You can’t beat a catchy slogan. ‘MI5, Not 9-to-5’ exclaimed the trailers and advertising promotion for a new BBC spy drama that promised to bring slick intelligent thrills to prime time British television. Brilliantly produced teaser trailers dotted the BBC for weeks in the lead up to its first episode, and when Spooks premiered on the 13th of May 2002, it did exactly that and then some. Airing for a decade and proving a commercial success for the BBC, but also one unafraid of venturing into controversial waters, the series catapulted the careers of several of its cast members while also making its production company Kudos a force to be reckoned with on the British television schedules.
There was something of a spy boom on television in the early 2000s. Prior to 9/11, both Alias and 24 produced successful pilot episodes that were picked up in the US and which played very differently to their respective audiences when they eventually debuted not long after the fateful events of that day which saw some of the plotting of those shows, 24 especially, take on a somewhat darker prescient charge.
In the UK, after a protracted period of development that included thirty drafts for its first episode which included a re-write to include a reference to 9/11, the BBC, Kudos and creator David Wolstencroft unleashed Spooks onto a British audience and with it, the story of MI5’s Section D department headed up by Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) and populated by a rotating cast of agents throughout its ten season run.
With its cinematic production style, copious uses of split-screen and politically infused plots, it might have been easy to dismiss it initially as a British attempt to cash in on the success of 24 (which ironically had premiered on BBC 2 only two months before Spooks to great ratings and acclaim in the UK), but it showed itself to be not only a series with a provocative identity of its own but also became a major flagship series for the corporation and a long-running hit, gaining a spin-off (of sorts) and even a feature film continuation.
Even more importantly, it proved that in the modern age of increasing sophistication in television storytelling and production values, a British series could take on a genre that was more famous for its use on American television and compete with them. While the history of British television is filled with high concept genre series, especially in the 60s and the era of Sir Lew Grade’s ITC (which produced The Saint, The Avengers, Danger Man and The Prisoner), there was a feeling throughout the 90s that when it came to genre television, Britain was lacking behind the impressive production values that US network television could put into works such as The X-Files or the copious amounts of Star Trek spin-offs.
Looking back on the series, it feels like a coming together of incredible talent in front of and behind the camera; the series was a major turning point in the careers of Keeley Hawes, David Oyelowo and Matthew McFadyen, not to mention Nicola Walker, Rupert Penry-Jones and Raza Jaffrey in later years. The production company behind the series, Kudos, would become a major powerhouse on British television, producing the even slicker and popular Hustle for the BBC and Broadchurch for ITV. Even some of its writers and directors would go on to bigger successes of their own, such as Luther’s Neil Cross, Cobra’s Ben Richards and Life on Mars co-creator Matthew Graham, while the cinematic flourish of so much of its production values was undoubtedly due to its style being established by Bharat Nalluri and having film directors such as Antonia Bird and Michael Caton-Jones helming episodes over the course of its ten series.
Right from the start, the series drew in big viewing numbers for the BBC, the brilliantly put together promotional campaign drawing in nine million viewers for its first night, but that success brought with it near-instant controversy the following week when, in a shocking turn of events, the character of Helen, played by Lisa Faulkner, was killed off in brutal fashion. Of the younger members of the cast, Faulkner was the biggest name, with McFadyen, Hawes and Oyelowo still rising stars at the time. The brutal nature of the death of Helen in such distressing circumstances so soon into the series was a literal warning shot for the rest of the series. Like 24, this might have been a series playing in a genre pool that was famous for gloss and high adventure, but in a post 9/11 world, audiences were geared and ready for a more brutal sense of loss with their thrillers, even if the violence in both shows would attract much criticism.
Many comparisons were made between the two shows during their time. While JJ Abrams’ Alias would become more heightened and embrace fantasy genre elements over five seasons, Spooks and 24 wanted to grapple with the political world that they were being broadcast during, albeit with disposable casts in sequences that gained nail-biting suspense through split-screen, well-produced action sequences and well-chosen actors who gave the more preposterous moments genuine credibility.
Comparisons were inevitable during that first night when Spooks debuted, but as it continued it would display a different flavour than the antics of Jack Bauer and the Counter Terrorist Unit. Where 24’s creators were unafraid to voice their conservative beliefs (for as entertaining as 24 is, it was a series that very much felt comfortable with the Patriot Act), Spooks was unafraid to deal with the ethics and morality of spycraft, and even torture, in ways that put those subjects under a very intense microscope. We’d see these characters do some terrible things in the name of national security, but it was also dealing with themes that were asking big questions of its audience and its characters.
Surveillance culture, torture, political manipulations and even endangering the public in the name of the greater good all got explored in increasingly intense ways. The rotation of lead characters may have been our heroes, but this was never a black and white world in the manner of a James Bond film or an episode of Danger Man.
