Saturday 19 March 2022

The Ipcress File tv series - the verdict


Dalby, Harry and Jean ready for action

Well, after months - and I mean months - of hype and pre-publicity, the new tv adaptation of Len Deighton's The Ipcress File has broadcast its first two episodes on commercial channel ITV in the UK (and all six episodes made available on ITVhub streaming). 

And the verdict from this viewer is ... it's pretty good. Indeed, very good. An adaptation worthy of the book.

Sure, it's not the original Michael Caine film of the same name, and that's probably a good thing, so strong is the cultural imprinting of that performance on the British viewing public. If you remember that, then this new series - and the new Harry Palmer portrayed by Joe Cole - provides six hours of very entertaining, stylish, engrossing and believable drama.

(I'm conscious that there may be readers of this blog in countries outside of the UK who haven't seen the series yet, so any comments below about how I viewed the series will be as spoiler-free as possible.)

Here are my top take-aways from having watched all six episodes:

Joe Cole is not Michael Caine's Harry Palmer, and that's fine

Young British actor Cole gives a good performance throughout and, noticeably, it improves over the series, reflecting the fact that each scene and episode was filmed by director James Watkins in sequence. So you can see the acting chemistry, and the relationships between the main characters, blossom, to a degree. 

Cole maintains the surly disdain for authority and the chippy laddishness of the original unnamed spy from the book, and also from Caine's performance, but this is overall a more subtle Harry Palmer, one focused more on drama than on periodic dips into subtle comedy. The style of quips and one lines made famous in the first film are still there, but overall this is a more serious performance, reflecting the nature of the adaption. Like Caine, he's not action super spy, and the fighting sequence are befitting of a made who rarely shoots and relies on his wit and insight, than his fists.

It's more of a proper thriller than the film

Two advantages producers Will Clarke, Andy Mayson and Sandy Lieberson had which original producer Harry Saltzman did not: budget, and time. It's evident from the quality of the set design, the overseas locations (Croatia standing in for Lebanon scenes), the length of the production and the quality of the scriptwriting that producers had space to let the original - very complicated - story breathe, and unfold. 

The overall tone is more of a crime thriller, and the music is much more sombre and low key in the series than in the film, where John Barry's score was almost one of the main characters.

The script by John Hodge is pretty tight, and each episode is brought skillfully to a level of tension and denouement which allows the tension for the viewer to be well-paced right up to the 'reveal' in the final episode, which is a departure from the book (and an interesting one at that).

It's an adaptation from the original book, not an exercise in verismillitude

Some reviewers and viewers have complained that it's not like the original movie. Other reviewers and viewers feel that the script veered too far from the original book and that the ending felt forced. I don't sit in either camp.

There was enough from the original book - indeed, key scenes in Lebanon and Tokwe island that were missing from the original film were back in the tv series - to make it authentic enough and a tribute to the original books.

Indeed, the quality of the script was such that the convoluted - indeed, often confusing - nature of the exposition and plot in the original books (noted by a number of columnists) is to a degree replicated. The viewer is skillfully guided by the actors and the director through scenes to a place where he or she may think they have understood one character's relationship to the other, only for the next episode to prove them wrong.

A thriller over six episodes needs to keep the viewer on their toes, and this series does it well.

Jean Courtney's expanded role works well enough, and Boynton fits the part

Lucy Boynton's character Jean Courtney is one example of where producers and script writers have tampered with the original, largely one suspects to fit in with modern mores and the need for a strong female lead character. Whereas in the book she's an assistant at W.O.O.C.(P)., in the TV series she's a full agent, and arguably as crucial to the plot development as is Harry Palmer. But in the context of the series, it works, I believe.

Boynton's Jean is posh, guarded, ambitious and a tough cookie, and has a significantly greater amount of screen time than her film counterpart. Boynton plays her as icy cold, slightly stiff - perhaps too stiff at times - but like Joe Cole's Palmer, her portrayal seems to fit well with the overall more serious tone of the series. As a character, too, there's scope for further development.

Tom Hollander's Dalby is excellent

No surprise, really - he's a great actor. Stepping into the shoes of Nigel Green's portrayal of the original Dalby from the film could have been a poisoned chalice, but Hollander's portrayal is altogether more complete, I think, and reflective of what's in the book.

Sure, he plays up the old school tie elements, the chumminess of Whitehall at the time, which works well as a source of tension with Harry Palmer, particularly in the early scenes where Dalby has Palmer tied on a string, metaphorically speaking.

But you can also see a real relationship between the two develop over the six episodes, as trust builds and any early scepticism about Palmer's shady past is moved beyond. Indeed, by the end, there's a degree of mutual respect between the two, which contrasts sharply with how the original film ended.

Ashley Thomas' Maddox adds a new layer of complexity

The CIA underhand and disguised involvement in Harry's disappearance and subsequent torture by the practitioners of the IPCRESS system was part of the original book, but the role of the Americans as the real 'power behind the file' across the series is really amped up as the programme develops.

