“I Am Definitely More Careful When Speaking to Strangers”

Jack Kibble-White interviews Austin Daboh

First published October 2004

For those who missed it on BBC3, Spy is one of the most thrilling and entertaining programmes of the summer. Basically a reality game show very much in the mould of SAS: Are You Tough Enough?, Spy features eight members of the public being put through an apparently frighteningly authentic spy training course. Over 10 episodes we see the contestants attempt to gain access to people’s homes, master the art of surveillance and endeavour to entice others into committing morally suspect acts. All of this played out using genuine members of the public who appeared to be completely in the dark as to what was actually happening to them.

The fun of Spy, which starts its terrestrial run on BBC2 from Monday 11 October, is not just in the ingenuity of the missions, or the ambitious scope of the whole thing, but is also attributable to those who had been picked to enter Spy School. Of the eight, the youngest is Austin Daboh – a 19-year-old Londoner who works in the media industry. Of all the contestants he is the most contrary – at times effortlessly confident, at others hopelessly disorganized. OTT was fortunate to grab a few words with Austin. “I’ve just got back from the West End and I’m really tired” he warned us “so if my answers don’t make sense just blame it on the Malibu and Coke”. Be warned, if you haven’t seen the series yet, the following contains major spoilers …

OTT: How did you first hear about Spy, and what was the process for getting onto the show?

AUSTIN DABOH: I was on my way to work reading the Metro newspaper and I saw a little advert asking would-be spies to visit a clandestine website. After filling out my details and answering some questions I was contacted a few days later to go to a selection day In London. This consisted of a few weird group activities and questions designed to filter out the weak candidates. After passing the first selection process I had a couple more interviews before I was told I had made the group of eight.

OTT: How was the show “managed” on a day-to-day basis? What would happen on a typical day and how much time did you spend on learning the crafts of a spy as opposed to taking part in training missions?

AUSTIN DABOH: Because of the nature of the show, there wasn’t really a typical day, and we were always kept in the dark. An envelope was delivered to us each morning or evening telling us where to be and at what time. We normally attended spy school during the day but we always took our work home with us. It was basically a 24 hour thing because we were all in a state of paranoia after the first day kidnapping so we were always on our toes. One night Jenny and I stayed up until 3am learning about Russian Anti tank missiles (my breath must permanently stink of coffee).

OTT: To what extent was the embargo on contacting family members enforced, and what measures were taken to prevent you making contact?

AUSTIN DABOH: The phone calls we made that the viewers see was the only occasion we were allowed to speak to our confidant. Most of the time there were course officials and tutors near us so there wasn’t any opportunity for recruits to make a sneaky phone call. On the instances we were alone we were all so focused on the training course I don’t even think it crossed our minds.

OTT: During missions when you had to infiltrate shops and pick-up people, who actually knew what you were up to? Was it really the case that every member of the public that you went to work on wasn’t briefed at all? What about local authorities, presumably the police were aware of your activities?

AUSTIN DABOH: As far as I am aware, not one single target knew about the missions or the programme itself. That’s why on certain missions their faces are blurred out. When it came to operations that involved company buildings and places, I think that the main manager in charge was briefed beforehand, but the minimal amount of people were informed (not even the police knew, as Gabriel found out). On some occasions not even the production staff knew what was going on, that’s how secretive it got.

OTT: Who did you most like being partnered with and which missions did you find most difficult or even frightening?

AUSTIN DABOH: Even though we were rubbish together I really liked working with Simon! He made me laugh so much on the first surveillance mission where we were sat down for hours on end. I also liked working with Jenny because we got on really well and lived together for most of the time we were there. The most difficult mission for me was the foot team surveillance, but the most frightening was without doubt, the opening day kidnap (AKA “Guantanamo bay”).

OTT: Did you and your fellow course mates think Nicola would win? If so why?

AUSTIN DABOH: When I first saw Nicola my first reaction was “yes please, you beauty” but I didn’t think she would win. I assumed Simon or Gabriel would run away with it. But from around week three or four I realised that she was extremely good at being a spy. She can change her appearance so well and she’s sneaky (which is a good thing). In my opinion she deserved to win.

OTT: Were you to do the show again would you out on a limb a bit more? On a few occasions you seemed a little bit tentative when attempting to “go in for the kill” – do you think that’s a fair observation?

AUSTIN DABOH: Ha ha! I assume you’re talking about the restaurant mission. It’s funny the way it comes across on television but I made the decision that I wouldn’t “go for the kill” until the coast was clear. I waited for my chance and grabbed it with both hands. But I can see why people would say I seemed tentative. I feel I gave the training course 110% up until the last week when I started to become complacent.

OTT: Was the school really situated in a deserted underground station or was this a contrivance for the sake of the programme? In general how close do you think the finished television series of Spy was to your experience of Spy School?

AUSTIN DABOH: It was really situated in the disused Strand tube station (no, really). I think that what the viewers see on TV is more or less what we experienced but there was always some things that won’t make the final cut as they can’t do a 24 hour show. There are also lots of classic moments that happened that were not caught on film (like Jenny’s rude-girl walk).

OTT: How did you react when you first watched the finished shows (presumably that was the first opportunity you got to see in detail where you made mistakes and where you had excelled)? How did you feel watching the inevitable scenes of Mike or Harry going: “Tch, I don’t believe it?”

AUSTIN DABOH: There were some moments that I watched and I just banged my head on the wall. The course just showed me that no matter who you are, when the pressure is on you can make the stupidest mistakes. It was funny watching myself excel and mess up, but watching Mike and Harry criticise me didn’t really bother me because it was a lot worse face to face! You have to keep in mind that they are real professionals so I know it’s nothing personal.

OTT: What do you think you have taken away from your experience on Spy and do you feel that it was an authentic spy-training course?

AUSTIN DABOH: I have taken a lot of positives away from Spy. I am a lot more aware of my surroundings and I am definitely more careful when I am speaking to strangers. The course also gave me great tips on how to lie to people (great for university). If I’m being honest I’d say that Spy was as real as the BBC could make it without doing anything illegal or hurting any of the recruits.