Sunday, 17 July 2016
The Secret Agent - BBC 1 TV review
The Secret Agent, starring Toby Jones and based on Joseph Conrad's novel, got off to a fine start on BBC 1 tonight. The book is my favourite work by Conrad (I first encountered him through his short stories, which were a set book for O-Level, but thankfully that didn't put me off). And the TV adaptation is very resonant in these uncertain times, coming to the screen so soon after the horrific events in Nice and all the other terrorist atrocities that have shaken the world in recent months.
It's easy to forget that, even at the time the story was written, it was a historical piece, set in the late 1880s, twenty years before publication. Perhaps this helped Conrad to achieve a sort of perspective on the mixed motives and complex behaviours of those involved with anarchist outrages at the time. Episode one reminded us that the warped thinking that leads people to kill others in pursuit of some vague, or even nonsensical political goal, is nothing new. Conrad tells us something about human nature, and so does Tony Marchant's screenplay.
Jones plays Verloc, who runs a (surprisingly unsuccessful, I'd have thought) sex shop catering for dodgy MPs and vicars in the heart of Soho. He's aided and abetted by his wife Winnie, played by Vicky McClure; she's prepared to turn a blind eye to his behaviour, and the revolutionary claptrap he and his friends spout because, on balance, Verloc is a good husband who takes care of her.
But Verloc is in a mess. He works an agent for the Russian government, who take a hard view of revolutionaries, and also dabbles in work as an informer for Scotland Yard. Fear and financial pressure are leading him into very dangerous territory with a gang of anarchists who are as unstable as the bombs they make. It's gripping, but also chilling. Not exactly good escapism, given the wretched things happening right now in real life, but good television.,