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The BBC's The Secret Agent adaptation is not your average period drama




Last Sunday saw the start of a new BBC period drama based on Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel, The Secret Agent


In this case, though, 'period drama' probably makes it sound a bit too cosy. It is actually more of a political drama centered around terrorism and political uncertainty, that just happens to be set in the late 19th Century.

It features a bomb attack on an iconic London landmark, sleeper cells, foreign agents and muddied ideologies leading to violence and fear. Overall then, despite the story being over 100 years old, it's horribly apposite for these troubled times.

It's also, though, a family tragedy, and a story of normal people. Which probably makes it all the more chilling. The characters are quite mundane and their motivation never particularly clear, not even to themselves. They're also, variously, incompetent, lazy and shamelessly exploited.

This is actually the fourth time the BBC has filmed the novel, which, obviously, is testament to the quality of the source material, but also, less happily, points to its enduring relevance.

Conrad based The Secret Agent on the story of French anarchist Martial Bourdin, or at least used it as a jumping off point. (Warning, if you don't know the story and want to enjoy the series as it unfolds, some mid-level spoilers are coming up right now).

Bourdin died in Greenwich Park when the explosives he was carrying went off prematurely. No one ever knew his motives or much about him at all.

Discussing the provenance of The Secret Agent in 1920, Conrad described a conversation he had had with a friend: "We recalled the already old story of the attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin. My friend then remarked, Oh that fellow was half an idiot; his sister committed suicide afterwards."

The Secret Agent might not be Conrad's most famous work (that would have to be Heart of Darkness thanks to its transformation into the classic Francis Ford Coppola film, Apocalypse Now), but it is one of his best - and most timeless.

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