On Being Betrayed by a Friend

Harry has been a very close and valued friend of mine for a number of years. I’m not blind to his many faults, but I’ve always regarded him as a man of integrity, and someone I could trust. So it came as a bitter blow to me when he calmly and coldly announced that he was personally responsible for the assassination of Princess Diana. 

Harry then went on to explain, with ruthless logic, that she had to die because she was a liability to the British state. And he showed no qualms or remorse as he carefully explained how the ‘hit’ was managed.

Then I noticed that Adam Carter was hiding a smile, and I began to wonder – was this a wind-up? My guess was confirmed when Harry  admitted that he was merely being ironical. Yes, he had been responsible for a worst-case-scenario exercise which explored ways of killing the Princess. But the death itself was an accident; not an MI5/MI6 conspiracy as some people foolishly believed.

My relief was mingled with chagrin, as I realised that I had once again got confused about the difference between reality and fiction…Because Harry Pearce is not in fact my friend. Nor have I ever met him; nor, in fact, does he exist.  He’s a fictional character in the hit BBC series Spooks; and the Princess Diana speech came in a Howard Brenton scripted episode at the end of series 4. 

I’ve always admired Spooks since its first audacious series.  But it is the later series which really capture my imagination, when the show developed an effortless ease and a deadly cutting edge.  It’s a show characterised by fabulously understated acting, in which a look or a grimace can speak a thousand volumes, and defined by high-octane storytelling in which twist follows twist and the energy level never dips.

I’ve been watching the show obsessively for the last few weeks, in preparation for a workshop in Bradford on film and television writing (organised by Hugo Heppel, of the enterprising regional screen agency, Screen Yorkshire.)  Normally I’m used to teaching groups of 3 or 4; but on this occasion I was addressing a lecture hall of 100 + keen would-be writers.  It was a nail-biting experience, but made easier because I shared the teaching load with the charismatic and fearless Simon Van Der Borgh, a screen writer, film analyst and teacher who (would you believe it! considering how amazingly young I look!!) was my student when I was a lecturer at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield.

Simon analysed film structure and showed clips from the movie Sideways; I analysed television drama structure, and showed the Princess Diana episode of Spooks in its entirety.  It was extraordinary to see how well the TV drama stood up to this kind of close scrutiny. The episode is virtually a stage play, taking place during a ‘lockdown’ in the series’ standing set. And there’s one prolonged scene which consists of a character (Zaf) talking us through how Diana died. There were no guns, no car chases, just one man talking and talking; but it was spell-binding…And the star of the episode was Lindsay Duncan,  who gave a masterclass in scary menace.

Harry argues that it’s not possible for men in his business to have friends – you can only have ‘colleagues you would die for.’  But so long as the show lasts, he’ll continue to be my pal, and trusted guide through the evil machinations of global politics….

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