Worricker (Bill Nighy) is on the run, now in Germany with ex-spy, ex-love Margot (Helena Bonham Carter) by his side. They’re stirring the embers of their faded romance and recalling all the quirks and peccadilloes they once found so endearing. (He doesn’t wash the lettuce properly! How adorable is that?) They live out of suitcases, yet seem to wind up nattily attired in some snazzy digs. It’s all a lark, really.
Still, Margot longs to return to England. And Worricker’s daughter (Felicity Jones) is due to give birth any moment, which gives him a reason to pine for home as well. This poses a dilemma. Going home would place them in the way of Prime Minister Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes), whom Worricker has embarrassed with accusations of financial and ethical impropriety.
Meanwhile, Worricker’s old colleague in the spy game Jill Tankard (Judy Davis) is performing all sorts of machinations that confirm the primary thesis of the Worricker series: The intelligence services run everything.
Salting the Battlefield, the final episode in the Worricker Trilogy on Masterpiece Contemporary, picks up some time after Turks & Caicos. It’s as unnecessarily complicated as the first two episodes, and as it takes us back to most of the players and activity in Page Eight (Part 1) it makes even less sense if you haven’t watched the trilogy from the beginning.
When we last saw Johnny Worricker and Margot Tyrrell, they were boarding a fishing boat in the Caribbean, two fugitives heading underground. Somehow they’ve made their way to Europe. (Surely not on that fishing boat.) Now they’re bouncing from place to place, designer luggage in hand, one step ahead of the secret service agents trying to track them down.
As long as we accept that politicians can’t surmount embarrassment, then we can accept that Worricker’s in deep trouble. However, if we believe that allegations of impropriety will do nothing to prevent the prime minister's political career from flourishing in the long run, then it’s hard to feel convinced that the stakes are terribly high.
So the PM, who sleeps with a biography of Margaret Thatcher on his bedside table, has connections to unsavory characters. Why would an experienced old spy like Worricker, who’s spent a career digging through the proverbial underwear of all sorts of people in high places, find this particularly outrageous? Surely, he’s encountered such things before.
Case in point: Deputy Prime Minister Anthea Catcheside (Saskia Reeves) is married to a guy who’s involved in some sort of bribery scandal with Ukraine. Why doesn’t that outrage Johnny? (This is not a question worth answering, apparently.)
It’s all very stylish and urbane—not, I would add, witty or realistic—but in the end Salting the Battlefield doesn’t succeed in making the scintillating and “profound” (to use writer/director David Hare’s word) statement it’s supposed to make.
We have a corrupt and largely incompetent secret service with an agenda, formulated by Jill Tankard, that appears to begin and end with bringing down the prime minister. This is puzzling because the prime minister, from what we can tell, is popular, successful, and supportive of the country’s intelligence activities. In fact, he’s responsible for Jill Tankard being in the position of power she now enjoys.
We have a prime minister who wants to fight terrorism through the efforts of the intelligence services. He also wants to catch Johnny Worricker, who reneged on a promise he made at the end of Page Eight. “What do we do when we’ve caught him,” he posits. “Getting him’s the easy bit. It’s what we do with him then…” Hint: It might involve sitting Worricker down and giving him a stern talking-to about political ideology.
We have Worricker, whose talents include strolling up the gangplank of a ferryboat while carrying two cases of wine in one hand. (Sorry, but that made me laugh.) He claims he’s not trying to bring down the government, merely trying to throw some light on the prime minister’s activities. He refuses to “be silent about lawlessness,” which sounds swell until you realize that all he’s really lighting is the path for the MP with the dodgy husband to become prime minister.
And the vessel Worricker has chosen to carry his light to the public is a powerful newspaper editor (Olivia Williams), who doesn’t appear to read or even know about what’s in her paper until after it’s published.
The cast, as always, is stellar. (No one does tough-as-nails like Judy Davis. I love her.) The story, not so much.
When he was interviewed about this series, David Hare said that the risk he was creating for Worricker was that his life would become unlivable—no money, no job, no place to feel safe. “That’s the threat, not a slug of metal in the stomach,” he said, “because when people burst into the room with a machine gun, I cease to be interested.” Except that so much time could have been saved if someone—anyone—had just disposed of Johnny Worricker. He’s an old, ex-spy. Few people ever knew he existed. Who would notice if he disappeared? Who would care?
As Stirling Rogers (Rupert Graves) says, “Some rogue MI5 agent with a file? Is that what the prime minister of Great Britain should be worrying about first thing in the morning?” Absolutely not, if you ask me, but no one asked me.
Viewer reaction to the Worricker Trilogy seems to be mixed, with universal adoration for Bill Nighy and lukewarm response to the story itself. What’s your opinion?
Leslie Gilbert Elmanis the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter@leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.