Monday, August 5, 2019

Spy Game: Mr. Palfrey of Westminster

Alec McCowen as Mr. Palfrey.
His enemies call him a rattlesnake. His boss compares him to a terrier. And his assistant describes him as "prissy." They all agree, though, that Mr. Palfrey is an extraordinary spy hunter--though he claims that he is simply a civil servant.

Set in the 1980s, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster is a first-rate, cerebral espionage drama that aired for two seasons on Thames Television in Great Britain and on PBS in the U.S. Star Alec McCowen first appeared as Palfrey in an episode of the anthology show Storyboard called "The Traitor."

In the opening episode of the Mr. Palfrey, our protagonist learns that his department has been reorganized and he has a new boss--known only as the Coordinator--who answers directly to the Prime Minister. The Coordinator is a woman, a fact which has no bearing to Palfrey, but which irks many of his sexist male colleagues.

Caroline Blakiston.
Under the reorganization, Palfrey has a new (smaller) office, a secretary (for three days a week), and a "legman" named Blair to perform tasks such as surveillance. Initially, the Coordinator directs Blair (Clive Wood) to spy on Palfrey and report back to her. That's a short-lived directive, though, as Blair develops loyalty to his new boss and the Coordinator (Caroline Blakiston) learns why Palfrey has such a stellar reputation.

The plots revolve around defectors, suspected spies, blackmail, and cover-ups. Palfrey and the Coordinator frequently clash over how to handle their assignments. He isn't afraid to challenge her (always politely) and often chooses his own path to achieve the desired outcome.

For example, in the episode "Return to Sender," Palfrey is directed to convince a former defector to return to the Soviet Union. If the man is unwilling to leave, then Palfrey is to silence him permanently. It is an official act of murder that Palfrey and Blair are willing to do--grudgingly. Fortunately, the resourceful Palfrey employs another equally effective method to get the job done.

Clive Wood as Blair.
One of the most entertaining aspects of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster is how it develops its characters slowly, revealing snippets here and there about their background. We know that the gentlemanly Palfrey has a dog (a Golden Retriever named Jess), likes to fish, has few close friends, and respects women. He may occasionally enjoy the company of a certain female defector. Other than that, Palfrey seems focused solely on his job. Blair is even more an enigma, though one episode reveals a serious relationship in his past. Rough around the edges, Blair does have aspirations of career progression.

Alec McCowen, with his quick wit and intelligent eyes, is perfectly cast as Palfrey. A highly-respected stage actor, American audiences may remember him best as the Scotland Yard inspector in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, as Q in the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again, and opposite Maggie Smith in Travels With My Aunt.

Following the cancellation of Mr. Palfrey, Clive Wood played Blair again in a episode of Storyboard called "A Question of Commitment." It served as a TV series pilot, but a regular show was not commissioned. Blair--without Palfrey--didn't prove to be interesting enough.


Caftan Woman said...

I missed this back in the day, and it sounds like just my cup of tea. Thanks for the introduction.

Silver Screenings said...

How on earth do you find such great series such as this one? Like Caftan Woman said, this one appears to be my cuppa.

Unknown said...

I agree with those above. Another wonderful, below the radar, find. Thanks for doing all of the leg work to support my binge watching.

toto2 said...

Alec McCowen makes a picture perfect Palfrey. I am thrilled to see him written about at the Cafe!

artemis said...

Excellent review! It sums up the program superbly. Thank you!