Nov 8, 2010

DVD Review: Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection (1984-1985)

Mr. Palfrey of Westminster stars Alec McCowen (posh and prim and a million miles from his performance as Never Say Never Again’s errant Q, Algernon) as a likable but cooly calculating civil servant–the sort of civil servant who’s tasked with ferreting out traitors within Her Majesty’s Government, not the sort who budgets unemployment benefits. He’s the same sort of civil servant as George Smiley, and the sort readers of this blog like watching shows about. You know the sort. As of the series’ first episode, he finds himself reporting to a new boss known only as “the Co-ordinator,” a self-described “Iron Lady” for the Thatcher era played by the Iron Lady of the Star Wars universe, Caroline Blakisten (Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi). I suppose in 1984, long before Judi Dench became M and before Stella Rimington became the first publicly acknowledged Director General of MI5, this alone made Mr. Palfrey of Westminster somewhat unique. It doesn’t now, but luckily the show has other distinctions, foremost among them being McCowen himself, who makes for a mesmerizing lead. Rounding out his tiny department, Mr. Palfrey relies on a perpetually tardy secretary named Caroline (Briony Thorne) to help with research and an antisocial, scarily helmet-haired hard man named Blair (Clive Wood) to do his legwork.

Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: The Complete Series occupies an interesting place in the history of spy pop culture. It was the 1980s genre contribution from some powerful creative forces behind a few of the more serious spy classics of the Sixties and Seventies, who seemed keen to revisit the genre each decade. George Markstein (who in his day logged some secret service of his own for Her Majesty) and Phillip Broadly, both of whom worked on Danger Man, each contribute to Mr. Palfrey of Westminster. Markstein also worked (rather briefly, owing to a disagreement with Patrick McGoohan) on The Prisoner and, more relevantly, on Callan. Mr. Palfrey can be seen as the logical 1980s extension of Danger Man and, particularly, Callan, though it is really nothing like either of those shows. For one thing, it doesn’t focus on a field man, as they both did. Instead, the hero is a desk man, a relative rarity in the world of spy TV. (Alec Guinness’s George Smiley is the obvious antecedent.) For another, Mr. Palfrey’s operations seldom end in violence the way that Callan’s inevitably do–which isn’t to say that they all end happily for everyone concerned. But that’s because the unnamed department for which Mr. Palfrey works is not the one tasked with such dirty tricks. That, in fact, is still “the Section,” as it was in Callan’s day. The Section is fully operational in Mr. Palfrey’s world as well, suggesting that the two series in fact occupy a shared universe. The Section is mentioned in the first episode, “Once Your Card Is Marked” (penned by Markstein), and it appears to have adjusted to the changing times of the 1980s as well as any other branch of British Intelligence; for a start, it now employs female assassins. It’s just as deadly as ever, though, and Mr. Palfrey doesn’t seem to agree with their methods. I would have loved to see the new Hunter make an appearance and go toe-to-toe with Mr. Palfrey’s formidable boss, the Co-ordinator, but sadly that doesn’t happen. Oh well.

Even if his office does have a window and he doesn’t shoot targets or light bulbs or people, Mr. Palfrey does share some common characteristics with David Callan. Foremost among them, he is never satisfied with the meager bits of information provided by his superiors. Like Callan, Palfrey asks questions and demands answers he isn’t entitled to. Like Callan, he likes to know the reasons that he’s asked to do the things he does. He doesn’t seem to be afflicted by the same bouts of conscience that Callan wrestles with, but then his particular methods aren’t likely to leave him with a conscience as guilty as Callan’s. He is conscientious to a degree, but he’s also practical. His own reasoning for demanding all the facts from his higher-ups is that if he’s not in possession of those facts, however damning to Her Majesty’s Government, then he can’t perform his job to the high standards he and his masters hold him to. The problem is, there are a lot of damning facts, and a lot of factions in the Government and intelligence community, and they never want anyone knowing all of those facts.

