Birmingham is spook central – and that’s official.
A major new BBC TV drama series about the MI5 in the 1970s is set to hit screens in the new year. And it was all filmed at landmark buildings throughout the city.
The Game, already running in the US on BBC America, is already winning rave reviews for its gritty scenes. Birmingham doubles for London, just like it did when the Spooks movie and Hustle TV series were shot here and the MI5 headquarters is in the much-reviled old Central Library.
“Pretty much the whole series was set in Birmingham,” explains director Danny O’Hara.
“At the opening there’s a scene by a river that’s supposed to be in Poland, and that was filmed one day in Wales. We did two days in London but other than that, everything was shot in Birmingham.
“The old library is the MI5 HQ and we do quite a lot around Newhall Street, where there was a disused council building. We went out to Moseley, out to the countryside and on the canals up to Smethwick. It was great.”
The Game stars Brian Cox, recently seen in the X-Men movies, as the spooks’ boss, who is referred to as Daddy.
Heart-throb Tom Hughes – who has appeared as a regular in TV series including Casualty, Silk and Dancing On The Edge – is the lead agent.
The drama is set during a period when British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was reportedly bugged by the MI5, and as The Cold War held both America and Britain in its frightening grip.
“There was genuine fear at the time,” says O’Hara. “The state saw everyone from the trade unions to the IRA as a threat. The miners’ strike features in early episodes of the series. There was a fear about what would happen if the USSR got behind the unions and the IRA. If you put resources behind these organisations, they could be very dangerous.
“And, of course, there was the silent, secret war with the KGB.”
Birmingham, he says, was ideal because the city still has a large number of concrete 1970s buildings, dating back before the city centre transformation began – the very places that once gave Brum a bad name.
Among other locations were the old Central Fire Station, the Old Rep theatre, Cannon Hill Park, Moor Street Station, the Lickey Hills and Moseley Road Baths. Some scenes were also shot at Merevale Hall, near Atherstone.
Tom Hughes, 29, who plays enigmatic spy Joe Lambe, says:“Birmingham was perfect for the series. Although it was inspired by the books of John Le Carre, Vanity Fair magazine has liked it to Mad Men.
“That’s not a bad comparison.”
The cast also includes adopted Brummie boxer Joe Egan, who was born in Dublin but has spent most of his life in Brum. Since retiring from boxing the former heavyweight has made more than 40 films.
“We had a base camp in Digbeth,” says Joe, who had a role in the fifth episode just broadcast in America.
“It was a good spot for me because I lived in Digbeth when we came over. As a kid I boxed for Ireland at the Irish Club. All the filming I was involved in was in the Digbeth area because the storyline had a big Irish bias. Some excellent actors are involved and I looked great in the 1970s clothes, though my wardrobe is so out of date my mates won’t notice!”
Naomi Ekperigin from Vanity Fair, said: “In true British-television style, they pack a lot in, and each episode feels like a movie. After the six episodes are done, you can spend your therapy sessions discussing why you’ve been so afraid to let love in.”
Movie-makers shot Spooks: The Greater Good in Birmingham earlier this year with scenes shot in Colmore Row and Broad Street.
The movie will see Peter Firth again cast as MI5 chief Sir Harry Pearce, while Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, who grew up in Worcestershire, will play Pearce’s protégé. It is due for release next year.
By Phil Campion