"I'd like to be rid of you, Mr. Palfrey. You won't lay off, will you?"
"Pride, is it? Stiff neck?"
"Well, I like to do the job I'm paid for."
"Perhaps you don't always understand the job you are paid for."
A real find. Acorn Media has released Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection, the three-disc, 10-episode gathering of both "series" of this 1984-1985 U.K. espionage drama starring Alec McCowen, Caroline Blakiston, and Clive Wood. Unlike other "cerebral" British spy series like Callan or The Prisoner, McCowen's Palfrey isn't sexy (at least not in the traditional way), he isn't violent, and he never carries a gun. He's simply an anonomous civil servant...who happens to be a brilliant spy catcher. Beautifully written scripts full of double-and-triple cross Cold War mysteries, and a memorable turn by McCowen and the rest of the cast, make Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection must-viewing for spy fans.
Mr. Palfrey (Alec McCowen), a precise and logical little man, doesn't like unexpected occurances. But that's precisely what happens when his "section," an unnamed branch of England's government intelligence community, is overhauled due to a security leak. His boss, known only as the "Co-ordinator," is kicked sideways into another division, and now Palfrey must work with a new Co-ordinator...who also happens to be a woman (Caroline Blakiston). Palfrey may look mild-mannered and meek, but he has a steely determination to work in his own way, on his own, and he has the assurance of the new Co-ordinator that she will not interfere in how he conducts his operations. And what operations does Palfrey conduct? This unassuming civil servant is in actuality the government's finest spy catcher, who can root out any traitor in three chess moves, and who can smell a Soviet-bloc ruse a mile away. So his reputation carries weight...even if his position is on the surface, unimportant. Uprooted from his old offices to a dark, dank alcove at Westminster Church, Palfrey has precious little to use other than a desk, a phone and a secretary, the dishy Caroline Phelps (Briony McRoberts) three days a week (the penurious civil service strikes again). Oh...and he also has a ruthless assassin and all-around handyman spy, Blair (Clive Wood), shadowing his every move.
Even though I'm a fan of McCowen, I had never heard of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster prior to this DVD showing up at my door (among his many distinguished accomplishments, I particularly liked his small turn in another spy film, Never Say Never Again, where he made for a very amusing, low-rent "Q" to Sean Connery's James Bond). After watching this three-disc set, and trying to get a little background on the net, I'm surprised its reputation isn't more widespread; it's one of the more intelligent examples of the genre from the 1980s. Eschewing most of the action conventions of the spy genre, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster plays more like an espionage version of a Hercule Poirot or Columbo mystery, with Palfrey engaged in a cerebral battle of wits with home-grown traitors, blundering innocents, and never-ceasing Communist (and one time, American) agents forever looking for a foothold in the "soft, green garden" of England, as one wiley Russian politician puts it. In episode after episode, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster's Cold War existential outlook is: nothing is as it seems. There's always a double-cross waiting to happen, a hidden motive waiting to be unearthed, always a trick, always a dodge coming from the enemy...if one can figure out who the enemy is. No one can be trusted. And watching over all of this grotty dirty dealing is little Mr. Palfrey, rather like a public school don, unprepossessing in appearance, who hardly fulfills our expectations of what a "spymaster" should look like (thanks to TV and movies).
And that dichotomy of audience expectations and the skill with which McCowen makes the seemingly meek Palfrey turn into an exceptionally "tough" spy when need be, creates the intriguing contrasts of the show. McCowen may look anonymous next to Connery or Moore or McGoohan, but he's wonderfully sly and devious and quite funny when he starts zeroing in on a suspect, turning the academic screws on them (he seems to be an expert in quite a few things), watching like a hawk for the smallest tick that will indicate something's not kosher with the whole deal (McCowen really is wonderful here: a tough little monkey with a set jaw and cold little eyes). Reminding me a little bit of the Nero Wolfe dynamic, Palfrey's ruminations are made into motion by his "partner," Blair, who acts not unlike Wolfe's Archie Goodwin, providing the legwork (and muscle) when necessary for Palfrey's operations. Blair is originally seen as adversarial to Palfrey, with the Co-ordinator assigning him to shadow Palfrey as punishment for disobeying her orders, but soon he acts with Palfrey, even against the Co-ordinator's wishes, as they become used to each other's company (they're hardly "friends").