The series may have technically begun with a pilot (“The Traitor”) that aired as part of Storyboard (which is included in Network’s Region 2 release), but I can’t imagine what happened in that pilot as Mr. Palfrey meets all the key players for the first time in the first proper episode of the show. His world (established as quiet and ordered in a mis-representative credits sequence so subdued that it must have alienated all but the staunchest PBS devotees when it first aired in America, and will no doubt turn off any modern viewer) is turned upside down when Mr. Palfrey’s old superior interrupts his vacation by recalling him to London and explaining that there’s been a shake-up in the Secret Service hierarchy. Palfrey has a new superior, the female Co-ordinator (a Thatcherian personality capped by an immovable Princess Diana hairdo), a new secretary and by the end of the episode a new helper, in the person of Blair. At first it looks like his relationship with the Co-ordinator will be a rocky one, but after some sparks in the premiere it rather disappointingly settles into generic convention. There’s something intangible missing from Palfrey’s relationship with the Co-ordinator during the show’s first season, a certain spark we expect from spy and spymaster whether their relationship is generally cordial (007 and M) or strained (Callan and most of the Hunters). I think it may be because the producers saw the mere act of casting a woman in that role as earthshattering enough on its own that they didn’t feel the need to add any further elements. Perhaps in its day it was earthshattering (although I rather doubt it), but today–especially after a decade and a half of a woman playing the most famous fictional spy boss of all–it isn’t. Or perhaps I’m just too tempted to put their frigid yet polite relationship up against Edward Woodward’s tension-laden encounters with William Squire, which isn’t really fair, but there you are. Fortunately, Mr. Palfrey’s relationship with his superior becomes more interesting in the second season–particularly in the final couple of episodes.

Mr. Palfrey himself is quite a compelling character, though, and certainly not dependent his boss as a foil. It’s tempting to compare him to Smiley because of their similar job descriptions and similar ages (and, personally, because I mixed up the two characters when I was a kid), but Palfrey is better dressed and more smug than Le Carré’s hero, even if he’s equally unassuming in appearance and disarming in nature. He shares with Smiley a classical education and a gift for tradecraft and strategy (and I suspect he could quote some German poetry were it ever demanded of him), but he’s more of a showoff who would rather let his co-workers and superiors know how he achieves his brilliant victories than keep those victories and methods from the world like the paranoid and secretive George Smiley. In “Once Your Card Is Marked,” he’s handed a traitor on a platter, already identified and investigated by another department, and asked to deal with him. Palfrey is appalled because that’s not what he does; he’s used to conducting the investigations himself. He starts off his relationship with his new boss by demanding answers he’s not allowed to have (and which even she may not be privy to), and unsatisfied by the field work of the other department, begins his own rogue investigation of the subject. Sure enough, all is not what it seems.

Genre veteran Richard Johnson (Deadlier Than the Male) guest stars as a general having an affair with a young Czech student (and friend of his daughter’s) in the second episode, “The Honeypot and the Bees.” Is she an agent? Is he being used? Is he turning traitor? Or is it something else entirely? Once again, Mr. Palfrey isn’t satisfied with easy answers and goes well beyond his brief to divine the truth. Truth is important to Palfrey. How it’s used is not his business, but he likes to be sure of things for himself. “The Honeypot and the Bees” doesn’t exactly boil over with excitement, but it does manage to feel realistic and offers an interesting insight into the sometimes surprising purview and methodology of the world of counterintelligence.

A genuine Bond villain adds star power to the third episode, “The Defector,” when Julian Glover guest stars as a famous Soviet writer who wants to defect to the West. The Co-ordinator is eager to hold a press conference and use his defection as a coup, but it doesn’t smell right to Palfrey. Fearing embarrassment, he pleads with her to hold off on such formalities while he conducts an investigation of his own and an interview with the subject. He finds himself in one of those classic spy scenarios often explored on Callan of trying to identify whether a potential defector is for real or not. If he’s not, in this case, the result won’t compromise the intelligence services, but it could prove exceedingly embarrassing for the United Kingdom from a diplomatic standpoint. The dialogue-heavy cat-and-mouse game between McCowen and Glover makes this the best episode of the first season.

