In historical terms, March 2022 will probably not go down as an auspicious date to launch your new Cold War thriller. But that’s exactly what ITV is doing with The Ipcress File, a new reimagining of Len Deighton’s 1962 novel that was so famously adapted for the big screen in 1965. Its protagonist, the Del Boy-inflected spy Harry Palmer, was one of the roles that transformed Michael Caine into a household name, and a turn that he reprised in four sequels over three decades. So big shoes to fill.
The actor whose feet we’re measuring is Joe Cole, best known for his TV roles in Peaky Blinders and Gangs of London. He brings a geezerish swagger to proceedings, though where the young Michael Caine was intimidatingly chiselled, Cole looks rather like a sexier Stephen Merchant. The action begins in 1963’s West Berlin, where Palmer is an army corporal on the make – though not for long, as a bad whiskey deal sees him banged up back home in Blighty. The price of his freedom is agreeing to use his contacts in the Berlin underworld to hunt down an abducted nuclear scientist (Matthew Steer).
there’s a my fair lady-esque quality to proceedings, as Tom Hollander’s shadowy posho Dalby takes the rough-and-ready Palmer under his wing, inducting him into the clandestine world of espionage. Dalby has that satisfying quality of infallibility that underpins the fairytale of spy movies – he is, predictably, one step ahead of Palmer throughout – while his protégé de él has an insouciance bordering on indolence. Asked of his wartime experiences, Palmer replies: “At first, I was very bored and then I was very frightened. And then eventually I was very bored and very frightened at the same time.”
Donning the signature thick-rimmed specs, Palmer is gamely assisted in his investigations by the glamorous but icy Jean (The Politicians‘s Lucy Boynton), who exclusively performs her spy duties dressed immaculately and in a series of exquisite hats. Jean is dealing with a pig of a fiancé (a dead ringer for a young David Cameron, played by Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and the ghost of a brother who died by suicide after his return from the Korean war. The latter is a rare moment where the show deviates from its caper origins, veering towards something darker and more dramatic – another scene involving an abortion strikes even further into that new territory.
But, for the most part, The Ipcress File is vibrant and deliciously retro. Old-school typography and a cracking title sequence bring the Sixties nostalgia from the off, while the action sequences feature more Dutch angles than the comment pages of By Telegraaf. It is satisfying to see spying represented in such cartoonish colours, as well as a rose-tinted retrospection on the red scare (“We can’t trust five and six on this…” Paul Higgins’s politician tells Hollander, explaining his reluctance to involve the MI agencies in the plot, “…too many commies”).
Leaning into the inherent naffness of the genre also allows The Ipcress File to operate on a modest budget, and with the bouncy pace that’s been forever, in recent John le Carré adaptations, for glorious but expensive cinematography. The character of Harry Palmer was created as an antidote to the martini-swilling, globe-trotting James Bond. “Don’t forget to collect your receipts,” he’s told as he heads off on his first assignment, while another scene features him filling out paperwork in the front of his car so that he can acquire a firearm. In a way, it’s a pastiche of a pastiche (which isn’t very elegant), but it’s done so lovingly that it’s hard not to roll with it.
Ultimately, The Ipcress File may live or die with your current tolerance for flippant discussions of imminent nuclear war (“It seems more and more likely every day that we’re all very shortly to be blown to smithereens,” Jean’s dad announces. “On the bright side, that should save me several hundred pounds”). But even if it can’t fully replicate the low-fi charms of the very best Cold War potboilers, its vintage sense of fun ought to be a crowd pleaser. This is about the gentlest, warmest depiction of the Anglo-Russian permafrost you’re likely to encounter.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.