Frozen Moscow vistas, men in tan overcoats sat shivering on benches in frosty-looking parks, spies who come in from the cold… If there’s one thing that almost all espionage thrillers are, it’s a bit chilly.
And then, of course, there’s the coldest part of all – the Cold War. Nuclear war with those east of the Iron Curtain looms large over enormous swathes of spy thrillers, be they in novel, film or television form. What the makers of ITV’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1962 book The Ipcress File weren’t to know when they started work on the project, was that the subject would also loom large over the world by the time the first episode was broadcast.
Eerie prescience fills the room further when mentions of mounting tensions with the Soviets are made. Hear a phrase like ‘it seems more and more likely every day that we are all shortly to be blown to smithereens’ now and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally switched over to a rolling news channel, not tuned in for some escapist fiction.
Luckily for viewers, this new six-part spy thriller swerves the uber-realism of, say, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in favour of a more entertaining take on the spy game. In the current news cycle, we’re not sure anyone really needs anything too convincing and full of dread.
You may remember The Ipcress File as the paperback up on a parent’s shelf, or as the 1965 film starring Michael Caine as the sardonic and bespectacled British spook Harry Palmer. Caine’s are big shoes to fill, but they fit the new Harry perfectly. Peaky Blinders and Gangs of London star Joe Cole is expertly cast here and looks set to give us an equally cynical and roguishly likeable version of Palmer.
Always touted as more of a studied, inverted and working class version of 007, the new iteration of Harry Palmer still gets himself in enough trouble with bad guys and wakes up with enough beautiful women to give Bond a run for his money. Something of a wide boy, the fiercely intelligent yet slightly bored and anti-authority Harry is enjoying a side-line in selling contraband in the divided Berlin when he’s caught and thrown in military prison to languish for eight years. An offer made to him by spymaster Major Dalby – the always good value Tom Hollander – sees him out of prison for a mission: track down a kidnapped British nuclear scientist through his Rolodex of dodgy Berlin contacts.
The job was going swimmingly until the deal went south and Professor Dawson took a chestful of bullets. What does this mean for national and international security? We’ll find out over the next five Sundays.
We’ve not touched upon the story’s mind control elements as yet. The seeds are being planted, though. One sweeping view of a swinging sixties cityscape subtly showed us a cinema showing The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 film about a US brainwashing program that would’ve been showing in picturehouses at the time. A nice nod and indication of things to come.
The visuals are all pleasingly rich and impressive. From the font in the opening titles to the wardrobe and colour palette, it’s all seriously immersive. You’re not just watching something set in 1963 – it is 1963. The tilted camerawork is also reminiscent of spy films of yore, yet another appreciative nod backwards in the direction of the 1960’s when espionage was the order of the literary and cinematic day. ITV dramas often have something of an ‘ITV feel’ to them. Not so here. This could easily be a BBC or HBO production. Boats have been pushed out and it shows.
Spy fiction may so often be cold in temperature, tone and topic, but we’ve warmed to this one already. File under ‘M’ for ‘Must See’.
Did you tune in for The Ipcress File episode 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Still catching up on The Ipcress File episode 2? Read Steve’s review of episode 1 here.
ITV’s surprisingly excellent adaptation of Len Deighton’s popular spy novel continues apace here in this second part. The opener came rushing out of the blocks last Sunday night and shows no sign of slowing down yet.
We’re not too sure what it was about the trailers, but if we’re honest – we were slightly nervous going into this series. Adaptations of much-loved books can be hit and miss at the best of times, but when remaking an already very popular film with an iconic lead it could be all too easy to make the 1960’s setting and styling a bit cloying and over the top. Thankfully, that’s not been the case for a single second so far.
Everything about this new version of The Ipcress File screams ‘SIXTIES!’, yet it’s very much written and filmed for a modern audience. So there’s all the fashion, camera angles, set dressing and feel of an old spy film. But none of the slack pacing and slightly underwhelming action you might expect from a film of its time.
For all the slickness and the unshakeable coolness of Joe Cole’s Harry Palmer, there’s a real spine of realism to proceedings. At the midway point of this second episode, Harry gets into a fistfight with a suspect on a night bus and the punch-up is pleasingly lifelike. Lots of missed punches and a thump to the stomach that winds Harry and stops the scrap. It’s good to see a fight happen the way fights really happen. Not everyone knows five different types of martial arts, after all.
So he’s never going to match Sir Henry Cooper or Sonny Liston in the ring. Our Harry’s got plenty of other skills, though. He’s a natural at the spy game, something both his new boss Dalby (Tom Hollander) and the other side (David Dencik’s General Gregor Stok) appreciate. It’s a good thing too, as there’s a vast conspiracy at play here and it’s going to need smart cookies to unravel it all.
