Spy is a 2004 BBC gameshow where ordinary members of the public are trained and tested by real life ex-spooks and ultimately some are eliminated until there’s a winner. Spies is a 2017 Channel 4 gameshow where ordinary members of the public are trained and tested by real life ex-spooks and ultimately some are eliminated until there’s a winner. This week I take a look at these two virtually identical TV series and the former British intelligence officers who worked on them.
Of the two programmes I prefer the original. Partly because when I first saw it I hadn’t seen anything like it before, and obviously it fits right in with my core interests. Indeed, it’s one of the things that inspired me to set up the Spy Culture site and try and get somewhere with this line of research when I felt I couldn’t go much further with my research into state-sponsored terrorism. And that turned out to be quite a good decision, since I’ve now built and am continuing to build the greatest archive on state-sponsored entertainment propaganda on the whole of the internets.
First, we should establish that this programme was not only supported by former spooks, but must have been cleared by British intelligence as well. The opening sequence shows aerial shots of the MI5 and MI6 buildings, and while you probably don’t need permission to film them if you’re a tourist on a helicopter ride, if you want to film and broadcast those shots on the BBC I have no doubt you have to run it by them first. And the show is a depiction of supposedly authentic training exercises and operations done by real spies, so it is PR for them. Given how close the BBC are to the intelligence services, and that the BBC were simultaneously producing the drama Spooks, we can see these programmes as part of a post-9/11 PR effort on the part of British intelligence.
Ex-British Spies on TV
But let’s get into the ex-spooks who worked as hosts and instructors and who decided who should be eliminated and sent home. We have Sandy Williams (British intelligence officer, service unknown), Harry Ferguson (MI6) and Mike Baker (CIA). Mike Baker is also credited as a consultant on Spooks, and I think it’s likely that Sandy Williams and Harry Ferguson also worked on that series. The unit supervisor in Spooks is called Harry, and Sandy Williams bears a remarkable resemblance in voice and mannerisms to the character of Tessa Philips. She’s also wearing a wig throughout the series to help protect her identity, which seems a little absurd since she’s on TV. It also makes her look like Theresa May.
Mike Baker has since appeared on a dozens of TV programmes as himself, whether it be a documentary about NASA’s unexplained secrets, some Fox News discussion show or the Joe Rogan Experience. He was also a technical advisor on the series Legends, which is all about an undercover operative who changes his identity very easily. I’ve not seen it.
Likewise Harry Ferguson has appeared in a few documentaries, and in the interesting TV documentary in 2016 The World’s Greatest Spy Movies, where they interviewed a bunch of former spies who have worked in the entertainment industry, while failing to mention that any of them work in the entertainment industry. He also gets interviewed for newspaper pieces about intelligence, as does Sandy Williams, though her TV career begins and ends with Spy.
But let’s get to the programme itself, which has an explosive and disturbing first episode. For one thing, it is shot and edited just like Spooks, as is Spies over 10 years later. To my knowledge there’s no connection between the different production companies so it seems they’re just aping each other.
Then we meet our contestants, which include an attractive young blonde lady from Scotland, a guy in his 30s from Ireland, a toff, a black lad from North London who supported Arsenal (who was my favourite to win the game), an Asian-looking lady and a bunch of other relatively obvious stereotypes. To be fair, they went for a wide cross-section of people, they just picked people who conform to what they think their audience’s prejudices are. I also liked Suzi, the 58 year old music agent with a daughter called Layla (what else?), though she got traumatised at the end of episode 1.
How? They waterboarded her. Well, not quite, but they did kidnap all the contestants in the middle of the night and subject them to aggressive interrogations.
After a few basic tests where they had to maintain a cover story – which some of them failed – the recruits were given a task apparently based on a real-life Mossad training exercise. They had to persuade the owner of a flat to let them onto the balcony at the back of the property, and to get them a glass of water. This actually ended up with one the contestants – the Irish guy – being arrested, for trying too hard to get into a woman’s home. It seems that none of these people were in on it, they were just random members of the public being used for this TV show. Then, at the end of a long day messing about:
So, they kidnapped them, put bags over their heads, kept them in freezing cold conditions, and in between interrogations they had to stand with their hands on the walls and their feet spread for long periods of time.
One of the contestants fainted and another one gave up and quit the exercise. Do you think maybe they went a little too far? This is all reminiscent of an episode of Spooks where one of the MI5 characters infiltrates an army regiment whose leader is planning some kind of terrorist attack. The core conspirators, suspecting an infiltrator, drag him out of bed in the middle of the night and bellow questions at him. It’s also somewhat reminiscent of the kidnap-and-torture sequence in The Recruit.
So I have to wonder not just at the immorality of this, but also at the propagandistic value. Obviously this isn’t about basic, positive PR because no one likes kidnappers and torturers. So is this a form of intimidation? In the most recent Tom Clancy episode I looked at this idea both in Clancy’s work and in Chase Brandon’s – The Recruit being Brandon’s most important film. Is this on the one hand about scaring potential enemies with what will happen when MI5 catch them? Or is it on the other about showing how tough our spies are, that they have to go through borderline abusive training exercises to become the real James Bonds?
