Get weekly recommendations and eBook deals in our newsletterSign up

Get weekly recommendations and eBook deals in our newsletter Sign up

London Spy review

Episodes: 5

Premiered: 2015

Duration: 1 hr

Ben Whishaw and Edward Holcroft play star-crossed lovers caught up in an intense relationship that’s shattered when Holcroft’s Alex, a British intelligence asset, is found dead in BBC Two’s espionage thriller London Spy. Whishaw, as Danny, is forced into the alien and utterly terrifying world of espionage as suspicion begins to fall on him.

The ensemble cast is filled out by the likes of Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge!), Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) and Dame Harriet Walter (Killing Eve).

Read on for Stuart’s episode-by-episode London Spy review.

London Spy episode 1 review

Spoilers for London Spy episode 1 below.

Danny (Ben Whishaw) – a young man enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle on London’s gay scene – exits a nightclub into the cold light of dawn coming down hard. Alone and bereft standing on Lambeth Bridge, only a chance encounter with a jogger pulls him back from the brink.

Later hoping there was mutual attraction, Danny takes to jogging around the area at 5AM in the hopes of seeing the runner again. Eventually his wish is granted. Alex (Edward Holcroft) is painfully shy, ordered to the point of being borderline OCD, wealthy, not part of the gay scene and not ‘out’. However, opposites attract and the two men fall in love and begin a relationship. Danny takes this commitment to the next level by introducing Alex to Scottie (Jim Broadbent) an older gay man and friend who we learn had supported him at a difficult point in his life.

Eight months into their relationship Danny tells Alex about a troubling and dark episode from his past, and the next day his lover fails to arrive for a planned meeting. At first Danny assumes it is that he has revealed painful truths about his sexually reckless past. However, it soon becomes apparent that Alex has disappeared.

London Spy episode 1

The opening episode of London Spy, an original series from Child 44 author Tom Rob Smith, demonstrates how the larger storytelling canvas offered TV drama can occasionally trump film. A movie would have compressed this love story into a first act taster for a main dish of mystery.

The title of the series does indicate that Alex is probably not the banker he tells Danny he is. Other telling details include the unusually high security outside Alex’s Lambeth flat, the constant looming presence of the SIS Building over the Vauxhall locations, and the slightly paranoid way he looks at cars in his rear view mirror. Danny divulges his past because he doesn’t want any secrets between them, but Alex’s life is entirely secretive. Alex is a spy.

Confidently directed by Jakob Verbruggen (who has directed episodes of The Fall and The Bridge), London Spy episode one hinted at darker mysteries with references to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. Danny looking out his bedroom window into neighbours flats was a clear nod to Rear Window. The scene where Scottie and Alex meet took place in a restaurant with a Kabuki cabaret echoing Blue Velvet’s karaoke scene. Even the casting of Whishaw and Holcroft brings associations with spy cinema. Whishaw can currently be seen as Q in the latest James Bond epic, and Holcroft recently played a trainee secret agent in the spy movie parody Kingsman.

The revelations that ended the episode moved into dark territory clearly inspired by the real life 2010 case of a GCHQ employee found dead in his flat inside a padlocked holdall. Danny’s world collapses: he thought he had discovered the love of his life, now he finds he may not even have known his name.

London Spy promises to become a gripping outsider’s view of the murky world of espionage.

Directed by Jakob Verbruggen

Written by Tom Rob Smith

Cast: Ben Whishaw; Edward Holcroft; Jim Broadbent; Samantha Spiro

Did you tune in for London Spy episode 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Stuart’s review of London Spy episode 2 here.

Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr

Follow Stuart on Twitter.

1 Comment

Join the discussion

Please note: Moderation is enabled and may delay your comment being posted. There is no need to resubmit your comment. By posting a comment you are agreeing to the website Terms of Use.

London Spy episode 2 review

Spoilers for London Spy episode 2 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 1 here.

London Spy episode 2 finds Danny (Ben Whishaw) in a state of mental disarray following Alex’s death. Convinced that the sex dungeon he discovered in Alex’s flat has been manufactured to create the false impression of a deviant sado-masochistic sex life as a convenient smoke screen for his murder, Danny is determined to clear his lover’s name.

