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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Kitchen sink spies

Reviewed by Ben Soton

The Ipcress File (2022): ITV series. Sundays 6 March to 10 April 6pm on ITV1; full series available on the ITVHub (with ads) and BritBox (ad-free). Written by John Hodge. Directed by James Watkins. Stars: Joe Cole, Lucy Boynton and Tom Hollander.

HARRY PALMER, the creation of Cold War espionage fiction writer Len Deighton, was an alternative to James Bond. Back in the 1960s Deighton’s novels exist as a half-way house between the pure action adventure of Bond and the rather dry psychological thrillers of John Le Carré.

Unlike Bond, the smartly dressed, cocktail-drinking sociopath dedicated to Queen and Country, Palmer is cut from a different cloth. A working-class Londoner with a Maths degree, he reaches the rank of corporal in the British Army whereas Bond was a Commander in the Royal Navy. Instead of being a hired gun for his superiors Palmer takes to smuggling, which finds him in Colchester Military Prison.

The first Palmer novel, The Ipcress File, is the subject of ITV1’s latest Sunday night drama.

To have his sentence commuted, Palmer (played by Joe Cole) is approached by Major Dalby (played by Tom Hollander) with a view to helping British intelligence rescue a kidnapped nuclear scientist. As the story progresses Palmer’s life unravels. He had previously served in the Korean war, only to come home to find his wife had suffered a miscarriage and his marriage subsequently collapses.

Palmer is not an obvious servant of British imperialism. His social background, with an understandable grievance, make him a security risk. In a scene featuring a conversation with Colonel Stock of the KGB he even displays a knowledge of Marxism Leninism.

The television adaptation presents a nostalgic view of the 1960s. Most scenes show a somewhat exaggerated cleanliness along with immaculate clothing and perfectly styled hair. This, however, was an era when classical economics, normally referred to as neo-liberalism, had been suspended for the less socially vicious Keynesianism, which focused on welfare and full employment.

The era also saw a strong labour movement and internationally the presence of the Soviet Union meant a shift in the balance of forces in favour of the working class. Increased social mobility was an additional feature of the decade, shown when fellow intelligence officer Jean Courtney (played by Lucy Boynton) develops a shine to Palmer whilst becoming bored with her upper-class fiancé.

There are occasions when one wonders if Palmer will switch sides, which adds added suspense to the plot. But at the end of the day the story, and Palmer’s character in particular, is essentially about co-opting working class support for the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Palmer is given smart clothes, a car and access to a world he would probably never see in exchange for taking part in a war ultimately against his own class.