Tune in, switch off - Geeks with chic

20th November 2009 at 00:00

I last saw Peter Firth in the flesh, in pain and naked, on a sixth-form theatre trip in the 1970s. He was portraying Alan Strang, the deranged blinder of horses in Peter Shaffer's Equus. The pupils wondered how it passed the censor. Now here is Firth as Harry Pearce, the spy chief in Spooks (BBC One), where he again goes distressingly deep into the most painful areas of experience, testing moral boundaries. If there were a Bafta for long suffering, Firth would be unbeatable.

Spooks has the same formula that makes Stieg Larsson's novels best sellers: a convincing secret world, watched over by geeks using new tricks of surveillance to surprise. There are also ruthless young women like his heroine Lisbeth Salander - Ros and Jo are the blondes in black. Even the television newsreader was a bleached-haired, dark-dressed clone.

The flashback sequences in slow dream-time resembled those oddly coloured prints you get from the developers when you have bungled your camera settings. But there was no chance to get bored. In the first minutes of the new series we had a helicopter, handcuffings, fights, an execution and an amputated finger. All in the time it took for my kettle to boil. No wonder, as he faced a ruthless gunman, Harry tried to slow things down by asking to send a message to his family. I was ready for a break, too.

Expect the unexpected, and for it to be grim. His colleague Ruth was forced to watch - on a laptop - while her husband was murdered before pleading for her stepson's life to be spared. I always knew that computers were a pain - now they are weapons of torture as well.

Harry had the choice of allowing him to be shot or to tell their captors where the weapons-grade uranium was buried - a bomb that would kill not one but thousands of children. "I can only see mine in front of me," screamed Ruth, living every mother's nightmare.

His response to the kidnappers (he wouldn't say whether to kill the child or not) was super cool-callous, combined with a nifty goal-scoring kick to destroy the computer. Will Ruth ever forgive him? Actually, the computer he wrecked wasn't hers. But I'm watching mine now. It could be transmitting my every snooze.

Comedy Showcase: Campus (Channel 4) was also not for the squeamish. This wasn't so much A Very Peculiar Practice, the 1980s campus hit, as a series of peculiar practices from university vice-chancellor Jonty De Wolfe.

Towering over the campus - well, a model of it - De Wolfe contemplated making Kirke University so successful it would "gleam like a bleached anus in a line up of dirty arses". That could be a novel criterion to use when advising sixth formers on their Ucas applications.

Dreamer and schemer in academia, he mocked minorities that I thought had laws to protect them. He whinged and scoffed; I cringed and coughed. Depending on the censor, this could become a cult or a cut comedy.

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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