'The Little Drummer Girl' episode 1 recap: BBC spy thriller is your new must-see TV

Ross McGuinness
Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard get cosy in Athens in <em>The Little Drummer Girl</em> (Picture: BBC)
Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard get cosy in Athens in The Little Drummer Girl (Picture: BBC)

In its bid to dominate the TV schedules this autumn, the BBC has sent in the SAS… Strictly and Spies.

Audiences adore watching people they previously hadn’t heard of sweating their way through the Paso Doble, but they also love something else equally exciting: espionage.

We just cannot get enough of bloody spies.

Hot on the heels of mega-hit Bodyguard, and with Informer still showing on Tuesday nights, BBC is spoiling us with another thick slick slice of spy drama. And it’s gone back to the master, John Le Carré, to keep us entertained.

MORE: First look at Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Shannon in ‘The Little Drummer Girl’
MORE: ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ first look trailer – is this the new ‘Night Manager’?

The Little Drummer Girl is adapted from Le Carré’s 1983 novel of the same name, and arrives two years after BBC’s reworking of The Night Manager struck ratings gold.

Unlike The Night Manager, however, The Little Drummer Girl is sticking with its novel’s period setting, meaning we are in the late 1970s and the Palestinians and the Israelis are at each other’s throats.

While it perhaps doesn’t have the star power of The Night Manager, The Little Drummer Girl has some amazing acting talent and a director, Park Chan-wook, who wowed audiences with Oldboy.

But was the first episode any good? Here’s our recap and review.

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Episode 1 of The Little Drummer Girl.

1. Tick… tick… boom

The first episode begins with a bang (Picture: BBC)
The first episode begins with a bang (Picture: BBC)

We start with a suitcase. And a ticking clock. Or rather, a ticking watch.

It’s 1979 in West Germany and everything on the screen is some kind of gorgeous shade of tan. But there’s no time to drool over aesthetics – The Little Drummer Girl gets cruel very, very quickly. Within seconds, the suitcase has exploded in the home of a Jewish diplomat and a little boy is dead.

It’s a horrifying opening, one that shows the deceptive and deadly world our characters will be fighting against before we’ve even met them.

2. “Who says I’m playing a leading lady?”

Is Charlie (Florence Pugh) all that she seems? (Picture: BBC)
Is Charlie (Florence Pugh) all that she seems? (Picture: BBC)

Following the beautiful opening credits, which are either advertising a TV show or a really expensive retro hotel, we meet Charmian Ross (Florence Pugh), an actress who may or may not be auditioning for a role. That’s the thing about this episode – we’re never quite certain of our footing.

Charlie, as she’s known, tells a story about a recent encounter in a snooker hall, only for her flashbacks to undercut everything she says. The script’s intention is very clear here: this is a world where no one is to be trusted, not even our seemingly plucky heroine.

Charlie is an idealist, but while she is adept at keeping her own secrets, she has no truck with those hiding their own. She is, in other words, a difficult read, which makes her an instantly fascinating character – credit must go to this episode’s writer, Michael Lesslie.

“Pleasure’s the antidote to death, right?” she says, and it’s a fair bet that over the coming episodes she will discover if that’s true.

3. “I am an artist.”

Michael Shannon as Israeli spymaster Marty Kurtz (Picture: BBC)
Michael Shannon as Israeli spymaster Marty Kurtz (Picture: BBC)

We go back to the fallout from the bombing, and meet Mossad spymaster Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon), who is on the trail of a Palestinian terror cell. Shannon has that remarkable gift as an actor of inhabiting whatever role he takes as soon as he pops up on screen, and Marty is a compelling, slippery figure who gets all the best lines.

We soon learn he wants the Israelis to use Western agents to mimic the tactics of their enemy. “Our fiction has to match their reality,” he says, a line that could be the show’s mantra. Things are rarely what they seem.

4. Action Man

Charlie asks her mystery man, played by Alexander Skarsgard, for answers (Picture: BBC)
Charlie asks her mystery man, played by Alexander Skarsgard, for answers (Picture: BBC)

Back in English theatreland, Charlie and her acting troupe are hot off an amateur adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play, Saint Joan, and a mystery benefactor was so taken with the performance that they’re being whisked off to a Greek island for some sun-kissed rehearsal time.

In a knowing nod that all actors are essentially dolts, not one of them bats an eyelid about this.

On the beach, Charlie and her gang encounter the mysterious and brooding Peter (who else are you going to cast for “mysterious and brooding” but Alexander Skarsgard?), who is clearly there for more than just some light reading and early morning wine drinking. And clearly not really called Peter.

Charlie and her friend Sophie (Bethany Muir) soak up the sun, but why are they really on a Greek island? (Picture: BBC)
Charlie and her friend Sophie (Bethany Muir) soak up the sun, but why are they really on a Greek island? (Picture: BBC)

He is quickly dubbed Action Man by Charlie’s mates, who ask him if he is a spy or an actor, as if there is a difference. Obstinate Charlie isn’t completely convinced, until he takes her for a stroll on the beach and buys her a new dress.

“I refuse to be a slave to patriarchy,” she declares, right before letting a creepy male stranger whisk her away from her friends to Athens without asking any questions. Told you she was a difficult read.

5. Acropolis Now

Charlie and her “Action Man” take in the view over Athens (Picture: BBC)
Charlie and her “Action Man” take in the view over Athens (Picture: BBC)

Once there, the pair indulge in a bit of canoodling underneath the Acropolis at night, before Action Man finally states his intentions in the only way he knows how… driving his car really fast and not giving any answers. Canoodling time is over.

“Actually, what is this?” asks Charlie, about three days late. Her answer arrives (the audience knew what was coming as soon as we met her) when the car screeches to a halt at a safe house and she is greeted by Marty. Mossad wants to use her acting skills in the war on terror.

Any of this reminding you of something? Yes, that’s right, it IS the plot of Team America: World Police. And Charlie is a top gun actor, even though she’s stuck in her local theatre group, but perhaps Jenny Agutter was busy.

If the rest of this series is as entertaining as Team America, we’re in for a treat. It’s off to a great start.