Palmer’s not alone, though. Given a much more prominent role here in this 2022 version, Jean Courteney is a military intelligence asset with serious skills herself. Not to mention a constantly inscrutable look and a rather natty leopard-skin print pillbox hat. Jean is played with demure restraint by Lucy Boynton (Bohemian Rhapsody).
It isn’t just the clothes, buses and home decor that alert us to the time period The Ipcress File is set in. Of course, the prospect of nuclear war with Russia doesn’t exactly narrow it down, but the other social elements in the story do. Jean’s suffocating relationship with dreary fiancé James (Industry’s Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and a subplot where our spies unabashedly use someone’s homosexuality against them as leverage are signs of the times we’re asked to reflect upon.
One nice nod to the source material and Michael Caine film version came here in the charming form of eggs. Holed up in a stuffy B&B after some hard spy work, Harry and Jean are hungry. So they sneak into the kitchen for Harry to surprise us all by expertly rustling up eggs benedict. In the film it was an omelette, but hollandaise is trickier, so the writers of this new version have upped Harry’s culinary skill level.
Harry and Jean may well be sharing cookery know-how but they’re not much closer to tracking down the missing professor and stopping an atomic war. The introduction at the end here of a mysterious psychiatrist and missing video footage marked with the show’s title has opened up a new can of worms. And not even Chef Harry could turn a can of worms into a tasty dinner.
Did you tune in for The Ipcress File episode 2? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Still catching up on The Ipcress File episode 3? Read Steve’s review of episode 2 here.
‘Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, falling apart, ageing, and forever drama laden.’
– Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
With its events taking place almost entirely in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, this third instalment of ITV’s superior spy series The Ipcress File was as drama laden as the city it was set in.
The hunt for Professor Dawson continued, with our intrepid duo Harry Palmer and Jean Courtney instructed to head to Lebanon, where former diplomat-turned-kidnapped Ian Randall seemed likely to be holding the atomic weapons genius Dawson.
With some cunning and the help of a former contact of Randall’s, a fixer called Adem, the pair get themselves in and out of plenty of trouble, eventually tracking their target down. The plan to retrieve Dawson requires Major Dalby to slip on his best Man from Del Monte suit and jump on a plane to join them. One sizeable pay-off to Adem, and Dawson is theirs. Well, he would’ve been were the pick-up not ruined somewhat by a car full of Soviets with machine guns.
Randall and Dawson escape alive, and Dalby & Co. are left out of pocket and without the professor. If the mission was seen by ministers as a failure before, it’s nothing short of an abject disaster now.
Away from all the undercover work and derring-do, Harry and Jean continue to grow closer here, their attraction becoming obvious and a little kiss shared. But before things went from undercover to under the covers, Harry put a stop to things. Mixing business with pleasure isn’t a great idea, he says. We’ll see how long that sentiment lasts, shall we…?
If it were a steak, this series would be a tenderloin. It’s a rare cut indeed, one without an ounce of fat on it. Every scene matters, every line has meaning. It’s not all just plot, plot, plot, either – something many espionage thrillers get bogged down in. There are genuine, well-rounded characters being revealed and developed while the story rumbles on at a pace.
You need to pay attention, certainly. But what’s happening is clear – again, unlike a lot of spy shows, which can be obfuscated and foggy, with people muttering in rooms while large reels of tape spin round, leaving the audience none the wiser. The Ipcress File’s clarity is testament to the quality of its writing.
Not only is the drama sharply written, the script regularly pops with humour. Harry’s quips, brilliantly deadpanned by Joe Cole, are often laugh out loud funny. Cole clearly ‘gets’ his character and it’s a joy to watch him operate Palmer. Him and Lucy Boynton have real chemistry here too, with both doing so much with the delivery of their lines. Neither character emotes, so there’s serious subtlety in their performances.
This third episode was a thoroughly enjoyable sojourn to the Middle East. It looks likely to be back to Blighty for next Sunday’s action, although further trips abroad could be on the cards depending on where Randall takes the oddly compliant/brainwashed Prof. Dawson next.
Wherever the story leads us, we’ll eagerly follow behind at a safe distance, furtively checking our rear-view mirror as we do so, because The Ipcress File is one of the most stylish, fun and enjoyable TV dramas in recent memory.
Did you tune in for The Ipcress File episode 3? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Still catching up on The Ipcress File episode 4? Read Steve’s review of episode 3 here.