The flirtatious entrapment of Jean by Maddox, and his ambiguous relationship with the American General Cathcart, who's in charge of the development of the US neutron bomb which Harry and Jean witness on Tokwe, leave one as a viewer wondering quite what his deal is - is he for real, is he trustworthy, is he a traitor, or is he one of the heroes? That's the sign of a good thriller - uncertainty, until the final resolution in episode six.

There is scope for more

All the key characters make it to the end intact, and give the appearance of a 'team' being forged at W.O.O.C.(P). This clearly gives the producers, and scriptwriters, an opening to move onto further Harry Palmer stories - either Funeral in Berlin, Horse Under Water (never filmed), Billion Dollar Brain or An Expensive Place to Die - or to branch off into original material (the arguably more riskier move).

Clearly, this will be dependent upon the success of the series, and the response from commercial advertisers on TV and on streaming, but if it's a hit - and the signs are it could be - then the foundations are good for further development, particularly in characters.

Joe Cole's portrayal has been great, terrible, or so-so, depending on which reviewer you read. But I think he's a competent actor, and no fool. He was clearly aware of Caine's performance and adopted subtle nods to it in his own (the glasses, for one), but he's done enough to make his own version of Harry Palmer stand on its own two feet.

The nods to the original film show producers recognised they're handling a classic

The producers - including executive producer Steven Saltzman, son of Harry Saltzman, the original producer - could have been lazy and just remade the film. They didn't do that, and have tried to embellish the original plot in the book in order to create enough material for a six hour series.

But they've equally not tried to paint over the original colour. They kept key elements of the plot intact; the characters, while subtly different, can still trace a line back to the book and the films (the potrayals of Chilcott-Oates and office harridan Alice, for example); and the relish with which the look and feel of sixties Berlin, London and Lebanon were portrayed in great detail shows they were cognisant of what had gone before. 

The nods to the original film were sufficient and subtle enough to provide a hat-tip to the original, without ever descending into pastiche. The frequent use of Dutch angles - or wonky camera work, according to dissatisfied critics - was reminiscent of Otto Heller's original cinematography, but also generally worked to give the series a distinct visual style.

The chippy by-play and understated romantic attachment between Harry and Jean is playfully understated and their relationship is believably difficult, but also warm.

David Dencick's Colonel Stok was not as bombastic as Oskar Homolka's

This was the one character that jarred a little, so different was it from the book, plus the fact that the character only really cemented itself into our minds in Funeral in Berlin. The character in the tv series is still duplicitous and as flirtatiously ambivalent about the Cold War as only the most zealous of Cold Warriors can afford to be, and the portrayal is fine.

Indeed, like Harry Palmer, his character and his relationship to the bespectacled spy also has more time to be expounded - the relationship in London which ends in tragedy is a new twist - and that adds something.

I guess, however, that so iconic was the original back and forth repartee between Homolka and Caine that it's difficult as a viewer to cut through that. But, if there's a Funeral in Berlin adaptation, then there's scope for this to develop I guess.

Bringing in Harry's backstory made sense

His black market past in Berlin is only ever alluded to in the books, and in the film, but as a way of understanding the character's predicament, his relationship to Dalby, and his development throughout the series, it makes perfect sense.

Palmer is a man in a bind, with a way out, and a route to redemption and to prove himself, not just as a man but as a working class spy in a world still ridden by class who - by the end of the series - proves his capability as a spy. It's a cornerstone of the character and essential to making him believable.

So, what did other readers make of the series, if you've already seen it or are watching it? Do share your thoughts below (but keep any spoilers to a minimum if you can).


  1. The verdict is good. But is the TV series a commercial success?
    The ITV and the series producers have a judgement to make based on whether they see young Harry Palmer has a commercial potential, to proceed with another TV series. Steven Saltzman got associated, I guess, as a homage to his late father, who made 'Harry Palmer, a name to recognise in 1960s.
    I doubt the producers are Len Deighton fans, the same way the readers of his novels are to proceed with another series without worrying about the commercial angle.
    It appears at least to my knowledge that there is no embryonic Harry Palmer franchise in the making.
    If the decision is to have another TV series involving the young Harry Palmer, 'Funeral in Berlin 'makes sense, to keep the setting in Berlin as a continuation for the build up.

  2. From what I've read, the producers were originally looking at producing Horse Under Water, as they evidently are pretty knowledgeable about Deighton's canon - but they couldn't get that project off the ground. Guess it will be a few months until ITV's able to determine the success or otherwise of the series.

    1. It's less about getting the project "off the ground" and getting it "under water!"

  3. I’m not sure why the previous commenter keeps talking about Young Harry Palmer like he’s Young Bond or Young Indiana Jones. Cole’s Palmer is a little older than Caine’s and clearly a grown man.

    I’m glad to hear that about HORSE UNDER WATER, Rob! If making that was their original hope, then it seems to bode well for the prospects of finally seeing that book filmed! Should there be a second season, I’m still really hoping it’s HORSE rather than FUNERAL. No doubt they’ll end up working Stok into the HORSE plot too… but that shouldn’t be too hard. I’d love to see them also introduce Newbegin early (be he Harvey or Leo), as that would only strengthen the relationship between he and Harry prior to an eventual BDB season.

