One of our scientists is missing. He’s been kidnapped from the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, possibly by Kremlin minions who want him to tell them how to make a neutron bomb 3,000 times more destructive than the one that hit Hiroshima. I’m not saying Nato’s nuclear secrets are poised to fall into the lap of a latter-day Napoleon overcompensating for his shortcomings with military barbarism, but it’s too soon to rule out the possibility.
Thankfully, this is a TV review not a news story, but the contemporary resonances are unmissable, even if the makers of this six-part adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1962 thriller couldn’t have envisaged their audience would be playing extras in a real-life cold war sequel.
The first thing we see in this new version of The Ipcress File (ITV) is a pair of thick-framed glasses on a nightstand, replicas of those Michael Caine wore in the 1965 film version of the book. Our hero is in bed in Berlin, while the woman who has been teaching him German, and more besides, waves to him saucily from the bath.
This opening reference to 57-year-old movie eyewear is a surprising gambit by director James Watkins and writer John Hodge, given their creative betrayal elsewhere of the source material. One of the adaptation’s pleasures is also its peril: it invites us to compare Joe Cole’s interpretation with Caine’s.
Fortunately, Cole is a Harry Palmer for our times. Imagine Stephen Merchant was a foot shorter and appropriated Damian Lewis’s pout. Imagine too that he is as taciturn as Alan Ritchson playing Jack Reacher. It’s not a showy performance, but all the better for that to punch up his rare bons mots. When asked what it was like fighting in Korea, Hodge has Palmer reply: “First I was bored. Then I was frightened. Then I was bored and frightened at the same time.” Which sounds about right.
Just like the glasses making a comeback, perhaps the same is true of the leopard-skin pillbox hat. Though ridiculed by Bob Dylan, here it makes a grand entrance on the head of Lucy Boynton as Brit spy Jean Courtney, and she looks anything but ridiculous. With her tailored suits, thick eyeliner and bonkers titfer, Boynton is 2022’s homage to Alexandra Bastedo. Who, ask younger readers? Bastedo, in a series of unrepentantly daft 60s spy shows (The Champions, Department S), played the British secret weapon whose elegant froideur melted the patriarchy on both sides of the iron curtain. If only Boynton also had Bastedo’s powers of telepathy and superhuman strength, our nuclear boffin would already be back in Berkshire. But she doesn’t, so he isn’t.
In the film, Courtney was a minor character. Here, Jean has nearly equal billing with Harry. She also flirts with an African American CIA agent, even though the agency at the time was about as diverse as Putin’s inner circle. This isn’t quite the woke retool of the Daily Mail’s nightmares, but I do fear it might collapse into tokenism.
What remains intact from Deighton’s original is its snarling class politics. After he was fired from a writing gig on From Russia With Love, Deighton created a hard-boiled working-class spy as an antidote to 007’s public school boy.
At the outset of this adaptation, Palmer is one of many bored servicemen lining their pockets on divided Berlin’s black market. Jailed for his crimes, Harry gets recruited by a posh-boy handler, Tom Hollander’s Major Dalby. Dalby realises that Palmer has the stuff that that oxymoron, British intelligence, needs to spring our boffin from East Berlin. He has underworld contacts, serviceable German, a degree in maths and a flexitarian moral code.
Harry tells Dalby he was fingered by military police after importing lobsters from Marseille to sell to Russian ministers to keep their German mistresses happy. “For some unfathomable reason,” Palmer says in a rare moment of loquacity, “I never did get the Nobel peace prize.” “Must have been your working-class origins holding you back again,” retorts an oleaginous Dalby.
Palmer doesn’t crack a smile. In that sense, he’s emblematic of the decline of deference of the early 60s, with all the misbegotten hopes for an egalitarian polity it catalysed. Palmer may not yet know that the enemy is within, that our secret services are corrupted by public school boys, but if the adaptation is faithful to the original in this, he will by episode two. What makes The Ipcress File worth reviving is that now, as then, the Etonian death grip on politics and public service imperils Britain more than any tooled-up Russian.