Tom Rob Smith knows viewers will get emotional watching his first TV drama, London Spy. He was brought to the “brink of tears” while writing it.
The drama, airing at 10/9c Thursdays on BBC America, opens with the sweet meeting and heartfelt love story of 20-something hedonist Danny (Ben Whishaw) and the much more reserved Alex (Edward Holcroft), whom Danny doesn’t know is a spy.
When Alex disappears, Danny dives headlong into a mystery involving the press, the police, spy agencies and Alex’s heartless mother (Charlotte Rampling). His longtime friend, former spy Scottie (Jim Broadbent), warns Danny that all these forces will drag him through the mud—or worse—but Danny won’t stop searching for the truth.
I spoke with Smith, author of the “Child 44” book trilogy and “The Farm,” during the TV Critics Association winter tour in Pasadena, Calif., about his beautiful and tragic series, its gay characters, two love stories, and thought-provoking ideas about identity and emotional truths. And of course, what brought him close to tears.
BBC America aired Episode 3 of five-part series Feb. 4, but viewers can watch the series from the beginning on the BBC America web site here. If you haven’t watched up to the fourth episode, please don’t read beyond the spot marked Spoilers Ahead! below.
Related: Tom Rob Smith’s essay about “London Spy” in The Telegraph
Viewers of art bring their own baggage to what they see and therefore may have different interpretations of it, which is something I feel “London Spy” may do for a lot of viewers. What do you think when someone sees something in your work that you maybe didn’t see?
I’m fascinated by it as a process and I love it actually. Sometimes it causes people to react against things because they want something to happen and that doesn’t happen, but no, I think it’s wonderful. It’s surprising. It’s really eye opening. … People construct things in a way that is particular to them and you think you know exactly what people are going to think and then they are somewhere else.
With “London Spy,” are you making a statement about identity, about how we present ourselves to the world versus how the world sees us?
I think that’s exactly it. The love story is interesting because they do know each other really well. At the same time, how can you know someone so well that you feel utterly at ease with them, you feel physically and also emotionally at ease with them—and yet there’s this entire component of their life you’re just not aware of? Does not knowing that mean you didn’t know them, other than how you are connected with them?
That’s a question between the relationship, but then what is the central premise of the story? Danny believes he has this incredible love story, which he thinks is the love story he’s been looking for his entire life. And suddenly the world is telling a completely different love story, which is that it was a one-night stand, a fling. …
It’s a battle not just for revenge or justice, it’s a battle to preserve the love story, which is under attack. And that’s about playing on public preconceptions about relationships, about prejudices, about stereotypes and the way in which people react to that. So yeah I think that’s pretty much at the heart of the story.
Could it be sort of a metaphor, too, for our social media and online lives and what people think we are from those?
It’s interesting. I’ve always felt that. … It’s funny, I was thinking about the Facebook status update, which is where you write this thing which is a presentational piece about yourself.
A friend of mine recently posted something about an article about whether you’re happy or not. It was all about the signs of whether you’re a fundamentally happy person. He said, “I’ve had some really tough times but I know that I’m fundamentally a happy person. The signs of unhappiness I don’t have any of those.” Those signs include, for example, being critical of others or something. I thought, “Well, I know you very well and I know that you are quite unhappy actually.”
I would add, and it’s not on the list, that one of the signs of someone that’s unhappy is constantly telling people they’re happy and trying to convince people of your happiness: “If I can convince this audience that I’m happy then maybe I am happy.” So I was like. “Uh-hum.”
But people have been doing that for a long time. I remember thinking about the postcards people write to each other; they would be a kind of presentation of [what you are doing]. You’re presenting a world to people on that postcard, which reminds me of what status updates now. …
So we’ve been doing it for a long time. And I guess this sense of authenticity is a big question on “London Spy:” what is authentic? Essentially that’s the question of the entire show.
How did you come up with the spy world and the specific ideas there? Were you inspired by certain things or did you want to write a spy story?
I didn’t want to write a spy story in the sense of a straight down-the-line spy story. In London you have this geographical fluke, which is you have MI6 [headquarters] on one side of the road [in Vauxhall] and on the other side you have these night clubs, which are very intense. You go in at 10 p.m. and emerge at 10 a.m. the next day. I just thought how these worlds stare at each other. They literally stare at each other across the road and they’re secretive in their own different ways. I thought wouldn’t it be interesting to take someone from that world and someone from the other world and have them collide? They’re both operating with completely different sets of baggage, and yet for them they find something in between. That was one of the sort of sparks for the entire piece.
How was the Gareth Williams case, the spy who was found dead in 2010, an inspiration for “London Spy?”
The interesting thing about that is we know nothing about him from a personal life point of view. We don’t know whether he was straight or gay, we don’t know whether he had a partner or not, we don’t know anything about his love life. But what I did know, as the facts were reported in the newspaper, was suddenly he’s brilliant GCHQ figure who is found dead in a bag in his bathtub. When I heard that in the news, I remember thinking, “Well, he was murdered. Of course he was!” Just instinctually you think what else could it be?
Then suddenly I heard this drip, drip, drip of so-called revelations about how he had lots of women’s clothes in his cupboard and he had wigs and silky underwear, hints of cross-dressing. I heard he’s into escapology and his landlords in Cambridge found him handcuffed to the bed. That all felt to me like a misdirection, like they were playing information into our brains that was taking our eye off the fact that ultimately this was a murder.
