After many years in development, Spooks was eagerly picked up by the BBC when it was retooled following the 2001 World Trade Center attack. Advertised with the slogan 'MI5 not 9 to 5', it has successfully updated espionage drama for British television with topical storylines ripped from the headlines, revitalising a genre moribund since the close of the Cold War.
Slick and highly polished, it resembles such American spy shows as 24 (2001-10), notably in its use of split-screen, and Alias (2001-06), which also emphasise the youth, vigour and idealism of its spy heroes. A gimmick that is all its own, however, is the total absence of any onscreen credits. Those wishing to find out who appears in the series or the names of production staff have to look online or buy the DVDs.
Developed by David Wolstencroft, with considerable input from dramatist Howard Brenton, the series follows the lives of young and sexy MI5 agents, the initial focus being on Tom Quinn, Zoe Reynolds and the cherubic Danny Hunter, as they contend with internecine plots from terrorist organisations, as well as betrayals from their 'partners' in MI6 and the CIA.
Matthew MacFadyen is an inexpressive actor at the best of times, but his perpetual poker face proves to be a considerable asset in Spooks, where his character has to negotiate multiple identities in both his assignments and his chaotic private life.
The series is frequently cynical, as when the team recovers $20 billion in stolen US aid from the Russian mafia and then hands it to the NHS rather than return it; this attitude also extends to the characters. Spooks really took off with its second episode, in which Helen (Lisa Faulkner), a sympathetic and seemingly regular character, was gruesomely despatched via a deep-fat fryer. Senior officer Tessa Phillips is subsequently revealed as corrupt, while Ruth Evershed is later exposed as a GCHQ mole. Even Tom seemingly goes rogue in the series two cliff-hanger, shooting his boss Harry (a scene-stealing turn by Peter Firth) before swimming out to sea. By series four, the central trio played by MacFayden, Keely Hawes and David Oyelowo were replaced by a new group of characters, led by the seemingly unlikely husband-and-wife team of Adam and Fiona Carter.
Originally American jargon for spies, more recently the term 'spooks' has acquired pejorative racial connotations, so for broadcast there it was renamed MI-5.