The Ipcress File series digs deep into the backstory of Harry Palmer

ITV’s revisionist take on Len Deighton's Cold War spy thriller indulges in nostalgia while simultaneously casting a rueful eye over 1960s British politics.

13 March 2022

By Jonathan Romney

Joe Cole as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (2022)Joe Cole as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (2022) © Courtesy of ITV
Sight and Sound

► The Ipcress File airs weekly on ITV and is available to watch on ITV hub.  

Harry Palmer was a significant creation of 1960s British cinema: a laconic, resourceful working-class action man with a love of Mozart and a talent for cooking, something not usually part of a male hero’s repertoire at the time. He first appeared in Sidney J. Furie’s 1965 film The Ipcress File: strictly speaking, that is, since the protagonist of Len Deighton’s 1962 novel had no name. He only acquired one in Furie’s adaptation, fondly remembered now as an atmospheric essay in stylised modernism and the film that launched Michael Caine’s no-nonsense man-about-town star persona.

On the evidence of its first three episodes, ITV’s Deighton adaptation at once walks in Caine’s shadow and does its best to slough it off. Palmer does wear Caine’s familiar horn-rimmed specs – although they make actor Joe Cole, the eternally baby-faced tough guy of Peaky Blinders and the prison drama A Prayer Before Dawn (2017), look more as if he’s playing the young Eric Morecambe. Caine’s Palmer, however, was tight-lipped and sketchily evoked. Here, the character is steeped in backstory, given complex, troubled motivations, and every bit as meticulously psychologised as Daniel Craig’s 007: he’s a docker’s son, a maths graduate and a hero of the Korean War, who deserved to be an officer, if only he hadn’t been working class in Establishment Britain.

The film had Palmer as a chess piece tossed between two Whitehall espionage mandarins, Ross and Dalby. Here, Palmer is directly recruited by Dalby but caught between him and the CIA when, somewhat reluctantly, he signs up to locate an abducted nuclear scientist. Scripted by John Hodge, the series plays up the class conflict and lack of social mobility in pre-60s Britain – something already present in Furie’s film, but somewhat hammered home by Hodge’s dialogue.

Similarly recrafted with honourable revisionist intent, but without much subtlety, is Palmer’s colleague Jean Courtney. Strictly a supporting character in the film, here she’s a competent, dynamic operative, whose chilly elegance – like a Tippi Hedren of the Home Counties – conceals her steel nerves and skills with a gun. Played by Lucy Boynton, she very much shares centre stage with Palmer, making for a sort of odd couple romance, with sexual tension eroding class barriers (the 60s espionage duo they most resemble are Modesty Blaise and her cockney sidekick Willie Garvin).

The series restores much of the globe-trotting action of the novel – so radically pared down in the film – but also echoes Furie’s evocation of a dowdy, not yet swinging mid-60s London. Mostly, however, this version piles on considerable glamour with its international locales (Croatia standing in for Beirut), Boynton’s very Vogue wardrobe, and director James Watkins laying on Dutch angles a gogo. It also plays a trick in common with Last Night in Soho, but no less clever: an Odeon cinema advertising The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a film that shares Deighton’s brainwash-conspiracy theme.

Lucy Boynton as Jean Courtney and Ashley Thomas as CIA agent Paul Maddox in The Ipcress File (2022)
Lucy Boynton as Jean Courtney and Ashley Thomas as CIA agent Paul Maddox in The Ipcress File (2022)
© Courtesy of ITV

The whole thing is fuelled by what you might call ‘retro-spection’ – the Mad Men technique of revelling nostalgically in period style while maintaining a rueful consciousness of the realities behind the seductive surface. Here those include sexism (the fate of a Russian spy’s English mistress), class patriarchy (Jean must resist her aristocratic family’s pressure to marry an overbearing fiancé) and homophobia: a scientist is arrested for homosexual activity, irresistibly bringing to mind the persecution of Alan Turing. This Ipcress File says all the right things but says them a little clumsily, often explicitly: Ashley Thomas’s CIA agent introduces himself by declaring, “Yes, that’s right, I’m Black.”

What’s more, a show that makes a point of confronting outmoded assumptions doesn’t – at least so far – do much of interest with Jean’s stereotypical ice-cool blonde persona, given a fairly one-note reading by Boynton, all clipped reserve and fixed glare. Still, her overall tone makes a sharp complement to the likeably soft, puppyish feel that Cole brings to his acidic one-liners. While he doesn’t imitate his precursor, nevertheless in his muted, gentlemanly delivery of the line, “Would you like me to punch you?” there’s enough subtle soupçon of Caine to please nostalgists.

The other casting offers some dependable pleasures: notably a dapper, peppery Tom Hollander as Dalby, and the always watchable David Dencik, who has some form in vintage spycraft, having played Toby Esterhase in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). In between the more prosaic moments, Hodge’s dialogue has the occasional crisp riff – like Palmer’s contention that by selling black-market lobsters to Russians, he probably averted nuclear war.

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