Episode 4, “A Present From Leipzig,” turns out to have quite an interesting plot as well, even if it’s set into motion by a highly unlikely coincidence. The Co-ordinator’s acquisition (for a pittance) of a priceless Russian ikon at a Portabello Road stall leads Palfrey to the trail of a wealthy businessman with a taste for fine living and pretty young men. When those young men are from the East (where the tycoon makes frequent business trips), questions are raised.

There are only four episodes in Season 1, so Disc 2 of Acorn’s 3-disc Complete Collection kicks off the second season. If the first season was good, but fairly inconsequential, the second really takes it up a notch. The second season of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster goes from merely compelling television to essential television for fans of the more cerebral side of the spy genre.

“Freedom From Longing” kicks things off by finally injecting a small bit of humanity into the formerly unknowable Blair, who’s loath to offer it. None from Mr. Palfrey, though, who while outwardly more sociable than Blair remains as cool and calculating as ever. When the Co-ordinator dares to intimate that he might have be too personally involved in a case directly involving his subordinate to be objective, Mr. Palfrey says she knows him as little as Bunny Kingston, the clueless head of a rival department investigating Blair for possible treason.

While investigating a defense contractor with high security clearance who’s engaging in an affair with a suspicious Czech woman, Martina, Kingston discovers that the same woman was once involved with Blair. That throws suspicion on him as well, but rather than coming right out and sharing his suspicions with Mr. Palfrey or the Co-ordinator, Kingston follows a more oblique strategy and requests that Blair be temporarily seconded to his department, claiming he’s short of staff. Palfrey sees through the ruse at once, sure that Kingston’s up to something but not yet certain what. When Blair reluctantly reveals his connection to the subject of the investigation over drinks, Palfrey begins to formulate a picture of what Kingston’s up to, and he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like it because Kingston cut him out of the loop, though, not because Kingston suspected a trusted employee of his to be a traitor. On that count, Palfrey disappoints Blair by asking him flat out if he became compromised in any way. Blair, inhuman as he usually is, takes offense at his superior’s apparent lack of trust, but Mr. Palfrey is, as always, pragmatic. He posits that in his view, one can never trust anyone completely in this profession.

It’s fascinating to watch these two consummate, nearly robotic professionals having a conversation on matters of the heart (“I think I loved her, whatever that means,” Blair clinically reports). They are not men accustomed to emotion. Nor is the Co-ordinator, despite her sex, and she sums up the episode’s theme neatly: “Sexuality and emotions. What dangerous things they are.” The spycatchers–er, civil servants–of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster have trained themselves to be immune to such human weaknesses–and largely to the humanity that normally accompanies them.

“Freedom From Longing” plays a bit like one of the more personal episodes of Mission: Impossible that the show experimented with in its fourth and fifth seasons, but goes for an honest exploration of spooks’ emotions instead of melodrama. Palfrey makes an odd decision at the end of the episode, effectively sabotaging another department’s operation on a hunch that is never borne out. It’s kind of rare to see the hero of one of these Desk Spy stories–be they TV or book–be the one responsible for that sort of childish political in-fighting. From the point of view of the story, it’s a kind of frustrating decision because we never find out if he was right or not, but from a character perspective it adds another interesting dimension to Mr. Palfrey.

“Return to Sender” guest stars Leslie Phillips as a sort of Guy Burgess-like defector, Rupert Styles. Actually evoking each of the Cambridge spies in some way, Styles is charming, artistic, upper-class (naturally), homosexual (or occasionally bi-), Cambridge educated (again, naturally) and quintessentially English. This last quality, which supposedly made it impossible for Philby or Blunt to ever fully adjust to retirement in Moscow (despite importing The Times), draws Styles back to Britain. He figures that he’ll be too much of an embarrassment to certain Government officials to face arrest, and expects to fade unnoticed back into a louche life in the English countryside. What he doesn’t count on is that his new situation is actually equally embarrassing to London and Moscow, and the Co-ordinator ends up collaborating with her Soviet counterpart to make sure Styles is returned to Russia–one way or another. It’s up to Palfrey, of course, to figure out what way that is, and the episode becomes a battle of wills between him and Styles, with the latter foolishly calling Palfrey’s every bluff. The ultimate resolution is disappointingly predictable, but the story is more about the two men’s interaction than the actual operational technique.

