Television Nostalgia – Spooks – BBC Drama at its finest
After watching the recent Spooks film The Greater Good, I was struck by just how brilliant the original television series was. I thought so at the time of course, but time sometimes causes you to forget. So, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to revisit one of my favourite BBC dramas and one that even almost four years after it ended, still outclasses the majority of dramas on television today.
Created by David Wolstencroft, Spooks ran for ten years on BBC One, between 2002 and 2011. In may not have taken place in real-time like 24, but Spooks was certainly a change in pace compared to other dramas on British television at the time. Its high quality ensemble cast and intelligent and frighteningly current stories meant that the series stood out and quickly developed a strong following.
Series one introduced us to the core MI5 Section D team, led by Tom Quinn (Matthew Macfadyen), who together with Zoe (Keeley Hawes) and Danny (David Oweloyo) seemed to be Britain’s only line of defence against the constant threats thrown at the intelligence service. Overseeing it all was their boss Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), who so quickly became the bedrock of the series – you couldn’t believe he would ever leave.
The series may have become more high-tech, faster paced and filled with more action as the series developed, but such aspects were never the reason for its success. Perhaps the key to Spooks’ popularity and longevity was the very real awareness that no one was safe. At that time heroes always seemed to triumph in long running dramas, but Spooks very early on took a brave stand in bucking the trend. This was of course through the shocking death of Lisa Faulkener’s character. Although Matthew, Keeley and David are big stars now, in 2002 Lisa Faulkener was the most known and killing her off in episode two and in such harrowing scenes, truly made the series stand out. I can still remember the first time I watched it.
From then on, you knew that any character could die at any time and your favourites may not survive, which added to the tension and tone of the show. This seems much more common now, with shows such as Game of Thrones following the same model, but it was a much braver choice when Spooks began and it meant that over its ten year run, Spooks saw the team of Section D grow and inevitably change. The original trio had left by the end of series three, but we had already grown to know Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) and other newcomers, not to mention the growing support from Ruth (Nicola Walker), Malcolm and Colin. Later saw the introduction of the superb Hermione Norris as Ros Myers – strong, clever, serious, but still funny at times and at heart a caring member of her team, despite her hard edge and then the sigma that was Lucas North (Richard Armitage). It was perhaps one of the weaker aspects of the last two years that the new team members, as good as they were, never had enough time to gel in the same way as their predecessors had and part of the power of Spooks was getting its audience to care about its characters.
The series included so many strong stories, with funny, tense, emotional and action-packed moments. Overall I enjoyed the series from start to finish. Were I to pick a favourite series as a whole, I’d probably say one of series 2-4. On the flip side of that, series 6 was the least interesting, as its shift to focussing on one overarching plot over the whole series didn’t work as well as individual stories. I also think that, as great as the new cast members were post series 8, once Ros had gone, it didn’t feel quite as strong as it had.
So, on finishing my rewatch of the series, here are my top ten episodes of one of BBC’s finest dramas.
1. Danny’s Heroic Sacrifice (series 3 episode 10)
This is perhaps the story from Spooks which has stayed in my mind over the years since it first aired. As well as being the finale to the third series, it was also the episode in which we said farewell to Danny, superbly played by David Oweloyo. The story is a tense thriller from start to finish, as both Danny and Fiona are kidnapped. From watching since the start, I knew that anything could happen and that there was a horrible possibility that my favourite of the original trio was not going to have a happy ending. What makes the episode stand out so much is how Danny meets his fate. Unlike others, he makes the conscious decision to provoke their captor, knowing it will almost certainly cost him his life. It’s such an honourable moment in the series and the scenes themselves were incredibly powerful, as Adam and the team react to it. I also loved the end, as Ruth (already entrenched in the series by this point) lovingly says her own goodbye to Danny. It’s an an incredibly emotional and powerful episode.
2. London terrorist attacks (series 4 episodes 1 and 2)
To open the fourth series, Spooks chose a storyline which became sadly close to real life, coming only months after the London bombings in 2005. This certainly resulted in a stronger impact on us as an audience at the time. On its own merit, it’s another brilliant episode and the first two-parter of the series, which also properly welcomed the newest member of the team, Zafar (Raza Jaffrey). As well as the usual blend of tension, action and drama, I also thought Adam’s connection with Martine McCutcheon’s character was a nice aspect of the story and truly showed his willingness to do what was honourable, choosing to go back to be with her, knowing he may not survive. This was Spooks on a larger scale and is perhaps why the recent feature film felt less impressive to me, when two parters during its run were so strong already.
3. Lockdown on the Grid (series 2 episode 5)
I thought this second series episode, set entirely on the Grid was a brilliantly written hour of television. With the team in lockdown in what they initially believe to be a training exercise, events soon unfold in to a much more frightening scenario, with the possibility that a lethal substance has been released, killing a huge amount of the population of the country. With seeming chaos outside Thames House, Tom has to take control and maintain order of the team, as fears and frustrations start to boil over. With the action being contained within such a small space, it feels very claustrophobic, which only adds to the tense atmosphere. Matthew Macfadyen is brilliant here and it showed how Spooks didn’t need lots of action and explosions to be gripping television.
