'London Spy' Begins With A Romance Between A Clubber And MI6 Agent
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The thriller "London Spy" premieres on BBC America tonight. It begins with a coincidence of geography. In London, the biggest gay clubs sit just opposite the spy agency MI6. At the start of the show, a young man named Danny, played by the actor Ben Whishaw, stumbles out of one of those clubs at dawn. A handsome jogger stops to help him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LONDON SPY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As jogger) Are you OK?
BEN WHISHAW: (As Danny) Hey. I'm fine. You don't know me, but if you did, you'd know I'm always fine.
SHAPIRO: And the story unfolds from there. The series is written by the British novelist Tom Rob Smith.
Welcome to the show.
TOM ROB SMITH: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: This story has some things in common with a real-life case, which was, a spy named Gareth Williams, an MI6 operative, was found in a padlocked duffle with the key inside the bag. Tell us about this.
SMITH: Yeah, I mean, I just want to make clear that, you know, this is a piece of fiction. This isn't trying to say that we're connected to his life. But I do know, as you mentioned, the facts of his death. These were public knowledge. These were reported very widely in the U.K. It's a huge story. What happened - was he murdered or was it an accident? And what was interesting to me is, my first reaction when I heard this story was we're dealing with someone who's in the spy world. He's young and healthy. Clearly, we feel instinctively that there was something awry, a murder perhaps. And then suddenly, all this information came out about his personal life - that he liked being locked up, handcuffs, he was into women's clothing. And immediately, our attention moves away from what looked like a clear murder to let's go into this person's personal life. And it's a form of distracting us from I thought what looked like a case of murder. And I thought, you know, if you're going to do a fictional version of that story, what if this person had a partner, and that partner knew this person intimately, and this person would know absolutely that their partner was being lied about in the press? And that's sort of the starting point.
SHAPIRO: How did you focus on this geographic juxtaposition of the gay clubs on one side of the river and the spy agency on the other side of the river?
SMITH: Well, it's just - this is a story about two people from different worlds. And it just struck me as interesting that we have that in the geography of London, which is, you have the two worlds staring at each other - and they are very much worlds. You know, the clubs on one side are very secretive. On one hand, they have this door which is just very small. You kind of queue up and you go in, and inside there's this labyrinth of lights and music, and it goes on all night and you feel terrible. And the other side, you have this world - again, which is, you know, these doors and walls and no one really knows what goes on inside.
SHAPIRO: But what you're describing is not two different worlds. What you're describing is two identical worlds.
SMITH: Well, that's the thing. You know, on one level, they seem incredibly different, which is to say one is about hedonism and one is about national security. But they collide, and actually, there are connections. One is - they're both about secrets. They're both about deceptions, about presenting a front to people. You know, that's interesting. I mean, that's the reason why when I was looking at this story it struck me we had to use two men, or rather, a gay relationship because there was a connection between the spy world and being gay on some level, this idea of pretense, this idea of, you know, who do we - the people have to lie to when we're not able to come out.
SHAPIRO: One of the very first interactions that the two main characters, Danny and Alex, have, Danny says to Alex, are you out? And Alex says, no.
SMITH: It's a key question because are you out for Alex, who's played by Ed Holcroft, who is the spy, is resonating on two levels. First of all and clearly, Ben Whishaw is asking him are you out as in free to talk about your sexuality, have you told anyone else that you're gay? He says no, but clearly he's also thinking, I haven't told anyone else about my job, either. And yet, of course Ben Whishaw doesn't understand that's a loaded question at the time.
SHAPIRO: You gave him the script before the script was fully written, and he signed on to play this role. And I understand you sort of wrote it around him. Where is it written just for Ben Whishaw, this actor who many people will know from playing Q in the "James Bond" film and other roles?
SMITH: You know, he came on very early because I thought, we can give him anything. There is a scene in episode three which involves a sort of seven-minute scene which is - there's no cutting away. It's just him. And I thought this scene could only work with someone as good as Ben.
SHAPIRO: Is this the HIV test?
SMITH: This is the HIV test, yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LONDON SPY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Last test was eight months ago. Since then one sexual partner? You're always safe?
WHISHAW: (As Danny) Always.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) We're going to do a finger-prick test. It's not a test for the HIV virus but for the antibodies produced in response to the infection.
SHAPIRO: This scene feels like it plays out almost in real time. There is no music, there's very, very little dialogue. There's a pervasive sense of dread but also a sense of reality.
SMITH: It was very important. I mean, I got tested before the scene just to go through it all. I mean, I get tested anyway, but I got tested before the scene just to make sure that every single detail was correct, every single thing that is said. And there are different variations on the test, but the key in terms of as a piece of drama was, this isn't about someone being scared of a test. It's really about someone coming up against stereotypes. And the HIV aspect is someone attacking their love story by saying we know that many people in the public still think that there's something wrong, still think that there's this stigma around it, and we're going to use that to suggest that both of them were into risky behavior and they had no regard for their life and therefore of course one of them ended up dying, of course that happened - it all seems so logical, the idea that it's murder is absurd. That's really what that scene is about.
SHAPIRO: Every spy story is to a certain extent about secrets and lies, this one more than most. And without giving away the plot, I couldn't tell whether you want us to come away believing that lies are necessary evils or they make the world go round or the world would be a better place if nobody ever lied.
SMITH: You know, and love is interesting because Ben Whishaw's character is saying to the person that he loves, I don't want to have any more secrets anymore. I want you to know everything about me. I want you to know me as well as anyone has ever - I want you to know me as well as I know myself...
SMITH: ...And of course I don't believe that. I don't even believe it's possible. And actually, I think what love is about is about striving to know the person better and better. And actually, it's that trying to close the gap which is where all the wonderful things come from. And the premise that Danny starts with, you know, that gap is essentially bad and must be removed I think has a touch of naivety. And actually what he realizes across - this love story isn't static - across the entire series, he learns new things about his partner. And what we're doing here is we're taking all of those spy elements and we're pushing them through the ordinary world, the world that we all live in rather than the extraordinary world of secret agents. We're saying, how does the spy world relate to us as individuals? How does it relate to our relationship with our partners, our wives, our family? And, you know, it's important to hold in mind that this is an absolutely ordinary guy. And it's who - how can this person, who has no real education to speak of, how can this person take on the spy world?
SHAPIRO: That's Tom Rob Smith, whose new program "London Spy" begins tonight on BBC America.
Thanks so much for joining us.
SMITH: It's my pleasure.