Johnny Worricker is an old-school MI5 spy with old-school values and a determination to do the right thing even if things seem to be going the way of duplicitous and self-serving politicians. Played by Bill Nighy in David Hare’s feature-length BBC drama Page Eight, broadcast on BBC2 last night, Worricker discovers an extraordinary political secret. It’s on page eight of a sensitive government document, and it suggests that the Prime Minister has allowed British citizens to be tortured and killed in the name of national security and intelligence gathering.
Sound familiar? Hare is too sophisticated an operator to deal in lookalikes, and this PM, played by Ralph Fiennes, looked nothing like TB. It was left to the viewers to draw their own conclusions. In interviews, Hare has explained how he came to write his first original screenplay in 20 years:
I don’t think anybody has written about what I think has been happening lately in the intelligence services, especially post 7/7 when home-grown terrorists walked onto the Tube and blew up British citizens. It’s been a rough few years for MI5, partly because it refused to offer Blair the information he wanted when he was putting together the case for an invasion of Iraq and partly because of the effects of 7/7.
John le Carré is the master of the spy genre, but by and large he has written about the Cold War. I spoke to people who work for MI5 about what it’s like in the organisation now, and it was those conversations that inspired me to write Page Eight.
Ralph Fiennes, who plays Prime Minister Alec Beasley, asked me if his character was based on anyone real. I told him Alec Beasley was an incredibly capable and powerful PM, and before I could go any further he said, ‘So no one we know then’. He was joking, but he’s right. This is make-believe, albeit make-believe inspired by real conversations. Viewers can read into it what they wish.
This was intelligent and enjoyable TV drama – and, along with other recent offerings from the BBC such as The Hour and Glorious 39, very finely acted. What more could you expect from a cast that included Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon and Rachel Weisz? Interesting, too, how there seemed to be a common theme across these three pieces – one of duplicity and conspiring against democracy in high places.
Sam Wollaston provided a neat summing up in The Guardian:
It is a world where the old certainties have disappeared, where I Vow to Thee, My Country may still be sung at Benedict’s funeral but the words have little meaning any more. It is a world where politics operates in a moral vacuum. It is our world.
But it’s not a place without all hope. It may be impossible to beat the system, but you can perhaps get something back from it (Johnny gets justice for Nancy’s brother). And there are still the good things in life – paintings by Christopher Wood, Lester Young’s saxophone, a drink at six o’clock. Classy television.
This is the painting that the Bill Nighy character had hanging in his flat. It’s The Card Players by Christopher Wood and was actually sold at Sothebys a few years back to a private bidder. Christopher Wood was a local lad, born in Knowsley in 1901, the son of a GP. Wood studied architecture briefly at Liverpool University before going to Paris where he studied drawing. He moved in fashionable artistic circles, meeting Augustus John and the Chilean diplomat Antonio de Gandarillas, with whom he began to live. As well as providing financial support, Gandarillas introduced Wood to Picasso, Georges Auric and Jean Cocteau, and to the use of opium.
Wood exhibited with Ben and Winifred Nicholson at the Beaux Arts Gallery in 1927, becoming close to them personally and artistically. He painted with the Nicholsons in Cumberland and Cornwall in 1928. On a trip to St Ives, he and Ben Nicholson encountered the fisherman painter Alfred Wallis, whose work met a shared interest in ‘primitive’ expression and helped Wood to establish a personal style. By 1930, addicted to opium and painting frenetically in preparation for an exhibition in London, he suffered paranoia and began carrying a revolver. On August 21 he travelled to meet his mother and sister for lunch in Salisbury and to show them a selection of his latest paintings. After saying goodbye he threw himself under a train at Salisbury railway station.
Apart from a good taste in art, Page Eight featured some classy jazz references. The film opened with contemporary jazz playing under the titles which seemed a homage to the ambience of 1960s spy thrillers. The Bill Nighy character is not only an art collector, but also has a passion for Lester Young and Billie Holiday. When his boss in MI5 and best friend from university days (Michael Gambon) dies and friends wonder what music would be appropriate for the funeral, the woman who has been wife to both of them, dismisses the likelihood of Nighy helping with the words: ‘you’re no use, you like jazz’.