15 essential spy TV series

I spy, with my little eye.

With an adaptation of John Le Carré’s Little Drummer Girl starting on BBC One this weekend, Berlin Station on More4, and the intriguing Counterpart on STARZPlay – as well as recent hits like The Americans and The Night Manager – the spy genre is alive and kicking.

Spy dramas tend to exist in their own little world, not unlike their real-life counterparts – they have their own vocabulary, structures and ways of working. And we’re not talking about the glorified, glossy version of espionage and counter-agents of the like you find in the likes of 24, Quantico or any number of US shows (although we do have two shows in our list that kind of subscribe to that approach). No, we mean proper spy dramas – rooted in the Cold War, they’re distinctly European, gritty, almost noir in tone, and full of taciturn men in beige offices looking out into the middle distance and smoking a lot. They’re gloomy, mundane and quietly dangerous.

Spy dramas aren’t strictly crime dramas, but because we’re enjoying a boom period in the genre, we thought we’d take a closer look.

Don’t agree with our list? Tell us your favourites!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
1979
Originally broadcast in the UK on BBC One
Starring: Alec Guinness, George Sewell, Ian Richardson
Probably the most iconic Le Carré adaptation, it starred the peerless Alec Guinness as George Smiley. In 1970s England the head of MI6, Control, dispatches an agent to meet with a Hungarian general who knows the identity of a Soviet spy in the organization’s ranks. However, the mission goes wrong, and the general dies before he can reveal the information. Undersecretary Oliver Lacon calls veteran agent George Smiley back from forced retirement to ferret out the mole and stop the flow of vital British secrets to the Russians.

The Night Manager
2016
Originally broadcast on BBC One
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Elizabeth Debicki, Olivia Colman
Hotel night porter Jonathan Pine is contacted by an intelligence operative who asks for his assistance to spy on international businessman Richard Roper. The entrepreneur is believed to have forged a criminal alliance between the secret arms trade and the intelligence community, prompting the need for surveillance. Pine attempts to infiltrate Roper’s inner circle by becoming a felon himself, while keeping his mission a secret from his hotel colleagues and girlfriend.

Homeland
2011
Originally broadcast in the UK on Channel 4
Starring: Clare Danes, Damian Lewis
How this managed to run for eight series is beyond us, but when it first started it was the talk of the time. When Marine Sgt Nicholas Brody (Lewis) returns home following eight years in captivity, CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Danes) thinks he has turned and is connected to a terror plot to be carried out on American soil, so she engages him in a dangerous game of cat and mouse that puts America’s national security at risk. Later on, Carrie gets a promotion and returns to the front lines overseas. She is assigned to one of the CIA’s most volatile and dangerous stations in the Middle East, where she is in the heart of battle in the war on terror. Years later, after being disillusioned and placing herself in a self-imposed exile in Berlin, Carrie becomes estranged from the CIA, eventually returning stateside where she works for a foundation providing aid to Muslims living in America.

Smiley’s People
1982
Originally broadcast in the UK on BBC One

Starring: Alec Guinness, Eileen Atkins, Bill Paterson
Alec Guinness returned as the iconic TV spy three years after Tinker Tailor… The murder of a Soviet defector forces his old handler, British spymaster George Smiley, out of retirement. His investigation leads to an old nemesis, the Soviet spymaster known only as Karla. 

A Perfect Spy
1987
Originally broadcast in the UK on BBC Two

Starring: Peter Egan, Ray McAnally, Rüdiger Weigang
This is the story of Magnus Pym, from his childhood to the end of his career in middle age. As a young man, there is little doubt that his father Rick was the most influential character in his life. Rick was a raconteur, con man, thief, black marketer and all in all, simply larger than life. From a young age, Rick included Magnus in his schemes and the young man learned that you would do anything for the ones you love. When a university student in Switzerland, Pym meets the other person who will have the greatest influence in his life, Axel, a Czech refugee. As Pym enters his career in the British Secret Service, his relationship with Axel and the values he developed in childhood lead him down his own path of betrayal and loyalty.

London Spy
2015

Originally broadcast in the UK on BBC Two
Starring: Ben Wishaw
American Crime Story: Gianni Versace’s Tom Rob Smith alerted us to his stellar talent with this recent, emotional story. It was the story of a Danny (Ben Wishaw), a party boy, who must delve into the world of espionage in order to uncover the truth behind his lover’s death. It turns out that the man he thought he knew was actually working for MI6, the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service. Now Danny finds himself trapped in a very dangerous world.

The Americans
2013
Originally broadcast in the UK on ITV

Starring: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are two KGB spies in an arranged marriage who are posing as Americans in suburban Washington, D.C., shortly after Ronald Reagan is elected president. The couple have two children, teenager Paige and preteen Henry, who are unaware of their parents’ true identities. The complex marriage becomes more passionate and genuine each day but is continually tested as the Cold War escalates. As Philip begins to warm up to America’s values and way of life, his relationship with Elizabeth becomes more complicated. Further complicating things is the arrival of the Jennings’ new neighbour, FBI agent Stan Beeman, who is part of a new division of the agency tasked with fighting foreign agents on U.S. soil. 

Spy Of Warsaw
2013
Originally broadcast in the UK on BBC Two
Starring: David Tennant, Janet Montgomery

Based on the novel of the same name by Alan Furst, Spies of Warsaw is the story of Jean-François Mercier, a French spy posing as a military attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw at the beginning of World War II. 1937, and Germany has not yet officially declared war. Mercier, a widower and World War I hero, is very focused on his assignment, but none of his superiors are willing to hear his reports that Germany is about to wage war. But the series isn’t all work–Mercier falls for Anna Skarbek, a lawyer for the League of Nations who is in a relationship with a Russian writer.

