Tuesday, September 13, 2005 by

If awards were handed out for prescience, BAFTA would lob the cast and crew of Spooks the keys to their annual gong show and instruct them to switch off the lights just as soon as they were done.

Exploding back on to our screens with series four of the MI5 drama in which earnest men and women run about looking serious, preventing calamity and making witty asides to their colleagues, Spooks kicked off with a two-parter based around a terrorist campaign in London.

Truth isn’t stranger than fiction, it’s more, well, real. Only two months after the 7 July attacks on the capital, the BBC had to tread carefully with the subject matter. Although made before the suicide bombings, it was important not to strike an insensitive tone.

It is unclear whether there was any late re-editing but the most obvious thing about the terrorist attack portrayed at the start of the first episode, and indeed throughout, was the tangible lack of terror on display, save for a couple of hundred extras running about a railway station in mock panic. If people died, we didn’t see it. Truth is, though, we didn’t need to.

This is because Spooks is about the daily travails of the security services, not the great unwashed. Past series have revealed our spies to be brooding types and generally good-looking, although the entire security of the country seems to rest on about seven people.

Step forward Adam Carter, as played by Rupert Penry-Jones, who, in the space of a few hours, managed to prevent three bombings, kill a man by dropping him from the top of a block of flats, remove his own shirt for no apparent reason and save Martine McCutcheon from being blown up with two seconds to spare. And people get excited about Freddie Flintoff.

Carter and crew were on the trail of Shining Dawn, a terrorist group threatening to cause an explosion every 10 hours unless their leader’s planned extradition to the US was called off. Perhaps the producers of Big Brother could look into this tactic as a way of boosting flagging ratings. It certainly got the lads and lasses at MI5 HQ excited, though they seemed to spend most of their time accusing each other of being traitors and squabbling about past operations.

The burly American CIA man was, soon enough, revealed to be a wrong ‘un, which led to a lot of people tearing down corridors until they found him in the car park. McCutcheon was among them, having been pulled in to identify a terrorist she had the grave misfortune to bump into earlier in the day.

She ended up chained to a huge bomb in a hospital and came perilously close to death, though a few hours later she bore this with great stoicism, not to say mild disinterest.

A few thoughts sprung to mind while all this was going on. Firstly, terrorists in film and television would save time if they didn’t insist in making and fitting electronic countdown clocks to their bombs that ultimately help those charged with stopping them from going off. Also, hitherto unseen chirpy juniors with a wife and young son are always going to be shot in the head early on. It’s probably in the job description if only they’d read down that far. And, of course, the boss will be a rough diamond with more skeletons in his closet than a provincial serial killer but will, despite everything, be revealed to be brilliant by the end.

The BBC certainly can’t be accused of making entertainment out of the events of July and they were at pains to point out that Islamic extremists had nothing to do with the fictional scenario, to the extent that Martine asks at one point, “Who’s doin’ this, then? Is it them Muslims?”

There was no such compunction about taking sideswipes at politicians in general and American politicians in particular.

There was even time for some pro-establishment propaganda at the end when a knackered looking Carter turned on the car radio only to hear some dreadful civil libertarian bleating on about how rubbish the security services were at not preventing the first attack, little knowing three had been thwarted.

And so, the country is safe again. Until next week, that is, when we’ll be in for more of the gloriously entertaining same.


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