Review: ‘Masterpiece Theatre the Secret Agent’

Host: Alistair Cooke.

Host: Alistair Cooke.

Masterpiece Theatre’s” three-part adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel is finely drawn, yet somber and slow-paced. Acting is excellent and strong on character, but it has little dramatic story interest.

Although better known for his novels and short stories such as “Lord Jim” and “Heart of Darkness,” Conrad also wrote two novels about revolutionaries in Europe, “Under Western Eyes” and “The Secret Agent.”

“The Secret Agent” is set in London in the early 19th century, at a time when the city had become a haven for Continental revolutionaries of every ilk. Many of the European embassies were actively engaged in espionage in the expatriate communities.

Caught up in the wave of revolution and espionage is Adolf Verloc(David Suchet), a bumbling, hapless double agent who spies on the British for the Russians and vice versa. Struggling to make ends meet as a vendor of erotic pictures, Verloc supports his wife Winnie (Cheryl Campbell) and brother-in-law Stevie (Richard Stirling), mostly from his espionage work.

All this changes, however, when Verloc is persuaded by Mr. Vladimir (Peter Capaldi) of the Russian embassy to blow up the Greenwich Observatory.

The Observatory is cleverly targeted by Vladimir as the center of the new religion of science at the turn of the century, and therefore a likely magnet for anarchist bombs. Vladimir hopes to pin the blame for the bombing on anarchists.

While there are clearly analogies to the current international war on terrorism, the back-alley espionage of London circa 1910 never resonates very far beyond the specifics of time and place. In addition, the relationship between Verloc and his wife doesn’t fully engage viewers until the series’ end.

In the fine “Masterpiece Theatre” tradition, sets, costumes and other production values are impeccable, as are the performances by the strong ensemble.

Most significant and touching moment of the program comes at the end, when Alistair Cooke says farewell to “Masterpiece Theatre” and to the audience after 21 years on the series. It’s a classy farewell by a warm and distinguished gentleman who has introduced American viewers to some of the best TV programming ever.

Masterpiece Theatre the Secret Agent

(Sun. (15, 22, 29), 9-10 p.m., PBS)


Produced by BBC and WGBH; executive producer, Michael Wearing; director, David Drury; writer, Dusty Hughes, from the novel by Joseph Conrad.


Camera, Alec Curtis; designer, Michael Trevor; editor, Ian Farr; costumes, Lyn Avery Reynolds; music, Barrington Pheloung.


Cast: David Suchet, Cheryl Campbell, Richard Stirling, Warren Clarke, Patrick Malahide, Janet Suzman, Peter Capaldi, Fiona Mollision, Stratford Johns, Nicholas Gecks, David Schofield, John Benfield, Alfred Lynch, Doreen Mantle, David Ryall, John Gabriel.

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