Some TV deaths stay with you. But perhaps the most viscerally horrifying of them all was the tragic end of Helen Flynn on Spooks. On Monday May 20 2002, 8.1 million people had watched as Helen was unmasked as an MI5 operative by right-wing extremists, and punished for refusing to give away her colleagues by having her arm dunked in a vat of boiling oil. Her partner Tom Quinn then watched in horror as her head went into the oil too, before she was shot in the head.
It was less a TV death than a kind of national convulsion. More than 250 shocked viewers complained to the BBC and the BSA about Helen’s death. Given that the BBC’s coverage of Prince Philip’s death clocked up 110,000 complaints earlier this year, that might not sound a lot. But at the time, 250 complaints was a deluge.
On July 31 it’s 20 years since the Broadcasting Standards Authority returned its verdict on whether the BBC had overstepped the mark, but also 20 years since something fundamental shifted in British TV.
Spooks had been different from the start. “I got rid of all the parochial British stuff – I said no cups of tea, no red post boxes, no policemen with their Bobby helmets, no red buses,” director Bharat Nalluri says. “And then I based it down by the river, the most cinematic spot. I could kind of shoot widescreen. I think my pitch was just let’s turn it into an action-y, fun, exciting little movie really, on our little BBC budget.”
To make it land, the team wanted to finish their first series with something big. Producers Simon Mirren, Jane Featherstone and writer David Wolstencroft had discussed the reality of life undercover with contacts who had done it for real. “They were much more granular, hands on people than we’d be used to,” says Wolstencroft. “It completely woke me up.”
Helen Flynn, a junior officer who became a love interest for senior officer Tom, would die at the series climax. But simply bumping Helen off wouldn’t do. Something monstrous was needed. Early versions included Helen having her head set on fire. “We definitely wanted it to be a horrible end for that character, and we thought of other versions, one of which was fire,” says Wolstencroft. “There’s getting shot, there’s drowning. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the creative imagination to think of nasty s___.”
“There was research to say it was one of the IRA’s great ways to keep traitors and turncoats in check,” adds Nalluri. “Whether that was true or not, there was certainly an element of that.” Aside from that, being boiled alive in a chip fat fryer felt right not just because of its novelty, but for its mundanity. “We’ve all been to the chippy, we’ve all seen these things cooking, we’re all thinking about what’s the worst thing that could happen to a character,” says Wolstencroft. “Putting those two things together I think felt like a legitimate way to underscore the true stakes that these people really do take on, the real people.”
The masterstroke was to move Helen’s death from the sixth and final episode of the series to the climax of the second. We’re now fairly used to characters snuffing it early on – RIP Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark – but before Spooks the only obvious precursor was Drew Barrymore dying right at the start of Scream. TV didn’t do that in 2002. “Whenever I see it, I just go, ‘fat fryer!’” says Wolstencroft. “It’s a moment now, it’s a trope. It’s hard to think of, apart from the Scream moment, where that was done on TV. It’s like Mulder dying at the start of The X-Files. It just wouldn’t happen.”
Lisa Faulkner had read for Zoe Reynolds, but that role went to Keeley Hawes. She would be perfect, though, for Helen. She’d been a regular on Brookside and Holby City, and her status as “the nation’s sweetheart at that time”, according to Nalluri, would make her demise all the more unexpected.
Though disappointed that she’d missed out on playing Zoe, Helen’s brief life and gnarly death was very appealing. “I was so excited. It was like an acting job of dreams,” says Faulkner. “You get to die in a really bad way, you get to be a spy for a bit, you get to play undercover so you’re acting on top of acting. It was a joy of a job.”
When it came to shoot the scene itself, though, Nalluri ended the day slightly underwhelmed. On set, his vat of scalding, spitting oil was in fact cold tea into which, out of shot, a props person blew bubbles through a straw. “When you’re there you’re going, this isn’t gonna work,” he says.
