The British title comes from the slang word for spies (it's known as MI5 in the US). The series, which centres on the work of MI5, the British secret security service, first aired in 2002 and was an immediate success. It starred Mathew Macfadyen (Mr Darcy in the 2006 film), his real-life wife Keeley Hawes, Jenny Agutter and Peter Firth. From episode two, we knew this would be a different kind of drama. A main character played by Lisa Faulkner was tortured with a deep-fat fryer and killed. There were hundreds of complaints but that set the trend – we never knew what to expect or who would survive.
Peter Firth plays the head of the spy organisation with his team of operatives. The question in most of the stories is - who is actually the enemy? Gone are the James Bond days when it is always the Russians. In Spooks, it could be the Russians, or the Iranians, or al Qaeda or even the Americans. There may be British traitors turning against their own country. The days when all Western countries are portrayed as acting in a good and honourable manner while all Eastern countries were bad are long gone.
By series three, heart-throb Rupert Penry-Jones began playing Adam Carter, an operative brought in from the espionage organisation Mi6. Sensitive subjects were never avoided but a two-parter in series four which showed anti-technology terrorists bombing London caused great consternation. After it had been filmed but before it was shown, terrorists really did bomb London in co-ordinated attacks on 7 July 2005 killing 56 people and injuring 700.
Jane Tranter, head of BBC drama, agonised over whether to show the episodes just two months later. She decided to go ahead but a voice-over before they started warned the viewers that they might find the scenes distressing.
The series became more daring. In series five, rogue politicians, MI6 and the press were actually conspiring to overthrow the elected prime minister as they thought it was the only way to properly deal with the terrorist threat. Such evil could not be countered by mere democracy – or so the plot line would have it. Tactics such as killing the Home Secretary and kidnapping the Prime Minister’s son were all in the frame.
As well as the expectation that not even the main characters are safe (Adam Carter was killed by a car bomb at the beginning of series seven) – there is also the realisation that you cannot trust anyone. Gemma Jones who plays dedicated Connie James turns out not to be who the viewers think she is.
Many women in the UK were delighted when Richard Armitage (Mr Thornton from North and South) was brought in at the start of series eight to play Lucas North – a spy who had been held in a Russian prison for years. On his release, as they drive him through the streets of London he asks them to stop so he can get some fish and chips. He has been craving them in his prison cell for eight years.
Spooks is an original, gripping drama. It is full of unexpected twists, spectacular explosions, treachery, and sex with a great, quick-fire script. Although it is often far-fetched and sometimes verges on the ridiculous it keeps you watching and begging for more.