Spooks
2002
Originally broadcast in the UK on BBC One
Starring: Peter Firth, Nicola Walker, Matthew MacFadyen, Rupert Penry-Jones, Richard Armitage
One of the more revered British TV series of the Noughties, it gave us 10 series that mixed action, adventure and spies. A team of agents in the British security intelligence service work to protect the U.K. from terrorists and other threats to national security. A repackaged version of the BBC series “Spooks,” “MI-5” follows a counterterrorism unit based in the highly secure suite of offices called The Grid, where Harry Pearce oversees the team and deals with the often dirty politics of the spy game.

Alias
2001
Originally broadcast in the UK on Sky1
Starring: Jennifer Garner,
Jennifer Garner breathed new life into US spy dramas with this fun series from JJ Abrams, which ran for five seasons. A young woman learns she has a familial history of undercover work and agrees to become an international spy for a supposed secret branch of the CIA. The secrecy complicates her social and love lives, but it’s nothing compared to what happens when she finds out her employer has no ties to the CIA.

Deutschland 83 
2015
Originally broadcast in the UK on Channel 4
Starring: Jonas Nay, Maria Schrader, Ulrich Noethen
In a divided Germany in 1983, naive 24-year-old East German soldier Martin Rauch is pulled from his benign post as a border guard and given a new assignment: undercover spy for the Stasi foreign service in West Germany. Hiding in plain sight as Moritz Stamm in the West German army, Rauch must gather NATO military secrets. As he veers between father figures, love interests, and East and West Germany, nothing is quite what it seems and everyone he encounters is harbouring secrets, both political and personal. 

Callan
1967
Originally broadcast in the UK on ITV
Starring: Edward Woodward, Russell Hunter
It starred Edward Woodward as David Callan, an agent of a state secret service dealing with internal security threats to the United Kingdom. Though portrayed as having responsibilities similar to those of the real-life MI5, Callan’s fictional “Section” has carte blanche to use the most ruthless of methods. In the storylines interrogation is by means of torture, while extrajudicial killings are so routine they have a colour-coded filing system.

Danger Man
1960

Originally broadcast in the UK on ITV
Starring: Patrick McGoohan
John Drake works for a Washington DC-based intelligence organisation, apparently on behalf of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), whose assignments frequently took him to Africa, Latin America, and the Far East.  Quite someting for a TV series in 1960.

The Sandbaggers
1978
Originally broadcast in the UK on ITV
Starring: Roy Marsden, 
Set against a backdrop of mistrust and suspicion, ex-agent Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden) heads ‘the Sandbaggers’, an elite covert section of British Intelligence charged with maintaining national security, whilst trying to side-step interference from his political masters.

Reilly, Ace Of Spies
1983
Originally broadcast in the UK on ITV
Starring: Sam Neill, Jeanne Crowley
Sidney Reilly, a Russian Jew who became one of the greatest spies ever to work for the British. Among his exploits, in the early 20th century, were the infiltration of the German General Staff in 1917 and a near-overthrow of the Bolsheviks in 1918. His reputation with women was as legendary as his genius for espionage.

The Company
2007
Originally broadcast in the UK on ITV
Starring: Michael Keaton, Chris O’Donnell, Alfred Molina
Field agent Jack McAuliffe trains in Berlin with his cynical mentor, Harvey “The Sorcerer” Torriti, becoming a CIA “true believer” in the process. Meanwhile, Jack’s best friend, Leo Kritzky, skillfully navigates his way through the power maze of the Washington hallways of “the Company,” eventually becoming head of the CIA’s Soviet division. Ultimately, Jack and Leo find themselves on opposite sides of the Cold War with another old Yale classmate and friend, Russian-born Yevgeny Tsipin, who has accepted a position with the KGB. Jack occasionally clashes with James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s brilliant but obsessive counterintelligence specialist, but becomes close friends with English widow Elizabeth Nemeth while helping the Freedom Fighters in Budapest, Hungary.

 

 

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Peter Smith says:

    Deutschland 86 has just started on the Sundance channel here in the USA.

    Like

    1. Charlotte Carling says:

      Amazon Prime have already greenlit Deutschland 89. Planned for release in 2020.

      Like

  2. soulman1949 says:

    Great list, I’d forgotten about “Callan” and “The Sandbaggers”. The only addition I can think of is the 1960s series “Man in the Suitcase”. What’s interesting is how few spy series seem to exist, although there is no shortage of spy films. As the son of WW2 Polish refugees, the Cold War was very much part of my upbringing, so anything based around that era is of great interest to me.

    Like

  3. Danger Man – such an bad title, but what a series that was! Loved it.
    Some scenes of Spooks can wake me with horror at their embarrassingly English naivety.
    Alias, and Jennifer Garner’s strange ‘my father,’ – yes. Then she was a walk-in, only to discover…. Memorable.
    Loved Claire Danes, though. She made it for me.

    Like

  4. Le Bureau des Legendes is a must. The Romeo Section is also well worth a look. Good list, but The Night Manager? Seriously?

    Like

    1. Paul Hirons says:

      Yeah. It was significant because it brought the spy drama back into the national consciousness

      Like

      1. Fair point, but it was preposterous from start to finish. (Hugh Laurie was great though).

        Like

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