LONDON (AP) — Ben Whishaw is trapped in a web of intrigue within a world of secrets. But he’s a long way from James Bond in “London Spy,” a TV thriller that explores the murky, morally ambivalent side of British espionage and power.
One day during filming of the five-part BBC America miniseries, Whishaw bolted through London’s Paddington Station in pursuit of clues to a murder. Mysterious, sinister forces were on his tail.
The British actor — recently seen as gadget guru Q in the 007 flick “Spectre” — said it was an unusually action-packed scene.
“It’s about as far away from James Bond as you could possibly get,” Whishaw said. “There’s very little running. There’s not even a lot of action. It’s encounters between people.”
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That’s fine with Whishaw, at 35 one of Britain’s best young actors, who can brood and smolder with the best of them. He’s joined by a top British cast that includes Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Adrian Lester in a series that gives the English spy thriller a gritty urban twist.
Writer Tom Rob Smith says it’s less “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” than “the spy who got dragged into the spy world.”
Smith, who also wrote Soviet thriller “Child 44,”says the series has its origin in a “geographical fluke”: He noticed that the hulking, high-security headquarters of Britain’s overseas intelligence agency sit alongside a gay nightclub district.
“On one side of the road you have MI6, this embodiment of secrets and power,” Smith said. “And on the other side you have the hub of clubs where it’s about hedonism and fun.”
In the first episode of “London Spy,” Whishaw’s character Danny — a romantic slacker from the clubbing side of the street — starts a relationship with Alex, a reserved math genius who is slightly vague about his precise line of work. When Alex disappears, Danny discovers his lover was a spy — and that Danny is being framed as a murderer.
Frantic to solve the mystery of Alex’s disappearance, Danny is up against the pillars of the British establishment: police, politicians, spies and the press, who all present a version of Alex and their relationship that he doesn’t recognize.
Like many thriller writers, Smith is fascinated by the hidden power of the secret state. He was also inspired by Britain’s phone-hacking scandal, in which tabloid journalists eavesdropped on voicemails in pursuit of scoops. At a public inquiry, hacking victims told of their shock at seeing their private lives served up as front-page news, often in unrecognizable form.
In “London Spy,” Danny knows he is innocent and someone else must be guilty. But no one will listen.
“Even when you know the truth, even when you scream it as loud as you possibly can, who believes you in this country” Smith said. “Danny is as far removed from the tradition of the English spy thriller as you can possibly get. He doesn’t have the suit. He doesn’t have the voice. He doesn’t have the accent. He doesn’t have the education.”
To many, Danny is also a sexual outsider. Smith said it was important to build the series around a gay relationship.
“I’m not doing it to be audacious,” he said. “It felt like it was a much easier relationship to lie about, from the enemy’s point of view, and a much easier relationship to manipulate in public opinion than had it been a man and a woman, or even a woman and a woman.”
Smith said, in many ways, Danny and Alex have “an incredibly conventional relationship. They meet in a very classically romantic way, two strangers, and they have a very conventional, very traditional romance.”
But even by the duplicitous standards of the British spy thriller, “London Spy” is complicated. When the show aired in Britain last fall, reactions ranged from rapt to puzzled and back again. The Daily Telegraph pronounced the series “wonderful and infuriating.”
Whishaw relishes the script’s complexity.
“James Bond is a binary story — there’s a hero and there’s an enemy,” he said. “This is playing with something that’s more ambiguous all along the way.”
“If we get it right, the audience shouldn’t know — as Danny doesn’t know — what’s real and what isn’t any more,” he said.
Follow Jill Lawless on twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless . Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jill-lawless