Apple TV+ has turned to a familiar genre for its first European drama, but what makes spy stories so enduring and are we reaching saturation point? Stephen Arnell explores
Since joining Apple in 2017, Jay Hunt has kept a relatively low profile. All this could be about to change after the recent launch of the streamer and the details of her first major scripted commission, the spy drama Slow Horses.
To industry observers, Apple TV+’s European content chief can be seen to have made either a smart move, given the proven popularity of the genre, or perhaps a gamble, given how crowded the marketplace has become with spy thrillers.
From The Night Manager, London Spy and The Honourable Woman, to The Americans, Deutschland 83/86/89 and Jack Ryan, spy sagas have been coming thick and fast over over the past five years or so. Shows such as Killing Eve have also taken the genre into new areas, with an appeal that goes beyond the traditional target audience.
Series such as Condor, airing on Canadian network Audience, and Sasha Baron-Cohen’s The Spy for OCS in France and Netflix internationally, have also launched, while the global streamer has enjoyed success with Israeli series Fauda from Yes Studios.
And the market isn’t done yet: on the horizon are CBS’s Queen Latifah-fronted reboot of 1980s show The Equalizer and Showtime’s Intelligence, while Finnish thriller Shadow Lines, set in the 1950s, is soon to become available to global buyers.
Emmanuelle Guilbart, joint CEO & co-founder of Shadow Lines producer/distributor About Premium Content, said the show’s warm reception on Finnish streamer Elisa Viihde – which ordered the series – was due to a combination of factors including “the stylish 1950s fashions, a sophisticated approach and the Finnish setting – Helsinki was often used as substitute for Moscow in thrillers such as Gorky Park. The young female protagonist gives the show a unique appeal and a younger audience when compared to other TV spy thrillers too,” Guilbart adds.
Importantly, the story also explores “the present-day relevance in the misogyny of a male-dominated workplace, ‘fake news’ and the possible reignition of the Cold War,” Guilbart adds.
Clearly the spy genre provides a conduit for a multitude of other themes to be explored, but with so many series on offer, is saturation being reached?
Nothing suggests that yet, but the cancellation of Berlin Station on Epix and the end of Counterpoint on Starz in 2019 could be taken as evidence of possible audience fatigue. Add that to the disappointing ratings performances of both BBC One’s John Le Carré adaptation The Little Drummer Girl in 2018 and Channel 4’s Traitors last year, coupled with the generally underwhelming reaction to Fox’s European commission Deep State, and perhaps viewers are tiring. Like other genres such as Western, detective and zombie dramas, spy thrillers tend to stick to certain conventions, which increases the risk of over-familiarity.
A case in point is BBC Two’s 2015 Cold War drama The Game. Despite a solid cast, including Succession’s Brian Cox and Victoria’s Tom Hughes, Toby Whitehouse’s six-parter seemed to some critics to hue rather too closely to Le Carré’s oeuvre – and to a lesser extent Len Deighton’s – to really make its mark.
And the fact that further Le Carré adaptations are in the pipeline, including The Spy Who Came In From The Cold for BBC and AMC, and possibly The Night Manager II, under the aegis of his sons Simon and Stephen Cornwell of The Ink Factory, means that any ersatz versions are probably superfluous.
Simon Cornwell, for one, believes that the genre is in rude health. “I don’t see any danger of the spy thriller being overused as the genre continues to be a metaphor for the world we live in today and the eternal conflicts of loyalty to country and right and wrong,” he tells TBI.
“They also manage to mine deep emotions beneath the surface. John Le Carré’s work in exploring the complex moral choices faced is a reason for his titles’ continuing success. In the age of Donald Trump, it can be said that real life could be stranger than fiction, but if anything, this makes the genre more relevant than ever and the moral choices more urgent as we enter what appears to be a new Cold War.”
