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 10,000 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?
How traditional two-party politics was forced to confront the unthinkable
The fantasy drama returns without much fantasy, or drama
Awkward documentary draws few conclusions from a 20-year fight for women's rights
Intriguing espionage life-story of the British double-agent, and a brief encounter today
Did Anna Magdalena compose some of her husband's best-loved masterpieces?
Car showroom saga makes a sluggish start
Caitlin Moran mixes fact and fiction with the help of her little sister
Ventriloquist fails to 'find' her clown, reduced to 'tears of...'
Recreation of cynically divisive campaign draws on nauseating archive footage
Too many headline acts and too few supporting bands in this look at the Emerald Isle's rock history
Compelling documentary investigates FGM in the UK and Africa
Two comedy transfers from Radio 4 fare differently