At the end of last week’s third episode of The Ipcress File, we left Harry, Jean and their boss Major Dalby smarting somewhat. Their plan to retrieve the kidnapped nuclear scientist Professor Dawson had failed. The Soviets had jumped in at the final moment and snatched him away.
Or had they…?
In this Sunday’s latest instalment of ITV’s excellent espionage thriller series it’s quickly established by Tom Hollander’s dapper Dalby character that it wasn’t an interception from the east, but from the west. It was the Americans who took the mind-controlled scientist – meaning it was a US intelligence asset that Harry was forced to kill in self defence during the big shoot-out last week.
Trying to keep things civil, Dalby approached General Cathcart about the situation, but to no avail. So, the spymaster did what he does best – he mastered some spies. Harry and Jean were dispatched to a Pacific island to ‘observe’ a neutron bomb test of the Americans. And, again, attempt to get their hands on the slippery professor, who Dalby suspects might be nearby.
Once on Sopinofu Island, our intrepid pair snoop around and use their subtle charms and good looks to try and win over CIA man Paul Maddox and the psychiatrist Dr Karen Newton. Whilst making each other jealous, of course.
It’s fun to see Joe Cole and Lucy Boynton relax into their characters a little here and flirt their way through their latest mission. They’ve both certainly got the moves, even if – ultimately – it doesn’t get them any closer to pinching back Dawson and potentially avoiding a rather nasty nuclear war.
Tension is still rather high here in this fourth part, as you might expect. After all, these Cold War dramas do tend to love ratcheting up the anxiety. For perhaps the first time in the series, however, things are starting to get a little too complicated…
Up until this point we’d complimented The Ipcress File on its ability to tell a complex story with remarkable clarity. It seems as if from this point, however, we may need to start taking notes.
Yet while things are veering away from the straightforward, the plot is nowhere near messy. The script is as good as you’ll likely ever see in an ITV drama. It’s just that the plot is no longer simple.
It shouldn’t really come as a huge shock that the writing on The Ipcress File is of such high quality. Behind this reimagining of Len Deighton’s source material is John Hodge, the Olivier and BAFTA-winning screenwriter and playwright who was up for an Academy Award a quarter of a century ago for his work adapting Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
Let’s give a special nod to the set designs, costume people and props department here too. Their work on making The Ipcress File look and feel authentically 1960’s has been nothing short of incredible. The mise-en-scène here is second to none. So much thought has gone into the staging and it really pays off, and every scene is a feast for the eyes.
We left things with our hero in an American jail cell after Captain Henderson set him up to look like a Soviet spy. Will Dalby leave Palmer there to rot, as a peace offering to the US? Or is Harry too important? Dalby does rate him highly, after all. Him and Jean seem to be the only hope of the clumsily-titled WOOC (P), the ‘War Office Operational Communications (Provisional)’.
Just remember your notepad and pen for next Sunday’s fifth part.
Did you tune in for The Ipcress File episode 4? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Some spoilers for The Ipcress File episode 5 below. Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 4 here.
Fans of Joe Cole and his interpretation of the famous Harry Palmer character were in for a tough time in this fifth episode of ITV’s adaptation of The Ipcress File, while Harry himself was in for an even more uncomfortable spell.
Based on what happens here to the specs-wearing spook, we’ve decided we no longer want to become spies ourselves. We’ve contacted MI5 and 6 and asked that they shred all those CVs of ours we sent in. It’s just not for us.
Up until this point, the job had looked all rather exciting – all glitz and glamour. Car chases, shootouts, clandestine meetings, reconnaissance, flirtation with beautiful colleagues… A real blast. Here, however, things take a rather dark turn for Harry.
Arrested by the Americans after being framed for Soviet espionage, Harry’s being held by the spiteful General Skip Henderson who revels in his taunting of the Englishman. He’s going to tie Harry to a cinder block and drop him in the ocean, he tells him. A real-life spoiler.
Not only that but his employers have turned their backs on him too. Jean is trying to find out where he is from her CIA contact Paul Maddox and Professor Dawson, but Major Dalby has been forced to forget about his promising new recruit. Palmer simply isn’t worth damaging the United Kingdom’s ‘special relationship’ with the USA over.
‘Luckily’ for our hero, he’s not killed by Henderson and his men. Instead, another use is found for him. He’s handed over to the Chinese military and subjected to some serious psychological torture, similar to the kind that the brainwashed professor experienced – the Ipcress method of the title.
