TV: Loki brings le Carré up to date

Review: ‘The Night Manager’, ‘Operation Transformation’, ‘Prime Time Leaders Debate’

If you read The Night Manager, John le Carré's 1993 thriller, you probably didn't envision Jonathan Pine, the character of the title, as blond and handsome, smooth even. But in this adaptation (BBC One, Sunday) the strikingly handsome Tom Hiddleston – aka Loki, from the Thor films – is that and more. He's like James Bond – for a while.

In the opening scene Pine walks unscathed through a rioting Cairo – it is 2011, during the Arab Spring – and arrives at his job in the upmarket hotel. (Front door: no staff entrance for him.) He then changes into a sober black suit that he wears with panache, like a Bond tuxedo.

One of the guests, Sophie – beautiful, bored, dangerous – seduces Pine. But before the inevitable bed scene she gives him documents that prove her wealthy lover is embroiled in an arms deal with an Englishman named Roper (a pitch-perfectly terrifying Hugh Laurie), who is, she tells Pine, “the worst man in the world”.

The documents are essentially a shopping list for enough weapons to start a war or quash an uprising. Pine, in a move that seems more the reflex action of an ex-soldier trained to keep the peace than a career change into espionage for the hotel worker, passes the evidence to a pal at the embassy.


MI6 in London is alerted, with the details landing on the desk of an intelligence operative and Roper hunter named Angela Burr (Olivia Colman, mumsy in a cardy, not your usual spy wrangler). News of the document leak gets back to Roper. Sophie is murdered and Pine isn’t James Bond any more: he’s a guilt-ridden, crying heap.

When we next meet Pine, four years later, he is the night manager of a quietly luxurious hotel in Zermatt, in Switzerland – where he comes face to face with Roper at the check-in desk.

And there we have it: good versus evil, youth versus age, two Englishmen with very different moral codes. It’s a tribute to the superb storytelling that precedes this simple encounter that we are instantly scared for Pine when he meets Roper, whose outer moneyed vulgarity, burnished by a public profile as a humanitarian, is a credible cover for his nefarious dealings.

As Hiddleston plays him Pine is not presented as a helpless innocent. Something is hiding behind his apparent blank passivity. It’s something that is picked up on, signalling future danger, by one of Roper’s entourage, the deeply odious Corcoran (Tom Hollander). And it’s a side to his character that makes credible Burr’s recruitment of him to catch Roper.

This is all clever, slickly paced stuff offering nuanced characters and layers of mystery that steer clear of complexity. Cold-war thrillers are all spooks and codenames, with the distance of time framing our reactions. In the same way that Homeland and The Honourable Woman anchored themselves to the headlines of the day, David Farr, The Night Manager's screenwriter, has updated the novel for TV. His referencing of current conflicts in the Middle East helps bring a compelling immediacy. It's a glossy, lavish drama and a Sunday-night winner, with five more weeks to come.

There's a grand stretch in the evenings, which means the annual fat-fighting fest Operation Transformation (Thursday, RTÉ One) has packed up its talking weighing scales (Katherine Thomas, whose high- pitched excitement over the loss of a pound is remarkable to hear) for another year.

Well, not quite. A new element in the ever-tweaked successful format is the Million Pound Challenge, whereby since Christmas the nation has been collectively asked to lose a million pounds of flab. Easy: there are three million adults in the State, so if just one in three of us loses a measly pound that’s the job done. Except it turns out, on the final night of the series, that, obesity be damned, we can’t be bothered.

The total weight loss from the public taking part in the challenge is just 73,000lb, so the challenge now will be to run for the rest of the year until we get off our backsides.

In the dressed-up, celebratory finale we learn that the well-chosen Operation Transformation team leaders (John Conmy, Clare Scanlan, Lucy Dillon and Noeleen Lynam) have collectively lost seven stone. (Operation Transformation tends to not bother too much with that metric business.) Although, really, they lost an extra 18st 10½lb, because one leader, Dan Kennedy, had to leave for health reasons early in the series.

So that was a downer for this ninth series, plus the fact that the other leaders sometimes missed or barely made their weekly weight-loss targets. Given that they have the support of a doctor, a dietician, a psychologist and a personal trainer, and the eyes of half a million viewers a week on them, that doesn’t auger well for the rest of us.

This year the leaders are more exposed than previously. There is the fat-shaming weigh-in, for which they have to wear next to nothing. And there is the degree to which their sometimes painful stories are explored, including a child’s death and severe financial difficulties. It is all too personal for a bit of fat-busting entertainment.

"Dull" seems to be the consensus about Election 2016, although I'm not sure what anyone expected. Song-and-dance routines? Mud wrestling? Shouldn't politics be dull, like in the old days when banking was dull – which we know now to have been a good thing? The three-week campaign hasn't made for captivating TV, although there's a blooper tape to be made that might give us a laugh, among them, this week, Leo Varadkar getting biffed on the head by the roving TV camera during the "we're down with the young people" debate (RTÉ Facebook Election Special, Sunday) and the ominous creaky floors that lie beneath in the Prime Time Leaders Debate (RTÉ One, Tuesday).

For a moment the viewing numbers stray into Late Late Toy Show territory: we truly are gluttons for punishment. The most curious thing about that debate is the pompous, self-important opening segment, with its grainy archive footage and melodramatic voiceover. All that's missing is Mise Eire swelling in the background. It feels less like a political-debate opener and more like the national broadcaster bigging up its role in the election and generally laying claim to this sort of thing.

TV3 has had a good election because it got in there with the first leaders’ debate, which was shouty, full of petty needles and answers to questions that weren’t asked. It proved how pointless these debates are: do they change minds or inform anybody? And the initial one undermined the value of the two major RTÉ debates that followed.

Next time there has to be a better, more viewer-enlightening TV way.

Ones to Watch: Murderous looks and Celtic fire

I'm slightly concerned that all the publicity photographs for Murder: The Third Voice (BBC Two, Thursday) feature the actors staring scarily at the camera. But it might be one to watch, if only as it stars Peter McDonald (right) and is directed by the Dane Birger Larsen.

Now that the election is in its final stages we’re almost free to get back to 1916 – and Fire in the Blood: The Revivalists (RTÉ One, Monday) explores the Celtic Revival. Each of the four episodes focuses on one person who played a central role it, starting with Lady Gregory.