We are in a golden age for drama and the BBC is at the forefront of a new wave of high-quality, unmissable storytelling, delivering some of the best new content this year, a lot of it in the last few weeks. Killing Eve, Trust, Press and Black Earth Rising, multi-part tales with high-quality performances. And then there was Bodyguard; collectively the nation’s heart stopped every Sunday night watching Jed Mecurio’s tense and twisty tale of politics and terrorism, so if you are feeling bereft by its conclusion then only one writer can even possibly compete, John le Carré.
A little over 2.5 years ago Sunday nights meant only one thing – The Night Manager – a multi-funded game-changer that brought the ambitious production values of film to the small screen with considerable style. Now, the same company have adapted another le Carré novel, The Little Drummer Girl, set in the late 1970s and examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played-out across Europe as spy organisations interconnect with terrorist cells. The first two episodes were previewed at the London Film Festival ahead of the show’s UK air date of Sunday 28 October, promising a story every bit as gripping, dangerous and obsessive as Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston proved to be. Warn the pubs, restaurants and bars because once again none of us will be going out on a Sunday night.
Episode One begins with a bomb delivered by a beautiful blonde woman and her mysterious companion to a Jewish home in Germany where it explodes killing a family. A Mossad agent known as “Marty” is on the trail of a Palestinian anarchist group targeting Israeli officials and known for recruiting a terrorist network to aggravate the conflict in the Middle East. But Marty needs an agent, enter Charlie, an actress spotted in a ropey pub theatre production of Saint Joan and offered a touring role in As You Like It. She is pursued to Greece by the enigmatic “Becker” who makes his presence known.
With Charlie firmly in their sights, Episode Two focuses on her incendiary political views, colourful backstory and just what they need her to do. Information is drip-fed to her as Marty’s team try to entice and force her help with some murky espionage. Meanwhile a second team has apprehended a key source and must make him reveal the whereabouts of an important meeting. With Marty closely connected to his equivalent number in Germany, just what can a single English woman achieve, and is Charlie on anyone’s side but her own?
Unusual for le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl is one of the few books with an independent female protagonist. Adapted by Claire Wilson and Michael Lesslie who collaborated closely while taking the lead on specific episodes, they have used le Carré’s base to make Charlie a fascinating and complex character with more than a bit about her. That shouldn’t be a surprise in 2018, but Charlie is a multi-faceted creation which in Florence Pugh’s excellent central performance leaves plenty of unanswered questions, proving to be every-bit as slippery and ultimately unknowable as her spymasters.
An intelligent girl living on her wits and an assured sexual confidence, the magnanimity with which she eases from actor on tour to agent-in-training is intriguing, taking it all in her stride with surprisingly little resistance or fear. Despite claims of a difficult background it becomes almost impossible for the other characters or the audience to know how much Charlie is acting and the extent to which she’s always some character or other. No one is ever who they seem in a le Carré, not even to themselves, least of all the supposed heroes, so seeing Pugh explore the edges of her character over the remaining four episodes will be a treat in itself.
Again, no le Carré story is complete without a series of intrigues within intrigues, and already the first two previews have established seemingly rival organisations, a dangerous and unstable political context, the involvement of innocents and a multinational landscape. And all of that gives rise to plenty of questions which the remaining episodes will answer. Do Marty’s two teams know about each other and why is there an English woman (Miss Bach played by Clare Holman) working for Mossad – is she a genuine recruit, a secondment from British intelligence or a plant? What role does “Michel” (Amir Khoury) have in the terrorist network, what is his link to Charlie, why did he plant the bomb and did both his brothers really die for the cause?
There are also links to the German secret service, and potentially to Charlie’s own father who may or may not have “disappeared” depending on which of her stories are true, and are her sun-worshipping actor friends as innocent as they seem? Events move fast in these initial episodes, establishing the various players and setting the scene for what’s to come, but although we are following Charlie, none of that means she or we are on the side of the good guys, but it’s going to be fun finding out.
Continuing his run of darkly engaging TV roles which mostly recently included a pivotal role in Big Little Lies, Alexander Skarsgård plays Becker/ Jose / Peter / Michel, a man who is at least one if not all of his men depending on the day, the scenario and the game. Like the most accomplished poker-player he gives nothing away, a consummate spy, it’s never clear what his motivation might be. By the end of episode two, he proves as complete an actor as Charlie, but strangely abstemious, he is no brooding hero, Becker clearly has secrets.
Skarsgård and Pugh crackle together, like an ever-evolving game of cat and mouse where you can’t tell who is toying with who. Repeatedly he leads her to the brink only to rapidly change the tone, while Charlies responds by trying to outwit him, using her allure to compromise Becker but neither succeeds in besting the other. Setting-out on a mission together, Becker tries to protect her from his superiors but whether their chemistry becomes physical or merely the mutual recognition of two performers knowing they are being played remains to be seen.
Another man with secrets is Marty Kurtz, the Mossad leader who leaves a trail of mystery in his wake as he spins a complex web between his shadowy German contact with furtive meetings over coffee and cake, the recruitment and grooming of Charlie to undertake a secret infiltration, and what we presume are his second team, hidden in a bunker somewhere extracting compromising material. Michael Shannon’s accent may be quite gloopy, but his character is like smoke, a man with his eye on the end result whatever the cost. All of this bodes well from a plot that will twist and shift in the coming episodes.
The Little Drummer Girl has lots to do to visually compete with Susanne Bier’s outstanding work on The Night Manager, a glossy treat that juxtaposed brutal violence with beautiful cinematography and picture-perfect locations. The trick for South Korean director Park Chan-wook is not to bother competing at all, at least not in quite the same way. Using the in vogue 70s aesthetic, Chan-wook uses colour rather than light to tell the story, saturating his images and particular characters with bright Mediterranean colours – vibrant yellow, deep sea blues, spring greens, orange, the occasionally flash of scarlet, and because it’s the 70s, brown. They bring a sensuality to each frame that oozes from the screen, whether set in the cosy autumnal interior of a London pub or the richly sunlit beaches and taverners of Greece.
And there is plenty of dazzling location-hopping to take the audience away from our dark Sunday nights and off to London, Munich and Athens already but with a trail leading across Eastern Europe and potentially to Israel by the end of the series. Chan-wook draws it all together in a carefully controlled visual design that uses wonderful examples of brutalist architecture to graphically marry different locations into one cohesive show.
Similar to the 2012 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, there are plenty of concrete and marbled interiors that represent the 70s so well, sleek, clean and a bit emotionless with hard exteriors that the characters must reflect. And concrete in particular responds so well to the rays of coloured lighting that Chan-wook employs to vary the tone and intimacy of his scenes. The whole concept is richly detailed and should offer just enough exotic allure to keep the nation gripped while we try to work out le Carré’s complex mystery.
Scheduled to air from Sunday 28 October, this version of The Little Drummer Girl is everything you could want from a le Carré adaptation. While updating The Night Manager to the period of the Arab Spring added new resonance, here the 1970s setting still has plenty to say about the complex nature of the secret world in an increasingly fractured Europe. Bathed in shadow, vibrantly coloured with an absorbing plot, characters with plenty of dark edges and abundant intrigue, the nation’s new drama obsession is here. This really is a golden age for television drama, but with this one don’t believe anything you see, keep your wits about you and enjoy!
The Little Drummer Girl starts on Sunday 28 October at 9pm on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.