I don’t know that for sure, which is why I wrote a fictional piece because I didn’t sit through all the evidence. I don’t think we’ll ever have answers to that case. So I thought, what can fiction do? Fiction can sort of step into a gap. That story structure doesn’t really offer a narrative; it offers an idea, which is how well do we know our lovers, the people close to us?
I thought if I’m going to tell a story it’s going to be about someone who is in love with someone who is murdered because then you’d at least have someone who is saying I know this person wasn’t the person you’re saying he was. I thought if I’m going to do it I would want it to be two men because then you’re dealing with the whole issue of prejudices and stereotypes and rewriting someone’s love story in a way that I think would be much trickier if it was a man and a woman.
How did you come up with the human lie detector idea?
The strange thing about that is it’s this representation of an idea. It was a concept [that suggested] if you have enough information about someone then ultimately everything is a pattern…. It’s so interesting. If you turn everything you’re doing into a number—so the way you hold your finger or the way your face is—becomes a number. You turn everything into a number and then you unravel it like it was a DNA. And you have enough pieces of information you can see patterns forming in the same way that you could on anything and that those patterns would, in a sense, connect to lies and truths. Like if you had enough information you could tell whether one was true or one was false. It was about a mathematician looking at the world and saying there must be a way of looking at things and thinking everyone has an empirical truth and so that’s what that was about, the reduction of people to a number.
It struck me that Alex, who was the genius, could see that. Like the question of truth was really just a question about information. If you have enough data you can get to the truth. I really wanted a way of being able to test the love story at the end. So at the end, even though he’s dead and he wasn’t going to come back and say I love you, I wanted Danny to be sure of their love story.
The end of lying is kind of a provocative and crazy idea; what was the inspiration?
Well, it comes from the sense of what is at the heart of this story, this idea of is this love to true or not? It felt like the idea was coming from not wanting to do an explanation that had nothing to do with the story. … What happens toward the end of thrillers often is you move into a world that has nothing to do with your character. …
I wanted Danny to get to the end and think, “God it’s about you; it’s about our relationship; it’s about us.” He has an emotional reaction to the revelation.
I was thinking that this idea that when you’re looking at things on the Internet how much it reveals about ourselves. I thought if you could extrapolate that out into the real world of whether the things that we do in conversation, like how I’m moving my hand right now, what does that mean? If you have enough of that information in the way that say Google will have enough of our browsing information, would you be able to boil it down to a truth?
I think we know lots of things about the real world. We know things about Iraq, we know things about foreign policy that we sense we’ve been lied to. We all have this sense of, “I don’t really know but I can feel that was a cover-up.” Wouldn’t it be great to empirically know for sure some things and then how would that change the world as an entity if we lost the ability to cover things up and lie?
That’s all sort of what was circulating about; I just felt like it was connected to the first episode and the second episode. It felt like very much it was a whole.
Scottie seems to have a sort of longing to maybe be more than friends with Danny, but he understands the age issue. Did you want to show a different kind of gay relationship?
I really wanted a love story between two characters separated by a generation, I mean two generations almost. One of the love stories of the series is the story with Alex, but there’s also this love story with Scottie. I think neither of them knew that it would happen and actually both of them wanted it to happen but understood that it was a theoretical rather than a sort of physical reality. I think it’s a very powerful love story. In writing it I found Scottie to be a really wonderful figure.
The gay community is so youth-oriented. I thought that was an interesting thing to explore; were you meaning to look at that?
I find this idea of two people being in love but not able to be in a relationship interesting to form a different kind of relationship. I think the age thing is interesting. And I do think often we’re obsessed with youth. I think Danny is quite—certainly as played by Ben—he’s older than his years. This is why he works so well with Jim. And I think Scottie, when he looks at the person Danny falls in love with, realizes he’s falling in love with a younger version of himself. And on some level he is pleased but only because he’s from a different world. He’s thinking, “When I was your age I couldn’t do this. So I’m pleased for you.”
He really is pleased for him, but at the same time he’s saying, “I’m annoyed with the world for not allowing me to have that. And it’s not actually an irritation with you two, it’s just an injustice that I had to carry around.”
That’s why there’s a real sadness to him, an interesting melancholy, while at the same time he’s being very celebratory of things and trying to help Danny do the things that he couldn’t do. I find everything about Jim’s character sort of wonderful in many ways. And I love their story.
London Spy Spoilers Ahead! Read after watching Episode 4.
I thought Scottie’s death was almost more devastating as a viewer than Alex’s, even though I thought you could have done an entire series just about the love story of Alex and Danny.
I think you’re right. To me, when it comes to the end of Episode 4, I was really sad writing it and I find his funeral scene in Episode 5 always makes me on the brink of tears, partly because I think Ben is extraordinary. And just the sense of Danny’s feeling, “I don’t really want to be in this world without you by my side. You’re so much my guide to how the world works; now I have to look at the world and imagine what you’d say.” It’s very different than going around saying, “OK this happened, what’s going on.”
How do we live without the people we love?
I would quote Jim’s line, which is, “You have to figure out for yourself.” It’s like his big question. Up until “London Spy” I had very little experience with death actually. I lost a relative who I love very much, during the writing. Nothing can prepare you for it and you have to sort of—you feel it. My mom, it was her sister, and I watched my mom, who was very, very close to her sister, and the gap never closes and you deal with it and all different kinds of ways. And I found that watching my mom, I mean I was close to her too but obviously nowhere near as close as my mom, and I thought wow you really have to work hard to get around that kind of grief. It’s amazing that we can do it in some ways. It’s very inspiring but tricky.