An attempt to use the press to explain that Alex’s death was not the result of sexual misadventure backfires badly. Danny has no credible alternative explanation to propose and his words are spun into a sensationalist tabloid expose. After all, he didn’t even know Alex’s real name was Alistair. The resulting publicity leads to a request from Alex’s parents to visit them.

London Spy episode 2

The first episode of London Spy played out as a tender romance until the shocking revelations of its final act. Some viewers who (wrongly) complained of a slow pace may have been anticipating that the series would now become a more familiar espionage thriller in which a neophyte detective investigates and uncovers secrets – perhaps aided by his older friend Scottie (Jim Broadbent), the former spy. While there was surely no dearth of mystery in episode two, viewers expecting a more conventional narrative will have been confounded. In fact, the series took a sharp left turn and headed to that little known Home Counties hamlet of Lower Weirdsbury.

Danny’s trip out of London leads him like Alice through the looking glass and into a shadow world where nothing is as it appears. Away from the contemporary architecture and glittering lights of Thames-side Vauxhall, he finds himself in an alien world of dank country manors. It’s unlikely the young urbanite had ever had to cross a house’s threshold by traversing a drawbridge before. The change of scenery is not any less suffused with veiled threats. ‘Leave well alone’ is the message Danny receives from Alex’s mother Frances (a vampiric performance from Charlotte Rampling).

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Laurie Rose, who has worked on all of Ben Wheatley’s films, the country house interiors were startlingly stylised. Corridors wallpapered in somber shadows. Gloomy drawing rooms. Interior design seemingly frozen in a previous decade. A garden featuring an intricate maze, perhaps a manifestation of the psychological puzzle Danny is trying to unravel. At times, the atmosphere became so heightened and abstract that it was reminiscent of another great left-field British spy drama, The Prisoner.

What continues to keep London Spy grounded and real are moments of genuine sadness that cut to the heart: Scottie’s harrowing story of being entrapped in a homosexual sting operation that ended his career in espionage; Danny’s remark on seeing Alex’s bedroom that it is ‘the loneliest room I have ever seen’; his anguish as he later slept in the bed, touching the sheets and pillows where his lover once slept. Writer Tom Rob Smith created the part specifically for Whishaw and he is absolutely brilliant in this series. A raw wounded performance of loss that is utterly heartbreaking.

London Spy episode 2

Directed by Jakob Verbruggen

Written by Tom Rob Smith

Cast: Ben Whishaw; Jim Broadbent; Charlotte Rampling; Lorraine Ashbourne; David Hayman; Kate Dickie; Edward Holcroft

Did you tune in for London Spy episode 2? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Stuart’s review of London Spy episode 3 here.

Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr

Follow Stuart on Twitter.

2 Comments

    Yes, some of it was a bit far-fetched. But the love story at the center of it all was beautifully done. Jim Broadbent was wonderful as Scotty. and the scenes with Alex’s mother and her servants felt very poignant and stark. Lots to enjoy & appreciate here.

    Very long on set up, portentious scenes with no action and little revelation. Rather ‘King’s New Clothes’, I’m afraid.
    By episode 5 , just a string of pretentious twists in a maze leading nowhere. All style an no substance.

Join the discussion

Please note: Moderation is enabled and may delay your comment being posted. There is no need to resubmit your comment. By posting a comment you are agreeing to the website Terms of Use.

London Spy episode 3 review

Spoilers for London Spy episode 3 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 2 here.

After Danny’s mysterious home counties escapade in episode 2, London Spy episode 3 took the story back into the capital.

A cleisiophobic nightmare (the fear of being locked in an enclosed space) is interrupted when police storm Danny’s flat. During interrogation he is played a recording of his private confession to his dead love Alex. The police claim this comes from an intercepted phone call. However, Danny (and we) know the conversation took place in the intimate setting of his bedroom. Still, it doesn’t look good – even his lawyer advises him to confess.

At the end of the previous episode, an enigmatic American delivered gave Danny a blue pill in a subtle threat. The meaning becomes clear when his flatmate finds the pill and asks him why he didn’t tell her of his condition. The penny drops. This is an anti-HIV medication. When he tests positive for HIV Danny becomes convinced he was deliberately infected during his interrogation.

