Almost eight years ago, I was at a lunch in Smithfield. It was part of a promotion organised by my publisher for my novel, ‘The Last Exile’. I had the pleasure of sitting between the lovely Chris Simmons (Crimesquad) and Maxim Jakubowsi, renowned bookshop owner of Murder One in Charing Cross. The big buzz was neither my novel, nor me, but one Tom Rob Smith. ‘Had I read his stunning debut, Child 44?’ they both asked. No, I hadn’t, but I soon did.
As I said in my last post, I love a great tip-off. Set in Russia during the 1950’s, Child 44 is based on the Rostov child serial killer, Andrei Chikatlo. I love novels based on true-life events and, to say I was blown away with it, is an understatement. A few months later, I wound up on a BBC Radio programme with Kate Saunders arguing why Child 44 would make a good inclusion on the Booker Prize list. But that was then. I read Tom Rob Smith’s follow-up novels, but I’d no idea he’d made the transition to screenplay writing until recently. As soon as we had our aerial sorted last week, we ‘binge-watched’ four episodes of ‘London Spy.’ I’m thrilled I did.
Again, Rob Smith weaves a compelling story from a real life event, the mysterious case of the ‘Spy in the Bag’ about which all kinds of theories were trotted out in the grim aftermath, including the fact that the MI6 officer was into sadomasochistic gay sex, a theme explored in the series. But the screenplay is so much more than this.
In true spy fashion, there are codes and mathematical formulae – the only part where I got slightly lost, possibly because numbers is not my strong suit. Performances are fabulous, particularly from Jim Broadbent in a role that is not his usual (no pun intended) bag, and Edward Holcroft is superb as Alex, the contained, strange and offbeat spy and mathematical genius.
As for Ben Wishart…
He is simply mesmerising as bewildered Danny, fitting the part so well it honestly feels as if he isn’t acting at all. His grief at the death of his lover is as searing as his fearlessness for finding the truth at whatever cost. It’s his quest to go into all the darkest corners of the establishment and beyond that drives the narrative.
There are many memorable scenes in this drama but one sticks in my mind. Danny comes face to face with Alex’s mother, played by a very sinister Charlotte Rampling. Towing the party line that her son was into sadomasochism, ticking off all the reasons why she believes it to be so, and arguing that his death was an unfortunate accident, Danny puts her down with one ‘take that’ sentence. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t watched the series. Safe to say, I’ll be tuning in for the finale tonight. I’m not a fan of hyperbole, but this drama is genuinely pure brilliance.