Why you should care
Because Bond and his ilk are sometimes agents of globalization.
For those of you — like me — who love your Ken Loach Northern vérité stories as much as your Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes, AMC and the BBC’s $30 million, glittering new John le Carré adaptation, The Night Manager, is something of a bracing departure. It’s an espionage show that echoes — in both production value and style — a wider shift in British society broadly and television specifically. It’s a change I find fascinating and more than a bit sad.
In a six-part miniseries,The Night Manager follows a youngish British army veteran, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), as he transitions from directionless hotelier to seasoned, ruthless undercover intelligence agent operating at the heart of an international arms syndicate (with Hugh Laurie as an arms dealer) in bed with MI6. Intelligence speak (MI6 HQ is reverently referred to as “The River House”) flies as Pine leads us on a breakneck tour of Europe’s finest hotels and beachfront villas. There’s a sense of having one’s face pressed against the glass with this show, manifest in Pine’s controller, the dowdy, disillusioned, overworked, underpaid Angela Burr (Olivia Colman).
There are plausibility issues: All this “seasoning” happens in a span of some 90 days, first of all. Then there’s the rampant use of cell phones, and the way in which the main character spends like Kanye with Kim’s Am Ex. We consulted OZY’s spy-in-residence, John McLaughlin, former deputy director and acting director of the CIA and a teacher at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Expert and well-trained intelligence operatives have learned through bitter experience not to communicate openly on cell phones and email about operational matters,” he says. “They have to worry constantly that they might be under surveillance and therefore subject to monitoring. They have to find other, clandestine, ways to communicate — particularly with their agents.” As for spies as big spenders, McLaughlin points to CIA traitor Aldrich Ames, who had been spying for the Russians and was arrested in 1994. “Intelligence agencies have to be careful not to pay agents too much for fear that they will spend lavishly and draw attention to themselves and thus risk detection,” McLaughlin says. “This was a big clue that gave Ames away.”
But for all The Night Manager’s interest in governmental corruption, war crimes, NGOs as Trojan Horses, lavish hotels and beachfront properties, the show’s greatest insight is the glimpse at the changing landscape of British TV. The BBC (and, for years, the now-departed Granada TV) churned out period pieces and social dramas that celebrated a kind of chintz-and-biscuits Englishness where the response to every crisis was to “put the kettle on” or “get stuck in.” But with the modernization of the Bond film series into a kind of muscular, jet-setting explosion-fest — a change that mirrors London’s own transformation from the beautifully ruined, damp, smoke-filled dump of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into the global capital of finance and playpen of the superrich — the BBC has plumped for Bond over Kes, for Canary Wharf over Tyneside.
If you’ve followed the slow death of British Steel or traveled north of Barnet, you’ll know Great Britain, though nominally three countries (England, Scotland and Wales), has become but two: London and everywhere else. The Night Manager feels unmistakably a part of this new, flashy swath of Britain: It celebrates the glitz of London’s second chapter as a bank office for the world’s richest as it builds glass towers atop the ruins of its dark, satanic mills.
The Night Manager ran this winter in the U.K. and premieres in the U.S. on April 19 on AMC.