Sometimes sequels can be a good thing — a very good thing.
That's the story with "Turks & Caicos" and "Salting the Battlefield," the second and third films in what PBS is calling "The Worricker Trilogy," a terrific trio of made-for-TV movies that started in 2011 with "Page Eight," starring Bill Nighy ("Love Actually") as veteran MI5 agent Johnny Worricker.
When last we saw Worricker at the end of "Page Eight," he was in an airport and on the run from just about everyone and everything in Britain. Think Cary Grant in "North By Northwest."
The 60-something Worricker had lost his career, pension, best friend, beloved boss and a budding relationship with a younger woman (Rachel Weisz) who had gone on the run with him and seemed the perfect partner despite the difference in age. He left her a painting from his modern art collection that showed a beach and a church steeple.
"Turks & Caicos," which premieres Nov. 9 on PBS, opens with him looking out on just such a beach. The title is the name of a group of British islands, the capital of which is about 600 miles southeast of Miami That's where Johnny has landed with a nice bit of money and a plan to lie low.
To savor the political insights of screenwriter-director David Hare on life in a post-9/11 world in which surveillance seems to have overtaken human rights, it's important to know why Worricker is on the run. The short answer: He would not abandon his moral and professional values to suit the new standards of some higher-ups in MI5 that secretly sanctioned the use of torture.
The title of the first film, "Page Eight," refers to a page in a top-secret report Worricker has on which a footnote appears saying that British Prime Minister Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes) has knowledge of secret overseas prisons in Europe and the Middle East where U.S. agents have tortured terrorism suspects. The note shows Beasley in league with the White House on rendition, torture and other dark ops.
If published, the report would expose Beasley's deception in keeping his knowledge of secret prisons not just from the British people but his own intelligence service, MI5. Unlike others in MI5, Worricker can't simply forget what he knows and let it go. Conscience can be such a nuisance in these troubled times — especially when you reach an age at which your enemies think they can finally bring you down.
More than anything, what makes "The Worricker Trilogy" so special is that it works so well on two very different levels. Think Blake Edwards meets John le Carré.
As entertainment, the trilogy is as engaging, light, fast and sassy as the nimble jazz score that drives the three films and the snazzy early 1960s art direction that defines their look.
The dialogue is what was once referred to as witty repartee — before such language in a film became so rare that we forgot what it was called. But it's not drawing-room light banter. It's worldly-wise ironic without being existentially bleak — teasingly sarcastic without being social-media, nasty-face snark.
I referenced Cary Grant because I had been thinking as I watched the two latest films that if Grant were alive and in his 50s or 60s, he would have been almost as perfect in the role of Worricker as Nighy. And Audrey Hepburn definitely would have been right at home as one of the women on the run with him in the films — either the character played by Weisz in "Page Eight" or the ex-spy played by Helena Bonham Carter in the sequels. Think "Charade," the underappreciated 1963 feature film in which Grant and Hepburn appeared.
Nighy, Bonham Carter and Fiennes define another of the great pleasures of this trilogy: the superb level of acting. Let's not forget Michael Gambon, Judy Davis, Christopher Walken, Rupert Graves and Winona Ryder either.
"Winona Ryder?" you're asking. "What's she doing in such company?"
Wait and see. You'll not only be quite surprised that she can hold her own alongside Walken and Nighy, you will feel a serious twinge of sympathy at the end of "Turks & Caicos" for her troubled and generally unlikable character.
But what truly makes the trio of films the rarest of TV productions is that you can have all that entertainment pleasure without feeling the least bit guilty, thanks to Hare's meditation on surveillance, intelligence gathering, conscience and political realities at the highest level of American and British life today. The meal not only tastes great, it will leave you feeling satisfied.
What we get with Hare ("The Hours") is one of the world's great playwrights bringing his game to television, and the BBC and PBS giving him three films in which to explore his insights into how the world has changed since 9/11.
I'm sticking with my Blake Edwards-meets-John le Carré thumbnail analysis, but Hare makes an important distinction between his world of spies and le Carré's in an interview for PBS. It shows how fine a mind is at work in this trilogy.
"In a way, the message of le Carré is always, 'Oh, my God, in fighting the bad people we're turning into people just as bad,'" Hare said. "The arguments now are a little more sophisticated than in the days when we were shocked to discover that Americans and Brits behaved just as badly as the enemy. Now people are concerned with what Michael Gambon's character says in the first film, when he wonders whether it's possible to do dishonorable work in an honorable way. That's Johnny's dilemma."
The notion that work people had once believed in has somehow become dishonorable resonates beyond the intelligence community and government following 9/11. I know people in education, media and medicine who face the same dilemma as Worricker for reasons that have nothing to do with a terrorist attack in 2001 on the twin towers in Manhattan.
Maybe it's age and wisdom as much as the troubled times. Or maybe it's only an issue for people with a social conscience. But if you find yourself in that professional and moral space, you'll delight in the grace, steely nerve and steady hands with which Worricker navigates his passage in these films.
Because this is a British production, viewers here should know that Americans are generally the bad guys. In "Worricker: Turks and Caicos," the focus is on Walken's character, who's involved with a group of big-money American businessmen meeting in the islands to hash out the details of their latest grand and dirty scheme. Of course, they cross paths with Worricker. So much for lying low.
But beneath the suspense and action of an aging ex-spy in the cross hairs of the bad guys (as well as the so-called good guys on Downing Street), Hare introduces the intriguing idea that part of the businessmen's plan involves buying influence with the prime minister and an unseen American president via promises of huge speaking fees, gifts to libraries and future jobs as consultants and mediators in world hot spots.
Their names are never mentioned, but the viewers can't help but think of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and wonder whether such promises influenced some of their decisions near the end of their terms as they were thinking of future revenue streams. After all, Hillary Clinton said she and Bill were "dead broke" when they left the White House, and they are super-rich now.
A film that is as much fun to watch as "The Pink Panther" probably shouldn't leave me thinking such dark thoughts about my government. But I'm glad it did.
Here's to David Hare and Johnny Worricker. May they live long and reunite for yet another sequel.