‘London Spy’ – Writer Tom Rob Smith On The Real-Life Inspiration Behind The Dark BBC Spy Drama

Opposite a clutch of nightclubs nestled in London’s Vauxhall is the headquarters of MI6. In London Spy, clubbing and counterintelligence collide. Ben Whishaw – currently starring in Spectre alongside Daniel Craig – is Danny, a lonely 20-something hedonist who unknowingly starts a relationship with a spy when he hooks up with Alex (Edward Holcroft, Kingsman: The Secret Service). Last week’s first episode told their tender love story, which ended in shocking tragedy when Danny found Alex dead, surrounded by S&M paraphernalia. The storyline echoes the case of Gareth Williams, the spy found inside a padlocked bag in 2010. In the second installment, broadcast tonight (November 16), the newspapers are luridly implicating Danny in the death of the boyfriend he knew little about, as viewers are plunged into a gripping five-week thriller. Creator Tom Rob Smith – author of 2008 spy novel Child 44 – briefs NME on what to expect.

Where did the idea come from?

Tom Rob Smith: “I was reading a CIA handbook written in the ‘60s about how you could use an accident to kill people, saying the key thing is to root it in their life. For example, if someone drinks too much, you could stage a drink driving accident. I was aware of the Gareth Williams case. The fundamental question posed by his death was; was it a murder disguised as something he did to himself? I thought an interesting fictional story would be to have a partner confronted by a death that looks like someone’s life but is completely different to the person they knew.”

Was the part written with Ben Whishaw in mind?

“When I started out, I thought it would be wonderful to get Ben. After three scripts, we sent it to him and he signed on. All the rewrites were done after talking to him. It was a collaborative process. He’s in every scene more or less, the show hinges on the audience falling in love with him and going on this dark and disturbing journey. I was very lucky to have such an extraordinary actor.”

What does he bring to the part?

“You don’t see all the thinking he’s done about it. It feels so effortless and real. Even when it’s intense, it doesn’t feel forced. In episode three, he has to hold a scene for seven minutes – there’s nothing else going on other than his performance. And it’s very disturbing and unsettling. He has an ability to grab hold of an audience and not let them go. I think it’s a kind of magic. He’s very seductive as a performer. People have fallen in love with him in Bond; here, we’ve given him the entire series and he’s done something unbelievably believable with it.”

This is the first modern gay spy story on TV (and gay men were prohibited from openly serving in MI6 until the early ‘90s). Did you feel any pressure?

“I had a sense we’ve never had any kind of thriller headed by a gay love story at all. If you’re telling a story about manipulating someone’s private life to distract the public from a murder, with a gay victim you can play on more prejudices and stereotypes than if they were straight. In terms of the history of gay spies in this country, there were prominent gay spies and we know that MI6 reacted very strongly. There was a sense that if you were gay, you were untrustworthy and intrinsically a traitor. I did quite a lot of research into the relationship between the infamous gay spies from the Cambridge Spy Circle [the ring of spies ‘turned’ by Russia during WW2 and throughout the Cold War]. It’s hard to know what their motivations for treachery were, but I think they went to Moscow falsely thinking that Communism offered a place where all people were equal. But if you grow up knowing if your sexuality is exposed, your career will be ruined and you’ll be put in jail, you have to ask yourself: does the country cut its links with you or do you cut your links with the country? That’s a key question throughout the show.”

What can we expect coming up?

“Danny is plunged headlong into a world of darkness and deceit and he’s hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with it. He comes up against formidable characters played by the likes of Charlotte Rampling – who’s breathtaking as a woman who seems to be orchestrating a cover-up of some kind – Adrian Lester, Dame Harriet Walter and Mark Gattiss. It gets progressively darker, emotional and a lot more intense.”

Is this intended as a standalone five-parter or is there room for the series coming back?

“I haven’t made a decision. It’s too early to judge. It has a sensational ending, I will say that. And I’d love to write more for Ben – he’s a genius.”

There’s been media debate lately over whether the world is ready for a gay James Bond. What are your thoughts?

“I don’t know. The character that Ian Fleming wrote isn’t gay. If you want to write a big blockbuster with a gay spy, you should write your own. I’m not saying maybe they won’t go in that direction, but Bond is based on a book where the character is straight. The Bond girls are such an integral part of the series. I think it would be better to write an original piece rather than rewriting an existing character. You could perhaps play around with a slightly more ambiguous sexuality; and certainly they do that in Skyfall.”

London Spy airs tonight at 9pm on BBC2.