The Funny Side of British Espionage

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Melissa McCarthy and Miranda Hart in "Spy". (Photo 20th Century Fox)
This week I finally got to see the new comedy, Spy, an amusing espionage romp through Europe starring Melissa McCarthy as Susan Cooper. A modest yet top-notch CIA analyst, Susan transforms into a surprisingly adept field agent. Her first mission is to save the world from a rogue nuclear device currently for sale to the highest bidder.

 Normally, I would have waited until this film made it to DVD; however, I felt I must show my monetary and emotional support for an actress primarily known and loved in this country as Chummy. You’ve got it. Appearing in her first Hollywood film role, Miranda Hart plays Nancy Artingstall, McCarthy’s fellow intelligence analyst and best friend. And contrary to my initial concerns, Hart gets quite a substantial amount of screen time.

If you don’t know or care about Miranda Hart (shame on you!) there are a few other Brits of interest in this rather uproarious spy adventure. Jude Law plays Agent Bradley Fine, Susan’s suave AMERICAN partner who soaks in her adoration, but never takes her affection seriously. Jason Statham is Agent Rick Ford, a loose cannon with a hilarious tendency of exaggerating his spy prowess. Probably best of all is Peter Serafinowicz as lecherous Italian informant Aldo who takes a bit too much of a liking to Ms. Cooper. He’s full of surprises as Aldo.

Anyhow, this movie got me thinking about spy comedy as a genre. I daresay it’s sort of ironic when you consider that one of the tensest and most suspenseful categories in drama has spawned so many parodies. In turn, these spoofs have given us some of the most memorable characters in film and on TV from Austin Powers to Maxwell Smart.

Of course, our friends across the pond have the great legacy of espionage writers such John le Carre and Ian Fleming and their corresponding creations George Smiley and James Bond. Let’s look at some of the comedy spies the Brits have wrought over the years.

The Avengers aired in the UK all through the 1960’s and was even broadcast for part of that time period on American television. During most of that time the central character was British Intelligence Secret Agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee). Always smartly dressed and never without his favorite accessories/gadgets, his bowler hat and umbrella, Steed possessed vital character traits necessary to make a successful spy - wit, sophistication, craftiness, and excellent swordsmanship skills to boot.

Throughout seven series Steed was joined by a number of beautiful and self-assured female assistants. The show was somewhat was before my time so the only co-star I was ever aware of was Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. 

Trailer of the Avengers in color (1968)(HDTV) - EMMA PEEL

These spies were not clumsy or inadequate at their jobs. The comedy stems instead from the series’ improbable villain plotlines, sci-fi sensibility and British eccentricities. If you’d like to see The Avengers for the first time (or revisit an old favorite), you can find series 4-7 on Hulu.

The comedy sketch show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, featured recurring characters Control (Stephen Fry) and Tony (Hugh Laurie) as a couple of inordinately nice secret agents. 

A Bit of Fry and Laurie - Control and Tony - Lie Detector

Playing on the notoriously scant information revealed in most spy stories, these two explain and discuss every possible detail in the most simplistic terms. Their awkward and wooden delivery adds to the humor and it’s difficult to see how Great Britain wasn’t lost to the communists under their watch.

In case you’d like to see more spy shenanigans, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video carry all four series of A Bit of Fry & Laurie.

When Rowan Atkinson is cast as a secret agent, the British Empire is in hilarious jeopardy. The Mr. Bean and Blackadder actor plays the title character in Johnny English. A bumbling Bond wannabe, English is the country’s last hope to save the Crown Jewels and the monarchy. After all the other British intelligence agents are eliminated that is…

Johnny English - Trailer

You can find both Johnny English and its sequel Johnny English Reborn on Amazon Instant Video. The reboot is also streaming on Netflix.

Not to be confused with the movie Spy which I referenced at the beginning of this post, the sitcom Spy is a comedy of errors with plenty of blundering and imprudent behavior at all levels of the British intelligence establishment.

Tim Elliot (Darren Boyd) is a single father looking to win the approval of his precocious son (Jude Wright). So he quits his dead-end job as a computer salesman and applies for a data entry civil service job.

One wrong turn and Tim ends up taking the exam to qualify for MI5 spy training which, to his great surprise, he passes with flying colors. His new boss, known only as The Examiner (Robert Lindsay) is quite keen on his new recruit and not always in a good way.

Now Tim must juggle the pressures of espionage and fatherhood. Who can say which one is more dangerous? 

Spy Series 1 | DVD released 5 Nov: Order Now | 4DVD

If you’d like to see what sort of hijinks trainee spies get up to, check out both series of Spy on Hulu.

Last but not least, I include this winter’s box office hit Kingsman: The Secret Service. It fits nicely into this list -a tongue-in-cheek action comedy escapade which tips its hat to 007 and The Avengers.

Like Spy (the TV show) Kingsman focuses on an talented man who is selling himself short. When petty criminal Eggsy (Taron Egerton) crosses paths with dapper secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), he’s offered a way out of his dead-end life. If he can survive the training…

Kingsman: The Secret Service | Official Trailer 2 [HD] | 20th Century FOX

The trailer reminded me of X-Men: First Class which is no coincidence because both films were written and directed by Matthew Vaughn. This movie was just released on DVD last week so at this point the only place to stream it is Amazon Instant Video.

So which do you prefer, heart-pounding spy thrillers or their comic brother, the spy spoof? Have I missed one of your favorite funny undercover agents? If so, please share with us in the comments section!