wed 27/01/2021

The TV Weekend: The Americans (ITV), Spying on Hitler's Army (Channel 4), Case Histories (BBC One) | reviews, news & interviews

The TV Weekend: The Americans (ITV), Spying on Hitler's Army (Channel 4), Case Histories (BBC One)

The TV Weekend: The Americans (ITV), Spying on Hitler's Army (Channel 4), Case Histories (BBC One)

Homeland insecurity, the Führer's army exposed and farewell to Jackson Brodie

The Un-Americans: Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings and Matthew Rhys as her 'husband' Phillip

Take a spoonful of paranoia thriller Arlington Road and shake'n'bake it with a dollop of Homeland and you'd have the bare skeleton of The Americans, tonight's new night import from the American FX channel on ITV. It's 1981, and in the midst of Washington DC suburbia, where the lawns are manicured and dad washes the car on Sundays, lurks an unseen threat. It's married-with-kids couple Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, who are sleeper agents of the KGB.

Take a spoonful of paranoia thriller Arlington Road and shake'n'bake it with a dollop of Homeland and you'd have the bare skeleton of The Americans, tonight's new night import from the American FX channel on ITV. It's 1981, and in the midst of Washington DC suburbia, where the lawns are manicured and dad washes the car on Sundays, lurks an unseen threat. It's married-with-kids couple Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings, who are sleeper agents of the KGB.

Opening with a speedy extended chase sequence, eccentrically soundtracked by the percussive yomp of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk", this pilot episode skilfully balances real-time action with enough back story to keep reeling you in. Flashbacks to the early Sixties show how the Jenningses-to-be were conditioned by their Soviet spymasters to think, eat and sleep as Americans, and now they're fellow travellers in pursuit of the American Dream.

Ronald Reagan is the new President, ramping up the anti-Soviet rhetoric and military spending like there's no tomorrow

But is a worm of doubt gnawing their ideological convictions? They're tasked with tracking down and capturing Timoshev, a would-be Soviet defector to the Americans. He's supposedly a hated enemy of the people, but Phillip Jennings (a coolly plausible Matthew Rhys) can't help but feel a pang of longing when he learns that the FBI have paid Timoshev $3m to change sides. Maybe they could jump ship and grab a slice of the capitalist good life? Elizabeth (Keri Russell) disagrees, furiously. Matters aren't helped by the fact that Ronald Reagan is the new President, and he's ramping up the anti-Soviet rhetoric and military spending like there's no tomorrow (except maybe a smouldering, radioactive one). And living next door to the Jenningses, there's an FBI agent called Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who has a keen instinct for things that don't smell quite right. It's Cold War II, and this time it's personal. ****

The German Army liked to maintain that it was an honourable professional body that viewed Hitler's genocidal slaughter with disgust, but that wasn't the story that emerged whan British Intelligence eavesdropped on German prisoners of war. The tale of how MI19, a War Office department, methodically wired three British country houses for sound recording, then filled them with German officers and sat back to eavesdrop on their "private" conversations, is told in Channel 4's Spying on Hitler's Army: The Secret Recordings (8pm, Sunday).

The bugging operation netted reams of information about the V2 rocket, German U-Boat tactics and the direction-finding equipment used by the Luftwaffe. The eavesdroppers were also intrigued by the light shed on divisions within the German military about Hitler, Nazism and the war. The film focuses on a pair of German generals held at Trent Park, Von Thoma and Crüwell (played by Nicholas Farrell, pictured above, and Rupert Frazer), to represent the anti-and pro-Nazi positions respectively.

The transcripts also reveal that it wasn't just the SS but regular army and Luftwaffe personnel who participated in slaughtering Jews and other supposed enemies of the Reich, though this won't be news to various war historians. Still inexplicable is how so many Germans apparently came to regard cold-blooded mass murder as a routine daily activity, as if they were Rentokil dealing with a rodent infestation. At least some of the PoWs retained the capacity to be shocked and horrified. Confronted by newsreel films from the liberated concentration camps, one of them comments: "That's the only thing about the Thousand Year Reich that will last for a thousand years."

Yet political expediency could override even prima facie evidence of industrialised genocide. With the Cold War looming, the British kept the bugged material secret to preserve their pioneering lead in the new science of electronic eavesdropping. None of it was ever used to convict a German prisoner of war crimes. ***

Only three episodes of the quietly addictive Case Histories (BBC One, Sunday)? Perhaps the Corporation can't afford to let us tire of the things we love. Either way we shall be left to ponder what might happen next between Jason Isaacs's Brodie ("a Mr Rochester for the modern age"?) and Charlotte (Dawn Steele), though more entertaining by far is his combustible anti-relationship with Louise. Now "happily" married, her torrential mood swings from chippy cheekiness to furniture-smashing fury have been caught with pinpoint accuracy by Amanda Abbington (pictured above with Isaacs). Never knowingly under-plotted, the show lobs Brodie's ex Julia (Natasha Little) into the mix this week too.  ****

  • The Americans, 9pm ITV Saturday/ Spying on Hitler's Army: the Secret Recordings, 8pm Channel 4 Sunday/ Case Histories, 8.30pm Sunday BBC One
The German Army liked to maintain that it viewed Hitler's genocidal slaughter with disgust, but that wasn't the story that emerged when British Intelligence bugged German prisoners

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