There are 10 episodes of Spy so I’m not going to review each one, but suffice to say they learn about surveillance and counter-surveillance, creating cover and legends, sneaking into places and taking covert photographs, all kinds of spy trickery. During one test at a cocktail party Suzi, who by this point was worn out and her health was suffering, actually told a bunch of people that they were filming a TV show, and was immediately booted out of spy school. Frankly, I think she did it deliberately because she wanted out.
To give you a flavour of the ethically dubious nature of this programme, and what it says about real world spies, we’re going to look at an exercise they ran at the end of episode 4. The recruits were not really told what their mission was, were split up and taken to different locations where they had to gain access to people’s houses – but the people were the relatives and friends and housemates of the other contestants.
This is where the line between a gameshow and a covert operation gets a bit blurry. This was an exercise like lots of others they’d done by this point – get access to somewhere or get someone to do something or tell you information. But by using the families of the other contestants they turned them against each other, with a kind of psychological warfare.
Also, at the end there Sandy Williams gives a telling off to Gabriel, laying down the law that while the other contestants’ families and loved ones are fair game, the other contestants themselves, the other ‘spies’ are not. This is the circle of trust idea – those within the circle can be trusted and you have to protect each other, but everyone outside that circle is viewed with hostility and suspicion and is a potential target. It’s quite nasty, and since we can only assume it accurately represents the culture and mentality within British intelligence, that’s quite worrying.
That said, it is a good solid piece of entertainment. They use music that seems to be lifted from Enemy of the State and other films, there’s a very funny bit when they’re doing a surveillance exercise on the streets and one of the guys keeps talking into his mic and this member of the public at the bus stop looks absolutely terrified. I can recommend it as a piece of highly original and unpredictable entertainment, just with about a hundred caveats and footnotes attached about how propagandistic it is.
Another of my favourite moments is in episode 9 when they bring in the PR guru Max Clifford, who has since been convicted of rape and then died while serving his prison sentence. For those of you who know Clifford, you know he was a total scumbag. For those of you who don’t know him, imagine the worst human being you’ve ever met, multiply it by six, and make them a highly successful PR consultant for celebrities, politicians and other leeches on society. Then give them devil horns.
In this episode the four remaining contestants are split up into pairs and sent on missions they inevitably fail (it is set up that way). Then, they are all told they are being kicked off the course and that the others are going forward and doing the final operation. This is a lie – it’s one final test of their loyalty.
So you get the idea – this is a very deceitful, manipulative piece of TV where they constantly mess with the contestants to try to get them to make mistakes. And of course, because the contestants are ordinary members of the public they are a vehicle for us, the watching public, to enter into that world and also be deceived and manipulated. As a piece of entertainment and as a piece of propaganda, I think it is almost unique in its intelligence, in the sheer degree of thought that has gone into it.
Spy was enormously successful, gaining good audience numbers, widespread acclaim from viewers and reviewers, and it ended up being exported to 129 countries. It also ended up being aped, almost entirely, a dozen years later. The UK’s Channel 4 is supposed to be the ‘alternative’ channel, in that it gets some money from the TV license fees but in exchange it has an obligation to feature places, peoples and perspectives that aren’t being covered by the BBC or ITV, the main commercial network.
All this has been thrown into a cocked hat with the arrival of satellite TV and digital TV because now all of these big networks have 5 times as many channels so they have to produce or buy five times as much content in order to fill it. The rise of reality TV – a very cheap way to make a television program with a good chance of being popular – was very much a market response to this increase in demand.
So while it’s no surprise to see the BBC making a piece of propaganda about the security services, disguised as a fly-on-the-wall game-show, it was a little surprising to see channel 4 copying it so closely. I first heard about this through Matt, my friend and co-author on our book National Security Cinema, because he actually applied to be on the programme, he was one of the thousands of potential contestants. So naturally, I was intrigued.
However, Spies is bad. As in, it’s so bad I didn’t watch it beyond the first episode, until a few weeks ago when I was preparing this podcast. It is essentially the exact same format whereby three ex-spies, two men and a woman, put members of the public through a spy school. But instead of ten episodes it is only four, instead of eight contestants they start with fourteen, and the whole thing is less a fly-on-the-wall depiction of the tests and exercises and more of a reality TV show about the contestants themselves.
The three ex-spooks, known collectively as ‘control’ are:
(1) Cameron Colquhoun, a former analyst at GCHQ who now runs a private intelligence company called Neon Century.
(2) Julian Fisher, a former MI6 operations officer who now runs a company providing the opportunity for rich people to spend two months living like a spy in London, having to do missions and exercises like on the TV show, and a company call All Africa Advisors, who sound like economic hit-men.
(3) ‘Debbie’ (surname unknown), a former surveillance officer for MI5. She talks like she’s on Eastenders, describing how, ‘You’re not a superhero – there is nothing to protect you other than your own skills’. She basically spends the whole show making pithy little remarks like this that come across as highly scripted and inauthentic, but she’s got that working class-sounding East London accent, so she must be giving us the real.
