Acorn Media // 1984 // 501 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // September 8th, 2010
"I work in my own way. I do things in my way. It can make
"You catch traitors, Mr. Palfrey. Catch them any way you want."
If you've seen the recent DVD releases of Callan, you know that there's more to spy games on British TV than The Avengers. Like Callan, Mr. Palfrey of Westminster takes a more cynical attitude, giving Alec McCowen's traitor-catcher a boss, the Co-ordinator, who's more interested in appearances than truth and a right-hand man, Blair, who's reporting back to the Co-ordinator.
The reason the series doesn't ring a bell probably has more to do with its era -- the mid 80s, just before the fall of the Soviet Union -- than with its quality.
Mr. Palfrey of Westminster: Complete Collection features four episodes from Series One and six from Series Two, for a total of ten, on three discs:
* "Once Your Card is Marked"
A diplomatic staffer returning from Prague is marked as a spy, but Mr. Palfrey (Alec McCowen, Never Say Never Again) has his doubts. That may not save the man, though.
* "The Honeypot and the Bees"
Blair (Clive Wood, The Pillars of the Earth) tails an air vice marshal who's sleeping with the stepdaughter of an Eastern Bloc agent.
* "The Defector"
The Co-ordinator (Caroline Blakiston, Charters & Caldicott) is eager to accept a defector's story of dissatisfaction with the Soviets, but Mr. Palfrey questions the man relentlessly.
* "A Present from Leipzig"
The Co-ordinator finds a bargain in the Portobello Market: a thirteenth-century Russian icon. She asks Mr. Palfrey to trace it back to its source.
* "Freedom from Longing"
A suspected "Mata Hari" from Czechoslovakia turns out to be Blair's ex-lover. Blair wants to back out of this investigation, but Mr. Palfrey pushes him to continue.
* "Return to Sender"
A Briton who defected to the East sneaks back into the country. Mr. Palfrey tells him to get on the next plane out -- or face the consequences.
* "Music of a Dead Prophet"
An upcoming book accuses the British of dirty work in Iran. Mr. Palfrey is asked to stop publication.
* "Official Secret"
Strange calls to a relocated defector suggest that there may be a leak in Whitehall, just as a report accusing officials of espionage resurfaces.
A correspondence war game turns into "a nasty little game," with defense information leaking into it, the possibility of a British mole, and some CIA agents intruding on Mr. Palfrey's turf.
* "The Baited Trap"
A top British agent is planning to take leave to sail the Atlantic, but a Soviet tip suggests he is "playing a double game."
There's a hint of Edward Woodward's delivery in Alec McCowen's portrayal of Mr. Palfrey. If you noticed that one of the writers was George Markstein, who was involved with Callan, that's not surprising. However, Mr. Palfrey, a public school graduate, isn't as brooding; he's just unfailingly principled and persistent. McCowan gives Mr. Palfrey a constant alertness; even when he's chatting with a Soviet defector about the relative merits of the London and Moscow undergrounds, he's trying to get into the man's mind. Even as he's getting ready to pounce on a suspect, Mr. Palfrey is genial and friendly enough to be disarming, jokingly referring to himself as a "Whitehall warrior" rather than the key agent he is. He's contrasted with Blair, a tough guy who, if you met him, would leave you unsure of whether he was cop or thug; the Co-ordinator, who has one eye on Whitehall; and secretary Caroline (Briony McRoberts, The Pink Panther Strikes Again), who knows the spy game but goes home to a relatively ordinary life involving dinner parties and the telly.
The typical Mr. Palfrey story finds him matching wits with a suspect to get to the truth. This makes the series rather talky, but Alec McCowen does a crackerjack job with the dialogue, so it rarely gets dull. Series One was particularly intense, with moral implications and conflict with the Co-ordinator central to the drama. The opener, "Once Your Card is Marked," throws Mr. Palfrey onto murky moral ground right away, with the possibility that he might have blood on his hands. Series Two still puts moral implications into the stories, but it lightens up a bit. There's more of a playful tone, and Blair and the Co-ordinator are generally friendly toward Mr. Palfrey. It also has more of the banter TV viewers are familiar with, as characters discuss a game show on the telly or joke about the prime minister having sandwiches in as part of an austerity measure; this comes mostly through an expanded role for Caroline. Spy fans will still like Series Two, even though it strays from the show's cynical setup.
The look of the series is typical of British TV: most of the action takes place on obvious sets, with occasional use of exteriors. The interior scenes look as good as new, but the exteriors are more faded and scratchy, hinting that they didn't look that good in the first place. What's interesting, though, is the sound. Mr. Palfrey is fond of using ambient music, such as the bouncy canned music in a hotel lobby. In a couple of episodes in Series Two, ambient music becomes part of the plot; in one episode, Mr. Palfrey finds a cue in the same music at separate locations. The extra attention to sound, both music and background noise, makes the show sound good.
After watching the four intense episodes of Series One, the good-but-not-remarkable episodes of Series Two could be a letdown.
Also, extras are nonexistent here. Since it's a less-familiar series, background on the show and stars would have been helpful.
Mr. Palfrey is neither the television breakthrough of Edward Woodward's Callan or the modern fight-a-minute world of shows like 24. If you've already seen those and crave more spy drama, though, Mr. Palfrey is a good choice, worth at least a rental.
Not guilty. Mr. Palfrey has no blood on its hands.
Review content copyright © 2010 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 501 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated