Television: Reds under the bed and bugs on the mattress

Review: ‘The Game’, ‘The Verminators’ and ‘Empire’

Moles in MI5: Tom Hughes as Joe Lambe in the BBC spy drama The Game

Moles in MI5: Tom Hughes as Joe Lambe in the BBC spy drama The Game


Ready the spy cameras, dust off those tape recorders with spools the size of hubcaps, dim the skies to a sludgy grey: the cold war is on screen again.

A lot is familiar about The Game (BBC Two, Thursday), a new six-part drama from Toby Whithouse (Being Human, Dr Who). It’s 1972, and MI5 has got wind of a Soviet plan called Operation Glass. It could involve a nuclear missile strike on Britain or arming the striking miners with Kalashnikovs – the spooks aren’t sure, and neither are we.

The first episode of this stylish and sombre spy drama is so full of red herrings and tantalising glimpses of backstories that it’s hard to know quite what’s going on. What we do know is that MI5 is a clubby sort of place, full of Oxbridge chaps with clipped accents and pin-striped suits, where the boss (Brian Cox) is creepily called Daddy and Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter), one of the top men, and the best connected to government, has mommy issues.

The main character, the enigmatic Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes), is a young agent in a hurry, still haunted by a previous mission that, from what we saw in the gripping opening scene, went bloodily wrong. A Russian spy in England, Arkady (Marcel Iures), comes forward and reveals that several sleeper cells are about to be activated. And, in classic spy-caper fashion, the shadowy KGB figures running around London seem to be one step ahead, suggesting that Daddy’s office has a mole.

So far The Game is brooding and confusing, but it captures a fearful era when the reds, if not quite under the bed, seemed only a missile strike away – and espionage was the weapon to beat them with.

“Last year Rentokil had a PR coup at the Ploughing Championships,” says Seán Moncrieff in his voiceover for The Verminators (RTÉ Two, Wednesday), which goes on to describe the pest-control company’s “pestaurant”, a stall where the public could taste crickets, waterbugs and assorted other insects. That PR coup is in the ha’penny place compared with this observational documentary, in the Reality Bites strand, which promises to “look at Ireland’s pest infestation problems and how they’re dealt with through the activities of their on-the-ground vermination teams”. And “their” means Rentokil’s.

Rat catching and bug hunting are fertile ground for squirm-making TV. Last month the BBC knocked a four-part series out of it with The Ladykillers: Pest Detectives, although in that case I like to think someone came up with the inspired movie mash-up of a title and then found the four pest wranglers. And while they went about ridding houses and farms of all sorts of invaders, from pigeons and rats to moths and cockroaches, never once was I aware of what company or companies the women worked for – because that wasn’t the point. The women were different in their approaches, too – one took up her rifle at every chance; another, a zoologist, tried scientific methods – so there was added interest beyond the yuck factor.

The Verminators has the unmistakable pong of a PR plug for a single company: a documentary that comes across like an advertorial, a genre about as welcome in the schedule as a rat under the floorboards.

Are there no other pest-control companies? Does everyone on camera have to have the company’s logo on view in every scene, from their T-shirts to their peaked caps? Did I really hear the boss, Michael O’Mahony, say he’d come to work even if he wasn’t paid?

The voiceover runs: “Lurking in his lair at the centre of a nationwide web, Michael sits like a spider in his office, spinning a direct line out to anyone who needs him. For Michael it’s not a job, it’s a passion.” The most unctuous corporate video wouldn’t be that shameless.

There are moments with genuine possibilities. The exterminators are called out to a Dublin house, divided into several flats, that has had a serious cockroach problem for more than 18 months. They’re everywhere: in the beds, on work surfaces, coming out of the sockets. One of the tenants is in despair – he has even brought in stuff from his native Poland to try to deal with the problem. The landlord is interviewed, his face blanked out to conceal his identity, although he’s not asked any difficult questions, such as why it has taken him so long to tackle the problem. The Verminators instead concentrates on showing the logo-covered workers putting in their roach motels, puffing poison into the cracks, doing their job. Then the ads come on – and it’s hard to tell the difference.

Several worlds away – and a blinging, glitzy, tight-fitting leopard-print world it is – is Empire (E4, Tuesday) the new US blockbuster. Set behind the scenes in the music business, it’s a Dreamgirls update with hip hop and rap. Timbaland is executive producer, giving the family drama the same instant cred that T Bone Burnett brought to Nashville.

In a soapy plot worthy of Dallas, dad Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the owner of the Empire music conglomerate, discovers he’s dying and calls his three sons together to tell them that one will be his heir. There’s smooth MBA-educated Andre (Trai Byers), feckless Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and talented and gay Jamal (Jussie Smollett), who is his viciously homophobic father’s least favourite.

“What’s this, we King Lear now?” asks Jamal; the dialogue is never less than knowing. “In order for this to survive I need one of you negroes to man up and lead it,” replies Lucious, setting a feud in motion. And then mom Cookie – magnetically performed by Taraji Henson – comes back. She’s been in prison for 17 years for a drug crime whose proceeds provided Empire’s seed fund, and she wants her share.

There’s a lot of star power on screen and referenced in Empire; Gabourey Sidibe, as Lucious’s secretary, reminds him of “lunch with Barack”.

It’s fast and fierce, with great music. An hour of TV rarely passes so quickly.

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