In the first episode Cameron goes undercover and pretends to be one of the contestants, infiltrating the group and observing these individuals up close. This is something they never did in Spy, so I’m noting it only because it’s the one innovation they brought to the program. Otherwise, all the exercises and operations they put the spy trainees through are identical to those we saw on Spy, and often less sophisticated and interesting.
I should also add that during the sequence at the opening of each episode where the three ex-spooks talk about what it’s like to be a real spy, Cameron’s bit is intercut with smash close ups of suspicious-looking guys who are obviously of terrorist descent. And intercut with shots of a red London bus. Seriously, if you go through the last decade of spy-themed programming in this country you’ll find endless shots of red London buses, to remind you of the 7/7 bombings. It isn’t a coincidence, it’s become part of the visual tapestry of intelligence-based culture in the UK.
Later in the show, when Cameron is talking about an operation he was working on that involved a terrorist suspect being raided by Special Forces and it turned out the guy had a suicide vest and blew himself up, killing one of the Special Forces soldiers along with a bunch of innocent people. Even though this all took place in a foreign country, this interview was intercut with shots of – you’ve guessed it – a red London bus. Suicide bombing. Red London bus. Suicide bombing. Red London bus. Suicide bombing. Red London bus. If that story was actually true then they wouldn’t need to keep reinforcing it.
One of the other interesting things about Spies is that they got the contestants to start spying on each other much earlier than in Spy. At the start of the second episode they pick several contestants and get them to befriend and attempt to recruit other contestants and find out what they’re thinking. According to Cameron this is because they were looking for particular characteristics that can be ‘weaponised’ – his word, not mine – for intelligence purposes. So while they were doing all these different surveillance exercises and operations where they had to get people to tell them personal details, and all the other stuff they ripped from Spy, the contestants were also spying on each other.
Not just that, but they knew they were spying on each other. Towards the end of episode 2 they started pushing the recruits to get the other recruits to reveal who they thought the weakest candidates were, i.e. who would go next. This is obviously motivated by trying to turn the whole thing into another Big Brother, with people vying not to be eliminated. I genuinely think this highly manipulative behaviour was primarily motivated by a desire to make entertainment, but I do think it’s a very nasty way of doing it.
So the recruits went and pressed their targets into revealing who they thought the bottom two candidates were, before reporting back to their handlers in ‘control’. When they reported back, the other contestants were secretly watching from behind one-way mirrors, so they heard and saw everything the spy-within-a-spy said about them.
A few things I want to highlight from this clip – firstly, the shady nature of what they put the contestants through. It’s hilarious that they keep talking about spying being a team sport, how they have to learn to work together, then they mess with them like this. Also how this is, apparently, exactly what they do in real spy school, producing graduates who are inherently distrustful even of their colleagues. Is that really the culture and mentality we want in our security institutions?
Again, I’ll reiterate that the primary reason to do this is for good entertainment, and this section is probably the most gripping and entertaining in the whole series. But they are also doing this to make excuses for the morally evil things the security services do in real life. They made sure to close out the episode with Debbie the MI5 surveillance officer talking about how they only do this sort of thing to stop ‘the terrorists blowin em up n that’.
I will also say that in my opinion, Debbie is not who she says she is. I cannot imagine an MI5 officer talking about terrorism in this way, in fact I’m not even convinced that’s her real accent and real way of speaking. It seems too much of a ‘character’ to me, and her statements just don’t seem like authentic statements to me. I could be totally wrong, but given that this show is another thinly-disguised piece of MI5 propaganda, would you put it past them to get a currently-serving MI5 officer to pretend to be an ex-officer and play a role saying the exact things they knew would make it into the programme because they’re snappy one-liners? After all, we know nothing about Debbie, not even her last name. If she truly has left MI5 then there’s no way of knowing what she’s now doing for work. The whole thing reeks like a badly-cooked haddock.
I am sure by now that you get the idea – both of these shows are examples of the long-running dramatic mechanism of using new recruits as a means of connecting with the watching audience. When we watch the films OSS or The Recruit, or when kids watched that FBI-sponsored Mickey Mouse club episode, or when we watch these TV programmes, we don’t sit there thinking about what it would be like to be one of the instructors. We think about what it would be like to be one of the trainees. They are a vehicle for us to put a foot into that world, and experience a little of it for ourselves.
I should also add that while the contestants on Spy were given several weeks to go through all this and get acclimatised to these manipulations, on Spies the whole thing was over in about 10 days. Likewise for us the audience Spy went on for over two months, whereas Spies was broadcast over just four weeks. So Spies was more of short, sharp shock while Spy was more sophisticated and subtle.
But they both ended up doing the same thing – showing British intelligence not just in a positive light, as a necessary tool in the fight against whatever, but also apologising for and rationalising and excusing their immoral actions. While in the US criticism of the intelligence services is primarily a political issue – about the relationship between citizens and government – in the UK it’s more about culture and morality, that spying on people simply isn’t cricket. So programmes like these are vital for the British National Security State, because they help to undermine that moral-value reaction, and helped normalise what would otherwise be unthinkable.