London 1972. When a defecting KGB officer reveals the existence of a devastating Soviet plot by the name of ‘Operation Glass’, the charismatic head of MI5 must assemble a secret committee to help protect Britain. As the Soviets awaken sleeper agents to carry out the plot, the new team are faced with an unidentified, invisible threat.
The first agent reactivated is a civil servant, bullied and blackmailed into working for the KGB. As MI5 scramble to identify his role in ‘Operation Glass’ Joe Lambe becomes obsessed with the reappearance of his nemesis, the Soviet agent codenamed ‘Odin’.
The Game stars Tom Hughes (Joe Lambe); Brian Cox (Daddy); Paul Ritter (Bobby Waterhouse); Victoria Hamilton (Sarah Montag); Jonathan Aris (Alan Montag); Shaun Dooley (Jim Fenchurch); Chloe Pirrie (Wendy); Judy Parfitt (Hester Waterhouse); Zana Marjanovic (Yulia); Marcel Iures (Arkady); Jevgenij Sitochin (Odin); Gabrielle Scharnitzky (Kitty); Timothy Bentinck (Home Secretary); Scott Handy (David Hexton)
Can you give us an overview of The Game and what viewers can expect?
The Game is a stylish, complex thriller, exploring the lives and lies of a team of MI5 officers caught in the middle of the mercurial and lethal Cold War. Gathered to form a special committee by the paranoid head of MI5, known simply as Daddy, they must investigate the existence of a devastating Soviet plot that goes to the heart of the British establishment; Operation Glass. The Soviets are reactivating sleeper agents across the UK, giving each a specific task. Every episode the team receive a new name on the list, a new traitor to investigate, a new mission into the unknown. At first the tasks seem unconnected, but as the team soon discover, each is part of a jigsaw that when completed could change the course of the Cold War. As the series progresses, the complex web winds tighter around the team. They must stay one step ahead of the Soviets to have any hope of uncovering the truth of Operation Glass, but their every move is fraught with danger, and one false move could change the world forever.
Below is an interview with the creator of the drama Toby Whithouse.
Why did you decide to create The Game? Were you always a fan of this era and genre?
I think it began with that story in the press a couple of years ago about Anna Chapman, the Russian sleeper agent, who was arrested for being part of a spy ring in New York and London. The story seemed to be beamed straight from the 1970s and I think there were several people from my 5 generation who felt an odd pang of nostalgia. We remember when the bogey man wasn’t the suicide bomber or the EDL thug, but glamorous and ruthless Russian spies. It conjured up images of foggy London and murders by poison-tipped umbrellas. We remember the looming spectre of the Soviet East, we remember dramas like Threads, and the chilling public information broadcasts about what to do in the event of nuclear war. I felt this wasn’t just a fertile terrain for stories, but also an era that was familiar and yet relatively unexplored on popular television. Aside from being such an important period in the Cold War, I wanted to set it in the 1970s because it meant that a story couldn’t be resolved by use of technology. There were no mobile phones, no facial recognition software. They lived or died by their ingenuity, insight and adaptability.
What impact do you think the Cold War and the challenges of the 1970s, with the coal miners’ strike and the limited technology of the time, had on espionage?
It seems strange now, but in the 1970s there was a very genuine fear of nuclear war, and of Soviet invasion. The Soviet Union was an expansionist state, and having seen how Russia had annexed other countries and destabilised other governments, the UK regarded invasion as a very real threat. Trade unions were far more militant than today, and had essentially brought down Heath’s government single handedly. Consequently the establishment regarded them with fear and illdisguised loathing. They suspected links with the Soviet Union and that any industrial action was part of a larger and more sinister plot. MI5’s remit is domestic threats – threats that back then seemed to be coming from all sides, with the Republican movement in Ireland gaining momentum and becoming more mobilised. It created an incendiary and paranoid atmosphere.
There is a lot of focus on the complex characters as well as the thriller/MI5 element. How important was this to you?
I only really know one way to write – and that’s by creating the characters first and letting them lead the narrative. Before I’ve started coming up with stories or arcs, I’ll have developed a cast of characters – their histories, their faults, their strengths – and let them spin the tale. This is possibly not the most conventional approach to a spy drama, a genre that is usually plot led, but I wanted The Game to be different. I wanted the characters to be as complex as the story. Of course the exception is Le Carre (and no, I’m not comparing myself to Le Carre). His narratives spring from character. It is George Smiley’s weaknesses as much as his brilliance that propel the stories in the Karla trilogy. His melancholy, his disabling love for his wife, his weakness. Those were immensely moving human dramas as much as they were great tales of espionage.
Do you have a favourite character?
I don’t really have a favourite character – each one is as difficult and enjoyable and infuriating and exciting to write as any other. Instead, what often happens is that combinations of characters will surprise you. I had no idea, for example, that Bobby and Wendy would form an alliance and be such fun to write together: his Machiavellian ambition vs her innocence. Similarly Joe’s fractured and weary outlook vs Jim’s simplistic honour. Often it is by forcing one character into the company of another that new layers and aspects of their personality are revealed.
How different a writing challenge was this compared to your previous dramas?
In a way I think The Game has lots in common with my previous work – especially Being Human. I was a big sci-fi / horror / fantasy fan when I was growing up, and the stories I liked most were the ones that were taking place in our world, with secret wars going on all around us that we couldn’t see, but that was in some way shaping and threatening our lives. It’s that same notion – the secret, invisible struggle – that attracted me to the world of espionage. The Cold War wasn’t a conventional war, as one of the characters says. “The objectives, even our own, are unclear and ever changing. It is a war of variables and unknowns, and all we can do is watch, surmise and react.”
With thanks to BBC Media.