In 1996 a four part series titled “The Writing on the Wall” aired on BBC1 written by a certain P. G. Duggan. Of course, P. G. Duggan is in fact Patrick Malahide writing under his real name of P(atrick) G(erald) Duggan. Not only that, but he helped produce the series as well. RFodchuk and I were delighted to have a chance to watch this intense and captivating thriller.
Set in the 1990s after the days of the Cold War, “The Writing on the Wall” explores themes of terrorism, precarious international relations, the NATO alliance, and the US’s role within that organization verses the other member nations. I found much of it particularly prescient considering current events concerning President Donald Trump’s comments regarding NATO.
An Unlikely Terrorist
The story is about what at first seems an unlikely terrorist. Martina (Lena Stolze) is the very pretty and petite wife of a US Army sergeant. On the surface she appears completely sweet and unassuming, but she is very dangerous indeed. Trained years ago by a former Russian operative named Lopahkin (Herbert Knaup) she is reactivated into setting off a car bomb at an RAF base in Germany. Things escalate rapidly and dangerously from there.
MI5 terror specialist Bull (Bill Paterson) is called in to investigate. With his skills honed from years of dealing with the IRA and his
difficulty in coming to terms with the recent suicide of his son, he throws himself headfirst (as his name might suggest) into the case.
The Russian Lopahkin makes it looks like neo-nazis were responsible for the bombing which enrages the devoted communist Martina. She goes completely off the rails and begins acting on her own volition. She bombs a US Army football match injuring and killing innocent military dependents. This case is turning out to be unlike any other.
Those Damn Yankees
Bull has to deal with some awkward Americans in the forms of the not-so-diplomatic Mr. Petrocelli (William H. Macy) and Mr. Hunsacker (Edward Wiley). What a right pair of weasels they are. Yet, I found their dark, sarcastic senses of humour to be very funny indeed. I enjoyed watching Petrocelli and Hunsacker snipe at one another non-stop. Petrocelli sees post-Cold War NATO as a waste of American money while Hunsacker sees it as an opportunity to push American influence throughout the world. While their opinions may differ, they certainly have arrogance in common.
Bull at least has one new associate who seems to be about justice. US Army officer Thomas Sullivan (Dennis Haysbert) was playing on the football field the day of the bombing. His wife cheering from the sidelines very nearly could have been killed. Sullivan proposes a (US led, naturally) anti-terrorist rapid response team, a sort of “Delta Force” NATO branch.
Sullivan’s involvement in the case, however, takes a dark and brutal twist when it is revealed that Martina (known to Sullivan and his ambitious wife Geraldine (Penny Jones Jerald) as a fellow serviceman’s spouse) has developed a desperate obsession with the handsome officer. The consequences of her obsession prove to be absolutely horrific!
Mr. Malahide deals with several horrific themes in this drama, actually. But, it is all handled without exploitation. One of the reasons Bull is such a fantastic protagonist is because for all his flaws he still puts a very human stamp on everything. Bill Paterson’s reassuring presence is the perfect antidote to Martina’s demented and brutal activities.
At one point, Martina recruits a gang of street children to do her bidding. But these are no cute Artful Dodger types in out-sized top hats. Her’s is a very dark take on Fagin indeed. She bonds with a teenage boy who has been prostituting himself on the streets, promising him a better life while teaching him to shoot a gun. She orders him to shoot American gate guards but despite years of abuse and neglect he shows too much of a conscience to do so. He is unable to pull the trigger, so Martina abandons him. He is promptly arrested.
It seems like Bull is making a connection with the lad by drawing upon his own experience as a father. Unfortunately, there is no happy ending for the boy, but through him we see how Bull can communicate and find understanding with those on the fringes of society. Bull doesn’t really give himself credit for the level of empathy he has, largely because he is still willfully shutting himself off from grieving over his son, but we can see it is there in his core.
Ultimately, even Martina is shown to be something of a victim. Don’t get me wrong, she is certainly one of the most vicious characters I have ever seen, but when we start to learn the truth of her past, and the actual reasons as to why she was called out in the first place, we see her for the patsy she really is. Little did anyone expect her to begin acting of her accord, nor could they have seen the depths to which she would sink.
I don’t want to give the whole story away, so I’ll start wrapping up now. I was very happy with how good “The Writing on the Wall” is. The combination of old ghosts of the Cold War and the emergence of new threats on the horizon blend perfectly well. As mentioned before, it even feels oddly prescient with America’s influence in NATO being a key plot point.
But, what really stands out are the characters. Bull is the determined but always reasonable terror specialist whose reassuring Scottish accent provides some measure of comfort. Dennis Haysbert is brilliant as Thomas Sullivan, working through his brutal abuse from Martina with amazing strength and clarity of mind.
Penny Johnson Jerald is excellent as the ambitious army wife who wishes to see her husband climb the ranks of power. She isn’t greedy for her own comfort but genuinely sees her husband’s true potential and wants to see it fulfilled. Patrick Malahide writes her as someone far more interesting than any stereotypical elitist officer’s wife.
William H. Macy’s turn as the smarmy Mr. Petrocelli is very entertaining, especially when it comes to his sniping with Edward Wiley’s Mr. Hunsacker. I get the feeling Mr. Malahide had fun writing their feisty dialogue. Though not mentioned in the synopsis above, Celia Imrie plays Bull’s almost-love interest, the complicated (though she personally finds her needs rather simple) Kirsty Hardy. And, of course, Lena Stolze is terrifying as the incredibly troubled and ruthless Martina.
Bull is easily my favorite character, but I will say he could have just as easily been played with equal effectiveness by Patrick Malahide himself. To me, it is a pity he did not cast himself. However the very talented Bill Paterson is always wonderful.
While I do genuinely prefer seeing Mr. Malahide in front of the camera (or the microphone in the case of his gorgeous narrations), it was really wonderful having a chance to see his creations come to life on screen.