London Spy – a new 5 part series on BBC 2 stars Ben Whishaw. He plays Danny, a young guy living in London. He goes out one night, takes a load of drugs, goes clubbing and then the following morning bumps into an attractive jogger on Vauxhall bridge called Alex. To cut a long story short: they fall in love, have sex, Alex turns out to be a spy, then gets killed (stuffed in a trunk in an attic full of BDSM kit) and Danny is framed for the murder. Cue dim lighting, an untrustworthy ensemble cast and bucketfuls of suspicious glances, it’s all classic spy fare…or is it?
There’s a lot resting on London Spy (LS) because it’s the first TV spy thriller to be populated by predominantly gay characters. Danny is gay, Alex is/was gay (can we really be sure his was the body in the trunk!?) and Danny’s older male friend, Scottie, is gay. Then there’s the nasty drug dealer played by Mark Gatiss who addicts younger men to drugs and sleeps with them. And Edward Fox plays an unfriendly spy master who may well also be gay. Add to this themes of drug addiction, unsympathetic parents, lonely old men (Scottie) falling for disinterested younger men (Danny), institutionalised homophobia, HIV, prostitution, oh, and murder, and the picture LS paints of gay life in London is pretty grim. But we like a bit of grim, don’t we? I mean the Hunger Games is pretty grim. Perhaps these issues add a cold slap of gritty realism to LS and ground it in a seedy underworld that’s so fascinating to watch. But I think LS is up against a bigger problem than bodies in trunks.
Homophobia. Stories about straight men doing straight things and blowing stuff up have populated spy thrillers for decades. Heterosexuality saturates the genre and is considered normal which is why we would tend not to watch James Bond or a Le Carre as a straight film, just a film. However, gay characters going about doing gay things isn’t normal and so we watch them differently, because we’ve been conditioned to see gay characters as ‘other’. It was fellow blogger, Alex Gabriel, who reminded me of this (via Twitter). He offered numerous interpretations for why LS is so bleak: within the story itself we witness how the British spy establishment treats gay spies and gay patsies – very, very badly. In essence the establishment machine (think MI6, Whitehall & Big Money) will crush anyone it needs to and use whatever means necessary to frame them (e.g. attics full of sex toys, drugs and bondage gear – all of Danny’s past). This is a world where gay people are killed, they don’t come back to life in twists at the end (although I still think Alex might), and their lives are grim and unhappy. Meanwhile, in the non-fictional world of spy thrillers the fact that LS is so unique just reminds us how engrained and seemingly normalised the white, straight, male is in so much popular culture, especially the spy genre.
So, LS is pushing the boat out, populating a notoriously straight genre with more queer characters and reminding us that queer, spy lives can be just as dark as those of straight spies. Unfortunately though, whilst I still want to know what happens, I’m not sure LS is actually that good. Despite the title I just don’t find it that spy-y. Sure, Danny is a civilian caught up in a spider’s web of international political intrigue and corruption but it seems as if the creators of LS have watched a lot of spy programmes but not necessarily done much spying themselves (or at least interviewed spies). A lot of the time the intrigue comes from the fact that rooms aren’t very well-lit and no one (even innocent housekeepers) actually says anything explicitly, it’s all riddles and enigmas. Sure, this is the stuff of spy drama but sometimes it just seems as if they’re trying to stretch out a very thin story, do we really need 5 hours of Ben Whishaw looking forlorn and put-upon in dimly lit rooms? Hopefully though LS will open up the door for more queer spies and mysteries (ideally better ones).