I held hopeful expectations for the new BBC mini-series London Spy starring Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent, mainly due to the excellence of recent BBC mini-series and the champagne casting. However, only a few minutes into the programme I was dismayed to find myself watching a clichéd scene portraying the meeting of Ben Whishaw’s character (Danny) meeting his love interest (Alex). It is a gloomy morning in London, Alex is running through the rain, Danny drops his phone and Alex picks it up and hands it to him. Their eyes meet and there is a long pause in action whilst they stare into each other’s eyes. Had I not held so much hope for this series previously to watching it, I would have immediately turned it off. Scenes which seem obvious and crassly scripted occur throughout the first two episodes. Alex is obviously a spy from the outset, and his ostensible and stereotypical characteristics of immaculate neatness and an inability to open up to Danny all seem rather predictable for a ‘spy character’. Despite such hackneyed scenes, the writing is impressive overall and draws the viewer in with suspense, coalesced with the subtle underlying theme of a love torn apart by intrigue and lies.
By revolving the exterior plots around a gay love story, London Spy sets itself apart from most spy dramas. Talking to the Guardian, Jim Broadbent commented that “it’s not a gay story… It’s about these particular guys, who happen to be gay.” It is true that series which focus on gay characters need to have more plot substance than a simple love story in order to rid themselves of detrimental categorizing into a specific subcategory. The effect of this categorizing can lead to such shows being nothing more than character studies defined by the characters’ sexualities, with the other aspects of the script being disregarded as secondary to the love story. This perpetuates the detrimental representation of gay characters onscreen as being defined by their sexuality. The use of the world of spies and the lies and adventures which this world infringe upon Danny lends itself perfectly to an ability for London Spy to explore a plot with sexuality as an aspect of the characters rather than a defining point.
In spite of London Spy’s foray into an “unconventional” love story within a spy drama, it still refuses to work outside the parameters of gay, white, upper-middle class men. It is a shame that the BBC mitigates their disregard of a wider scope of LGBT characters through their profession of seeming televisual progression through the inclusion of more ‘mainstream’ portrayals of gay characters.
London Spy could be great; however it fails at weaving its aesthetics seamlessly into the plot. The attention to its aesthetic is commendable, yet the scenes in which the cinematography are payed most attention, rather than fluidly jell with the entire episode, seem autonomous and awkwardly detached. Moreover, these scenes brimming with beauty and artistry have tended to fall into visual clichés and add little to the series apart from slowing the pace and drawing out the unfolding plot.
What really saves this mini-series is Ben Wishaw’s and Jim Broadbent’s astounding acting. They say the lines with realism and perfection. The supporting cast are equally impressive. Despite the issues that I have with the series it is worth a watch simply for the acting alone.
My final judgements on London Spy will rest upon its conclusion. Spy narratives centre upon their endings; the plot lines all converge to provide the viewer with the final answers to the questions posed at the beginning. Because of this, spy narratives which solve the questions too blatantly seem unsatisfying for the viewer hoping for an unseen plot twist. On the other hand, spy narratives which don’t quite tie up all the threads or seem clunky in these attempts seem equally unsatisfying. With two more episodes to go and with more questions being posed I am intrigued to see where this story will go. I have my reservations about London Spy, but I will hold any final judgements until the final scene cuts to the credits. However, what I can say now for sure, is that depending on that final scene I will either be left elated, or incredibly annoyed.