Secret Agent Selection: WW2 review – are you hard enough to kill for your country?

Wannabe spies tackle gunmen and barbed wire to sort the Bonds from the softies, while in ancient Rome, the Plebs are opening a gastropub

Have we grown soft, sedentary and snowflakey? Could any of us be turned into “spies, silent killers and resistance organisers”? Those are questions the makers of Secret Agent Selection: WW2 (BBC2, 9pm) have set out to answer with period-era uniform, Meccano challenges and dubious psychological testing. It’s a bit like The Apprentice, only instead of the prize being some cash from Alan Sugar, winners get the chance to carry out a bit of state-sponsored murder and sabotage. At least, I think they do, but I haven’t watched the final episode.

In this first show, 14 recruits go through the selection process for the Special Operations Executive, a secret, second-world-war army of agents – drawn from ordinary people, we’re regularly reminded – created in the second world war to go behind enemy lines and bring down the Nazis. They must have “fanatical enthusiasm” and “nerves of steel”. The women must also know how to put stockings on for dinner.

This is the army – and the 1940s, supposedly – so everyone is known by their surname. Dewhirst, a property developer back in the 21st century, wants to do it authentically. “The lads who did this for real wouldn’t have been able to second-guess it, wouldn’t have been able to Google it,” he says, knowledgably. Stone – an east London drag artist – admits to being terrified. You know he’s not going to cut it; he’s too gentle. When a gunman bursts into their classroom while they’re taking an exam – to be later quizzed on their observational skills – he dives under a desk, which seems sensible, but is apparently frowned upon.

Beauclerk, a translator decended from a real SOE agent, isn’t doing too well, either – she says she couldn’t kill a gendarme in order to successfully attack a factory and doesn’t want to crawl under barbed wire in the assault course because she might get her hair caught. Jefferys, a research scientist, soon emerges as a strong contender. She’s barely 5ft tall and is the first of the recruits to successfully scale a 10ft (three-metre) wall. Could she kill someone? Try to stop her. “I’m going to sound like a terrible person,” she says during the interview section, trying to suppress a hopeful smile, “but I think if I had the orders to kill someone, I could without a second’s hesitation.” She’s my favourite.

Four didn’t make it through, including Stone and Beauclerk. It seemed a shame to lose Camara, a council administrator, who was slow at most of the tasks but also demonstrated the most bravery. I thought the selection process was supposed to be about spotting potential.

It was all quite fun and the historical snippets were interesting, particularly the sparse bits of information about real agents. The SOE actively recruited women, and I was burning to know more about one of the most effective Allied spies, Virginia Hall, who had lost her leg in a hunting accident (the Gestapo called her the “Limping Lady”) and ran a resistance network in Lyon. Who knows what she, and the other agents mentioned, would have made of being bit players in a reality show. Still, it’s interesting to see how the traits we appear to be drawn to in the modern age probably aren’t ones our wartime ancestors would have valued. Asked to nominate the person they would choose as their leader, many of the recruits went for cocky Dewhirst (who in an assessment interview confessed to insecurity). Only one of the recruits, Bajaj, saw how Dewhirst could be a liability.

Tom Rosenthal as Marcus and Robert Lindsay as Crassus in the new series of Plebs.
Tom Rosenthal as Marcus and Robert Lindsay as Crassus in the new series of Plebs. Photograph: ITV/Rise Films

The hapless, feckless boys from Plebs (ITV2, 10pm), the ancient-Rome-based sitcom, returned with its fourth series and a double bill. A minute into episode one, Stylax, one of the trio, is squished by a falling marble slab. It’s shocking, but at least it wasn’t Grumio, their gormless slave. “I love funerals,” says their boss, Flavia (the great Doon Mackichan). “It’s where I met three of my husbands.” The episode is slow after that, but culminates in the boys – including new member Jason – extorting a toilet block from corrupt property developer Crassus (a guest-starring Robert Lindsay). Episode two picks up when they decide to turn it into a gastropub, the Corona and Toga, which becomes Rome’s latest hipster spot after a (faked) rave review. Grumio is the chef and comes up with an ingenious menu “called ‘stuffing stuff in stuff’, so it’s like a mouse inside a grouse or a squid inside a squirrel.” The joke is so daft that it never gets tired – there’s a snail in a quail, a wren in a hen, a marrow in a sparrow. … It’s all undemanding and wonderfully silly.


Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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