The Ipcress File: Joe Cole shines in handsomely staged Harry Palmer revival

·Contributor
·5-min read
JOE COLE as Harry Palmer,LUCY BOYNTON as Jean Courtney,TOM HOLLANDER as William Dalby and ASHLEY THOMAS as Paul Maddox in The Ipcress File (ITV)
Ashley Thomas (Paul Maddox), Joe Cole (Harry Palmer), Lucy Boynton (Jean Courtney), and Tom Hollander (William Dalby) star in The Ipcress File (ITV)

It's as if the Berlin Wall had not crumbled. With the forces of the West poised against Russian expansionist aggression, ITV’s television adaptation of Len Deighton’s 1962 satirical spy novel, The Ipcress File could not have been better timed.

Joe Cole, an emerging British acting talent best known for Peaky Blinders and Gangs of London, plays a fresh-faced version of Harry Palmer. Nameless in the series of original novels, the chippy British agent was monikered “Harry” after James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman, who brought the book to life in the 1965 movie of the same name.

Saltzman cast Michael Caine in a career-defining star-making vehicle. Canadian Sidney J. Furie innovated cinema with his resourceful anti-Bond direction: Dutch angles, cleverly framed stylistic compositions with large foregrounds finding satire in the class-bound mundanity of everyday espionage.

Michael Caine on the set of 'The Ipcress File', 21st September 1964. (Photo by Ron Burton/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Michael Caine on the set of 'The Ipcress File', 21st September 1964. (Ron Burton/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Caine as Palmer returned in 1966's Funeral in Berlin – helmed by Goldfinger’s Guy Hamilton — and in 1967's Billion Dollar Brain, extravagantly directed by Ken Russell. Later, less memorably, Caine revived the character in the forgettable TV movies Midnight in St Petersburg (1995) and Bullet to Beijing (1996). The latter would co-star Sean Connery’s son Jason in a meta-piece of casting. Joe Cole has a big trench coat to fill.

Read more: Where was The Ipcress File filmed?

The mini-series has creative room to manoeuvre thanks to the run time though. The novel, a complex tale of using the IPCRESS process to scrub the brains of much needed Western scientists by the East, was memorable not for its plot. The USP of Palmer’s comprehensive school spook is his wry negotiation of the social labyrinth of the Secret Service.

Joe Cole as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (ITV)
Joe Cole as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File (ITV)

ITV’s handsome period version enjoys setting up Palmer’s post-World War II backstory. As a black marketeer in Berlin, the German-speaking Palmer is imprisoned and then left with little option but to join an obscure department of intelligence, Palmer is introduced to Deighton’s Downton Abbey of socially sneer-y spies.

Tom Hollander as Dalby, the M of the piece, is appropriately snobbish and the perfect foil for Palmer. Lucy Boynton has fun as Jean Courtney is Palmer’s department superior whom he finds coolly desirable. Their relationship has a slow-burn chemistry.

Paul Higgins (Minister) and Tom Hollander (William Dalby) in The Ipcress File (ITV)
Paul Higgins (Minister) and Tom Hollander (William Dalby) in The Ipcress File (ITV)

Ashley Thomas as Palmer’s African-American Berlin CIA contact sets out his credentials forcefully whilst David Dencik, fresh from 007 duty in No Time To Die plays East German defector General Stok with practised aplomb.

Read more: Tom Hollander talks triple acting duty in The King's Man

Joe Cole plays Palmer with an amused, detached insouciance, if a touch fresh faced. Cole manages to create a likeable rogue of a spy and is young enough to mature into the role should the show go on to adapt the several other Deighton ‘Palmer’ books.

The Ipcress File (ITV)
Joe Cole's Harry Palmer is apprehended in The Ipcress File (ITV)

Executive produced by Harry Saltzman’s late daughter, Hilary and son, Steven, the show is directed by James Watkins (McMafia) with a keen eye.

He nods to the style of the original movie with titled framing but has the luxury of time to humanise the Cold War austerity. Written by John Hodge, Danny Boyle’s preferred scribe who incidentally penned an initial version of Daniel Craig’s final Bond film, the series is good at Cold War world building, show-casing Sixties Britain and an emerging new world order.

Lili Lea Abraham’s production design and Keith Madden’s costumes recreate the period steel and glass of Berlin and the grim London in Liverpool. However, this Ipcress File trumps its film predecessor by being able to open out in the once-Communist climes of Croatia, conveyed by artful cinematography.

Lucy Boynton in The Ipcress File (ITV)
Lucy Boynton in The Ipcress File (ITV)

Tom Hodge’s score has the unenviable task of overcoming the memory of John Barry’s original Mittel Europe-themed masterpiece. The show on the whole has managed to bring pithy insight contemporising a period tale.

Steven Saltzman previously explained the enduring allure of the character to his father whose vision brought Deighton’s work to life, "Harry [Saltzman] liked the anti-hero. I think there’s a very good link between Harry’s films with Look Back in Anger and the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas.

After five weeks of filming in Harry Saltzman's Billion Dollar Brain in subzero Finland, actor Michael Caine as cockney spy Harry Palmer came face to face with the Brain at Pinewood Studios where a £150 000 Honeywell computer is the basis of a remarkable set occupying the entire soundstage, 16th March 1967. (Photo by Victor Crawshaw /Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Michael Caine as cockney spy Harry Palmer (Victor Crawshaw /Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

"This is not glamour business at all. You’re in the trenches, people are employees, they’re not paid well and they can be hit and they can be hurt – they’re at risk. With Harry Palmer there was risk at every turn, the most personal, emotional risk."

Shorn of Cold War context, ITV’s well-mounted production shines with intelligent, depth of storytelling. Joe Cole’s cheeky, chippy performance as Harry Palmer will intrigue and entertain a new generation of, alas it seems, Cold warriors.

The Ipcress File, starts at 9pm on Sunday, March 6, on ITV.

Watch a trailer below.