As they watch a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his chest walk through a London that feels on the brink of political collapse, some viewers may suspect that the new TV adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Secret Agent, has been tweaked to maximise contemporary relevance.
Those elements, though, are in the original, making the BBC1 three-parter – with Toby Jones as Verloc, an anarchist who becomes involved in a plot to blow up Greenwich Observatory – the latest example of Conrad’s story becoming a prism through which modern political insecurities are viewed. It is a tactic that goes back to 1936, when Alfred Hitchcock filmed the story, under the title Sabotage, as a reflection of the developing political pressures in Europe.
Ever since, the years that sees an adaptation of The Secret Agent is unlikely to have been a good one for democracy. The BBC put the book on the screen twice in quick succession, in 1967 and 1975, straddling an era of international instability, marked by the rise of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, student riots in France and assassinations in the US. There had even been, in the early 70s, a period of actual anarchist terrorism in England, with bombings carried out by the Angry Brigade.
When the BBC again filmed the novel in 1992, with David Suchet as Verloc, The Secret Agent again felt uncannily suited to a period of legislative turmoil and fear of terrorism: four years previously Pan Am flight 103 had exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland in a bombing attributed to Libya, and the series aired during a spell in which governments were tumbling around the world, including those of Margaret Thatcher and the first President Bush, who had been undermined by a populist drive against the political establishment led by a billionaire political outsider, Ross Perot. [Read More]