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!
Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 1 here.
Joseph. Jose. Becker. Gabi. Michel. Salim. Call him anything you like, just don’t call him late for the infiltration of a Palestinian terror cell. Alexander Skarsgård’s character in BBC One’s luxurious and beautifully-filmed new John le Carré adaptation is many things to many people. So it’s important to pay attention while watching. You don’t want to lose track.
The Little Drummer Girl’s storyline so far isn’t exactly confusing, but nor is it crystal clear at all times. We’re picking up threads as we go along and as this second of six episodes came to a close, the audience – and, by extension, Charlie – is now pretty clued in as to what exactly is going down.
Seduced by Joseph/Jose (as he was then) and taken to Athens in the first slice of this spy puzzle, Florence Pugh’s character quickly discovered that there was no dirty weekend in store, but an odd audition to work as an undercover spy for the Israeli intelligence services instead. As a ‘revolutionary’ type with sympathies towards Palestine, it’s not hugely clear as yet why lefty luvvie Charlie is so keen to get involved with a regime she so distrusts, but perhaps we’ll find out later.
After a traumatic audition that sees her grilled about her past and upbringing and her lies rather abruptly pointed out, there was no shortage of humiliation for the young actress. But after passing the test exactly because she’s such a practised and accomplished liar (“You did great, kid,” excitedly buzzed Michael Shannon’s Kurtz at one point. “You got the part!”), she’s finally explained her role in ‘the theatre of the real’ by Gabi (who’s no longer Joseph by this point…).
She’s to effectively play a version of herself. One who has fallen in love with a handsome and charismatic young Palestinian rebel called Salim Al-Khadar. Gabi is to play Salim. The real Salim is languishing in a padded cell in Munich under Israeli watch; the rather ambitious plan sees Skarsgård’s character becoming him. He studies his speech patterns, his mannerisms and even borrows his wardrobe.
How a 6’4” Germanic-looking man in his early forties will convince as a Middle Eastern-looking kid half his age though, time will tell…
The team are working from info squeezed out of Salim in all sorts of less-than-okay ways, but don’t account for the young man’s smarts. Even while drugged and confused from his cell, he manages to feed Mossad misinformation that could well see a trap laid for Charlie and Michel (did we mention that Gabi is pretending to be Salim who is – in turn – pretending to be his alter ego of ‘Michel’? No? Well, yeah. He is…).
Keeping up so far? Good.
Granted, so far, this isn’t the most straightforward Sunday night drama you’ll ever see. But it’s one which asks you to pay attention, to engage and think a little. This is grown-up, mature drama that never wanders into the smug or dreary.
It’s also perfectly observed too, with an incredible level of detail shown to the time period. You couldn’t be more in the 1970s if you were watching The Little Drummer Girl at home in a pair of flares, while grasping a Doobie Brothers LP and throwing Spangles at a Spacehopper.
Did you tune in for The Little Drummer Girl episode 2? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 2 here.
If you’ve ever been on a long haul flight, you’ll know that they come with their ups and their downs (both figuratively and literally). To start with there’s the pre-flight nerves and the slight fear of the unknown. They can begin full of promise and excitement, with some real novelty involved. And, generally, when landing approaches and the runway’s in sight, everything’s great. But often it’s the midway point that’s the hardest for passengers. And the same can sometimes be true with TV dramas.
When The Little Drummer Girl debuted on BBC One two Sundays ago, it did so to some real fanfare and rightfully so. It’s cool, classy and looks utterly fantastic. It’s a real trip back to the 1970s. With the quality involved here – Park Chan-wook directing Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård in a John le Carré novel… – we’re all but guaranteed a smooth and satisfying landing come three weeks’ time. But at the moment? After episode 3, it feels as though we’re still ascending to the perfect flying altitude a little.
There’s been no turbulence to speak of exactly. So we’ve no reason to doubt the crew’s ability to land the thing and leave us with memories of a fine spy drama. There’s just a vague feeling that the scene isn’t fully set quite yet. The seatbelt lights are still illuminated.