There's a lot of food for thought in these ten episodes of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster, giving this spy series a surprisingly dense context. In the opening episode, Palfrey's insistence on being right, on proving a man innocent of the charges of espionage, actually backfires when the man is killed. The Co-ordinator blames Palfrey for the man's death, because personal hubris came before Palfrey's duty to the state--an argument that will plague Palfrey throughout the series. It's an intriguing, even-handed approach to a standard spy story line that immediately grabbed my attention (because so often, these kind of shows work out more or less along conventional, even clichéd, lines). If at one moment in the show you suspect Mr. Palfrey of Westminster of going overboard with liberal considerations, it rights itself with cynical fairness, acknowledging that whatever stand you take in politics and spying, you're already compromised. Palfrey may wish things were a certain way in the government, but he's not foolish enough to think anything will ever change (as long as humans are humans, he allows), and he's wise enough to understand that he still represents a government and a culture, flawed though they may be, that are far more desirable than the alternative he's fighting every day. Even more telling, he's fully aware that in his actions, he's no better than anyone or any action he might find distasteful in other sections, or governments, or countries.
If Mr. Palfrey of Westminster falters anywhere, it may be in the relationship between the Co-ordinator and Palfrey. After their first meeting, even though she's reprimanded him for an infraction, she's shown to smile after the prickly Palfrey. And that's a mistake, because we the audience are immediately clued into the Co-ordinator's overriding affection for the spymaster. We're safe in our assumptions that Palfrey is safe with this new boss, and vice versa (in the final episode, Palfrey forgives a breach of security from the Co-ordinator with an understanding "we're all human" approach that probably wouldn't exist in real spy circles). Would she ever throw him ruthlessly under a bus to protect the state? Or an operation? Would he do the same to her? No, not with all those cozy winks and smiles, and his charmingly flummoxed or irritated exchanges with her. That element makes Mr. Palfrey of Westminster a tad too safe when compared to its more even-steven Cold War existentialism; it feels less organic to the material, and more like an easy sop to standard TV conventions of the time. It's a small point though, overall, because so much of the rest of Mr. Palfrey of Westminster, is so good.
Here are the 10 episodes of the 3-disc set, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection, from the summaries included on the episode menus:
Once Your Card is Marked
Palfrey's new boss wants him to nail a misfit diplomat whom everyone suspects is spying for the Soviets. But Palfrey believes someone is making the man a scapegoat, and he decides to find out why.
The Honeypot and the Bees
A senior official at the defense ministry is carrying on a clandestine affair with a young woman from Czechoslovakia. When the couple disappears, the Co-ordinator fears a serious breach in state security.
The Co-ordinator decides to call a press conference announcing the defection of a celebrated Russian author, but Palfrey urges caution. He suspects a trap, especially after the KGB starts to pressure for the author's return.
A Present from Leipzig
A stolen Russian icon leads Palfrey to the door of a wealthy industrialist who makes periodic trips to the Eastern Bloc. Why did the man not report the theft? And why is a young East German visiting his home?
Freedom from Longing
Palfrey's assistant, Blair, gets recruited by another department to investigate a suspected Soviet agent-a Czech-born woman with whom Blair once had an affair. But Palfrey believes the department may have hidden motives for requesting Blair's aid.
Return to Sender
A former British agent who defected to the Soviet Union makes an unannounced return, threatening to embarrass both countries. Under instructions to silence him, Palfrey decides to up the stakes.
Music of a Dead Prophet
A tell-all book alleges that the British government assassinated an Iranian general in the 1950s and helped topple a regime. Ordered to prevent its publication, Palfrey suspects a government cover-up.
A disgruntled former government official believes that double agents still work in the intelligence service-and threatens to tip off the press unless something is done. The Co-ordinator assigns Palfrey to head him off.
On advice from the CIA, Palfrey surveils an American aerospace engineer suspected of passing the Soviets classified information about an Anglo-American defense project. It looks like the case may unearth a mole, but can Palfrey trust the CIA?
The Baited Trap
A contact at the Soviet embassy informs the Co-ordinator that one of her agents is "playing a double game." Since she doesn't hold this agent in high regard, the Co-ordinator tells Palfrey to look into it-but he suspects a set-up.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection looks on par with what you would expect from a British television series shot on video in 1984. Video noise is relatively quiet, while colors are muddy and faint. Image is dullish and not particularly sharp. Still, if you're used to this look (and most vintage TV viewers are), you won't mind.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo audio track is relatively clean, with dialogue heard clearly. English subtitles are included.
There are no extras for Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection.
An engrossing, intelligent spy series from England. Anyone interested in the espionage genre and Brit-TV will want to add Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection to their library. Alec McCowen gives a terrific performance here, and the writing is first-rate and thoughtful. I highly recommend Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.