Ashenden is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s autobiographical stories about John Ashenden, a moderately successful British playwright who becomes a spy for his country during World War I. This coproduction by the BBC and the Arts & Entertainment network offers Alex Jennings as Ashenden, a prim, precise man far less glamorous than James Bond, far more affable than John le Carré’s gloomy George Smiley, but as shrewd and devious as either of them.
The two-hour program places Ashenden in two adventures: In the first, he’s asked by the British government to lure a terrorist out of his hiding place in neutral Switzerland and into France, where he can be arrested. Ashenden’s qualifications for this task are writerly ones: He must compose love letters in which he impersonates the terrorist’s mistress (May Fools‘ Harriet Walter), begging the evil man to come see her in Paris. It’s a clever premise, but a static one: scene after scene of Ashenden at his desk, scribbling, followed by scene after scene of the terrorist reading the letters and scrawling his responses.
Much better is the show’s second half, in which the actor-playwright Alan Bennett plays a British traitor hiding out in a Swiss hotel; Ashenden’s job is to track him down. The plot is little more than an excuse for a wonderfully cranky performance by Bennett, who mumbles into his ginger-colored mustache and whose dour expression matches that of the basset hound he always drags around on a leash.
Ashenden, directed by Christopher Morahan (The Jewel in the Crown), is low on suspense but high on period atmosphere and dry wit; it crosses Mystery! with Masterpiece Theatre. B-