The MI5 "fray" BBC America

The Cold War thriller on BBC America stars Brian Cox and Tom Hughes—and some excellent, surprisingly intimate Brutalist architecture.

If you're a fan of spy thrillers, you'll enjoy BBC America's miniseries The Game the way you might a dog-eared novel and a cup of tea on a winter's night. The pace is leisurely, and the plot elements familiar (an enigmatic young spy with tangled loyalties, a possible mole inside MI5).

The show is also a particular visual treat if, like me, you can appreciate a muted 1970s color palette and the Cold War Britain it evokes—the Britain of the three-day week, unfortunate cardigans, and National Health Service glasses. It's like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with just as much suspense as you can handle before bed.

There is one area where The Game—which premiered Nov. 5 and is available on-demand—does make an original contribution: in its use of Brutalist architecture.

(BBC America)

Filmmakers have, of course, long used muscular concrete buildings to connote dystopia and decay, especially in Britain. In Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), the antihero Alex lives in a Brutalist housing estate in London and undergoes "aversion therapy" at a Brutalist facility played by the campus of Brunel University. Get Carter, a gritty gangster drama starring Michael Caine and released the same year, features a punch-up in the Trinity Square parking garage, a significant Brutalist structure (now demolished) in Newcastle.

The Game is set in a British Brutalist landmark, too, but it's different from those precursors. The series was filmed in Birmingham, and the primary location is the Birmingham Central Library, a massive inverted ziggurat of concrete that opened in 1974. The library was designed by John Madin, a local architect who found  inspiration across the Atlantic in the equally imposing Boston City Hall.

It was the era of ambitious urban renewal, and Madin, along with Birmingham's city fathers, imagined the library surrounded by water gardens, the proud icon of a new and thoroughly modern civic center that would include schools, offices, and stores, all connected by skywalks.

Birmingham Central Library in 2013 (Jason/Flickr)

The money ran out before that vision could be achieved. However, as critic Jonathan Glancey noted in a 2003 ode to the library, "[t]his was not a cheap building: concrete slabs were faced in Hopton Wood stone; ceilings were coffered in much the same way as the great libraries of Ancient Rome would have been; furniture was custom-designed by the architects."

The Game makes the most of these material riches. In the show, the library is a stand-in for the headquarters of MI5, the U.K.'s counter-intelligence agency. The operation's nerve center is a board room where "the fray," a special committee, meets to discuss a mysterious KGB plot. And what a room it is: deeply coffered, sparsely furnished, and looking across an atrium to the stacked glass-and-concrete layers of the ziggurat.

Rough, ribbed-concrete walls provide the backdrop for scene after scene, giving this viewer the urge to reach out and touch her TV.

Paul Ritter as Bobby Waterhouse, the head of counter-espionage in The Game. (BBC America)
Chloe Pirrie as secretary Wendy Straw in The Game. (BBC America)
Pirrie as Straw and Jonathan Aris as spyware specialist Alan Montag in The Game. (BBC America)
Brian Cox as "Daddy," the leader of the fray. (BBC America)

The Game is about the Cold War, and yes, there's an atmosphere of menace and paranoia hanging over it. But this is no dystopia—it's 1970s Britain, and MI5 agents are the good guys (well, basically). We see the characters in the show—men and women, it should be noted—whisper and kiss in a Brutalist setting. The Game humanizes Brutalist architecture. It makes Brutalism the scene of interactions that for once aren't thuggish or sinister.

The show's set design helps, warming up the concrete with furnishings in jewel and earth tones. Leather sofas, paintings, bookshelves, and lamp lighting make the spy agency seem not quite domestic, but lived-in.

The BBC crew built a number of sets inside the "fantastic basic structure" of the library, bringing in new items but also making use of existing bookshelves and other "stuff that was lying around," says the show's production designer, Michael Howells. They painted walls in dull blues and grays, and for the offices of the senior MI5 officials, carefully chose objects—a golf tchotchke for one, contemporary art for another—that suited the respective characters.  

"My age group, in their 40s and 50s—the fact that we've grown up in the '60s and '70s, in a way it almost becomes nostalgic," Howells says. "You get into your 50s, you have the money and start buying those pieces. That's when you start really looking at it ... People do respond to it."  

Mad Men, which first aired in 2007, helped push the long-percolating revival of mid-century modern design into the mainstream (as a glance at any homewares catalog today will prove). Could The Game signal a comeback, a similar wave of nostalgia, for the Brutalist era? There have been glimmers of it for a while now, in, for example, the writings of Owen Hatherley and the popular Fuck Yeah Brutalism Tumblr (which spawned the #fuckyeahbrutalism hashtag). The successful campaign to save the U.K.'s Preston Bus Station proves the style has admirers outside of a coterie of designers and historians.  

The Game may tap into a growing appreciation for Brutalism, but it wrapped up shooting in the nick of time: Birmingham Central Library is slated for demolition next month. A blingy new ziggurat of a library by the Dutch architects Mecanoo opened in Birmingham last year, and soon, Madin's more austere one will join Chicago's Prentice Women's Hospital and Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre up in Brutalist heaven.

The library will be mourned. Howells, for one, is sorry to see it come down, and thinks it could be reused as a museum. "I completely fell in love with the building," he says. "It was a real shame in the end, thinking, 'Well, when we leave and close the door, this will be demolished.'"

The Game may not be able to save the Birmingham library, but it makes a difficult style more accessible than any book or lecture could. It reveals the softer, tactile insides of an architecture that can seem hard and blank from the outside, which is all we're usually able to see.

In the fate of buildings, lovability counts for a lot. If we want more people to care about Brutalism, we shouldn't preach to them about architectural history—we should tell them to watch The Game.

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