Ben Macintyre has got his hands on a killer document.
His excellent two-part documentary, Kim Philby – His Most Intimate Betrayal (BBC2 Wednesday and Thursday, 9pm) is anchored to that sheaf of papers. It’s a transcript – “based on extracts from various sources” (according to the second episode) – of an encounter in Beirut, 1963, between Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby; fellow MI6 operatives, old friends and, most importantly, Trinity College alumni. This was the moment Elliott confronted Philby about his treachery.
In truth, this segment of the programme, acted out by David Oakes and William Beck, was its least dramatic. It was no Cracker. Philby didn’t hold out then finally pivot and offer up an emotionally-wrought mea culpa. Instead: “Let’s be gentlemen about this. Why don’t you come over tonight for dinner?” Elliott, subsequently, found Philby collapsed in drink outside his home and put him to bed. And then he retired, allowing the Third Man to defect to the Soviet Union, thereby avoiding what could have been a rather sticky, rather embarrassing trial for the British establishment. It’s what gentlemen do.
Yes, the biggest beat in the story is a bit of a dud, but Macintyre spun the whole thing so wonderfully, we could get by it. In detailing the decades of lies woven by Philby, lies that resulted in Russian death squads ‘disappearing’ hundreds, it’s interesting that the greatest treachery felt like his betrayal of Elliott. A friend he charmed, who guilelessly protected him as suspicion fell, it was painful to learn that when compiling a profile of his colleague for Stalin’s intelligence service, Philby described him as “ugly and rather pig-like to look at.” But then the double-agent, when appraising his own wife, Eileen, was equally chilly: “Bourgeois and philistine.”
A nicely judged conceit was the way Macintyre himself sloped through both episodes. He delivered his intel into camera as if out in the cold. We saw him drinking alone in members’ clubs, haunting an empty Highgate Underground as a souless train pulled in and treading lonely nighttime streets. Philby, he told us, was the master of the “bland lie”. When Soviet spy Konstantin Volkov offered to give himself up to British Intelligence – with the promise of revealing the KGB operative within their number – Philby maneuvered to ensure it was he who was charged with travelling to Istanbul to receive him. Then he dawdled for weeks, allowing his secret paymasters to move in and liquidate the would-be-defector. To explain his delay he offered this: “Sorry old man, it would have interfered with leave arrangements”. Who would think to challenge an explanation so mundane?
Also lurking in a dark spot was Dr George McGavin (whom we last saw dissecting a human hand) whose three-part series explores the diversity of our simian cousins. My favourite sequence in Monkey Planet (BBC1 Wednesday, 9pm) was set 100 metres underground in a South African cave. This location had become a nighttime bunker for baboons, sheltering from leopards above. Footage of the creatures, silhouetted on the night-vision lens, making their way along memorised routes, was a privileged view of somewhere we cannot be. The thought of rigging up that sequence, getting in the space during the day, cabling, placing cameras… Fastidious and difficult work, no doubt, to make a few minutes within many.
George and his BBC Bristol team didn’t stop there. They were in the jungle canopy too, or in the mountains of Ethiopia, or at minus 20°C in Japan. And thanks to them we could meet the black howler with its 90 decibel roar, the pygmy marmosets of Ecuador who weigh no more than an apple and, in the opening reel, the extraordinary orangutans in Borneo who soap themselves in the river, having seen us do it many a time.
While the monkeys where lathering up, more creatures gathered to observe and possibly learn from each other a few notches up the EPG. The poorly named Invasion of the Job Snatchers (BBC3 Wednesday, 9pm) described itself as “a unique social experiment”. But aren’t they all? The premise here was to send a bunch of unemployed youngsters to Britain’s most silvery town, Christchurch, where greying business owners would take in one each for work experience. As with all these unique social experiments, we were warned there would be evictions along the way, and an ultimate prize – the prospect of a full time job.
The most satisfying coupling was between 28-year-old Carl and punningly-named butcher Robin Lambe. “Robin Lambe?” laughed Carl as they shook hands. “It’s not a job description is it?” Robin was immune to all this. Just moments earlier he was telling the camera how his trade needed “new blood”, no pun noticeably intended. It was great to see Carl and Robin rubbing along nicely, a mug of tea on the go at all times and Carl enthusiastically hacking and sawing. “It’s a man’s job, even though I’m wearing a pinny.” In a past life, Carl had been to prison for stealing £1,000 from a bank where he’d been briefly employed. He spoke about it with a pragmatic regret. His criminal record was now stymieing his attempts at employment. “If you don’t work and you’re working class, what are you? Underclass.”
Not quite so eloquent was Benny, who rolled out of his cab declaring he hoped there was “loads of hot cock” in Christchurch. Almost psychotically ebullient, one can understand why Peek’s Party Store thought he might work out for them. But chairman, John Peek, who runs a no-swearing establishment, seemed to regret the decision, chastising his new start for saying, “thank you, you sexy bitch” to a colleague. “If they can’t take me for who I am, I’m not going to change,” harrumphed Benny, 19. “Oh. I really miss my mum.”
“They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out,” growled Rick Grimes as this series of The Walking Dead (Fox Monday, 9pm) reached its Terminus. Earlier we’d seen him bite out a man’s throat and then gut another, when it looked as if they were set on killing him and raping Michonne and his son Carl. One of the bloodiest sequence I can recall on TV, but validated by its uncomfortable aftermath; no-one quite able to conceive of what had happened. But then they were outgunned and locked up in a storage container by a group who’d turned cannibal.
Stupid? When they find out what?
Rick: “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Oh man, what a clunker of a line to take us into the music. A stupid bad-ass proclamation. As if the writers felt they needed to come up with something, some form of punctuation, an exclamation-mark, maybe, to punch-up the ending. It didn’t negate what had gone before, and this run of The Walking Dead has been simply terrific. But still. Rick. After all that’s happened, is this who you are now? A man with a killer line?