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Snarling class politics in a revamped 60s spy classic

ITV’s thriller the Ipcress File pays good tribute to the novel and film of the same name—but it also stands up well in 2022, writes Simon Basketter
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Actor Joe Cole stars in this new crime thriller

Working class spy Harry Palmer is played by Joe Cole

The Ipcress file is a spy thriller where a working class crook is thrown into a world of snobs, spies and old school ties. It’s where men wear bowler hats and dine at their clubs even on the brink of nuclear war. Based on the book, but distinct in feel from the iconic film starring Michael Caine, this series stars Joe Cole as the insolent Harry.

Screenwriter John Hodge and director James Watkins have created a show that often nods to the spirit of the movie. But it expands the story and incorporates a bit more of Len Deighton’s novel. Palmer is the son of a docker and a Korean war veteran who says of his time there, “I was bored, then I was scared. Then I was bored and scared”. His black market exploits in Berlin land him to a bleak military prison in Colchester.

But the apparent abduction of a leading establishment nuclear scientist proves to be a lucky break for Palmer. The kidnapping happened to be organised by his Berlin contact, a man known to British spooks as Housemartin. Harry is whisked out of jail and recruited by William Dalby (Tom Hollander), boss of an enigmatic undercover outfit which seems to make its own rules. He sends Harry back to Berlin to find Housemartin, with a view to tracking down the abducted Professor Dawson. Naturally nothing goes according to plan. 

This isn’t quite the woke nightmare the Daily Mail denounced it as before it aired. But Joe Cole said attitudes were deliberately toned down, “It was this constant battle of trying to make him not sound like a dick.” One good consequence of that is more focus on the character of Jean Courtney (Lucy Boynton). She’s an upper class young woman whose family and fiancé are labouring under the impression that she works as a secretary for the BBC. 

Instead, she’s a spy. She wears her diamond necklace like an albatross around her neck. What remains intact from Deighton is snarling class politics.  Deighton created the hard-boiled working class spy as an antidote to 007’s public school boy after he was fired from writing on From Russia With Love.  Harry tells Dalby he was fingered by military police after importing lobsters from Marseille to sell to Russian ministers. Palmer says, “I never did get the Nobel peace prize.” 

“Must have been your working class origins holding you back again,” retorts Dalby.It is compulsory to revel in the ­settings of these sort of dramas. Sixties-style captions and credits to the clothes, cars and interior decor.  A beige-ish tint to the photography to evoke the early sixties—that sort of thing. One detail is that the glasses are now designer, and Palmer’s clothes a little better than in Sidney J Furie’s 1965 film.

That film is a very high benchmark. It’s stylish, sinister, witty and depicting a determinedly un-swinging London. This version stands up on its own. If anything there may be a few too many nods to the film. Nonetheless the story moves along with a healthy serving of snark on the side. And now, since we are scared of Russians and nuclear threats again, it is also timely.

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