That’s not to say nothing’s happening. In terms of plotting, this third Little Drummer Girl hardly left us wanting. It was all going on, in fact…
Marty decides a slightly softer approach might work better with Salim and lets him see that the outside of his padded cell isn’t a prison complex, but an office. He hints at his release and in return Salim spill the beans on the Semtex pick-up spot: it’s not been selected yet. And the pick-up point is down to Salim. Or at least it was; it’s now down to Marty. He opts for the easily-surveilled Gutigplatz in the Alps town of Kleinalm.
Charlie drops the car off there after crossing the Yugoslav/Austrian border and the team clock Salim’s beau Anna and an associate picking it up and driving away. In a beautifully filmed tracking shot, we see them rather violently picking Anna up. She’s a woman who doesn’t go down without a fight.
Charlie’s first major doubts about her new role start to develop when she’s clued in as to her colleagues’ kidnapping and manipulation of Salim. It’s something that she’s, quite understandably, a smidge uncomfortable with. Being knocked out and stripped for an English actress to ogle and memorise your body might be humiliating for the young Palestinian, but things quickly get a whole lot worse for him…
In a rather shocking climax to the episode, we saw how the team decided to fix their Salim and Anna problem. And it wasn’t pretty. Sedated and plonked in the front seats of the red Mercedes of ‘Michel’, they were driven down the road and blown up.
Next week, we’d like to see a little more characterisation and background from Florence Pugh’s Charlie. We’re still not 100% convinced of her motivations here. From liberal middle-class student to dedicated Mossad agent, from strong, feisty young woman to intelligence services pawn? It doesn’t quite feel right yet. She could well be one of the most captivating faces we’ve seen on television for some time, but Pugh’s going to need a little something extra to work with.
We need more scenes like the excellent moonshine/border crossing one here. Charlie’s a fiercely intelligent woman and there because she’s an actress. A few more flourishes like that and it’ll be smooth flying until we land, we’re certain.
Overall though, we’re not concerned. We’ve seen more than enough so far to convince us that we’re on the right flight path here.
Side note: Remember when Charlie orders a drink in the square at Kleinalm, effectively making ‘Father’ Gadi pick up the bill? Did you notice the waiter? Well, it was none other than Mr John le Carré himself. Peerless spy thriller writer and speedy drinks server. The man can do it all, it would appear.
Did you tune in for The Little Drummer Girl episode 3? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 3 here.
So far in this lush and high-end BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, we’ve taken a rather glamorous tour of Europe. We’ve been to Athens, Munich, Paris, the Alps, the old Yugoslavia, all over. We even close this fourth episode further afield in Beirut. But the majority of this week? We’re in a caravan park in Somerset. Not that you can’t have a nice time in a caravan park in Somerset, of course. It’s just not one of the locales you imagine in a cool spy thriller series really, is it?
Three-quarters of this week’s action takes place in the West Country. Charlie’s there with her acting troupe, killing time until the mission kicks back off in earnest. We open with Gadi approaching her as she listlessly feeds crisps to some ducks in a lake. She pretends to be annoyed by her Israeli contact’s arrival, but in reality she’s glad of the excitement that comes with both the work and the close proximity to Alexander Skarsgård’s character.
The theme of this week’s slice of spook action seems to be love. Both real and pretend. “Love,” Charlie tells Gadi after they finally spend the night together, “is the antidote to death.” This came after he had suggested that the answer to that conundrum was in fact ‘pleasure’. Could real love blossom between the two of them? Or is it all merely theatre to help Charlie get into the part of the girl so hopelessly in love with Gadi’s alter ego Michel/Salim that she’d kill for him and his cause? We’ll have to wait and see on that front.
It’s not just Gadi that’s in England. Marty moves the whole team to the caravan park as he correctly assumes that their breadcrumb trail will lead the Palestinians to her. Creepy Swiss lawyer Anton (Jeff Wilbusch) and the gun-waving Helga (Katharina Schüttler) represent Mossad’s foes, luring Charlie out before testing her credentials in one of the series’ best and most nerve-shredding (and strangely funniest) scenes to date. Passing the test, she’s released and later given details on how to meet with them again. When she does, she’s rather unceremoniously kidnapped and taken to Lebanon where she’s grilled and accepted further. This time by Salim’s family, including his sister Fatmeh.