There are shades of A Clockwork Orange as Palmer’s tied to a chair and forced to watch violent scenes as he’s mentally manipulated and traumatised. The reason? Well, it seems as if a breakaway faction within the US military – lead by General Cathcart – are planning a secret mission to program a foreigner to assassinate someone… It looks as though our protagonist is being set up as a patsy triggerman…
Back in Blighty and we’re witnessing a possible defection. Desperate to see his dissident Russian lover relocated formally in Britain, Dalby’s seemingly unable to get her past the debrief stage without arousing suspicions. Underlings Alice and Chico are onto Dalby’s extramarital activities and the boss is effectively cornered. He sets up a meeting with his Russian counterpart Colonel Stok, who lays out Dalby’s options. If he wants to free Dr Polina Lavotchkin and live happily ever after, he’ll have to work for both sides and become a traitor.
We’ll have to see whether Tom Hollander’s character takes up Stok’s offer or not next Sunday night when The Ipcress File reaches the conclusion of its six-week run.
While this week’s fifth episode offered up a little less of Harry swanning around being sarcastic and a little more of him strapped to a chair being tortured, it was ever so slightly less fun than previous instalments. But the stakes have now been ramped up, as have the tension and the intrigue – especially since the final scenes here saw Palmer breaking out of the ‘Chinese’ military base only to realise that he was being tortured/brainwashed in a sleepy English village all along…
This TV version of Len Deighton’s classic novel continues to be of the utmost class and quality. We’d happily be strapped to a chair and forced to watch it on repeat.
Did you tune in for The Ipcress File episode 5? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Some spoilers for The Ipcress File episode 6 below. Still catching up? Read Steve’s review of episode 5 here.
Luckily for the planet, while the Cold War came close to thawing out more than a few times, it never fully defrosted. Decades of tension and suspicion led to very subtle spy games played out between east and west, creating fertile ground for the likes of John le Carré and Len Deighton to plant some of our favourite espionage thrillers.
Of course, with things heating up again on that front geopolitically, we can regard many of these literary works with a little more reverence and relatability. So when The Ipcress File first aired on ITV1 six Sundays ago, it felt almost timely, if a little unnerving.
In this series, it soon became clear that while the Soviets are not to be trusted they weren’t the antagonists in this surprisingly excellent series. It was the Americans – or, at least, a rogue faction operating within American Intelligence.
Having escaped from what appeared to be some sort of Chinese military torture facility, but was really a US base on UK soil at the end of last week’s episode, Harry Palmer (Joe Cole) was confused to say the least. And that was before he even realised he’d been brainwashed to kill JFK using an MK-ULTRA-style mind control program.
Back out into the population and Harry’s unsure to what extent his exposure to ‘IPCRESS’ had had an effect. As it turned out, it was a fair bit. At one point towards the end of this thrilling climax, he was holding a sniper rifle out of a window, aiming it at the back of President Kennedy’s skull, nearly putting Lee Harvey Oswald out of a job in the process.
We’ll spare the finer details for anyone reading who is yet to enjoy the final instalment of this stand-out spy thriller, suffice to say that it lives up to its preceding parts and offers more than a thrilling and satisfying conclusion.
Perhaps even more exciting and engaging a storyline has come in the shape of Major Dalby’s dalliance with a Soviet defector. It’s another plot which is resolved quite brilliantly here in the closing chapter. Let’s just say that we all may have underestimated Anastasia Hille’s Alice…
Is there to be a second series of The Ipcress File? Well, there’s been no confirmation from ITV as yet, but it seems likely. Viewing figures have been encouraging and the series has, quite rightly, been a success with critics.
The conclusion saw a change from the book and film, allowing Tom Hollander’s Major Dalby to return in further seasons – a tweak which makes us hopeful that lead writer John Hodge (Trainspotting) is planning an adaptation of another of the Harry Palmer books. Next in the series? Horse Under Water.
As for what we’ve just enjoyed – it came almost out of nowhere. Few TV viewers were bursting at the seams for a six-part remake of a Michael Caine spy film. But what the writers, cast and – specifically – crew came up with here was infinitely better than any of us could reasonably expect. It looked especially beautiful. Kudos to wardrobe and set design.
This series works as not only an homage to the films of its kind and the time period they’re from, but it elevates them and the written source material too. And what’s not to love about that?
In fact, we’d not only tune in to watch Joe Cole as Harry Palmer in Horse Under Water or Funeral in Berlin – we’d happily sit through him and Hodge’s reimagining of other Caine classics like The Italian Job, Get Carter or Alfie. Maybe even Jaws 4.
Alright, maybe not Jaws 4.
Did you tune in for The Ipcress File episode 6? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!