Some spy novels and their film and television adaptations, especially when they’re set in Eastern Bloc countries in the 1970s, can struggle sometimes for glamour. Wide-rimmed spectacles, Ladas, clunky recording equipment and a series of men in brown suits whispering hushed conversations in dimly-lit rooms… Proceedings can easily veer into the soporific for anyone other than the staunchest fan of the genre.
If, however, those ingredients are taken and you’re served a perfectly-cooked, expertly-paced, tightly-plotted spy drama that’s packed full of wonderful performances and constant edge-of-your-seat tension, chances are it’s a John le Carré adaptation.
Luckily for everyone looking for a high-quality new drama series to get their teeth into (which is surely just about everyone, isn’t it?), BBC One’s newest flagship Sunday night drama, The Little Drummer Girl, is based on le Carré’s 1983 novel of the same name. So we’re all but guaranteed quality.
Most TV aficionados have still got a Bodyguard-shaped hole in their end-of-week telly watching and while this new six-parter is a different kettle of fish altogether, it swims in the same river.
We start with a bombing in West Germany. It’s 1979, seven years after the horrors of the Munich Olympics massacre. Tensions in the Middle East are, as ever, sky high. And so too, by extension, are tensions across Europe. An Israeli diplomat answers the door to an attractive young woman who asks to drop off some luggage for the man’s au pair. He takes the large tan suitcase upstairs. Minutes later, an explosion rocks the house, killing his young son.
We soon learn that we’re dealing with the continuing mess and destruction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An emotive and highly-charged subject that everybody will be hoping is treated with due care.
It doesn’t take long to realise that this new spy drama is from the same people that brought us the excellent production of le Carré’s The Night Manager a full two and a half years ago. The same attention to detail and general classiness pervades this opening episode which, even in its more meandering scenes, still holds your attention. The ace up its sleeve? Florence Pugh.
In a high-profile drama where Michael Shannon and the almost impossibly tall and handsome Alexander Skarsgård sit above you in the titles, it takes a special performance to steal the show. That appears to be exactly what’s going to happen here. We’re not one for hyperbole, of course, but this breakthrough role might just see Pugh catapulted into near A-List status. Okay, so that might be overstating things to a degree. But still. Let’s just wait and see, eh?
Pugh plays Charlie, an outspoken and whip-smart wannabe actress who, alongside the rest of her acting troupe, gets an unusual invitation to a Greek island for a job. There, she meets Skarsgård’s mysterious Peter/Joseph/Becker, who lures her to Athens with his now trademark ‘Alexander Skarsgård is strong and silent but alluring’ schtick.
Peter then – rather forcibly – drives Charlie out to meet Mossad spymaster Marty Kurtz and his team, who are hellbent on catching those responsible for the bomb blast. It made us think just how much shorter a read Heart of Darkness would have been had Charles Marlow been driven to the Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novella at breakneck speed by a tall German man in a little red sports car.
Next Sunday’s instalment picks up from this thrilling introduction. Presumably, Kurtz has a plan for Charlie. Her acting skills, boldness and intelligence heavily involved, no doubt.
There are glamorous locales, beautiful people, political intrigue, ‘bad guys’, ‘good guys’ and no doubt a few bad guys that are good and vice versa. It’s no Night Manager clone, though…
The Tom Hiddleston/Hugh Laurie-starring drama had a simple plot and theme and turned out to be a huge worldwide hit for the BBC. But The Little Drummer Girl feels no need to ape its spiritual predecessor. Already it feels at home in its own skin. Confident, if you like. Some of this assuredness must come from its director, the experienced and critically-lauded Park Chan-wook. The South Korean filmmaker behind the visceral and unforgettable revenge films Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy, as well as the brilliantly subtle 2013 psychological thriller Stoker, demonstrates a light but assertive touch here.
This has everything you could want from a John le Carré adaptation and all without a hint of dullness. Will it be as successful as The Night Manager? Probably not, no. Will it be as good? Based on this first episode? Absolutely.
Did you tune in for The Little Drummer Girl episode 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!