Charlie has reached the inner circle. Her ‘employers’ will be pleased.
Before then, Gadi gives her a quick crash course in spycraft, with some proper seventies-style gizmos that would make James Bond’s Quartermaster seriously nostalgic. The radio with the secret transmitter was snazzy, but it was the invisible ink on the pack of ciggies we really liked. Now THAT’S spying, alright…
There was also some extra background information that Gadi had to clue Charlie in on. He withheld one rather large scrap of it, however. Salim wasn’t ‘awaiting trial’. The team had killed him and his girlfriend. That morsel was not relayed – and with good reason. When the Palestinian cell revealed Salim was dead, Charlie was capable of reacting with real shock and disgust. It’s all very clever, y’see.
Series director Park Chan-wook was in his element this week. Visual flourishes have been a part of The Little Drummer Girl since its debut last month and episode 4 allowed him to shoot the sex scene here in a quite oddly wonderful manner. Gratuitous flesh-flashing was forsaken for an almost dreamlike sequence in which a mouth opens to reveal an eye in a sequence that was as psychedelic as its era and helped avoid the kind of dull cliché traps that such scenes often fall into.
Next week sees the fifth and penultimate episode of this classy affair. Will Charlie’s allegiances be tested as she hears more about Fatmeh and Khalil’s cause? Or will her connection to Gadi keep her focused on the task in hand? It looks like, for the time, she’s no longer a pawn but a real player. The little drummer girl has finally grasped the drumsticks.
Did you tune in for The Little Drummer Girl episode 4? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 4 here.
BBC One’s most recent Sunday evening scheduling saw the fifth – and penultimate – episode of the critically acclaimed spy series The Little Drummer Girl on our screens. It was an instalment that, were it an episode of Friends, might have been called ‘The One in the Lebanese Training Camp’.
And with good reason too. For all the movements and machinations going on with Mossad in London and all the slickness and secrecy of subtle briefcase switches and the like, this week’s slice of TV John le Carré was most notable for its Beirut-based action. In those scenes, our double agent Charlie is in full headscarf and combat fatigue garb fighting, shooting pistols, firing rocket launchers and learning to assemble bombs.
These were no lengthy individual scenes, though. Oh no. We were shown Charlie’s induction into the Palestinian cause in a wonderfully Rocky-esque training montage. All that was missing was the backing soundtrack of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and a sweaty hoodied slow-motion run up some steps.
The rather simplistic-looking ‘Terrorism 101’ class aced, Charlie found herself fully embraced by the cause. Not only do Helga and Rossino trust her, the heads of the militia training camp and Salim’s sister Fatmeh are also totally on board. Oh, and so too – it seems – is head honcho Khalil…
Before being introduced to Salim’s brother, Charlie had her loyalties tested to the nth degree. The physical part of training over, our protagonist sat down with some younger recruits and attempted to learn some introductory Arabic with a friendly young kid.
She bonded with them in a way semi-foreshadowed by Gadi (“They will treat you like family and you will be ashamed of deceiving them. They’ll make you feel like you belong. You might even decide to tell them the truth. But the second you do, they’ll turn on you.”). Later that day, while out celebrating with her new ‘family’, Israeli bomb strikes rained down, killing men, women and children. Including Charlie’s miniature language teacher.
The reality – and danger – hits Charlie hard. Will she remain loyal to Gadi and her original mission…? Next week’s crescendo will surely tell.
Away from the Middle East and there were some more classic spy goings-on this week. There were the continuing adventures of the invisible ink cigarette packs, some archetypal code breaking and even some secretive photography with a weird mini 1970s camera. The clues assembled, Kurtz, Gadi and the team work out that the next big attack is due to occur on the anniversary of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It’s likely to be a bomb, the target is a university lecture hall in London and the symbolic main target is to be an esteemed Israeli professor.
