With everything that’s going on the world at the moment, it would be pretty brave to commission a series about a terrorist plot with a central London landmark as its target.
But that’s exactly what the BBC has done – and it should be applauded for it.
Set in London in 1886 and based on the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name, The Secret Agent tells the story of Anton Verloc (Toby Jones), who runs a seedy shop in Soho with his wife Winnie (Vicky McClure) and, unknown to her, is also being paid by the Russian embassy to spy on a group of dangerous anarchists.
Verloc’s problems start when his Russian handlers – unhappy with Britain’s tolerance of violent extremists - decide he will no longer be given a simple watching brief.
Verloc is tasked with orchestrating the bombing of Greenwich Observatory – an attack that can be blamed on the anarchists and will provoke a political crackdown by the government.
Unable to persuade the anarchists themselves to carry out the attack, Verloc is faced with realisation that he must plant the bomb himself.
In order to do so he must enlist the bomb-making skills of the mysterious Professor (Ian Hart) while avoiding the watchful eye of Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham) of Scotland Yard.
While the setting is Victorian, the storyline is all-too relevant and the talk of cells, anarchy, “true terrorism” and the threat of suicide bombers is chillingly familiar.
Perhaps most chilling of all though, is the way in which Verloc goes about finding an accomplice.
Winnie’s younger brother Stevie (Charlie Hablett) is eager to please by Verloc, the only father-figure he has ever really known, and by the end of the episode he too is embroiled in the plot – although he’s completely oblivious to it.
The ease with which Verloc manipulates Stevie and his willingness to drag his family into trouble shows a ruthless side to the character, who all but admits earlier in the episode that he is “not a brave man”.
With the word ‘radicalisation’ banded about almost daily in the media, it is hard to watch The Secret Agent without wondering how many times its central themes are being played out for real.
The drama is gripping and, while not exactly action-packed, moves at a fast enough pace and never lets itself get bogged down.
Jones, who has won deserved critical acclaim in recent years, is once again superb, supported by an excellent cast and the writing of Tony Marchant.
Personally, I found it hard to suspend reality completely when the subject matter is so close to home, although that says more about the enduring quality of the story and the world in which we live than the quality of the programme.
And I can’t wait for episode two.