The Ipcress File Abandons Its Satirical Roots for Spy Thriller Hijinks

The drama is engaging, but fans of the book should prepare for a wildly different story.


The Ipcress File. Available now on AMC+.

If there were some kind of multimedia award for most screenplay adaptations that have literally nothing to do with the source material, The Ipcress File would be the hands-down winner. (Okay, okay, Frankenstein would be a strong contender, too.) It started as an act of revenge. British novelist Len Deighton has been fired off the film Dr. No over "creative differences" and wrote a tongue-in-attache-case book deconstructing the whole James Bond ethos.

Deighton's hero—who didn't even have a name—was a scruffy working-class lout who spent less time fighting the Russkies than he did his own intelligence agency's bureaucracy. To everybody's amazement (certainly including Deighton's), the book was a huge hit and was turned into a 1965 film starring Michael Caine. It kept the novel's mocking tone but not much of its plot, and each of its four sequels drifted further afield.

The newest incarnation of The Ipcress File, a miniseries that opened on AMC+ this week (the show is a BBC production that aired there earlier this year), would be scarcely recognizable to readers of the original novel. Although it has an occasional nod to the bean-counting desk jockeys who tormented that nameless spy in Deighton's book—when he drags himself into the office, half-dead from a car-bomb assassination attempt, their main concern is an expense-account entry for a couple of glasses of sherry—this Ipcress File is pretty much a straightforward Cold War spy drama of the type that Deighton was lampooning.

And it's a pretty serviceable one at that. What this Ipcress File lacks in dry humor it mostly makes up for in cunning espionage twists and turns. Set in 1963, when the first spies were beginning to come in from the cold, it has hints of the cynicism that would soon color the genre as well as much public thinking about intelligence and the Cold War. Yet even if doubts were starting to surface, the Cold War of the time was mostly seen as a morally unambiguous struggle between two views of civilization, democracy, and the Reds, Ours, and Theirs.

The Ipcress File is a nearly perfect time capsule of that era. Its spies lock up anybody they want for any reason they want, practice ruthless sexual blackmail, and break into homes as if they're veteran burglars, which indeed they are. When one newbie asks nervously if breaking and entering is allowed, a veteran wordlessly hands him a pair of plastic gloves. Regrets, too, are mostly unspoken. When their extortion of the pregnant mistress of a Soviet diplomat results in a coat-hanger abortion ending in her death, one of the Brit spies goes to her funeral. But is he really there to atone, or just to surveil? The accuracy extends to the show's costuming and art direction; The Ipcress File not only feels like the early 1960s, but it also looks like them, too.

British TV regular Joe Cole plays Harry Palmer, The Ipcress File's no-longer-unnamed protagonist. A blue-collar kid whose class background, it's implied, has blocked him from promotion even though he's a math genius and a decorated Korean War veteran, Palmer is a British corporal who's plundering American supplies and selling them to the Soviet bloc. Busted, he winds up in a British military prison, only to get a provisional offer of freedom if he'll help the Brits track down a missing nuclear physicist.

The physicist has been working on the construction of a neutron bomb, a high-radiation weapon with a small blast radius but a wide footprint of lethal radiation. (The neutron bomb plotline feels anachronistic, but though the weapon didn't get much publicity until the Carter White House mistakenly made it a line item in the Energy Department budget in the late 1970s, conceptually it had been around since 1959.) The Brits think their physicist, willingly or not, is in Russian hands,  and they're anxious to retrieve him before the Americans—still, a bit peeved over all the secrets plundered by Kim Philby and his chums—find out what's going on.

Palmer has been offered his get-out-jail-free-card because one of the Soviet-bloc players in his smuggling operation, a nine-fingered ferocity known only as Housemartin (played with gleeful villainy by the East German-born actor Urs Rechn), is believed to be the one holding the physicist, and nobody else knows how to find him. Palmer's new boss Major Dalby (Tom Hollander, The Night Manager), head of an obscure British intelligence agency known as WOOC(P), thinks Palmer's larcenous skills will translate well into spy work. But that's a mixed blessing. Asked by a superior if they can really trust Palmer, Dalby replies, "Almost certainly not."

That sets the stage for a series of double-, triple- and quadruple crosses by almost everybody involved in the entire scenario, including the Soviets and East Germans. The treachery is magnificently enhanced by the fact that most of the characters are outsiders in one way or another with limited institutional loyalty. Palmer, obviously, is poised to bolt from his custody at the first opportunity.

But his capable WOOC(P) partner Jean Courtney (Lucy Boynton, Borgia), undervalued by nearly everybody for her gender, seethes with concealed anger. And CIA officer Paul Maddox (Ashley Thomas, 24: Legacy), who gets wind of the operation when the British need American logistical help, is an isolated black man in an overwhelmingly white agency.) An occasional glimpse of a movie-theater marquee advertising The Manchurian Candidate is a reminder of the fragility of personal identity in the spy game.

The excellence of the cast (particularly Boynton, playing an intriguing character not present in any previous version of The Ipcress File) lends weight to this series, which, even if it lacks the satiric edge of the original novel, is a well-executed addition to the spy genre. The Ipcress File completed production months before the current unpleasantness in Ukraine got underway. But it may well provide a blueprint for a new wave of espionage thrillers in which the old Soviet Union provides a useful metaphor for the new Russia. There's no character named Vlad in The Ipcress File, but there might as well be.