Aidan Smith's TV week: A Spy Among Friends (ITVX), The Confessions of Frannie Langton (ITVX), Branson (Sky Documentaries)

If your TV planner is anything like mine the shows are stacking like planes above a hectic airport. Or they’re debutantes at a ball silently mouthing “Choose me!”
Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce in A Spy Among FriendsDamian Lewis and Guy Pearce in A Spy Among Friends
Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce in A Spy Among Friends

They’re friends’ recommendations, eagerly-awaited second seasons, stuff you know you’ve love with just the right amount of “adult theme” warnings. Only life and something more important - the World Cup - has got in the way. So, er, are you ready for a brand new streaming service?ITVX launches with A Spy Among Friends which might have been shot in gloomy light out of sympathy for its audience, forced by the energy crisis to watch in the dark.

Mind you, 1963 was grim in itself. Sexual intercourse hadn’t begun, the Beatles hadn’t released their first LP - and MI5 were so poorly paid that Anna Maxwell Martin’s officer Lily Thomas is reduced to nicking the sugar from work.

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She has a key task: interrogating Nicholas Elliot to find out how he managed to lose Kim Philby in Beirut. As Thomas avers: “The most dangerous Soviet penetration agent this country has ever known legged it on your watch. Odds are to the Soviet Union who just a few months ago aimed missiles at America from Cuba.”

Karla Simone-Spence and Sopie Cookson in The Confessions of Frannie LangtonKarla Simone-Spence and Sopie Cookson in The Confessions of Frannie Langton
Karla Simone-Spence and Sopie Cookson in The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Philby you will know - the British intelligence officer who defected and became a KGB spy - but almost certainly not Elliott. Writer Ben Macintyre wasn’t aware of him until embarking on the book which begat this series. And yet Elliott and Philby were fast friends who went from Cambridge to MI6, addressed each other as “old bean” and “old socks” and were rarely without a silk scarf or a pink gin.

All the time, though, Philby was deceiving his good chum and everyone else by passing top secret intel to Moscow. The betrayal sent hundreds and perhaps thousands to their deaths. Guy Pearce, last seen in the Neighbours finale which turned out not to be the end after all, is a marvelously enigmatic Philby and Damian Lewis as Elliott, who you sense has been half in love with his bestie ever since being rescued by him from gentleman’s club rubble on the first night of the Blitz, displays affecting bafflement and hurt behind his Arthur Askey specs.

But just how baffled is he? Did old bean collude with old socks? MI6, says Thomas, operates like an elite society, secret by design but with yet more secrecy layered on top and no rules - “these being strictly for commoners like us here at MI5”.

Also on ITVX is The Confessions of Frannie Langton, equally involving and also from a bestselling book (by Sara Collins). The action opens in 1825 with a double murder in a Mayfair mansion and suspicion immediately falls on the former Jamaican slave.

Richard Branson is profiled for Sky DocumentariesRichard Branson is profiled for Sky Documentaries
Richard Branson is profiled for Sky Documentaries

Karla-Simone Spence shines as Langton who’s travelled from her plantation to be a maid for renowned scientist George Benham (Stephen Campbell Moore) and his French wife Marguerite (Sophie Cookson). “You were in your mistress’s bed,” points out the lawyer who takes up Langton’s case. “It’s where I always slept,” she says. “I loved her and she loved me.”

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Langton thinks her brief will try and get her off with “one of those slave histories, sugared over with misery and despair”. “That’s not my story,” she insists. In flashback, the Benhams’ marriage is described thus: “He can never be exciting enough for her and she can never be tame enough for him.” Marguerite and Frannie bond over poetry. As a friendship deepens, a business association unravels. Steven Mackintosh plays an extremely dodgy character who back in Jamaica had been involved in experiments on humans. The master of the house had sponsored the trials “for science, not savagery” and abruptly ends the arrangement, though our heroine won’t accept he’s not culpable.

I’ve interviewed Richard Branson twice. The first time was on a Caribbean junket to launch new Virgin flights when, as was his trademark, he grabbed an air hostess and spun her through 180 degrees. There were lots of journos on that jaunt and, when it came to the second time in Edinburgh some years later, I was sure he wouldn’t remember our earlier encounter. “Great to see you again! How are you?” he gushed, clearly having been briefed. Still, it was a nice touch, and evidence of a good team behind him, most of whom, I seem to remember, were Scottish.

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Uppermost among them is his wife Joan. He fell for her right away, although as she explains in Branson (Sky Documentaries), his circle took a bit longer to be won over: “Most of Richard’s friends were public school and his granny didn’t like the fact he was going out with a working-class Glaswegian.”

This profile is perhaps a riposte to The Elon Musk Show recently on the BBC and Branson’s rival as the pre-eminent space-obsessed maverick mogul. A hagiography? Well, in lamenting how the first Mrs Branson ran off with a musician, he neglects to mention that after some friendly neighbourhood wife-swapping he’d nicked her from Kevin Ayres.

There’s also, among the archive footage from his rock impresario days, Branson admitting he wasn’t really a music-lover but made sure he had “great people” around him who were. And by the way, I played a small part in keeping him afloat. It was sales from his shops like the one in Edinburgh’s Thistle Street - my favourite prog-rock emporium with entire Saturday afternoons spent clamped to headphones - which enabled him to pay off the instalments on a hefty fine for breaking import laws.



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