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Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983)

Courtesy of FremantleMedia

Main image of Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983)
Euston Films/Mobil Oil for ITV, 5/9-16/11/1983
1 x 90 minutes, 11 x 60 minutes episodes, colour
DirectorJim Goddard
 Martin Campbell
Executive ProducerVerity Lambert
ProducerChris Burt
ScriptTroy Kennedy Martin

Cast: Reilly (Sam Neill); Zaharov (Leo McKern); Cummings (Norman Rodway); Fothergill (Peter Egan); Margaret (Jeananne Crowley); Insp Tsientsin (David Suchet); Grammaticoff (Brian Protheroe); Narrator (Michael Bryant)

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The true-life adventures of Sidney Reilly, a British secret agent whose 25-year spying career came to an end when he unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the Bolsheviks in post-revolutionary Russia.

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By far the most ambitious project undertaken by Euston Films, the epic twelve-part mini-series Reilly, Ace of Spies (ITV) was an astonishing success when first shown in 1983, turning New Zealand actor Sam Neill into a household name. Although often fanciful, the script by Troy Kennedy Martin packs such tremendous excitement and intrigue into every episode that it comes as no surprise to learn that the entire production team had previously worked on The Sweeney (ITV, tx. 1975-78).

Directing duties were shared between action specialist Jim Goddard and the up-and-coming Martin Campbell, who would collaborate with Kennedy Martin once again on the classic drama Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1986).

The opening episode, 'An Affair with a Married Woman' (tx. 5/9/1983) sets up Reilly as a cool, calculating womaniser, a ruthless and cynical manipulator who won't let anyone stand in his way. It also introduces Basil Zaharoff, the munitions king, played with typical bravura by Leo McKern. For subsequent episodes Michael Bryant provides a narration to keep the sprawling 25-year narrative in check.

Reilly also features early TV performances by Bill Nighy, Lindsay Duncan and Joanna Whalley and provides strong roles for such established players as Tom Bell, David Burke (as Stalin) and Kenneth Cranham (particularly good as Lenin), with Ian Charleson appearing as Bruce Lockhart, whose son Robin wrote the book on which the series was based. Rather less successful is the politically incorrect casting (under heavy make-up) of the otherwise excellent David Suchet as Manchurian policeman Tsientin.

Reilly's beginnings as Sigmund Rosenblum, an illegitimate son from an upstanding family in Odessa, are explored in 'Anna' (tx. 21/9/1983), an excellent but contrived episode in which Reilly's searches for his errant wife (Jeananne Crowley) and an Australian oil magnate both lead to Paris, where he happens to find his long-lost sister, leading to a shattering conclusion with strong intimations of incest.

The series mainly deals with two phases of Reilly's career, the first concentrating on his endeavours to acquire access to adequate oil reserves for the British, the second dealing with his attempts to overthrow the Bolshevik authorities in Russia and set up a new government with himself at its head. This ultimately proved his undoing, leading to a moving finale in 'Shutdown' (tx. 16/11/1983).

The uncredited theme music, adapted from Dmitri Shostakovich's 'Romance' from The Gadfly (Russia, 1955), was so popular that it was released as a single.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Bolsheviks (6:08)
2. Sidney Reilly and Moscow (3:15)
3. The Socialist Party (2:15)
Complete episode: Part 1 (20:28)
Part 2 (19:23)
Part 3 (11:51)
Ashenden (1991)
Bell, Tom (1932-2006)
Clarke, Warren (1947-)
Goddard, Jim (1936-2013)
Martin, Troy Kennedy (1932-2009)
McKern, Leo (1920-2002)
Nighy, Bill (1949-)
Euston Films
Cold War Spies