Caroline Frost
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TV REVIEW: Modern Spies Debunks Some Modern Myths, Creates Some New Ones At Heart Of MI5, MI6

Posted: 2/04/2012 22:51 Updated: 2/04/2012 23:08

We were told from the outset that no one in this programme could discuss specific operations, which was suitably thrilling in itself. However, what followed was an hour of behind-the-scenes revelations which made me quite comfy in my remaining ignorance.

Everyone in the programme, including three intelligence officers in silhouette and with over-voices (one of which sounded suspiciously like Daniel Craig, quite fun), was at pains to debunk all the myths associated with MIs 5 and 6.

This was an excuse to show some quick clips from Bond and Spooks, although, apparently, it’s nothing like as exciting as those fictional counterparts. This was emphasised by lots of chat with William Hague, whose Foreign Office gig means he signs off on any Bond-like action at MI6 – and it’s true, a man as far away from our fantasies of 007 it may be harder to invent.

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Also out-dated is the ‘tap on the shoulder’ recruiting technique, probably in the Oxbridge cloisters. This HR exercise was properly kicked to the kerb in the light of 9/11, when the security services realised their personnel needed to catch up with the diverse and home-grown community of malefactors around them.

This programme was at its best when detailing the daily lives of those who dedicate themselves to the protection of their countries, if not necessarily ours. The story of the Russian sleeper cell unit who conducted an American-pie existence for the best part of 15 years - jobs in Manhattan, children in school – was mind-boggling, but I wasn’t as surprised as their neighbours when the truth emerged. “If someone had told me Martians were living next door, I would have believed that first,” said one, while another argued, “They can’t possibly be spies. Just look at their hydrangeas.”

The programme all too quickly eschewed the topics of spycraft in favour of political hot potatoes – war justified by the protestations of Colin Powell, the proof of Saddam’s WMD, all based on the lies of one ‘rogue source’ Curveball, who smiled when this was pointed out during an absorbing interview.

But this was a new angle on an old subject. More affecting was hearing the loneliness at first hand of those British officers who spend hours and weeks on surveillance – “my worst nightmare? Missing it” – and months digging through mountains of paperwork to build a jigsaw of intelligence to keep the country safe.

A bit like goalkeepers, they’re only defined by the ones they let in, in MI5’s case the black day of 7/7, while the rest of the time they have to celebrate in silence. ‘Michael’ is an intelligence officer who spends his days recruiting and running potential spy-sources overseas, where, he says, “we wouldn’t get very far if we were timid”.

At dinner parties, however, this becomes “working for the government, which I try to make sound so boring no one asks any more questions”. You can just imagine the whispering in the kitchen on such occasions…”not Michael again, yawn.”

Modern Spies continues next Monday.

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