For Faulkner, waiting for Kevin McNally to push her head into the vat, the whole thing felt very slightly more real. “It stunk of oil,” she says. “I think Kevin really enjoyed pushing my head into it. I got properly dunked.” It began to come together, though, in the edit suite. Editor Colin Green made the scene “so much better than the sum of its parts,” Nalluri says, adding the sound of bubbling fat and cutting the action around Matthew Macfadyen’s horrified reaction to Helen’s torture.
“You cannot make Matthew over-act. It is utterly impossible,” says Nalluri. “It’s a really hard thing to judge, what your face and what you should be physically doing when someone’s being deep fat fried in front of you. It’s almost impossible. But somehow, he delivers the performance without screaming and shouting, he just gives you this face and you see it through his face.”
Like the shower scene in Psycho, you feel like you’ve seen a lot even though you’ve seen very little. “It wasn’t grotesque,” Wolstencroft says. “Break the shot down: there’s an arm, there’s cold tea, there’s red, there’s Hitchcockian suspense – thank you Bharat – but there’s no actual horrible on screen violent moment.”
“It’s a horror piece, really,” adds Nalluri. “But for some reason you don’t quite go there; you still really believe it.” The only real piece of gore is a split-second glimpse of Helen’s raw, red, blistered arm. The make-up was at least less demanding than Faulkner’s previous job. “I was very used to prosthetics,” she says. “I’d done an episode of Casualty years before where my whole body had to be covered in burns and I was in prosthetics for hours.”
When the second episode of Spooks, Looking After Our Own, went out, the reaction was immediate. “My phone rang off the hook the minute the episode finished,” Wolstencroft remembers.
So I know I’m 20 years behind but just now starting to watch BBCs Spooks and they kill off a main character in the second episode by pushing her face in a deep fryer? pic.twitter.com/1ACyPxznRx
— Bill Parthun (@Bparthun) May 10, 2022
The production team circled the wagons the next day as the complaints came in, and a former MI5 officer told the Telegraph the scene was “fictitious and unnecessarily horrific”. A BBC response noted that the fictitiousness was part of the point, “in the same way that Inspector Morse, while set in Oxford, was not intended to be a completely accurate portrayal of the Thames Valley police force.”
Producer Stephen Garrett pointed out that the rest of the episode, which showed a conspiracy to stir up racial hatred by a gang whose leader was also a domestic abuser, was “hardly the stuff of which chirpy little bucolic fantasies are made”.
“We thought we had availed ourselves correctly in being producers of a show that was pushing the boundaries of what BBC TV was and also being authentic to the reality of [that world],” says Wolstencroft. “It’d be like nobody dying on Casualty, right? So we thought that it was correct. I’m sure people were upset about it, but it’s very upsetting, what happens to people in that job, sometimes.”
Though Helen’s head went into the fryer at 9.54pm, well after the watershed, the BSA partly upheld the complaints. While it acknowledged Helen’s death was “acceptable and important” in context, and there had been a warning before the episode, the BSA said the BBC had “failed to signal the level of violence to come”. It added that the scene was “sufficiently violent and disturbing to require a specific, clear and unambiguous warning to this effect, which had not been achieved”.
After the furore died down, though, it was clear Spooks had marked the beginning of an era where British TV drama was prepared to go to darker and more complex places than before. “Everything we did after that point, all we had to do was hint, and you’d be sitting back a little bit,” says Wolstencroft. “It gave us a shorthand. And now it’s legion, it happens all the time, but at the time I’d like to think we were one of the first to do something as radical as that.”
And in the end, it perhaps wasn’t any gratuitous violence or moral failing that people were really complaining about; it was that they’d been sucked in by a story they thought they knew, only for it to completely upend them. People felt ambushed, and they felt foolish for having got attached to Helen so quickly. It’s that, as much as the brutality of Helen’s death, which seared it into the consciousness. Its power hasn’t faded with time either. “My daughter watched it a couple of years ago,” says Faulkner. “She was like, ‘Mum, it’s really awful!’ It’s one of those things people still ask me about.”