Episode 7, “Music of a Dead Prophet,” is one of the show’s best. A Marxist historian has written a new book supposedly exposing a British-backed assassination plot from the 1950s, against an Iranian general. The Government doesn’t want the book to come out, and it comes down to Mr. Palfrey to apply pressure and make sure it doesn’t. But someone beats him to the punch, and tries to kill the author–rather publicly–before he can do anything. The author, naturally, starts making rather loud noises, making Palfrey’s job that much tougher. How do you put toothpaste back in the tube? The secrets seem to be getting out. But who is behind the attempts on the academic’s life? Is it another faction within the British Intelligence establishment? And if so, is the action official–or unsanctioned? Could it be some slick politician carefully covering his own tracks? Or is it the CIA, who seem to have their own reasons for interest in this affair? The mysterious Arab factions poking around? Or someone else entirely? Palfrey is convinced that in order to answer that question, he must know if the allegations are true or not. But those in the know are reluctant to reveal that information, and claim that it is irrelevant to his job, which is to follow orders and not to ask questions–and suppress the book at all costs. You’d think the Co-ordinator would have learned by now that Mr. Palfrey does, indeed, tend to have a very good reason for demanding the answers he does.

“Music of a Dead Prophet” serves up one of the more outlandish plot twists in the series (one that would be perfectly at home on Mission: Impossible or The Avengers), but remains within the realm of plausibility. The high stakes and somewhat over-the-top methodology on display make it stand out, in a good way, from all the other decidedly more sedate episodes. When you apply restraint across the board, things that play as commonplace in less realistic espionage shows suddenly carry a lot more weight. It’s a good trick, and one which would make this episode a rewarding–if not entirely representative–watch on its own for any spy fan. But it works much better in the context of its series at large.

The eighth episode, “Official Secrets,” is equally strong, but much more down-to-earth, back in Le Carré territory. (Seriously, it plays like a mini-Le Carré adaption in just one hour, which would be impossible with any of the author’s actual works ) It’s not surprising that it’s one of the best, as it’s written by Geroge Markstein. In fact, the plot could easily have come from an unused Callan outline: a retired spy-hunter is kicking up a fuss and threatening to go public with some allegations he lodged in secret two decades earlier concerning the loyalty of certain public figures. The general consensus around Whitehall seems to be that the old coot’s gone nuts, and many agree that he needs to be silenced before he does any real damage. As usual, Mr. Palfrey’s not so sure. He grants a bit more credence to the retired spook’s wild claims, and insists on picking up the man’s old investigation–against orders–even if he has to do it on his own. But even if the Angleton-like figure is correct, will it do more harm than good exposing a traitor now?

It’s notable that Palfrey has far more personnel at his disposal in this episode than usual. In fact, the Co-ordinator balls him out for calling in five surveillance teams at once to track a particularly slippery customer. Up until this point, Blair has appeared to be a team of one when it comes to surveillance for Mr. Palfrey’s department.

One thing that separates Mr. Palfrey from some of his Serious Spy brethren is that he is an unapologetic member of the upper class. The Serious side of the genre seems to generally favor lower class heroes like Callan or Harry Palmer, often exposing traitors of the same elite society that produced Kim Philby and his ilk. To do so, these heroes often must contend with irritating Old Etonian bosses, eager to protect the reputations of their own. Even George Smiley, an Oxford man himself and a member of the genuine upper class by marriage, sometimes seems positively cockney in comparison to the slick Etonian politicians who surround him, flaunting their CBEs and OBEs and all viciously scrapping for the elusive KBE. Mr. Palfrey, on the other hand, makes no excuses for his own upper class status. In fact, though we know little about his background, he seems to aspire to a slightly higher station than that of a mere civil servant. This episode celebrates his inner snob, from its beginning which finds Palfrey shopping for walking sticks in his favorite haberdashery/umbrella store, clinging to that last Steed-like vestige of the proper English gentleman. And when confronted with the prospect of bringing in a member of his own club, he exclaims, “Good Heavens, man; we can’t arrest you in here. This is a gentlemen’s club ” One can’t help speculate that George Smiley mightn’t have been quite so accommodating. Callan and Palmer would have downright relished making such an arrest!