London Spy episode 3

Scottie, the ex-spy, considers this to be a further attempt to undermine Danny’s credibility. It will serve to portray him as a sexual risk taker. But the police interview also gives them a clue. The police sought to link Alex to a deviant sex club. Chasing this lead, Danny contacts Rich (Mark Gatiss), a drug dealer and possible pimp, who he knew before meeting Alex and getting his life together.

Scottie holds a meeting with an establishment figure (James Fox) at his club – the kind with leather chairs, copies of The Times, and brandy on the menu rather than crystal meth and group sex. Here it is confirmed that whatever it is that Alex was killed for, it is something that has united practically every intelligence agency on the global stage against them. Trust no-one indeed.

London Spy took another bold new direction in this episode, whilst retaining its individual flavour. The highly contemporary health issue of chemsex was graphically explored. Those who complained to Ofcom after episode one’s frank but tender love scene will have been apoplectic faced with the carnal horrors shown in flashback here.

Ben Whishaw continues to impress as Danny; his denial, sorrow and horror when receiving the results of his HIV test was an acting tour-de-force. Jim Broadbent walks a tightrope between making Scottie a character who elicits sympathy while never seeming completely trustworthy. As the vile Rich, Mark Gatiss surely made every viewer’s flesh crawl – perhaps even surpassing his many League of Gentlemen characters for creepiness.

London Spy continues to approach the espionage thriller format from startlingly original angles. It is, however, developing a significant elephant in the room. For what reason was Alex killed? Why does it seem that every part of the British establishment that Danny encounters – from the press to the police – is part of a conspiracy intended to destroy him? The mystery is assuming epic proportions. Whilst I have no doubt answers will only come in the final episode, they will need to be good ones to avoid a feeling of massive anticlimax.

Directed by Jakob Verbruggen

Written by Tom Rob Smith

Cast: Ben Whishaw; Jim Broadbent; Mark Gatiss; Harriet Walter; Zrinka Cvitesic; Edward Holcroft

Did you tune in for London Spy episode 3? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Stuart’s review of London Spy episode 4 here.

Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr

Follow Stuart on Twitter.

Join the discussion

Please note: Moderation is enabled and may delay your comment being posted. There is no need to resubmit your comment. By posting a comment you are agreeing to the website Terms of Use.

London Spy episode 4 review

Spoilers for London Spy episode 4 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 3 here.

London Spy episode 3 ended with Danny handed an envelope and a promise of “the impossible”. Inside was a mobile phone which rang the moment it dropped into his hand.

Episode 4 begins with Danny falling down yet another rabbit hole as the digitally distorted caller directs him an a labyrinthine trek through nocturnal London. Ordered into a black cab with automatically locked doors and a silent driver in black leather driving gloves, the threat was palpable – black leather gloves being an automatic red flag in an espionage drama. Forcing Danny on the journey was the promise of the ‘impossible’. Could Alex be waiting at the end?

London Spy episode 4

Alas, there was no sudden happy ending. In fact the promised revelation was a disappointing damp squib, albeit a very stylish, charming and attractive one. Danny meets an escort for the tenebrous organisation he has been tracking. The man tells him he was hired to seduce Alex while he was in their relationship. Without the inspiration to crack the code of Alex’s code key, and now with doubts planted over his relationship, Danny is tired of the game.

Nonetheless, he cannot quite shake the puzzle of the code key. In the end, it was not a grid reference, or a date, or a message scribbled in the margin of well tumbled paperback that held the key but a conversation about soulmates and romantic notions.

Adrian Lester guest starred as Alex’s College Professor Marcus Shaw, a rather thankless role as he was essentially there to deliver ‘the science bit’. Contained within the code key is a complex algorithm which can apply to all human communication as a kind of universal lie detector. The ultimate code breaker that will decode language itself into a simple binary of truth and lies. Of course this would mean the end of diplomacy and politics. No wonder every intelligence agency in the world seems to want them dead.

This was the weakest episode of London Spy so far. After the relentless descent into horror in episode 3 it suddenly applied brakes to the drama. The solution to the code key seemed simplistic – and the Macguffin it protected like something out of a pulp nineties cyberpunk thriller. It was the human drama – not the spy action – that gave the episode its best moments. Whishaw continues to be superb. Danny’s improvised ‘funeral’ for Alex was moving and sad. Jim Broadbent was terrific as Scotty succumbed to a relapse into the crippling depression and alcohol abuse.

