Acorn Media's Circles of Deceit (1993-95) is a two-disc DVD set of four television movies, all starring Dennis Waterman (The Sweeney) as a surly former special-forces operative (i.e., spy) yanked back into active duty status. I suspect many will be drawn to these thrillers just as I was, for their impressive line-up of guest stars, including Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius), Kate Buffery (Trial & Retribution), and in his penultimate filmed performance, Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey).
Unfortunately, the four films made very little impression on this reviewer. They rely on the same basic themes used again and again, and except for the first episode are neither compelling nor particularly ambitious. Though reasonably intelligent - they're far removed from, say, goofy American programs like MacGyver - neither do they stand out or have anything to say not explored better before in movies like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
The four episodes, inexplicably presented out of sequence, are presented on two single-sided, dual-layered discs with each film running about 98 minutes.
The first movie, originally entitled Circle of Deceit but now called "The Wolves Are Howling," is by far the best. John Neil (Waterman) has retired from the service following the murder of his wife and child in an IRA terrorist bombing. Now living like a hermit in a remote country home, he's approach by "The Controller," Randal (Derek Jacobi), a mysterious puppet-master type, to go undercover in Belfast. Neil pretends to be a local priest's long-lost expatriate brother, a man not heard from since moving to London decades before. The priest has ties to the local IRA kingpin, Liam McAuley (Peter Vaughn), who's planning a big shipment of arms and ammunition for some as yet undetermined terrorist plot. Neil finds an in by becoming romantically involved with his widowed daughter, Eilish (Clare Higgins).
Neil's bitterness and cynicism, an overworked theme in spy stories, is at the core of this foursome's scripts. They all pretty much follow the same line: Neil, acting undercover, becomes personally involved in the lives of lonely, unhappy people who aren't usually bad themselves but collateral victims of their spouses'/relatives' crimes and Neil's own espionage. Whatever his own personal feelings about them Neil nevertheless uses them, and always in the end they quite understandably feel totally betrayed. This is extremely well done in "The Wolves Are Howling" on several levels, not just Neil's sexual relationship with Eilish, but also in the close bond he's able to establish with the priest-brother, for whom the audience feels much sympathy.
The other big theme to these shows, much more tiresome and familiar, is that it presents the heads of the secret service as bastards as morally corrupt as the gunrunners and sleeper cells Neil infiltrates. Susan Jameson (also in Waterman's long-running crime show, New Tricks) replaced Derek Jacobi as the Controller (also called "Zero" in the shows) but they're cut from the same cloth - withholding important information from Neil, and generally keeping him on a "need-to-know" leash while they scramble to cover-up their unjust actions. In "Dark Secret," for instance, murders committed by a Member of Parliament go unpunished in the name of political expediency. A trite exchange exemplifies the familiar: when someone mentions to the Controller that Neil is a man of principal, her reply is, "Quaint, isn't it?"
Waterman is appropriately tense if one-note as Neil. And while it's certainly fun to see such fine actors as McKern and Buffery in these shows, even they can't raise these tele-films above the routine.
Video & Audio
The four TV movies all appear to have been shot in Super 16mm or something like it. The full frame video transfers are okay, but don't exactly pop off the screen with excitement, either. The Dolby Digital stereo is modest but slightly above average for early-'90s British television, and the episodes are supported by optional SDH English subtitles.
The only supplements are meager cast filmographies for a few key players.
Not bad at all but not especially good, either, Circles of Deceit is unmemorable but competent, worth seeking out only for its cast, and barely that. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.