Arts

Television: The English are scarier than North Koreans

Why are spies so popular right now? Following on the back of Homeland, Deutschland 83, The Honourable Woman and London Spy comes The Night Manager (BBC One, Sundays, 9pm), a John le Carré mini-series. Tom Hiddleston – a man with no discernible shoulders whom the ladies adore – plays a former soldier turned hotel worker seeking revenge for the death of a beautiful Egyptian. She was murdered on the orders of Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), an arms dealer tagged as “the worst man in the world”. He is, of course, English. Never mind the Korean Kims or the Afghani Taliban – in the land of light entertainment, a guy with a plummy accent will always outrank them all.

This is a good romp. Not very twisty, quite straightforward – I’m not sure it’ll justify six hour-long episodes. But Hiddleston is a compelling actor and Laurie is a very convincing middle-aged crook. Some of the rest of the casting is awful. Shocking. Russell Tovey – an accent straight outta Catford – does not convince as an ambassador. Tom Hollander is way too short to play a henchman. You’ll accuse me of sizeism, but there’s nothing menacing about a man one could escape from by jumping onto a table.

Worst of all, however, is Olivia Colman as Hiddleston’s handler. Her character appears to be pregnant for about three years, while Colman exudes all the establishment authority of a supply teacher with a headache. These mistakes might have been covered over with clever direction, which suggests that we have a director who has fallen in love with the scenery – Switzerland, Spain – and forgotten about his cast.

This is a pity because sloppy acting sometimes threatens to distract from the themes of revenge and trying one’s best not to become the thing you hate. That’s the appeal of spying in a postmodern era: none of us is quite sure who we are any more. Whom we back, what we believe in, what we’re supposed to think. The spy does not live so much as perform, reading lines. Somewhere along the way, reality and fiction blur – and trust evaporates. The spy story has become the drama of our times.