If your taste in espionage thrillers runs to James Bond and Jason Bourne, you will more than likely find the recent DVD release of the BBC’s 1984-85 cold war spy series, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection, something of a disappointment. Palfrey is not your run of the mill action hero; he is no kind of action hero at all. Palfrey, as played by Alec McCowen, is a typical middle-aged British bureaucrat complete with umbrella, muffler and canine companion. The only thing he’s missing is the bowler hat. Rather than fists and guns, Palfrey’s weapons are reason, logic, and dogged research. Low key and cerebral, he is a thinking man’s spy catcher, and this is a thinking man’s spy series.
In the opening episode, Palfrey has to determine whether a British diplomat who worked at the embassy in Prague was actually a traitor passing secrets to the Communists. Palfrey’s new boss, “The Co-ordinator” played by Caroline Blakiston (in the manner of Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady), wants Palfrey to have the traitor denounced immediately; Palfrey smells a rat and wants proof. In the end, after the inevitable twists, turns and red herrings, things aren’t quite what you think they are, not by a long shot. This becomes the basic formula of most of the series’ episodes. The establishment, in the form of The Co-ordinator, wants some problem solved “yesterday,” but Palfrey is suspicious and won’t be bullied. He insists on doing things his way, and his way always seems to lead to a truth that was never what it seemed to be.
McCowen, of course, is the guts of the show, and his performance is spot on. He can do more with a raised eyebrow, than many other actors can manage with broad scenery chewing. Other series regulars include Clive Wood as Blair, Palfrey’s assistant whose portfolio is the dirty work. He breaks into apartments to plant bugs, spies on suspects, and even provides the threat of violence (although violence is usually limited to that threat). A somewhat flighty secretary, more concerned with cooking dinners for a parade of prospective suitors is played by Briony McRoberts. The rest of the cast changes with each episode, providing great opportunity for the wealth of excellent British character actors.
Sample plot lines: Palfrey has to persuade a British traitor who has come back from the Soviet Union to return to Russia. He has to foil a whistle blower’s misguided attempt to reveal a supposed connection of the British government in the assassination of an Iranian general. He has to find out whether a British agent has been compromised by a relationship with a Russian ballerina. Although Palfrey is very shrewd, his solutions sometimes seem to come from nowhere and at times are a bit farfetched. The explanation in the Iranian incident, for example, involves the difference between Zarathustra and Zoroastra. In another episode, the discovery of a valuable antique violin, mysteriously leads him to truth about a suspected security risk.
More often than not, an episode will revolve around some moral issue or ethical problem: “my country right or wrong,” “do the ends justify the means?” One episode asks the question, “which is more important, loyalty to friend or loyalty to country?”
It looks to the E. M. Forster quote: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Another questions the use of assassination in the national interest, Inevitably, of course, Palfrey is able to both do his job and resolve his ethical concerns with honor.
The writing is either clever or snarky, depending on your point of view. Dialogue is often witty with emphasis on understated sarcastic repartee. How are things with Aeroflot? Palfrey asks a friendly Russian agent. “Up and down,” she replies. Who is Jehoshaphat? Someone asks. Palfrey: “I only know he went about jumping.” Characters tend to be literate and sophisticated. They are multi-lingual. They converse in Russian. They reel of Latin quotations. They cite poetry, Milton, Tennyson, Byron. They are wine connoisseurs. They keep their emotions tightly buttoned up. Voices are rarely raised, and when they are they are not usually the British voices.
The series is brilliantly filmed. There are always interesting close-ups and inventive camera angles. Much of the series is photographed on location. Palfrey walks confidently down London streets; Blair sits on the lookout in cars parked outside London buildings. There are elegant London homes and cheap hotel rooms. There are churches, parks and cemeteries. There is a lot of miserable London weather. All in all, the location shooting, gives each episode an unmatched sense of realism.
The DVD includes short prose descriptions of each episode and the option of sub-titles.