Conspiracies, Whitehall diplomatic freakouts, identity fraud, refugees” is Max Beesley’s bullet-point summary of The Last Enemy, a five-part political thriller beginning on Sunday on BBC1. It is, he concludes frankly, “a bit of a head-wrecker”.
With its depiction of a dystopian Britain where armed police roam the streets spot-checking ID cards, The Last Enemy is indeed disturbing – a drip-feed drama about the machinery of an intrusive state. Set in the near future, the story centres on the two Ezard brothers, Stephen (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Michael (Beesley).
“Our parents are both dead,” says Bodies and Hotel Babylon star Beesley (the new series of Hotel Babylon starts on Tuesday). “Mother committed suicide when we were kids and Father died of a heart attack when we were in our twenties. My character dealt with that by going out and making a new family for himself in Afghanistan with refugees and becoming an aid worker. Stephen went the other way and became introverted. He’s very weird, has OCD and is a bit of a recluse. He has a high IQ, Michael has a high EQ: Experience Quota. People are drawn to his energy. He’s a weird mixture of Jack Bauer and James Bond.” No need to ask Beesley what drew him to the part.
The Last Enemy begins telling the story through Stephen Ezard’s eyes. Four years previously, Stephen, a mathematical genius, headed to China to immerse himself in his work. He returns for the funeral of his brother who, he is told, has been killed in a landmine accident.
“Stephen is forced out of his hermetically sealed environment on to an aeroplane for Heathrow,” explains Cumberbatch, who was nominated for a Bafta for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in Hawking, the BBC’s 2004 drama about the physicist’s life. “He’s thrown back into the force field of his family and into another world.”
That world is Britain, but a Britain that has changed. A recent terrorist attack has put the nation on high alert, and nobody trusts anybody.
Needing funds, Stephen finds himself being strong-armed into assisting the government with its campaign to persuade the public of the merits of its Total Information Awareness system (TIA), a super-database. When he chances upon a corrosive secret while using TIA to try to establish what happened to his brother, he finds himself several fathoms out of his depth.
“Stephen’s not your average hero, he’s an incredibly bright and sensitive soul,” says Cumberbatch. “He’s highly capable of making connections and seeing patterns in the illogical. That is why his work is attractive to the government, but he gets embroiled in a story which is out of his control, which is hard for someone who has such a controlling personality.”
Add Robert Carlyle as a shady former MI5 operative (I ask Carlyle what the big secret is and he says, entirely convincingly, “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you”) and it’s a very strong cast. Even so, people won’t simply be talking about The Last Enemy because of its dramatis personae. With phone-taps dominating the news of late, along with database leaks, security threats and identity card legislation, the thriller wades head on into some of the most contentious items on the political agenda. Though it’s set in the near-future, The Last Enemy could hardly be more topical.
That is exactly what writer Peter Berry (who wrote Prime Suspect 6 and the 2005 film The Incredible Journey of Mary Bryant) was hoping for. “I didn’t want to write a rant about how awful everything is, but I did want to prompt a debate,” he says. “I don’t feel like we’ve had a democratic conversation about identity cards in this country. Tony Blair just said it was ‘an idea whose time has come’.”
Beesley agrees: “It’s encroached upon us quite subtly, this Nineteen Eighty-Four type scenario. Our generation has just adapted to it slowly as the months and years go by – but you can’t really fight it until a general election.”
Berry originally wrote about a bomb on the London Underground, only for the events of 7 July 2005 to force him to reconsider. Likewise, in the time between scripting and production, real-life developments have moved so fast that several of his fantasies – CCTV cameras that can listen as well as see, facial recognition technology – have become reality.
Understandably, Berry is anxious that The Last Enemy shouldn’t be seen as mere polemic. First and foremost, it is a breakneck thriller.
As Cumberbatch says of playing Stephen, “It was non-stop – dodging bombs from an assassin, being accosted on the street as a homeless person, living in a filthy underground car park, running down corridors or having politicians ruin my life.” And there’s also an overarching love story between Stephen and Michael’s wife (Anamaria Marinca).
But it’s impossible to avoid the series’s political thrust. “What the story shows,” Berry says, “is a situation where the individual can no longer put the state under scrutiny, but the state has more ways of putting the individual under scrutiny. Viewers are left with questions for themselves.”