Sunday, August 29, 2004 by

The TV phenomenon of the last five years has undoubtedly been reality television. As a genre it has been almost universally derided for clogging up our television screens with hundreds of hours of cheap television in which – apparently – “nothing ever happens”. But that observation doesn’t take into account the fact that these days any television series that involves members of the public is branded as “reality TV” and to deride all programmes that carry this tag is to close yourself off from a number of challenging and innovative formats. It is also to deny reality television’s greatest contribution to the schedules. You see, whereas traditional game shows demonstrate to us how knowledgeable a contestant is, the best reality programmes let us see something far more interesting, namely how intelligent they are.

BBC3′s Spy is particularly rigorous in testing the intellect of its contestants, leading them through a series of exercises that goes way beyond the observation round of, say, The Krypton Factor and instead demands they develop the instincts of a late night poker player, and the guile of a devil. The series’ premise involves taking eight members of the public and putting them through an authentic spy school. The tasks to date have involved the contestants bluffing their way into private residences, breaking into property and shadowing loved ones – all of which have made for surprisingly good television (indeed there must be half a dozen high concept game show ideas here).

But Spy has adhered very little to standard game show conventions with the semi-regular expulsions of the poorest performing students being one of the few obvious concessions. Indeed the eighth episode in this series of 10 concluded with the departure of two of the best liked participants leaving only four cowboys left to battle it out for … well who knows what? As with SAS: Are You Tough Enough? (with which this series has a lot in common) the grand prize is unclear – an amorphous feeling of satisfaction perhaps, that you have what it takes to be a bona fide spy.

Yet whilst SAS: Are You Tough Enough? has moments where the pace sags, Spy has been consistently compelling. The course tutors Harry, Sandy and Mike – whilst supposedly real-life agents – are excellent at cranking up the tension when required, be it in a piece to camera, a mission briefing or hauling Austin over the coals once again. Sometimes it’s like watching three Bob Monkhouses (compèring the final round of Bob’s Full House) at work such is their ability to heighten the drama. The contestants are a motley bunch representing a predictable cross section of the public (albeit one biased towards 20 to 30-year-olds), yet happily each possesses the one attribute that makes for the best kinds of reality television – a brain. Watching them attempting to figure each other and everything else as well as trying to complete their missions at the same time is never less than fascinating.

Of course Spy is essentially an escapist piece of television, but the direction and tone of each episode is all geared to (successfully) making you forget that there isn’t actually anything real at stake and that no one’s life is under threat. Make no mistake, this is a plush production with expansive and evocative night time and early morning aerial shots of London and carefully selected classical music all designed to lend the series a sense of grandeur and authority. But it is the twists and turns of each mission (some of which are thanks to the fiendishness of the mission design and others that occur due to happenstance) that really makes Spy such a gripping viewing experience as once again we watch Simon’s arse ducking underneath a table at the last possible minute or Max almost losing his temper and blowing the whistle in the process.

Spy is escapist television par excellence. It’s the type that draws you in completely, the type that makes you think you really are getting an insight into the shadowy world of espionage and – most importantly – the type that will you have you in your bedroom practicing your best Shoestring and Hazel moves before you even know it. And whilst you are doing it – they may well be watching it.


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