As a courtesy, or for a little help, Kurtz dropped into the British intelligence services and one Commander Picton, an unimpressed and slightly anti-Semitic old fox played with wonderful disdain by the always outstanding Charles Dance. During their chit-chat, the Game of Thrones actor delivered perhaps the series funniest – and most memorable – line to date…
“It’s one thing,” he growls to Kurtz, “to p**s on my leg and tell me it’s raining. It’s quite another to take a bloody great s**t all over me without the courtesy of a weather report.”
Now that’s what we call a cameo.
As Charlie meets Khalil in this week’s climax, thoughts turn to next week’s action. The Little Drummer Girl could have teased us with a cliffhanger here, but it seems to have taken the high road and wants to entice us to the final part of the story on merit alone. Whatever’s in store, it’s sure to be a test of Charlie’s faith.
Whose side is she on? And will that decision be driven by her heart or her head?
Did you tune in for The Little Drummer Girl episode 5? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
WARNING: contains spoilers. Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 5 here.
“I hope it was worth it…”
This final utterance from Palestinian terrorist/revolutionary/martyr Khalil to Charlie before Gadi put half a dozen bullets in him at the very end of this final episode prompted some rather heavy thinking from both the central player of The Little Drummer Girl and its audience.
These past six episodes have seen Kurtz, Gadi, Charlie and the team put in an incredible amount of planning and work into their mission to sneak a player into their enemies’ cell. Conceptualising, refining, recruiting for, practising, executing and clearing up a complex infiltration strategy like this is no mean feat. And so the central question really is, ‘was it worth it?’
Well, from our point of view – absolutely. Us viewers have enjoyed the twists and turns of this John le Carré adaptation greatly over the past month and a half. But from the Israeli characters’ viewpoint? It certainly seemed a rather elaborate and ornate way to effectively just kill a few people, however central they were to the Palestinian cause.
Just think back. The surveilling, luring, snatching, convincing and training of Charlie alone was one helluva undertaking. And all just to eventually win the trust of Khalil to get him into bed? Was it worth it? Is any of this kind of thing ever worth it? It’s a question we’re left to ponder as Charlie philosophically asks Gadi who they both are before the credits roll.
The mission was really all about revenge for the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, something which the Israelis would have sought vengeance for regardless…
The climactic final instalment of The Little Drummer Girl saw Khalil testing Charlie and eventually trusting her enough to task her with planting a bomb in a London university, as hinted at in episode 5. In essence, this final piece of the puzzle was all about Khail (played to good effect here by Charif Ghattas). A man so enigmatic and mysterious until now that even his sworn enemy Gadi, in reality, knew very little about him. Charlie quickly grew close to him, blurring the lines between reality and fiction, between duty and emotion. Eventually, though? She would stick to her mission. Albeit not entirely by design.
Had she turned? It was difficult to tell. Charlie wept over Khalil’s body and was clearly moved by witnessing the strikes that killed the children in Beirut. Even for an actress, she seemed rather ‘method’ in her passion when effectively being coerced into sleeping with the ‘beautiful’ Khalil. Yet she handed over the bomb to Gadi without hesitation and lied repeatedly to the Palestinians. Lines are never very well defined in the world of espionage, it seems.
This small screen version of le Carré’s 1983 book really has been thoroughly excellent television. Steady, patient and rewarding, it’s told its story at its own pace, foregoing any of the whizz-bang showiness of something like Bodyguard. It’s a brave and bold move by the BBC, allowing series director Park Chan-wook to effectively produce a long-form piece of art over simple ratings bait. True to form, viewing figures have suffered somewhat, with time, thought and emotional investment required from the series.
In all, this has been classy television, ideal for Sunday evening BBC One. Park Chan-wook has elevated the excellent source material to another level and with serious style. With Michael Shannon, Alexander Skarsgård and Charles Dance involved, the acting has been exemplary, of course. But The Little Drummer Girl simply belongs to Florence Pugh.
We may just have witnessed her becoming one of the world’s most sought-after screen actors…
Did you tune in for The Little Drummer Girl episode 6? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!