We’re whisked back to 1979 for this adaptation of John le Carré’s novel. Unlike The Night Manager (another BBC drama based on a le Carré book, arguably famed for a scene featuring Tom Hiddleston’s bare bum), The Little Drummer Girl sits very poignantly in an earlier time period. It’s less of the bell bottoms and go-go boots stereotype, though, and more of a bold and glossy insight into a vaguely familiar aesthetic.
Florence Pugh plays Charlie, a gloriously defiant, left-leaning, struggling actress in London. After a string of attacks against high-profile Jewish figures across Europe, she’s identified by senior Israeli intelligence agent Martin Kurtz (played by Michael Shannon) as the perfect person to track down the Palestinian kingpin he believes to be behind it all. It sounds like a stretch, I know, but it’s all part of Kurtz’s elaborate investigation, which turns out to be a real test of Charlie’s (and the audience's) emotional bandwidth.
Centred around the growing tensions between Israel and Palestine, the context of the programme is expectedly sensitive and will likely prompt some strong responses on Twitter. But at the core of the narrative is (obviously) a romance. Charlie’s initiated into agent Kurtz’s master plan through Becker (Big Little Lies' Alexander Skarsgård), a mysterious asset in the Israeli intelligence team and with whom Charlie quickly becomes enamoured. "It’s commonly said that the great thrillers are often great love stories," said executive producer Stephen Cornwell. "I think that what’s really unique emotionally and operationally about this story is the love story." As the plot unravels and the stakes get higher and more dangerous, we realise that everything really does hang on Charlie and Becker’s relationship. Needless to say, you’ll be invested in it from the off.
Granted, the show is a bit of a slow burner. You only find out so much about what is really going on in Charlie’s world and in agent Kurtz’s world in the first episode, with much of it hanging on the fact that we will, eventually, discover how they plan to plant this no-nonsense pub performer in a Palestinian terror cell as a double agent. But what draws you in by episode two is how quickly you align yourself with Charlie. We see the whole thing play out through her eyes, knowing as much about the multilayered danger she’s stepping into as she does. We're on Charlie's side whether we're consciously aware of it or not.
As co-executive producer Simon Cornwell pointed out, The Little Drummer Girl is one of the few le Carré books to have a woman protagonist. "It was written 40-odd years ago with an incredibly strong, proactive female character right at the core of the novel," he said. "And one of the remarkable things when we got to the adaptation is how relevant and how contemporary the character of Charlie does feel. I'm a middle aged man so I'm maybe the wrong person to speak to Charlie's emotions. Nonetheless, I hope we come close."
Charlie is indeed the glue and likely speaks to many of our current rebellious, curious urges as much as she does those of the separately fraught time period she exists in. You'll come for the psychological drama and the thrill of the danger that all good crime dramas promise, but you'll stay for Florence Pugh's character. After all, the fate of this complicated plan to take down some international terrorists while maintaining a cleverly orchestrated romance with an actual spy rests on her shoulders. And you really don't want her to fail.
The Little Drummer Girl is on BBC One on Sunday 28th October at 9pm