Cerebral British espionage thriller more in the style of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than the ridiculously super slick womanising action heroes of the big screen.
All the major powers engaged in espionage during the Cold War and spies, double-agents, and bugging were a staple of popular entertainment on television, in print and in the movies. By the time Codename Kyril reached our screen the Cold War was beginning to de-escalate, and the collapse of the USSR was just a few years away. Therefore, the series, which boasted an all-star cast that produced sophisticated and edgy performances, is rightly regarded as probably one of the best and almost certainly one of the last of the Cold War dramas of the 1980s.
The opening episode of this two-part thriller shown over consecutive nights on ITV in March 1988 begins with the discovery of a large stash of arms being stored in London by a KGB treasurer called Loshkevi (John McEnery). MI6 are called in and they send for their top man, Michael Royston (Edward Woodward) to find out how much Loshkevi knows. Meanwhile, in Moscow news reaches the head of the KGB, Chairman Stanov (Peter Vaughan) who believes that a high-ranking Kremlin traitor has leaked secrets to London and must be flushed out and eliminated. A man called Bucharensky, codename Kyril (Ian Charleson) is ordered to pretend to defect to the West and claim knowledge of the traitor's identity in order to panic him into revealing himself.
Stanov keeps a fake 'secret' diary locked in a safe which is supposed to implicate the traitor whilst purposefully spreading information about its existence. General Michaelov (Espen Skjønberg), an aging hardliner of the KGB, is persuaded by his deputy Povin (Denholm Elliott) to sneak into the safe to confirm the existence of the diary. At the same time Povin also convinces Michaelov to attempt to have Kyril killed to prevent him divulging KGB secrets to MI6. Meanwhile, Povin is covertly sympathetic to the West, and sends messages to the head of MI6. Complicating matters further is the fact that Stanov has his own spy right at the heart of London Station, who also doesn't know that Kyril isn’t really defecting.
Playing both sides, Kyril is now at risk from both London and Russia. As the net closes tighter around him, he forces Laurence Sculby (Richard E. Grant), an MI6-hired lawyer to set up a meeting with the newly imprisoned Loshkevoi. Since Loshkevoi is one of Stanov's direct sources but has seemingly switched sides recently, he is the one person outside of Russia likely to know the identity of the traitor in Moscow.
There is very little in the way of twists and turns in Codename Kyril. Before the first episode is done the viewer knows the identities of all the traitors and which side they are working for. This does not, however, detract from the suspense of what is an absorbing and well written (by John Hopkins, from a 1981 novel by John Trenhaile) drama with sympathetic characters that the viewer soon becomes emotionally involved with. Denholm Elliott is perfectly cast as the perpetually nervous traitor and Edward Woodward puts in a typically excellent performance as Royston, a character that Woodward, in his previous incarnation as Callan would have been assigned to kill.
Woodward had always wanted to work with Denholm Elliott but unfortunately this opportunity didn't present itself. Elliott was away in Oslo, Norway, which was doubling for the KGB headquarters and Woodward was filming in London. Referring to his character in this drama Elliott told the TV Times in 1988, "I'm always happier playing scruffy people. The sort who have lost their souls. Even when I dress up properly, some seediness comes through. So I play this Povin character like a grown-up student - very scruffy, egg on the tie - the last person you'd expect to be in such a responsible position in Moscow."
For Woodward, the production ended very abruptly. Having spent a gruelling schedule working in America on the series The Equalizer had taken a toll on his health. Towards the end of filming Codename Kyril he suffered a major heart attack. Coming two weeks before the end of the production his character had to be written out of one scene and in two others doubles were used with Woodward's voice added later.
Codename Kyril was released on DVD by Network.
Published on December 20th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus for Television Heaven.