TV - The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent

Starting on BBC One tomorrow evening, find out more about the new adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel of terrorism, espionage and betrayal, The Secret Agent, in interviews with the screenplay writer Tony Marchant and the director Charles McDougall...

London, 1886: Verloc (Toby Jones) runs a seedy sex shop in the heart of Soho. But unknown to his loyal wife, Winnie (Vicky McClure), Verloc is also paid by the Russian embassy to spy on an anarchist cell. 

Furious at Britain's refusal to confront the anarchist threat sweeping across Europe, Verloc's Russian handler gives him a mission: Orchestrate a bombing that will be blamed on the anarchists and provoke a crackdown from the British. Refuse; and Verloc’s identity as a spy will be revealed to his anarchist comrades.

Verloc must source a bomb, but hide his actions from Winnie and Chief Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham) of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Division. Unable to persuade his anarchist comrades to help, Verloc sets his sights on Winnie’s younger brother Stevie as his accomplice...

From the producers of the acclaimed drama series Line of Duty, The Secret Agent has been adapted by BAFTA award-winner Tony Marchant (The Mark of Cain, Great Expectations) and directed by Emmy award-winner Charles McDougall (Hillsborough, House of Cards, The Good Wife).

Producer Priscilla Parish said "Set in London, 1886 for four weeks following Guy Fawkes Night, this adaptation of Joseph Conrad's masterpiece about the late Victorian War on Terror feels contemporary and immediate. While it's about terrorism and politics and therefore prescient territory, it's also a tremendous psychological thriller, deeply human and full of emotion."

The family


How did this project come about?

Simon Heath [World Productions] approached me about adapting The Secret Agent. I had, ironically, just been re-reading it.

What appealed to you about adapting this classic novel?

The contemporaneity of the book was its obvious appeal and Conrad’s almost prophetic view of a world in political ferment, assailed by terrorism and the geopolitical maneuvering of Governments. At its heart and what really convinced me to go ahead was the fact that it’s a domestic tragedy - the heartbreaking story of a family caught up in terrorism, in bigger events they do not understand. Winnie is a tragic, working class heroine whose only fault is that she’s so hopeful. So that made it irresistible.

How easy was it to adapt?

The book was very difficult to adapt because it has a non-linear approach, with important events reported not seen and with many character ‘points of view’. Also the tone of the book (through the narrator) verges towards the ironic and the knowing. The challenge was to embrace the thriller element of the novel, to give the narrative a kinetic forward going energy and to make sure that the conflicts and the tensions were fully felt.

How much dramatic license have you taken?

In the book there are no scenes between Verloc and the Professor. The one encounter is reported to a third party. The main point was to create as much opportunity as possible for Verloc’s terrible predicament and to make itself felt i.e. that he needed a bomb. I’ve also made the encounters between the Professor and Chief Inspector Heat much more heightened, with the jeopardy much more apparent. Dare I say it; I’ve attempted to sharpen the characterisations!

Winnie and Stevie are the emotional heart of the story. Tell us about their relationship?

Winnie is Stevie’s sister. Stevie has learning difficulties and was previously bullied and abused by their father which has made Winnie incredibly protective of him - also because their mother absents herself from the family home. Stevie is ingenuous, innocent, and desperate for approval (especially from males as his father never showed him any love). This makes him susceptible to ‘grooming’ by Verloc who takes advantage of Stevie and manipulates his earnestness for his own ends. The Winnie/Stevie relationship is almost a mother/son bond. Winnie is desperate for Verloc to ‘adopt’ Stevie, to become closer to him and that hope too is exploited.

How do you feel the story is relevant to audiences today?

Suicide bombers, terrorist cells, spies, security and intelligence services trying to thwart bomb attacks, Russia trying to flex its muscles around the world! It’s SO relevant!

Are you a fan of the spy genre?

I admire some of Le Carre’s work. I also thought ‘The Game’ which was shown on BBC Two earlier this year was particularly good.

What has Charles McDougall brought to the drama?

Charles has brought a great dynamism and contemporary energy to the drama but never at the expense of emotional authenticity which is after all, the core of the piece. He is meticulous and deeply conscientious about the work. 



What attracted you to the project?

I had loved the book at school and then, whilst shooting in Atlanta, had seen the premiere of The Secret Agent, the Opera which I found very moving. Tony’s scripts seemed clear-eyed and emotional, stripped of the novel’s layer of social satire and we worked hard at the script stage to make the three episodes as propulsive as possible.

What was it like returning to work in the UK after a decade working in the US? Are they any major differences in how you approach directing?

Far less sunscreen in Glasgow. Much smaller crew, shorter work hours, but a more efficient unit and ‘no nonsense’. A set is a set wherever, but it is great joy working with British actors and crew after so long away. The work itself becomes what is central, not the mood of the star nor size of the trailers. And when a tray of biscuits appeared, it was a party.

Tell me about the research you did on Conrad prior to filming?

I undertook months of research firstly at the Huntington Library in LA, which is very good on London social history as well as Conrad, and then the Polish Library in Hammersmith. We visited Conrad’s two homes in Kent, where he wrote and died, and his grave. Late 19th century artwork in many museums proved invaluable. I have not seen any of the other screen adaptations.

Did you have any key notes for the cast in terms of how they approached their roles?

Actors often perform in a period way when they are wearing period clothes so I told them to forget all that and just play it as a story taking place now. It had to be grounded and largely naturalistic, except for the Professor, and it had to be full of life and vitality so that their absence would be the more evident. Vicky and Toby are class acts so any work with them is extremely rewarding.

I asked everyone to use their own accent as it adds to a rich sense of London, and particularly Soho, as a draw for provincial characters and immigrants alike. In the 1894 census, half of Soho was foreign born.

Are there any scenes in particular which were challenging to film?

Every scene is challenging if you want to make it as good as possible. The first fifteen minutes of episode three is very unusual for being two people in a room in real time, and that was a matter of doing detailed work in the rehearsal room and on set. Setting one character to be virtually static for that length of time seemed a risk.

Being in a small omnibus was a great physical challenge for everyone. Having to shoot two scenes in an hour and a half at the Observatory before opening time is a challenge, as is shooting around other London landmarks. And shooting Victorian Soho in a different country was a tremendous architectural challenge but hopefully one not noticed by the viewer. Creating filth was an insurmountable problem.

The production as a whole was a tough, worthwhile challenge. Conrad subtitled The Secret Agent “A Simple Tale” in the 1907 reissue of the novel: he clearly had no experience of television production.

Watch a clip from tomorrow night's episode:

Images and info - BBC

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