Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and The Secret State in British Television Drama by Joseph Oldham. The bibliography of Paranoid Visions, includes a 1970 Evening News article called Callan Lives credited to Harold Wilson. Could it really be the Prime Minister? Yes. During the broadcast of the third series of Callan, the Prime Minister had byelined an article to remind voters that actor Edward Woodward had joined him at Number 10 Downing Street, “showing distinguished statesmen from abroad what really makes life tick in Britain.” While this was not a unique event (Wilson had invited Patrick Wymark to Number 10 in 1968 to meet the Prime Minister of Luxembourg) , Joseph Oldman notes that this was a demonstration of , “Wilson’s populist touch,” , trading on the national popularity of Woodward and the TV spy who he played.

Paranoid Visions surveys the popularity of TV spy and conspiracy thrillers from Callan to Spooks, and compares the shows to the evolution (or degradation) of the broadcasters that commissioned them. Other chapters look at Special Branch and The Sandbaggers, – Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, SpyBird of Prey and Edge of Darkness -and A Very British Coup . The journey from Callan to Spooks is noted, not just in the kind of stories that are told, but the way in which they are told. Callan is taped in the theatrical tradition. “Different character and narrative beats are communicated by positioning the actors in different parts of the set at different moments, shifting their physical relationship to each other.” ABC’s telescopic lighting system allowed these scenes to be lit in a shadowy, expressive style. By contrast, Spooks was shot on Super 16mm single camera, with fast-cutting, expressive lighting and “ostentatious “ shots of the characters striding in slow motion.

However, it’s not just the externals that are different. Oldham notes that Spooks was commissioned by the BBC to engage with big issues, and the independent contractor Kudos, delivered this in the briefing scenes. Instead of a “single, paternalistic” handover of instructions by the spy chief, Spooks, had an exchange of information around a table, “different characters contributing information, expertise and opinions…This gives the briefing a more democratic atmosphere that in some ways mirrors the open management style of (Greg) Dyke’s BBC.” This brings in Oldham’s general theme that the perception of the spy on TV is inevitably a reflection of the institution which creates the TV.

Edward (Callan) Woodward

Both ITV and the BBC in the 1960’s and 1970’s were heavily regulated, contrasting arms of the establishment. When Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was in pre-production, John Le Carre was asked to suggest the visual design of George Smiley’s ‘Circus’ and he is reputed to have said that it should look like the inside of the BBC.

Tinker, Tailor, Teatime

In the 1980’s , the Thatcher government pursued its aims of deregulation, opening the gates for a wider, but more fragmented structure in which the ultimate aim was arguably the end of the license fee and a move to pay-per-view. Oldham notes that the BBC pursued a strategy for Spooks from 2003 to 2009 in which each episode except the first and last was broadcast on the BBC3 digital channel, “as part of a strategy to incentivise viewers towards digital take-up,” encouraging the shift from ‘water-cooler moments’ to individualised view-on-demand.

This sounds reminiscent of the former Civil Servants and the Department of Trade and Industry interviewed by Aeron Davis in Reckless Opportunists who found the best way to progress in the Thatcher era (and later the ‘New Labour’ era) was to espouse and exceed the ‘small state’ neoliberal ambitions of the Government. In cutting the DTI budget from £6 billion to £1.5 billion (cutting their own headcount) ,“It made the notion of a national industrial policy anathema. It also meant that UK industry suffered a faster decline than all its economic rivals over the same period.” (Davis page 34)

Oldham notes that the BBC mounted The Night Manager nearly 40 years after the success of Tinker,Tailor,Soldier,Spy. But the days of American partners handing over the money and shutting up were long gone. The trend is towards glossy drama aimed at international pay-per-view audiences with every line of scripted burdened by ‘notes’ from multiple ‘producers’. “It is perhaps an open question whether (such shows) will have anything to say for or about the nation.”

Callan survived cancellation in 1969 because the viewing figures were so high that management ordered the final episode to have new, more ambiguous ending filmed (so creating, Oldham points out, the concept of the end-of-season cliffhanger). The Sandbaggers was created because a planned production fell though and Yorkshire Television asked Ian MacIntosh if he had anything to fill the slot. Could today’s sub-contracted and overconsulted TV respond as quickly?

Paranoid Visions is an interesting survey of the spy and conspiracy genres. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Bird of Prey ( which made me wish it was out on DVD) and A Very British Coup which show how they reflect the times in which they were made, but also point to their contemporary relevance. Oldham also reminds us that The Sandbaggers stands out for its authenticity, as much as being in the tradition of The Power Game, with its focus “on Burnside’s bureacratic battles(demystifying) these structures of power.”

I’ve probably done Oldham a disservice here – by pulling several plums out of the pudding, I’ve not really given a good picture of the pudding as a whole. At 218 pages it’s a comfortable read, one that will interest anyone interested in the spy and conspiracy genre, and one that will repay careful re-reading.

Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama. by Joseph Oldham. Manchester University Press £20.00 ISBN 978-1-5261-5253-4