Shaggy dog story with spies

Film writers and directors are demanding more and more of our time. In a preview piece written for the Times about his BBC series Close to the Enemy, Stephen Poliakoff notes that ‘long-form television allows the space to explore more than just one central story’. Poliakoff began in theatre, moved to writing and directing for television, before switching to cinema, a not uncommon career progression. As well as the bigger screen, cinema gave the auteur bigger budgets, bigger themes, bigger locations, and bigger stars. Television was where you started, cinema was where you wanted to be. Not so much now. The chance, at some point after a film’s first release, to craft a bloated ‘Director’s Cut’, is as nothing compared with the opportunity to meld the high production values of cinema with the extended duration of a television series.

Poliakoff asks us spend seven hours with Close to the Enemy. It is not time well spent. The series is an espionage drama that does without suspense, tension and anything remotely thrilling. His previous explorations of twentieth century British history — with their common themes of class, decline, secrecy, the importance of place, the deep continuities of Britain — have usually disappointed but have had at least some redeeming features. (My favourite Poliakoff film is also his least typical, Close My Eyes, an engrossing exploration of incest and obsession.) Close to the Enemy, set in bombed-out, austerity-pinched late 1940s London, gathers up those usual Poliakoff themes but failed to weave them into anything gripping, enlightening or even entertaining.

The primary story concerns a British intelligence officer, Callum Ferguson, (played, unconvincingly, by Jim Sturgess) who has to persuade a German (and possibly Nazi) scientist, Dieter Koehler, (competent work by August Diehl) to work on jet engine development for the British government. In parallel, a war crimes investigator, Kathy Griffiths, (Phoebe Fox doing her best with a shallow role) is battling to bring Nazis to trial, while being obstructed by the intelligence agencies who want to protect the personnel that they are forcibly recruiting from Germany. Other characters, other plot threads, drift in and out of the episodes, without much purpose. Lindsay Duncan, for example, is superb but wasted as Frau Bellinghausen, the owner of a perfume company brought to London and sequestered in the same hotel as the jet scientist.

Ferguson is given the task of eliciting the secret formula of her best-selling perfume (seriously). No doubt industrial espionage was a component of the post-war confiscation of German assets (and Poliakoff mentions plastics and perfume in his Times piece) but there is nothing really at stake in this sub-plot. Frau Bellinghausen plays a little hard to get with the formula at first. But then, after a few posh meals and a bit of light flirtation from Ferguson’s friend, the Foreign Office mandarin Harold Lindsay-Jones (Alfred Molina in as good an autopilot performance as I’ve seen), she hands it over in the most bathetic scene imaginable.

Poliakoff’s fascination with place, particularly with grand old buildings (hotels, country houses, mental asylums), and period is as strong as ever. The locations are well-chosen and beautifully photographed, and the historical detail is convincing enough (though I wonder whether Ferguson, a captain in military intelligence, would really go about with consistent three-day stubble on his face?). Those locations are the real stars of the piece, along with one or two outstanding performances, Lindsay Duncan of course, but also Charlotte Riley, excellent as a wealthy American with artistic yearnings. She is also the wife of Ferguson’s best friend (the inevitable affair is signalled early) and about the only cast member who brings emotional depth to their role.

But none of this amounts to anything compelling when the episodes are so dull, so baggy, so lacking in, well, drama. Incidents are thrown in — a fashion show, a tussle with Blackshirts, a performance of a piano composition by Ferguson — not to advance the plot but because Poliakoff wants us to appreciate how multifaceted life is. Well yes, but this is television drama, not a literary novel. There is lots of hinting: the jazz musician Eva (Angela Basset, another fine actress sabotaged by the script) hints that she has come to London to escape trouble in the US caused by her political views — but we learn no more; Geoffrey Salter, an officer in a rival intelligence agency (played by Julian Bleach in Dr Who villain mode) hints that he will nail Ferguson — but he never comes close.

There are lots of warnings: Victor, Ferguson’s disturbed brother (Freddie Highmore, seeming somehow anachronistic), escapes from the asylum and runs around in his dressing gown warning that his brother is about to do something terrible — but  he never does; Ferguson is constantly warned that his maverick ways will get him in trouble — but they never do. And there is lots of threatening: Lindsay-Jones threatens to use his Foreign Office retirement speech to expose the British government’s incompetence — but he loses his nerve; Ferguson threatens to use his speech at Koehler’s wedding to expose the duplicity of British intelligence — but he changes his mind. The supposedly shocking climax of the final episode — the shooting of Dieter Koehler — manages to be absurd, dramatically pointless and wholly inconsequential all at once.

It’s a well-rehearsed argument that the reason that Hollywood produced so many great movies in the Thirties and Forties was that the studio system kept writers and directors in check and constrained their tendencies to megalomania and self-indulgence. In contrast, the BBC has given Poliakoff his head, along with a large budget, and the end product is a turgid, meandering non-drama, a lavish road to nowhere, a shaggy dog story with spies.