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It seems as though the Cold War spy thriller is making something of a come back in recent years. The last few years have seen a spate of new adaptations of the classic Cold War era works of author John le Carre ranging from the Oscar nominated film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to a slew of BBC audio drama adaptations of the various novels. Authors such as Charles Cumming in his novel The Trinity Six have also explored the legacy of the Cold War as well. Yet there's also been new tales told as well, pastiches of a thought dead genre. One particularly interesting one was the BBC's six part thriller The Game, created by Toby Whithouse, which took viewers into MI5 in early 1970s Britain.
The premise of the series is simple enough. It's 1972 and Britain is the throes of a miners strike, power cuts, and a general sense of unease. Into this world, a KGB Colonel approaches MI5 with word that a major Soviet operation called Operation Glass is about to take place. An operation so major that it will redefine the history of British-Soviet espionage. Investigating Operation Glass are a number of MI5 operatives and brass from field agent Joe (Tom Hughes), counter-espionage boss Bobby (Paul Ritter), his deputy Sarah (Victoria Hamilton), her electronic surveillance expert husband Alan (Jonathan Aris), rising secretary Wendy (Chloe Pirrie), and Special Branch officer Jim Fenchurch (Shaun Dooley) with the agency director known only by the codename “Daddy” (Brian Cox) sitting at the top.
Whithouse, along with writers Sarah Dollard and Debbie O'Malley for some of the middle episodes, certainly know the genre they are playing with. As well as the mysterious Operation Glass, it becomes apparent quickly that there is a mole within MI5 (potentially within their own little group) which threatens to expose the investigation. There are shades of the le Carre classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as well as other notable Cold War thrillers such as Fredrick Forsyth's The Fourth Protocol. Indeed it would be easy to simply call The Game a potential rip-off of le Carre but that is to give only a superficial glance at the series.
For Whithouse injects into familiar le Carre tropes other elements of Cold War spy fiction, putting them out in the field alongside them as it were. There's fears of Soviet infiltration of the British establishment (a very real worry in the post-Cambridge spies era), nuclear secrets, the inter-service rivalry between the domestic focused MI5 and the foreign-focused MI6 which all come into play. More than that, the series does a nice job of creating a sense of time and place by tying into larger issues of the early 1970s including IRA bombings and the state of British politics, which gives this fictional take on the era an air of verisimilitude. Combined with the characters and often strong guest casts, it's a compelling 21st-century take on the Cold War spy thriller.