How utterly captivating is “Game, Set and Match,” the 12-part PBS spy thriller premiering under the “Mystery!” banner at 9 p.m. Thursday on Channels 28 and 15?
As you watch “Game, Set and Match,” you become “Game, Set and Match.” At least I did, popping cassette after cassette into the VCR, and after a while absorbing it, feeling it, thinking it, speaking it.
“How long have I been sitting here?” I asked.
I removed my spectacles and wiped them, then put them back on and studied the weary face of British agent Bernard Samson on the television screen.
“Six hours,” said my wife. She was bent over with her arms resting on the side of the set, her head slumped on it.
On the screen, Samson was at Checkpoint Charlie, waiting for the dogs to bark. Barking dogs were usually the first sign of something happening on the other side of the wall in the Eastern Sector. That’s why Samson kept the car windows open; that’s why he was frozen nearly to death.
Six hours! Had it been that long since I began watching this Granada Television version of Len Deighton’s 1980s trilogy, “Berlin Game,” “Mexico Set” and “London Match”? Seven hours remained. I wished it were longer. It had all passed so quickly. Everything had passed so quickly.
“The actor you’re watching wasn’t a star, the spy thriller you’re watching hadn’t been written, and we thought you’d last only a few days when you first started reviewing television,” my wife said. “We were stupid kids, but it was better then, wasn’t it?”
Like Samson, I revealed no emotion. “It’s always better when you’re young, Fiona,” I said.
“Fiona is Samson’s wife; I’m Carol,” my wife said.
On the screen, Samson wiped a spyhole of clear glass in the windshield so that he could see into the glare of fluorescent lighting as he sat in his car, a tape recorder wired into the battery and a mike taped behind the sun visor and a borrowed revolver making an uncomfortable bulge under his arm.
I heard barking dogs. They were my neighbor’s.
Yes, that captivating.
From KGB super mole Kim Philby on down, actual British spy cases have whet our appetites for stories about secret agents on both the fast-food and gourmet levels. “Game, Set and Match” is the latter, earning a hallowed place just below those other great-and-gloomy espionage epics from British television, “Reilly: Ace of Spies” and the John le Carre stories “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “Smiley’s People.”
Le Carre’s “A Perfect Spy” last fall was a miniseries to behold as well, but had less to do with the act than with the mentality of spying, in contrast with a classic espionage tale like “Game, Set and Match.”
Suspenseful. Baffling. Twisty. Elegantly murky. Grandly bleak. Wonderfully mounted and acted. All of these apply to “Game, Set and Match.” Be prepared for your heart to break, your spine to tingle.
The two-hour premiere is followed by weekly hourlong episodes, all threaded by the presence of the shrewd and capable, but unheroic Samson (Ian Holm). “All I want is to put my feet up at home and never be frightened,” he says.
He does neither for long.
A former top agent in Berlin who created a high-grade spy network in the East, Samson is now a field man beset by desk men, bureaucratic fools who are as interested in protecting their personal fiefdoms as in insulating the British secret service from the KGB.
Flashback: After a mission in Poland goes sour, Samson is given a sedentary desk job at London Central, where his skills atrophy and he is ultimately outranked by his cool, efficient wife, Fiona, who runs the espionage agency’s data processing center known as the Yellow Submarine.
Now it’s five years later. Burned out and feeling dead inside, Samson is ordered back into East Berlin to plug a security leak and learn the identity of a KGB mole in London Central. Wearily and reluctantly, he complies.
This is Deighton’s typically gray, overcast, unglamorous milieu, where there are no superheroes, only characters who are flawed, vulnerable and and not necessarily noble. In novel after novel, Deighton peels back layers of deception, betrayal and ambiguity to expose the cold pragmatism of espionage. On both sides of the wall, this is a pretty crummy bunch.
With John Howlett providing the script and Ken Grieve and Patrick Lau the direction, all of Deighton’s finely honed staples work against panoramic international locales. If you’re an Anglophile or love complex spy stories, this is for you.
There are double agents, an apparent defector and class strata within the spy class, as Samson himself is ultimately suspected as a traitor and his children become pawns in the East-West struggle. To say any more would spoil the fun.
The casting of Holm as Samson was unlikely, but inspired. That he’s a head shorter and 15 years older than Samson is supposed to be makes him all the more intriguing as the pivotal character in a spy story. It’s a beautifully muted performance of economy and irony, coming largely in the silences that are Samson’s main currency of communication.
Harassed by superiors who question even his expense accounts and by a cruel father-in-law who wants to control his children, Samson is someone you pull for precisely because he is so battered and wounded. His shoulders sag with resignation and his eyes are the empty eyes of a man who, literally and figuratively, has crossed over the wall too many times.
Backing Holm are the usual impeccable supporting actors who populate the best of British drama. Most notably there are Mel Martin as Fiona; Michael Degen as Samson’s resourceful German friend, Werner; Brigitte Karner as Werner’s scheming wife; Anthony Bate as the Anglicized American spy chief Bret Rensselaer; Michael Culver as Samson’s comically trendy superior, Dicky Cruyer; Frederick Treves as Berlin Station head Frank Harrington and John Gottfried as KGB Major Erich Stinnes, arguably the story’s most fascinating character next to Samson.
Inevitably, also, there is the big performance in a tiny role that bowls you over, such as Eva Ebner as Samson’s old friend in Berlin, the red-headed Lisl Hennig.
There are instances where “Game, Set and Match” confuses or meanders. The story noticeably drops off in focus, pace and and suspense when the setting initially shifts to Mexico, for example. There are times, also, when Samson and his colleagues seem too loose-tongued in public and when relationships aren’t entirely in sync. And, far down the line, the story’s rousing climax raises more questions than it answers.
Almost all times, however, this is exciting, irresistible television, an enthralling study of a man on the edge who is struggling with life, his job and himself.
“You are quiet like a grave,” Lisl tells Samson.
“I am a grave,” he replies.