herald

Friday 25 July 2014

We just love Spies like these

There's nothing like a good spy story, whether it's fiction or fact.

I've just finished reading Ben Macintyre's book about Operation Mincemeat, which was a daring bid by British wartime intelligence to fool Hitler into believing the Allies planned to invade Greece by dropping the body of a Welsh tramp, disguised as a royal marine and carrying fake secret document, into the sea off Spain.

It worked like a charm, too.

Next on the list is another John Le Carre, an author I just can't seem to get enough of lately. But in the meantime, here's BBC4's chunky, riveting two-part drama Spies of Warsaw, based on a novel by Alan Furst.

This has been dubbed "Tinker Tailor meets Casablanca", and that's a pretty good description. Set in 1937, as the lengthening shadow of Hitler's Germany falls across Europe and Britain is still naively talking about appeasement, it's got everything you'd want from an espionage drama.

Bad guys in kinky leather, good guys in flapping brown overcoats; big, shiny black cars; guns and girls; intrigue, deception and double dealing; sex, violence, secrets and steam trains (Hitchcock, the master of suspense and dangerous romance, knew there's nowhere better for a tense encounter than a train).

It all unfolds in a convincingly atmospheric Warsaw, and there's a reason for that. This is the real Warsaw, not one faked up using CGI and elaborate sets.

Virtually wiped out during the war, the city, amazingly, was rebuilt from the bottom up so that large areas of it look just like they did in the old days.

David Tennant, leaving his chirpy Doctor Who image far behind him, is Jean-Francois Mercier, a charismatic attache at the French Embassy who spends his evenings attending boring official functions and relieving the tedium by having casual sex with aristocratic bimbos.

That's the day job.

Covertly, he's a French spy who runs agents, gathers information and makes dangerous night-time forays across the barbed wire of the Polish-German border to spy on the Nazis.

He's also a hero of the previous conflict, whose body, as he shows a princess he's just bedded, bears the many scars of battle, including a sniper's bullet wound and the permanent mark of a German bayonet.

Word reaches him, from a young boy who'd slipped through the wire to hunt rabbits and was almost shot for his trouble, that there are German soldiers engaged in some kind of manoeuvres on the other side. Mercier, packing a fake passport and a hidden camera, ventures across the border to the Black Forest and finds the Germans seem to be preparing a tank invasion of Poland.

His superiors, of course, some of them resentful of Mercier's past as a friend and ally of General De Gaulle, refuse to believe him, but things start to turn hairy when a businessman called Uhl, who's been feeding Mercier information, is almost abducted by Gestapo agents and has to be spirited out of the country.

Mercier's agent and friend Olga, who'd been posing as a rich countess to squeeze information from Uhl in return for sex, is found strangled in her apartment.

In the meantime, Mercier has met and fallen in love with foxy Parisian lawyer Anna Skarbek (Janet Montgomery), who works for the increasingly ineffective League of Nations.

She's in a relationship with a left-wing Russian writer called Max. When Mercier's bosses decide there's a danger Max may lead to Mercier's cover being blown, they simply go behind his back and deport Max to Russia, where he faces a firing squad.

Spies of Warsaw, adapted -- and this may surprise some people -- by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who are better known for comedies such as Porridge and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, is an engrossing slow-burner that build the tension gradually.

There's action and gunplay, naturally, but it's primarily about trust, faith, betrayal and the lengths to which people will go in a world of shadows, secrets, whispers and lies. In other words, a classic spy story.



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