BBC TV review: The Game
Cory Hazlehurst | On 27, Jun 2015
Missed the BBC’s spy thriller? We catch up with The Game and where you can watch it online in the UK.
What game, you may be wondering, is the title of this show referring to? Is it drug dealing, as in The Wire (“It’s all in the game, yo!”)? Maybe The Game is referring to backgammon, or to lawn bowling? Wrong on all three counts.
Instead, The Game is about espionage. More specifically, espionage of the gloomy, atmospheric kind that you find in John Le Carre’s George Smiley novels. In an interview with the Radio Times, creator of the show Toby Whithouse made it very clear he was influenced by The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. He even borrowed some of Le Carre’s neologisms, such as “tradecraft” to mean a spy’s work methods. Whithouse also invents some of his own, to much amusement. The codename for the head of MI5, played by Brian Cox (no, the other one) is “Daddy”. This leads to many conversations having a quite farcical air: “We must tell Daddy this”, or “Daddy has stayed in power for far too long”, which make you wonder, at times, if The Game is trying to spoof gloomy 1970s spy dramas, such as the original Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy show.
Of course, it was easy for the Alec Guinness series to show 1970s gloom, as that was actually filmed in the 1970s. The 2011 film version, directed by Thomas Alfredson, tried to recreate that gloom by covering everything in brown: the suits, the hair, the carpets, the wallpaper, the lot. Instead, The Game achieves its air of 1970s gloom by shooting in Birmingham and pretending it’s London in 1972. Thus, Birmingham’s brutalist concrete slab that used to be its central library is the HQ for MI5.
Here, briefly, is the set-up: British Intelligence gets a tip-off from Arkady, a Russian sleeper agent, who wants to defect. Arkady has been given messages to pass to other Russian sleepers, who are part of Operation Glass, which is a very important, very secret – and very Russian – intelligence operation in Britain. If the British give Arkady a three-bedroom detached house in a nice London suburb, he will continue telling MI5 everything he knows about said secret operation. Chuck in a possible mole within MI5, and an emotional backstory for Tom Hughes’s character, involving the shooting of his lover by a Russian agent, and you have an interesting thriller.
The acting by the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. Our personal favourite is Shaun Dooley’s Special Branch operative, whose main job is to ask for plot summaries in a bluff Yorkshire accent. Chloe Pirre’s stiff-upper-lipped secretary and Paul Ritter’s mincing Bobby Waterhouse also deserve an honourable mention. Sadly, the acting is let down slightly by Tom Hughes’ dark, mysterious Joe Lambe (and why that extra “e”, we wonder?). To be sure, Hughes looks moody and smouldering, and he looks good in a raincoat, but his accent goes all over the place. It’s not quite Russell Crowe in Robin Hood, but Hughes’ voice veers from Scouse to Irish to North Country and back again. Maybe it’s an attempt to make his character appear more interesting than he actually is.
Nonetheless, The Game will keep you engaged and guessing throughout its six one-hour episodes. Unfortunately, although the plot is intriguing and satisfyingly twisty, it also has holes so big you could drive a Ford Cortina through them. The writing, as you’d expect from Toby Whithouse (of rather-good-for-quite-a-while Being Human) is funny and zips along until all the big reveals are, er, revealed early in the final episode. The show then seems to run out of steam.
In the interview mentioned above, Whithouse said that he wanted to mix together elements of Ian Fleming and Le Carre, so that The Game would be “like James Bond having a nervous breakdown”. But The Game has neither the glamour of a James Bond film, nor the moral ambiguity of a Le Carre novel. It’s a mixed bag, but an enjoyable watch. Just don’t think too hard about the plot.
The Game is available to watch online on blinkbox, Google Play, iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.
Photo: BBC/Des Willie