Spies of Warsaw: Review

Spies of Warsaw

Spies of Warsaw

BBC Four, Wednesday, January 9, 9pm

Mention screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais to anyone over the age of 40 and they will almost certainly be able to reel off a list of the television greats that they created.

Alive in an era when three or four channels was your lot, who would forget the likes of Auf Wiedersehen Pet, Porridge, The Likely Lads or Jimmy Nail in Spender? However, even die-hard fans could be forgiven for thinking the duo downed pens long ago, but last night there their names were, gracing the opening credits of BBC Four’s Spies of Warsaw.

An adaptation of Alan Furst’s best-selling novel, Clement and La Frenais probably hadn’t meant to give us a light-hearted look at the happy-go-lucky world of espionage in pre-World War II Poland. Problem was, within ten minutes of being introduced to Jean-Francois, David Tenant’s dashing lead character, it was apparent that Spies of Warsaw really wouldn’t be anything to take too seriously.

Within those ten minutes Tenant made more costume changes than the average pantomime dame. First up was Action Man Tenant, investigating suspicious German activity on the Polish border, swiftly followed by Swashbuckling Tenant, enjoying a bit of cut and thrust on the fencing piste whilst aristocratic ladies swooned over him. No sooner has he removed his mask, there was Head and Shoulders Tenant, recovering from his exertions in a steamy hot shower, before sashaying in to find one of said ladies waiting in his bed, cooing over his old war wounds.

Then there were the accents. Jean-Francois and the rest of Spies of Warsaw’s French contingent, all played by British actors, spoke with the most refined received pronunciation possible, making it very hard to think of them as French at all. The Polish cast, playing Poles, spoke English with a Polish accent.

Just to make things even more confusing, the German characters all spoke in German, unless they were in a scene with Tenant, in which case they spoke English with a slightly comical German accent. At the moment British actor Anton Lesser warned him about “ze Geshtapoâ€?, it was impossible not to think of Herr Flick and ‘Allo ‘Allo! all over again.

I could mention the odd bit of clunking dialogue (“Life’s too short to drink bad wineâ€?), but that would be overly-picky for what was a relatively breezy hour and a half, even if much of my enjoyment was gleaned from sources unintended.

In retrospect, Spies of Warsaw suffered from the same affliction as shows like The Hour or the recent Restless: a rather melodramatic script and a little too much overt thesping to give it the same weight as anything that HBO or Showtime has produced stateside in the past decade.