaborate mole plot hit violent extremes in this episode. If it started to become silly rather than sinister, any concerns were more than outweighed by Connie’s amazing facial expressions.
Season 7, Episode 8
The importance of Harry we were talking about? That became key by the end of Season 7. While Lucas, Ros and Connie ran through London Underground tunnels – a set piece to excite enough on its own – Harry offered himself up to the KGB as protection. There’s nothing like seeing the head of MI5 in the boot of a car to leave you hanging until the next season.
Season 8, Episode 1
Lucas raced to rescue Harry at the start of Season 8, but Nicola Walker’s Ruth was the real star, as her life away from MI5 was interrupted by Indian terrorists taking her and her adopted son hostage. As their relationship was seemingly ruined by Harry’s determination to call their bluff, Malcolm, trying to save the child, brought even more anguish to the table – and retired honourably.
Season 9, Episode 7/8
Richard Armitage’s twisty back-story became even more twisty in this almost laughable two-parter, which revealed that Lucas wasn’t Lucas at all: instead, he was an imposter who killed Lucas and stole his identity. It’s to Armitage’s credit that he sold the stupidity, right up to a final rooftop showdown with Harry. The appearance of Game of Thrones’ Jorah Mormont was a bonus.
Harry Pearce (Peter Firth – S1-10)
Season 1, Episode 1
The very first episode of Spooks was a perfect introduction to the show, from Tom’s fledgling romance and fake life as an IT consultant to anti-abortion terrorists blowing things up. If the opening sequence – which destroyed a car without bothering to show it on screen – was a bold statement, it was topped by the efficient dialogue: one scene saw Tom enter Thames House, making small talk with the security guards. Harry? He just breezed straight through. Like a boss.
Season 2, Episode 2
“Bugger the Home Office!” “If only.” After a season, the writers realised that they needed to give someone for Harry to play off. Enter Ruth Evershed. Walker and Pearce’s romance began straight away, as they traded naff jokes at an urgent briefing – their awkward flirting was immediately endearing.
Season 9, Episode 1
What do you do at an employee’s funeral? Propose to your long-term crush, of course. Needless to say, Ruth turned Harry down – another sad step in their seemingly doomed relationship.
Season 10, Episode 2
Tariq made a sad departure here after winning us over in Malcolm’s shoes. The introduction of new geek Calum and Lara Pulver’s Section Chief, Erin, kept the show ticking over, but it was Harry’s old fling with the wife of Russian bad guy Gavrik that developed throughout Season 2. Simon Russell Beale as the Home Secretary continued to provide excellent long-term support as Harry’s opposite number, countering the show’s slide into increasingly silly territory.
Season 10, Episode 5/6
Harry was extradited and rescued in this frankly insane double bill, which pushed the CIA firmly into the naughty box. While daft convolution caused the Gavrik plot to implode upon itself, though, it was Harry and Ruth that gave this show finale its dramatic punch. “Leave the service with me, while we still know who we are,” she told him, before being bumped off. His stoic determination, as he returned to the office and answered his phone, spoke volumes – and confirmed that Firth, after all, was the show’s real lead actor.
A secret service boss with a shady past, deaths weighing on his conscience, and an attachment to his top agents? Skyfall owed a lot to Harry Pearce. Praise for a spy series doesn’t come much higher than that.
Spooks is available on Britbox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on BBC iPlayer until February 2021.
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All photos: BBC / Kudos