London Spy episode 4

London Spy has been one of the most strikingly original dramas of the year and it was disappointing that the momentum of the previous 3 episodes seemed to have been lost somewhat. However, a truly horrifying final image leads into next week’s finale and it is to be hoped that this was a necessary intake of breath before a final flourish.

It has never seemed that this is a story that will have a happy ending, but with dark and powerful forces gathering against him Danny remains defiant. Will he be crushed like a butterfly on a wheel?

Directed by Jakob Verbruggen

Written by Tom Rob Smith

Cast: Ben Whishaw; Jim Broadbent; Riccardo Scamarcio; Adrien Lester; Harriet Walter; Edward Holcroft

Did you tune in for London Spy episode 4? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Read Stuart’s review of London Spy episode 5 here.

Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr

Follow Stuart on Twitter.

Join the discussion

Please note: Moderation is enabled and may delay your comment being posted. There is no need to resubmit your comment. By posting a comment you are agreeing to the website Terms of Use.

London Spy episode 5 review

Spoilers for London Spy episode 5 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 4 here.

London Spy struck its first flat note with an exposition heavy penultimate episode. Alex had formulated a code that would bring about the ‘end of lies’. This digital Rosetta Stone would end diplomacy, laying bare what everyone really thought. For this he was murdered. When Danny, Alex’s lover, started to ask inconvenient questions he was ruthlessly discredited and framed. Now Danny has discovered the truth he and those he has shared information with are in great danger from the dark forces behind Alex’s death.

Danny’s closest confidante, the former spy Scottie, is killed and his murder is staged to look like suicide. Danny is more isolated than ever. Increasingly desperate, he wants to get Alex’s work to the media. He mails out manuscripts to newspapers, but in the middle of the night finds the envelopes left in his garage. The enclosed manuscripts are now blank. With the evidence erased Danny returns to the home of Alex’s mother Frances seeking to understand at least who his lover was and how he came to be a spy.

London Spy episode 3

The final part of Child 44 author Tom Rob Smith’s series confidently returned London Spy to form. The details of Alex’s code cracking were not what this story is about, merely the ‘macguffin’ that instigated the action. The real mystery was Alex himself and Danny’s quest to understand if their love was genuine, or part of a constructed identity. From Frances Danny finds his answers and the harrowing truth of how Alex came to die in a suitcase was revealed.

This was a spy thriller with little procedural detail, a drama with gay characters that wasn’t solely about being gay. A mystery expertly laced with red herrings that wrong footed us every step of the way. Rob Smith’s scripting made a potentially implausible conspiracy acceptable because it was background for a compelling character-based story of romance and loss.

Director Jakob Verbruggen gave the series a consistent style and – especially for Londoners – an incredible sense of place (it is surely the most Vauxhall has featured in a recent TV drama). Cinematographer Laurie Rose brought experience in shooting feature film resulting in a series drenched in visual flair.

London Spy episode 5

The cast has been superb. In this episode Charlotte Rampling was outstanding playing Frances, by turns a sinister figure and a forlorn mother. Nonetheless, it has been Ben Whishaw as Danny who has been the heart of the drama. The role was written for the actor and it is not possible to imagine anyone else in the part. In scenes such as his horrifying HIV test, or in this episode a support meeting for men living with HIV, Whishaw has been deeply moving. Far from a typical thriller protagonist, Danny’s vulnerability and naivety has been balanced by his remarkable commitment to the truth and his unshakable conviction that the love he shared with Alex was real, despite evidence to the contrary.

London Spy has been complete bliss, a shining but dark jewel of a television drama. I expect it to be garlanded with awards soon.

Directed by Jakob Verbruggen

Written by Tom Rob Smith

Cast: Ben Whishaw; Jim Broadbent; Charlotte Rampling; Lorraine Ashbourne; David Hayman; Adrian Lester; Harriet Walter; Edward Holcroft

Did you tune in for London Spy episode 5? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr
Stuart Barr

Follow Stuart on Twitter.

Join the discussion

Please note: Moderation is enabled and may delay your comment being posted. There is no need to resubmit your comment. By posting a comment you are agreeing to the website Terms of Use.