Sunday 25 October 2009

Troy Kennedy Martin Part 2: Reilly Ace of Spies

A few weeks ago (17 September) I wrote about the tragic loss of screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin. The loss would have been more tragic still if it wasn't for the substantial legacy of great drama he left us, much of it now easily available on DVD. These wonderfully useful silver discs enabled me to pay my respects to Kennedy Martin by launching my own personal retrospective film festival. I started by watching the six episodes of Edge of Darkness. A gloomy masterpiece. I then planned to dip into Kelly's Heroes — sheer joy, a World War 2 high octane black comedy with a Lalo Schifrin soundtrack. But I changed my mind and decided to watch Reilly Ace of Spies instead. If, after reading this, you decide you want to follow suit, then you're in luck. The unwieldy six disc DVD set I paid through the nose for a few years ago (utterly devoid of extras, too, he said bitterly) has recently been replaced with a sleek, streamlined three disc edition which nonetheless still contains nearly 640 minutes of undiluted Reilly — and Troy Kennedy Martin's genius. Reilly Ace of Spies was the most ambitious production ever by Euston Films, perhaps the most presitigious producer of British television drama, famed also for The Sweeney, The Minder and the fact that they failed to hire me as a script editor. Actually, by the time I went for my job interview at Euston the firm was well in decline. The presiding geniuses' current big idea was to replace Minder (a humorous crime series about a likeable, plucky working class underdog) with Capital City (a glossy soap drama about unsympathetic rich young city bankers). I never got my chance to tell them what I thought of that particular strategy, unfortunately. The big script brains of Euston, in the shape of Verity Lambert and Linda Agran were long gone by this time. (I later had a job interview with Linda Agran. She didn't like my rucksack.) But in the days of Reilly, Lambert and Agran were very much in evidence and it's unlikely that without women of their taste and perception at the helm that a writer of Troy Kennedy Martin's distinction and talent — and eccentricity — would have been allowed loose on such wonderful material, and with such profound and memorable effect. In short, Sydney Reilly was a sort of a precursor of James Bond, operating from the early part of the 20th century until the early days of the Soviet regime. He was a real person, although the story of his adventures had probably been considerably sensationalised before Troy Kennedy Martin got hold of it and made it more sensational still. Some commentators are sniffy about this departure from the facts. Personally I think it's great. Nobody tells a more enjoyable story than Troy Kennedy Martin and I wouldn't want to see a writer of his ability strait jacketed by mere facts. In the 12 episodes of the serial we follow the adventure of Reilly (Sam Neill is satanically sauve in the title role) from manoeuvrings over oil supplies, an alliance with arms dealer Basil Zaharov (Leo McKern), the Russo Japanese war and spying in Germany through to the Russian revolution, an attempt to bump off Lenin (Kenneth Cranham), tommy gun battles in New York and Reilly's execution in a snow covered forest outside Moscow. The last mentioned incident was particularly harrowing and as I watched this final episode (Shutdown) last night, I kept hoping against hope that Reilly would somehow escape the Cheka (the Russian secret police). This is a fascinating period in history and Troy Kennedy Martin's account of it left me wanting to learn more. Some of the details are just amazing. For example, Reilly's nemesis is the head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky (pronounced Dijinksy) played by Tom Bell. This is a man so fiendishly clever that he protects the Bolsheviks by creating the Trust, a supposedly anti-Bolshevik organisation which he can use to monitor and manipulate his enemies. This scam is so successful that the enemies of Communism are soon contributing millions of dollars, supposedly to overthrow the Bolsheviks but actually providing all the money needed by the Reds to fund their counterintelligence! Incredible stuff, and Troy Kennedy Martin does full justice to it. The cast of the show are also top drawer, including all the aforementioned luminaries plus Alfred Molina as a Social Revolutionary assassin; David Burke as Stalin, whom Troy Kennedy Martin brilliantly introduces us to eating sardines out of a tin at his desk, and who in his murderous Georgian paranoia will dismantle the Trust, leading to the downfall of Dzerzhinsky and the death of Reilly; Laura Davenport as Pepita, the last of Reilly's many wives; and Clive Merrison, with whom I worked briefly on Doctor Who as Savinkov, Reilly's friend and the head of the anti Bolshevik movement. Approaching 12 episodes of story and over ten hours of viewing may seem a bit daunting and you might be tempted to just dip into a few episodes intitially (this was certainly my approach). So, let me reccomend a couple of episodes in particular. Visiting Firemen is a gem, with Reilly stealing plans from a German weapons plant. It features memorable black humour, a nail biting confrontation atop a high crane, breathtaking ruthlessness on the part of Reilly, and the gorgeous Joanne Whalley, who would later make such an impression in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (illustrated here because, criminally, I couldn't find any images of her in the Reilly episode). The other standout episode is After Moscow, which features Lindsay Duncan (later in Simon Moore's Traffik) as the Plugger, a guntoting meretrix who eats cornflakes with champagne and shares Reilly's dangerous life in London after fleeing from the USSR with a death sentence on his head. The same story features Joanne Pearce as Carryl Houselander, the psychic whose love for Reilly will result in her exhibiting stigmata during his brutal beatings at the hands of the Cheka in the final episode. Unforgettable viewing.