Spies of Warsaw, BBC Four | TV reviews, news & interviews
Spies of Warsaw, BBC Four
David Tennant stars in an atmospheric adaptation of Alan Furst's historical thriller
It’s rare for a wartime drama not to hide behind an elliptic or poetic title. Spies of Warsaw - a two-part adaptation of Alan Furst’s 2008 novel of the same name - misses out on a place in the canon by a couple of years, but the looming Second World War provides the backdrop to Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais’ stylish, atmospheric thriller.
David Tennant plays Colonel Jean-Francois Mercier, the French soldier turned spy-wrangler at the centre of the action. A decorated hero of the First World War, with just enough lines around the eyes to make the back story convincing, Mercier’s belief that further conflict is the inevitable outcome of Hitler’s rise to power continually risks the wrath of his superiors. His unorthodox methods, tendency to get caught and determination to see the people who provide him with information taken care of by the French government lead a senior character to question his suitability for covert operations, but it is a trope of the genre that these very characteristics are the makings of a successful hero.
What constitutes success, however, is not as easy a question to answer. Whatever information Mercier ultimately manages to piece together from his contacts, including a nervous engineer from a German armaments factory and the enigmatic Doctor Lapp (Anton Lesser), we already know it’s not going to be enough to prevent the almost complete destruction of the city mere months after the action takes place. Rather than spoil the viewing experience, however, this knowledge only serves to increase the tense atmosphere and adds to the viewer’s frustrations with those who ignore Mercier’s warnings.
So not the most cheerful of stories, but the duo behind Porridge and Auf Weidersen, Pet are not afraid to inject a little levity into proceedings. Spies of Warsaw features plenty of the silly stuff the genre is famous for: double agents, false identities and the inevitable late night scene where the protagonists end up getting chased by rabid Alsatians while over-the-top music plays. Elsewhere Tennant’s character feasts, fences and flirts outrageously with pretty brunette Anna Skarbeck (Janet Montgomery, pictured above right with Tennant), a Parisian lawyer with the League of Nations. Skarbeck is initially involved with a hard-drinking Russian revolutionary writer when she meets Mercier at an embassy dinner, but she soon falls for the Colonel’s winsome smile and the brooding pain he carries as a result of his early widowhood.
The love story between the two is perhaps the most tedious part of the drama as, once the flirting progresses speedily to serious talks about the future, the characters seem to have very little chemistry. Still, the dramatic events involving both Mercier and Skarbeck in the last ten minutes do not lend themselves to excessive time for lingering glances in next week’s concluding part.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Jack Thorne's latest is a gripping whodunit set in the English countryside
Anodyne biog sanitises showbusiness legend
Gripping final episode, but is the very existence of 'The Village' threatened?
Andrew Graham-Dixon begins an excellent trilogy about World War One artists with Paul Nash
Final season opener suffers from sensory overload
The complexities of the Middle East rehashed as slick TV drama
'Nowt as queer as folk': Matt Rudge ventures into the wilder reaches of taxidermy
James Rhodes gets music education moving. The M6 remains at a standstill
No time for deep breaths as baby drama reaches a suitably eventful conclusion
Revelation of early Swedish woman artist opened magpie survey of abstract art
Tradit Tory or true revolutionary? Alastair Sooke ponders John Constable's heritage ahead of major V&A exhibition
Infomercial about arts training looks set to be distinctly undramatic