Television: Spy comedy does the French no favours

The success of a joke is in the telling – so maybe A Very Secret Service (Netflix) shouldn’t be judged too harshly by English-speaking audiences. It’s a subtitled comedy about spies in Sixties France, and a viewer might wonder if he’d find it far funnier if he hadn’t flunked French GCSE.

Yet the 2006 movie OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies covered identical terrain in the same language and was hilarious. So the problem here is with the script – beginning with the fact that Secret Service can’t make up its mind what the secret services actually did.

It’s 1960 and André Merlaux has been invited to become a spook. His headquarters are absurdly labyrinthine. His superiors are psychopaths. The staff are uninterested in their work to the point of Zen. One genuinely funny gag: André appears to be working late into the night when a secretary discovers him and says, “What are you still doing here? It’s nearly 5.30pm!”

Where this world fails to convince, however, is that this inept organisation appears to be charged with running the entire French empire, as if it were the army, police force and foreign office all rolled
into one.

The humour is cynical. Three Africans arrive to demand independence. The Service fails to convince them that they are better off remaining enslaved, so it simply bumps them off. One is knocked down by a bus, the other has a heart attack after a visit from an athletic concubine. We’re obviously supposed to take this seriously as a statement about imperialism – yet the handling is comic strip. And nothing new is said at all.

For a truly inventive skewering of Nato’s heyday, see the spoof spy show Danger 5 (also on Netflix), where every adventure ends in a multilingual Martini party.

If Secret Service does teach us one thing, however, it’s that the French were just as deluded for just as long as the British were about their place in the world. “Who won the Second World War?” demands an interrogator – and his victim cries “France!” Now, that did make me laugh.