The winning streak continues through the end of the set. There really isn’t a bad episode in the entire second season. “Spygame” might generate a few unintentional chuckles inherent in any plot dealing with computers (as such plots always become dated almost as soon as they’ve gone to air), but it’s solid stuff, and the computer aspect actually proved prescient, not only in the future of spying but in the future of recreation as well. Mr. Palfrey finds himself investigating a Ministry of Defense engineer with a penchant for war gaming. (Like Callan, Palfrey himself appears to enjoy the hobby as well.) But the young man under suspicion, Thruxton, uses–get this–computers for his gaming. Hooked up to “modems” that communicate with other gamers’ computers! “Fascinating!” beams Palfrey. Imagine that.

The wargaming looks awfully suspicious to the CIA, who claim that Thruxton is leaking secrets via his modem. Mr. Palfrey isn’t so sure. Is it just innocent gaming that looks bad in the eyes of the Security Services when coming from an MOD employee? Or has a ruthless spy ring figured out the perfect way to smuggle secrets disguised as innocent gaming? Or is something else entirely going on? With the CIA, a suspicious West German and an international hitman involved, there’s definitely something going on, and it’s up to Mr. Palfrey, as usual, to discern exactly what.

If there is a spy in their midst, the Co-ordinator would certainly prefer that the British (meaning Palfrey) clean house themselves rather than letting the CIA do it for them. But Mr. Palfrey suspects that the Americans have their own agenda, and are using his service to achieve its ends. It certainly seems like they might be running a messy wetworks operation in London behind the backs of British Intelligence.... As those ingredients alone (which are mixed very well indeed) should probably convince most readers, “Spygame” is a pretty terrific episode.

The series goes out on a high note with Episode 10, “The Baited Trap,” which finds the Russians playing classic espionage games as their charming London Station Chief, Baliev (Clive Francis, with whom the Co-ordinator has occasionally collaborated since “Return to Sender”) feeds Palfrey’s chief information about a British double agent. But can the KGB man or his intel be trusted? And is the Co-ordinator human after all–and susceptible to Baliev’s charms? Palfrey’s caught in the middle, and stuck investigating an old friend–a very wily old friend with a neat trick for protecting his drawer of secrets that ensnares even Blair. Things come to a head between Palfrey and Co-ordinator in “The Baited Trap,” and he even assigns Blair to follow her. He’s ultimately uncharacteristically forgiving, though, and at one point in the course of the episode tries to talk the Co-ordinator out of resigning–and even compliments her. “There are times, Madame,” he admits,’” when you’re quite heroic.”

Mr. Palfrey of Westminster is certainly an entertaining spy series, particularly for fans of the Smiley school, and its place in the annals of spy TV history is assured by its connection to Callan. But is it essential, like that show? No, not quite essential, but it’s certainly enjoyable. Desk men, I think, work best either in conjunction with strong field counterparts (as on The Sandbaggers) or else in more complex stories that stretch out over multiple episodes (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). I love the notion of “Smiley meets Mission: Impossible,” which is not an inaccurate description of the series, but Mr. Palfrey’s more realistic, down-to-earth methods of entrapment simply lack the pizzazz of Jim Phelps’ outlandish plans which propel so many standalone hours of television. It’s rather difficult to make the unrelated, weekly adventures of a Desk Man seem all that essential, but by Season 2 of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster, Markstein and his colleagues certainly come close. Your enjoyment of the series will ultimately depend on what kind of spy fan you are, and what you look for in a good spy show. If you’re only after Bondian action and adventure, stick with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and its ilk. If you prefer your spies on the surreal side, stick with The Avengers and The Prisoner and The Wild Wild West. But if you also enjoy the sly games of oneupsmanship and subtle political maneuvers, if you like the serious side of the genre and particularly if you enjoy the British upper crust setting so ripe for spy stories, then you’ll find a lot to like on Mr. Palfrey of Westminster. I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of Callan or George Smiley. It might not quite rank essential spy television, but it’s definitely compelling spy television, near the top of the heap.

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