Maybe it was because it was British, or maybe because it had a more left-leaning bias, but while we’re asked to sympathise with its characters, there was a part of Spooks’ storytelling that asked if the ends justified the means. 24 frequently showed itself, and its lead characters, to be comfortable with the answer. Spooks, on the other hand, pretty much suggested that we should never be comfortable with the question itself.
Most importantly, the world of Section D proved that British television could once again do event television in a way that could compete with the best of American television with their higher budgets and big production values. As it continued, the more confident Spooks became in its ability to deliver grand scale plots in a way that could compete with not only with the likes of 24 but also blockbuster action films. Where the best the BBC could produce in the 90s was the likes of Bugs and Crime Traveller (I actually had rather a soft spot for the latter), Spooks was perhaps a catalyst for giving the BBC the confidence to splash out money and production values for series such as Doctor Who which would return to the screens three years later, and then further down the road grandiose events such as Torchwood.
Plotlines involving a terrorist bombing plot in London and societal chaos caused by rogue political elements gave the series at times an epic sweep that made it among some of the most gripping television of its time, and while it didn’t quite hit the heights of those initial opening night ratings, over the course of its run it would frequently pull in around five to six million viewers, still impressive numbers for the 2000s.
None of it would have worked if we didn’t care for the characters, some of whom exited through tragically deadly circumstances. Heroic leads such as Danny (David Oyelowo) or Adam (Rupert-Penry Jones) went out in heroic fashion, but even a character such as lovable tech wizard and occasional comic relief Colin (Rory MacGregor) wasn’t safe and ended up being killed in one of the most quietly horrifying moments in television history in the season five premiere.
The secret sauce of the series was Harry Pearce, played by Peter Firth. Where the majority of the cast came and went, and it was the likes of McFadyen, Hawes, Penry-Jones and Richard Armitage that adorned much of the promotions and DVD covers (like 24 and Alias, the series benefitted from being a hit produced in the DVD age) Firth appeared in all 86 episodes, and by the time the series came to its final season, it did so with the quiet revelation that we had been watching Harry’s story the whole time.
Harry might have watched his subordinates come and go, but he was a constant source of complex morality for the world of Spooks, making tough choices, some of which involved the safety of those around him. His nature could flit between jovial, funny and dramatic, dealing with moral and ethical dilemmas on the one hand, but also contending with a British government that was dicey and troublesome on the other. Even better, many episodes found a lot of heart in his tentative will they/won’t they romance with intelligence analyst Ruth Evershed, played by Nicola Walker making her first entry into the British Television Hall of All Time Brilliant Dramas. It stood to reason that the final season would focus on them because stealthily the series always had been, especially Harry.
That it opted for a tragic ending might have disappointed some, but it fitted honestly with the tone of the series perfectly, and its core philosophy that not everyone escaped its world alive.
Even better, for a series that many dismissed as being in the shadow of 24 prior to its premiere, it managed to do something that 24 failed to do but tried many times within the pits of development hell; it found its way to the silver screen. Four years after its conclusion, Spooks: The Greater Good premiered in cinemas, and perhaps there is nothing more British than a hit television series becoming a movie. There was also an attempt at a YA spin-off on BBC Three, Spooks: Code Nine, although whether or not it was ever intended to be a spin-off was a matter of debate, as evidenced by some of the comments of its cast. It didn’t really feel like it was set in the world of the originating series, and there appeared to be a lack of cohesive world-building connective tissue in the manner that Russell T. Davies masterfully did with Doctor Who and Torchwood which the Code Nine experiment felt as if it was trying to emulate.
It’s a minor blip on an otherwise exemplary record. While the high profile of the series may have dissipated in its later seasons as Doctor Who and Sherlock became keystone flagship series for the BBC (both of which managed to crack the US in a way that Spooks, renamed MI-5 for the American market, failed to do), it remained a consistent rating hit on home turf and the decision to conclude the series was one made by its production team itself as opposed to the BBC. The only disappointment was that it didn’t get to go out on the commercial high that it began with, the series being scheduled against the might of Downton Abbey over on ITV meaning that its final episode and lovely cameo appearance call-back to the show’s iconic beginning went somewhat under the radar.
It’s a shame really because twenty years after its debut, it still remains a high benchmark for British television and has aged pretty well for the most part. When the BBC made several of its biggest series available on the iPlayer during the early stages of lockdown during the coronavirus outbreak, Spooks was one of the series placed front and centre of being made available to watch and what a binging viewing experience it can be, the intense pull that we had to wait for week-to-week becoming more like a relentless rollercoaster as one plunges themselves into its increasingly complex world in quick succession.
It proved that a British series could compete with the best high-end genre television in the world and yet still retain a core British identity unafraid to take the visual tropes and cliches that made so much cinematic television work in the likes of the US and use them to tell stories on a political stage with UK concerns and still be something of a modern classic. It remains a brilliant piece of work.