Clive James reviews Rubicon, the American espionage drama on BBC Four, and reflects on the career of David McCallum, star of Colditz, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS.
On one of the off-world channels made available by the Freeview box, Colditz is always running. In a recently screened episode, David McCallum was running too. He was running away from the Germans. He started running away from them in the early 1970s and has been running ever since: running in heartening defiance of the laws of time and space, because there is nowhere that Colditz is not screened, even though its every episode was made within a two-year span in about a hundred square yards of Derbyshire. In the 1960s, in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., McCallum was the Russian agent Illya Kuryakin, a popular personality at the time but hard to find now, because the Cold War has dated more thoroughly than World War II. To get him as Illya Kuryakin, you would either have to buy the boxed set or else search the dial of an 800-channel hotel television system in some place like Costa Rica. But right here, tonight, you can get him as the guy running away from the Germans.
Eventually he got away from the Germans and became a pathologist, a profession he still pursues in NCIS, an American series which, having the letters CSI encoded into the title, will also undoubtedly run forever, like Colditz. In the last three weeks, blipping around the channels, I have seen four episodes of NCIS deliberately and three accidentally. In every one of them, David McCallum is the first face you recognise. The face of the Special Agent nominally in charge, played by Mark Harmon, you are more likely to recognize as belonging to that nice bloke CJ Cregg fell for in The West Wing but he got shot and she cried.
During this entire long course of having his image transmitted, David McCallum has changed physically hardly at all. You have, or at any rate I have, but he hasn’t. When I was in hospital last year, I would lie there watching David McCallum run away from the Germans. At the same time, on another channel, he was cutting a murder victim into sections for investigative purposes. As I watched him run and wield his chisel, I was moved to thoughts about time, and about destiny, and about how, in an actor’s career, it really helps, if you’re playing a pathologist each week in a series due to be transmitted in every language on Earth, to have an established persona as someone who, when push comes to shove, knows how to scramble at an angle across a Derbyshire hillside. It won’t quite do to have been Illya Kuryakin, who was merely a hairstyle. Your face must say experience, as of someone who has spent time hiding behind trees on location while extras dressed as German soldiers pass perilously near. And above all, your face must look the same, from decade to decade in perpetuity.
If the actor’s face looks the same as it once did, the ageing viewer’s mind will place him more comfortably in the continuum of the lapsing years. This comfort level is much harder for actresses to attain. With the aid of designer water and perhaps a hint of plastic surgery, a leading lady can fight age for a long time, but nobody will say, or think, that she hasn’t changed. Yet William Shatner can turn up in a new series wearing the stuffing of a sofa for a wig and people will say he hasn’t changed a bit. It’s so unfair, but it’s the system, and indeed an actor is lucky to be in the system even at basement level. Most actors get forgotten long before their time. An actor like McCallum, no doubt helped by his acute mind – he is a trained musician, among other accomplishments – is there to the end, becoming part of the referential network that you have been building up in your own brain since you saw your first moving images at the age of almost zero.
This referential network is the thing I know far too much about. I scarcely know how to put my own shoes on any more, but I know after watching 10 minutes of it that an American series like Rubicon (BBC Four) is a standard CIA format made to look subtle by being drained of all movement. The initials CIA aren’t quite as sure-fire as CSI but they’re close, and getting closer now that some of the espionage techniques left over from the Cold War are back in the picture, requiring teams of young nerds to do a great deal of reading and listening, without racking up a cab-fare or even leaving the office. In fact Rubicon is referring throughout to Three Days of the Condor, Sydney Pollack’s truly thrilling thriller of 1975 about a young Agency analyst played by Robert Redford, very much in character as he sat back at his desk and did nearly nothing. (If he had played the desk he would have been even more in character, but in those days he was still ready to take risks.)
Although Rubicon is plainly designed to be an action series without action, thus to fascinate you with its gradualist implications, I have watched every episode of the season, waiting for a filing cabinet to fall over. This is an act of faith on my part because there is an aesthetic strike against the mode of narrative which would ordinarily rule the thing out of my attention. Not only do I know that the layout of the plot is based on Three Days, the characters do too. The analyst hero, who multiplies the length of even the shortest speech with thoughtful pauses while slowly seeking a comfortable angle for his head, has plainly set out to make Redford’s performance look like Jerry Lewis fighting an ant-colony. There is always a chance that the metabolism of the actor, James Badge Dale, is really like that, in which case he is in worse shape than Clive Badge James. But when the hero is finally persuaded to get into bed with the lovely young woman in the window of the apartment opposite – she finds that it isn’t enough to undress herself, she has to undress him – they start referring to Redford and Faye Dunaway. No, please.
As with love, self-awareness when one media phenomenon is feeding off another ruins everything. We must have at least the illusion that the people involved are trying to do something original, even if a bunch of Germans suddenly crosses the screen pursued by David McCallum.
On many a news and sports programme, Damon Hill was there to prove how a long view brings wisdom: he said that Formula 1’s decision to race in Bahrain was dishonourable. Younger but with the natural sagacity of an Australian who eats steak for breakfast, the driver Mark Webber said via Twitter, or Tweet or whatever the thing is, that he too thought it was a bad decision. Luckily the ageless Bernie Ecclestone was on hand to point out the essential fact: “Nothing to do with money.” Good to get that settled.