TV COLUMN: The Secret Agent, Brexageddon?!, Forces of Nature with Brian Cox

The Secret Agent (BBC1) is the Beeb's latest drama adaptation. Joseph Conrad is notoriously difficult to dramatise.

James Waller-Davies

The pages of Conrad are layered and subtle, not always lending themselves to the two dimensions and narrative requirements of the flat screen.

The Secret Agent, in particular, with its themes of political terrorism and anarchy, has so many pitfalls into which a modern adaptor might fall when seeking to stretch modern parallels to breaking point.

This week’s first episode had much to recommend it, with an outstanding cast led by the ever-busy Toby Jones and supported by Vicky McClure and Stephen Graham (the latter pair making remarkable transformations from their better known This Is England persona).

Indeed, it is the strength of the cast performance which holds this adaptation together, with the general pacing a little too erratic for the narrative to hold the attention on its own.

Visually, it suffers from the perennial problem of all Victorian-set dramas of being viewed through a sepia filled mottled drabness. If it was an old painting, you’d say it need a good clean to bring out a touch of visual vibrancy.

For what could have been a niche production, The Secret Agent opened with a remarkably buoyant 4.4 million viewers, which for a summer weekend schedule is pretty impressive – almost twice the figure of the final episode of the lamentable Top Gear.

Brexagegeddon?! (BBC2) could have benefitted from some of Joseph Conrad’s subtlety. Editorially, this lambasting of the Brexit vote, had its mind made up well in advance of the outcome – and certainly an “out” come the BBC hadn’t considered.

Shot in a mock-journalistic parody style reminiscent of Brass Eye, Brexageddon?! sought to more to vilify and demean ‘Leave’ voters rather than satirising the all-round political process.

What could have been astute political mockery, unfortunately came across as mean and vitriolic, trading on contorted stereotypes and intellectualised prejudice.

It was perhaps intended to caricature a losing ‘Leave’ minority, but, alas, as if often does, democracy got in the way and not for the first time the BBC got caught with a programme on the wrong side of public opinion.

Brian Cox, the BBC’s go-to scientist, finds wonder wherever he goes. Everything is ‘brilliant!’. Forces of Nature with Brian Cox (BBC1) is ‘brilliant’, so brilliant, he’s got his name in the title. ‘Wow..brilliant’.

Cox opened this week’s episode with science’s most difficult theorems, “the natural world is beautiful”. Wow…brilliant. I can’t believe I sat through so much school science without grasping this. Cut to montage of Cox walking in wonder through a montage of wonderful wonderlands. Wow. Ahh. Brilliant.

“The word is beautiful to look at” continued Professor Cox, “but it’s more beautiful to understand”, which was a shame as someone clearly hasn’t told his production team who seem to be going out of their way to edit in a kaleidoscope of incongruous images seemingly designed to mystify and bewilder.

It made me long for the good old days of the Open University programmes when a man with a beard and a kipper tie would explain the origins of the universe on a blackboard with a piece of chalk.