4. Farewell to Ruth (series 5 episode 5)
Farewell to Ruth (well until series 8 anyway). Ruth quickly became one of my favourite characters in Spooks and watching her relationship with Harry develop was one of the loveliest aspects of the series. You wanted them to be together and yet it seemed inevitable that something would ruin it (more on that later). Having Ruth at the centre of this story allowed Nicola Walker to take an even bigger role and having both her and Harry willing to take the blame for the other was very honourable. Their final scene by the Thames felt very real and believable and I was sorry to see her go.
5. Fiona Carter’s past returns (series 4 episode 7)
I wasn’t a huge fan of Fiona Carter and by killing her off it allowed for more emotional scenes for Rupert Penry-Jones, as Adam has to cope with the tragic loss of his wife and having to come to terms with her death while still being able to do his job. As an episode I thought this hour from series four was one of the most engaging and skilfully scripted, as when it starts you are not quite seeing the truth of the circumstances. It’s only as the story unfolds that we start to realise that Fiona is running her own agenda, one which shows how brave she is and how much she cares for her family. By the end I really thought she might survive, another skill of the writers that you know characters may die, but you are never quite sure when their end will happen.
6. Tom is framed / the beginning of Tom’s fall (series 2 episode 10)
Matthew Macfadyen did such a fantastic job playing Tom Quinn and developing his character over the course of the first two series. The finale here marks the start of his inevitable end as a spy. So much happens that you don’t expect, as the story starts out as a relatively standard plot. It’s only once Tom is set up that it becomes something much larger, placing him and the team in situations we haven’t seen them in before, most notably mistrusting each other. Having Danny and Zoe seemingly against Tom by the end was wonderfully tense, not to mention Tom actually shooting Harry! It made you wonder whether he had started to lose all hope and made the possibility that he really had walked out in to the sea to die seem much more plausible. Series three couldn’t come quickly enough.
7. Finale (series 10 episode 6)
Series nine and ten weren’t as strong as those that had gone before and I wasn’t a huge fan of the Russian plot across the final series. However, it did make sense to have the focus be on Harry – the person who embodied Spooks more than any other character. So many series finales arrive and don’t do justice to the series, whether feeling open-ended, weak or unsatisfying for all the fans who have been loyal over the previous years. I loved that the finale to Spooks did mange to achieve a dramatic hour of television, while also honouring all those who had been a part of it over the decade. Yes, I would have loved Ruth and Harry to get their happy ending, but it feels much more realistic and honest to have that slip from their grasp. Peter Firth and Nicola Walker were always wonderful together and their final moments are heart-wrenching television. I also loved that the episode didn’t just end there – having Harry visit the house Ruth hoped they’d live in is so sad and the memorial wall he visits feels very poignant too (although where is Tarik on it?) and as a final treat for the fans, the return (although briefly) of Tom Quinn! Overall, it’s a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to the ten years that has preceded it, ending with Harry back at his desk, ready to protect the Service and the country he holds dear.
8. Adam Carter dies a hero (series 7 episode 1)
I always loved Adam. Together with Danny he was perhaps my favourite of the team and I was very sad to see him go. The shock here I think was having him leave in the opening episode of the new series and it was such a close call too. I honestly thought he was going to survive (silly of me, knowing the tragedies that frequently occurred in the series). Ros had after all just come back, so I expected them to at least have some episodes back together and they surely couldn’t make little Wes an orphan would they?! After the action of the episode, one of the most powerful and poignant scenes in the whole ten series has to be the end of this story, as poor Harry goes to break the news to Wes. It’s a subtle scene, played beautifully by both actors, which brought a tear to my eye.
9. Hunted by Russians while averting a nuclear disaster (series 7 episode 8)
For me this was the strongest episode of the later years of Spooks, as the team find itself hunted across London by Russian operatives, as they try and avert a nuclear explosion, with the help of recently revealed traitor Connie. Gemma Jones is so fantastic here, as we see Connie’s ruthless and selfish character, while almost admiring her foresight in having such a strong card up her sleeve. Also having the team on the run, means that the pace and tension is relentless throughout the story and despite her dreadful deeds, Connie at least salvaged some respect, in giving her life to stop the nuclear explosion.
10. The introduction of Ros Myers (series 5 episodes 1 & 2)
Picking a final choice was quite hard, but in the end it had to be the opening two parter from series five, which was so much like a mini movie. London was at risk, the government was about to be overthrown, Anna Chancellor is almost blown up, but more importantly it introduced one of Spooks’ greatest characters and one of the strongest female characters from British drama in Ros Myers. I only knew Hermione Norris from the comedy Cold Feet, so it was fantastic to see her in such a strong, serious role. Ros really is a force to be reckoned with in Spooks and it’s interesting to see her introduced as more of an enemy, only for her to go on to be one of the most capable officers Section D had. The series lost some of its magic and strength when she left in series 8.
So those are my top ten episodes. there were a few others that could have made it (the introduction of Jo Portman in series 4 is great, Ros’s final episode in series 8, not to mention that infamous second episode). It’s been lovely revisiting such a superb BBC series and if you haven’t watched for a while or know someone who missed it the first time around, I certainly recommend it. It’s a testament to its quality that over a decade on it stills stands up as a quality drama series.
Spooks is available on DVD from all the usual stockists and is available on UK Netflix and Amazon Instant. Spooks: The Greater Good is released on DVD in September.