Cornwell’s TV favourites include Killing Eve, for its “subversion of the genre”, Beta Film’s Babylon Berlin and French thriller The Bureau. “I’m also particularly excited by Laura Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept, which delves into the story of the weaponisation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago by the West against the Soviet Union,” he says, with the novel now being developed by The Ink Factory.
Double-crosses, moles, father-figure bosses, sinister/exotic foreign locales, femme fatales and the final episode ‘big reveal’ tend to come with the territory, but as with Game Of Thrones’ disruption of the TV fantasy epic, there’s plenty of scope for surprises in the espionage thriller, another reason for its long-standing appeal.
Recently, Netflix’s The Crown flirted with the genre, with episodes focusing on alleged Soviet infiltration of the Labour party and the proven treachery of the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures Anthony Blunt – played by Sam West, who incidentally also essayed the role in 2003’s Cambridge Spies for BBC Two. The show also delved into the possibility of Lord Mountbatten’s tentative involvement in a planned coup against Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
Which brings us back to Slow Horses, Apple TV+’s adaptation of the first of Mick Herron’s much admired Slough House series of novels, which is being produced by UK-based See-Saw Films.
There’s no escaping some surface resemblances between Le Carré and Herron’s work, with the setting of Slough House – based in London’s Barbican – a dumping ground for washed-up spooks. The presence of Gary Oldman in the lead role of spy Jackson Lamb lends weight to the forthcoming show too, and comes after his impressive turn as George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson’s acclaimed 2011 movie version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy.
There are plenty of crucial differences from Le Carré’s novels however, ranging from the strong elements of humour to the overt violence, satire and occasional absurdity, all of which are apparent in the book’s of Herron, who tells TBI he is enthused by the prospect of the Apple adaptation.
‘I’m very happy that we have a great team in Graham Yost (Justified) and Will Smith (Veep) bringing Slow Horses to the screen. I’ve already visited the writers room,” he says, adding that Yost’s presentation of the show’s storyline to Apple was “incredibly impressive.”
The author also stresses the importance of historical context in the Slough House series, emphasising that the story “hues to the tradition of more grounded, realistic British spy thriller, but includes satirical elements, often referencing current events.
“With the political turmoil of the present-day, it helps with such outlandish occurrences as Trump that you can push the boundaries, although Slough House eschews the gadgetry of some spy thriller novels.”
The author credits the novels of John Steinbeck as an influence on his approach to dialogue and underlines the black humour of the Jackson Lamb novels. Le Carré’s books also offer laughs of a sort, but they are usually of the driest and bleakest kind – with the odd exception, such as the improbable sight of Alec Guinness as Smiley in a long leather trench coat in a seedy German sex club in 1982’s Smiley’s People.
That being said, Le Carre’s latest novel, the Brexit-themed Agent Running In The Field, has led many to assume a satirical aspect – or maybe in the current political environment, it is simply uncomfortably true to life.
For Apple, Slow Horses is clearly another costly bet on talent-led drama. The presence of 2018 Oscar winner Oldman in a very rare TV role adds to the lustre of Slow Horses and could help sell the show to prospective subscribers who may not yet have engaged with the streamer.
The series may also have the knock-on effect of giving Oldman’s post-Oscar career a boost, following appearances in thrillers such as Tau, Hunter Killer, The Courier and Killers Anonymous. And while there has been little word yet on the supporting cast, the presence of the aforementioned Yost as executive producer, together with Veep co-writer and co-producer Smith promise a strong commitment to crackling dialogue and character development.
Turning to the spy genre also suggests Hunt may be looking to add more grit to Apple TV+, with this first European scripted offering contrasting with the glossy budget-busting shows such as The Morning Show and For All Mankind.
For commissioners looking to adapt another spy drama, they could possibly do a lot worse than Manda Scott’s A Treachery of Spies, which comes highly recommended by Herron himself. And then there’s the long-rumoured adaptation of Len Deighton’s Game Set & Match by Quentin Tarantino. We can probably consign that idea to history, but with the current demand for bringing spies out of the cold and onto the screen, you never know.