    Overall, I agree with you on this IPCRESS. I really liked it for the most part, and was certainly gripped episode to episode, eager to see what happened next. It’s a sign of success when they can do that with a story you think you know! I was totally on board with the rather dramatic departure it takes from the book’s plot at first. I thought it was a good idea, and Deighton’s deliberately confusing plot was amorphous enough that it left a lot of leeway for them to graft something else into it. But then I was ultimately let down by how that plot line concluded in the final episode. Not because the did it, but because they sort of dropped the ball with it. I thought that last episode was the weakest, which left an unfortunate final impression, but overall I was fully engrossed and find myself very much hoping for more!

  4. I looked at the list of executive producers for this series. There is Alexander Deighton, Len Deighton's son I guess , the 2 Saltzmans and others. Deighton Jnr may have been the reason why Horse under Water was considered, but was rightly rejected given the history of its rejection also of film version after Billion Dollar Brain film flopped. That leaves the 2 original films which wer success commercially. Hence, my bet on Funeral in Berlin.
    It is not as if there is a belated interest in reviving Deighton novels in some form; that ship sailed long time ago; but there is interest there to produce a few mini series of selected Deighton films which were commercially successful. The pick of the Ipcress File was no brainer for them , given its original success. Hence, testing of the commercial waters with the young Harry Palmer in operation.
    I have a nagging suspicion , which the producers may also have, about Joe Cole's suitability as young Harry Palmer, to attract good number of younger viewers, with serious interest in the cold war Berlin setting, which is a tall order anyway. Hence, I am not as yet convinced about the commercial success of this series. ITV has moved into
    prime time reality shows, and needs commercial success of the series to get them seriously interested -not mere viewers' verdict- which I guess is mostly from the elder viewers who would have watched with interest any revival of Deighton works in the TV screen!

  5. If I am not mistaken, this series is about what happened earlier to the story line in the Ipcress film. Then what should I call that Palmer? Cole's Palmer sounds silly, as it says more about the actor, and not the character, which is about the TV mini-series.

    Hope that the producers do not do the same mistake as Len Deighton did , after he published ' Funeral in Berlin' in 1960s. He dropped the cold war setting of Berlins, which made his recent novel a huge success, and moved to other themes, just when the cold war was fast becoming a single focus of tension between the East-West super powers. Le Carre saw the importance of this, and of Brtain's involvement, as the attention of the US was turning towards Vietnam War execution, and published his iconic novels carving himself a name as the best cold war expert. All spy thrillers that followed took Le Carre's works as the reference point. Len Deighton lost out.
    Moving to Horse Under Water, which the producers then considered for a film, and rejected; these producers for a mini-series, have rightly followed that path.

    Producers who fork out the cash to produce a film or a TV series, know, what a folly it will be to listen to the author or the readers of his novels. Frederick Forsyth's 'The Fourth Protocol' film was an example. Even with Michael Caine as the central character, the film flopped. The film producers did not touch any more Forsyth's novels there after.

  6. Interesting that you say:

    Joe Cole is not Michael Caine's Harry Palmer, and that's fine

    I guess that the real risk for the show was Michael Caine's original performance is so well known that nobody else could follow it. Like the music industry I guess it takes real self confidence to create a 'cover' of something so well known.

    I will search the series out.

  7. Overall, my impression was positive. The cars, costumes, and "look" were superb--the Brits always seem to get that right. In particular I liked the vulnerability and decency that the new "Harry Palmer" exhibited; thus even more of an "anti-Bond" than the psychopathic Fleming protagonist. Missed Colonel Ross, Major Dalby has morphed into a semi-hero rather than villain, though flawed through his romance with the Russian physicist. But the attempted assassination of JFK? Seeing has how the REAL assassination took place about 6 months afterwards, I frankly found it in bad taste. That vile event has left a black mark on the American psyche. Plus the marquee showing in the background when Jean is introduced: The Manchurian Candidate. A little too "meta" for me.

  8. Just re-watching's very good as is Cole

  9. I finally got around to seeing this and I must say I was very impressed. While I had a few initial reservations about Cole has Harry, (he seems a little young and slight for the role) by the end I think he did a good job.

    It's a big budget operation with much excellent design. I loved the look at 1960's computer technology, the clothing and cars. While they seem to have intentionally avoided making the War Room on that American base look too Doctor Strangelove it looks great. Those TVs set into the control desks are spot on.

    Jean's extended role was welcome. I was impressed that she recognised at a glance that a fairly normal looking transistor radio was in fact a ultra long wave radio for communicating with submerged submarines. This is a hat tip too Horse Under Water where they are using such a compact device to communicate with that submersible weather station . (while ULW radio is used for communicating with submerged subs, to give the firing order for nuclear missiles and such, ULW antennas must be very long, hundreds of meters long in fact and are trailed behind high flying aircraft.)

    Geekiness aside it was a great series and I'll probably watch it again, after I've reread the novel!