TV review: The Little Drummer Girl

Jenni Frazer revisits the 70s with the BBC's new John Le Carre adaptation


If there is an overriding impression to take away from John le Carre’s epic thriller The Little Drummer Girl, it is the dismal whiff of cigarettes and failure.

The Le Carre novel, published in 1983, was set in 1979. And anyone who lived through the 70s will remember the decade for one thing — it was brown.

Yes, the 1970s, the era that style forgot, was brown. Luggage was brown, shirts were brown, jackets, coats and shoes, and even furniture. All was brown and depressing and the director of this new TV version, Korea’s Park Chan-Wook, has done a bang-up job in reminding viewers of the sheer vile brown-ness of the time.

As with last year’s Le Carre hit, The Night Manager, there is a fair amount of flashing around between exotic locations, but whereas The Night Manager was set in the present day and thus full of heady technology, Drummer Girl is a spy thriller without so much as a mobile phone to its name.

Instead Martin Kurtz, our Israeli spymaster, (Michael Shannon, clad from head to foot in, yes, brown) has to assemble a ramshackle Mossad team with a variety of skills which do not depend on computers. His mission is to catch a Palestinian terrorist, Khalil, who is busily killing Jews in Europe.

Khalil has just wiped out an Israeli family in Bad Godesburg, in the diplomatic quarter of Bonn, West Germany, and we first meet Kurtz when he goes in to debrief the Israeli survivor.

Khalil, we learn, is one of four Palestinian brothers, and Kurtz’s big idea is to recruit a young and desirable non-Jewish girl (Florence Pugh, who plays Charlie) as bait to attract the youngest brother, Salim — and thus provide the Israelis with leverage over Khalil the bomber. Khalil seems quite keen on using young women as lures, too — it was the 1970s, after all — but I do wish the women had looked a bit different from each other, since I spent considerable time mistaking one honey-trapper for Charlie. And there is a lot of attention paid to watches. By their timepieces shall ye know our Israelis, and our Palestinians, and our dupes.

Charlie — based on Le Carre’s own actress half-sister, Charlotte Cornwell — is a 22-year-old playing St Joan in half-empty London fringe theatres. Bizarrely, nobody in her theatre company questions the identity of the generous “donor” who pays for the entire troupe to go to Greece, ostensibly to rehearse their next production, but more probably to spend a hedonistic time on Naxos beach.

But Charlie, full of radical politics like most 22-year-olds, is being set up from afar by Martin Kurtz. He is a Holocaust survivor, as he tells a West German police chief, and that means he has scores to settle.

So, as the camera pans over a dark office in Mossad HQ in Tel Aviv, in which state-of-the-art daisywheel typewriters sit in serried ranks next to a group of coloured dial telephones — I said this was a tech-free series — we learn of Kurtz’s plan. He has an Israeli spy in the field, Becker, played by Alexander Skarsgard, and an understandably confused Charlie will be asked to act falling in love with the Palestinian Salim — while in fact falling for the dark and brooding Becker.


There is a fairly scary car scenario at the end of the episode in which a terrified Charlie is screaming for her driver to slow down, and I was screaming at the pair of them to put seatbelts on. Then I remembered that seatbelts weren’t compulsory wear until 1983.

Charlie, by the way, is wearing a yellow dress in this scene, presumably on the grounds that if she threw up on brown, you wouldn’t be able to tell.







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