Television: Modern Spies

BBC2 On iPlayer until 16 April

By Joshua.Chambers

12 Apr 2012

When did spies stop being portrayed as cool, suave, dashing, dangerous? They’re almost always now portrayed in gritty, realistic TV series as ordinary, hard-working people who just happen to be doing an extraordinary job.

BBC2’s documentary about the work of the intelligence services, Modern Spies, followed this new mould, constantly aiming for sober commentary and stressing the constraints that the services are under. For example, we were told that “if James Bond worked in MI6 today, he'd spend a large amount of time behind a desk doing paperwork and making sure everything was properly cleared and authorised.” I initially feared that this show would be less The Living Daylights, more From Rush Hour with Love.

Yet despite the sombre tone it struck, the show wasn’t pedestrian at all. Sure, it didn’t shake me from the start, but it slowly stirred my interests. Indeed, it started to become a handy how-to guide to espionage, with both serving UK spies and their international counterparts explaining the job in fascinating levels of detail. We learned about code names, honey traps, and the new frontline: cyber security. The second episode then tackled pertinent questions such as whether spies really have a license to kill, and looked at the role of national agencies such as Israel’s Mossad and the USA’s CIA.

Eventually, the show became scintillating viewing. Also, huge credit must go to the producer who bucked the modern trend towards sober realism and decided the credits should begin with an old-fashioned fireball engulfing the screen. Modern Spies starts slowly, but it has a licence to thrill: 007 out of 10. ?

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