The Ipcress File: Len Deighton's twist-laden Sixties spy thriller comes to ITV and BritBox - read the reviews

Peaky Blinders star Joe Cole stars as Harry Palmer in a new six-part adaptation of Deighton’s debut novel about the savvy secret agent on his first undercover mission.

By James Descombes Published: 8 March 2022 - 11.40pm
ITV Joe Cole as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File

Harry Palmer, Len Deighton’s Cold War spy brought to life on the big screen by Michael Caine, is making his small-screen debut in a six-part ITV adaptation of his first outing, The Ipcress File.

ITV filmed the exciting drama in Croatia and Liverpool during 2021. The show, starring Peaky Blinders star Joe Cole as Palmer, hit screens on Sunday 6 March - and all six episodes are now available to watch on ITV Hub and BritBox.

The first reviews of episode 1 praised Cole's take on Caine's iconic character, hailed the snappy script and applauded the production design which perfectly captured the auras of Sixties London and Cold War Berlin.

What is The Ipcress File?

Joe Cole as Harry Palmer in ITV's The Ipcress File ITV

The Ipcress File is a six-part adaptation of the famous 1962 Len Deighton novel of the same name. The spy novel has sold over 10 million copies worldwide and was the inspiration for the 1965 film, The Ipcress File, starring Sir Michael Caine.

This atmospheric espionage thriller is the first of a series featuring the iconic British spy Harry Palmer – meaning we could see much more of Cole’s Harry Palmer in the future.

Oscar-nominated and BAFTA Award winner John Hodge, who’s best known for his work on Trainspotting and T2 Trainspotting, has written and executive produced The Ipcress File for TV, while Emmy Award winner James Watkins (McMafia, Black Mirror, The Woman In Black) directed the series.

ITV’s Head of Drama Polly Hill commented: “I'm thrilled to be bringing John Hodge’s brilliant adaptation of such an iconic novel to ITV. Harry Palmer is an incredible part and this would have been impossible without the right actor, so we are all delighted that Joe Cole will take on the role.  The talent on and off screen means this will be a treat for audiences when it comes to ITV.”

What’s the plot?

Lucy Boynton in The Ipcress File ITV

Harry Palmer is a British army sergeant based in Berlin in 1963, as the Cold War rages between east and west. Yet even in this newly partitioned city, with nuclear bombers permanently occupying the skies above, a sharp and savvy, working-class young man with sophisticated tastes can make a lot of money.

Wholesaler, retailer, fixer, smuggler… Harry’s long list of extra-curricular activities brings him into contact with everything and everyone – until the law catches up and it all comes crashing to a halt, resulting in eight years in a grim military prison back in England.

But Harry’s impressive network has piqued the interest of British intelligence, who have a proposal. To avoid prison, Harry can become a spy. His first assignment: The Ipcress File.

This dangerous undercover mission will take Harry from swinging London to the Berlin Wall, and from Beirut to the white-hot sands of a nuclear atoll, as he uses his links to try and solve the case of a kidnapped British nuclear scientist.

Expect twists aplenty in this tense tale of abducted scientists, brainwashing, inter-departmental rivalry, treason, and a possibly unwise romance.

Who’s in the cast?

Tom Hollander as Major Dalby in The Ipcress File ITV

Joe Cole takes on the role of British Spy Harry Palmer. You’ll probably recognise Joe from the hit show Peaky Blinders, where he played John Shelby, or from Sky’s hard-hitting crime drama, Gangs of London, where he played Sean Wallace, the son of a murdered crime boss.

Lucy Boynton, best known for her roles in Bohemian Rhapsody and Murder on the Orient Express, plays the glamourous Jean Courtney – Harry Palmer’s assistant and romantic interest.

Also starring is Tom Hollander (The Night Manager, Birdbox), above, as Palmer’s spymaster Major Dalby, Ashley Thomas (24: Legacy, Top Boy), below, and Paul Bazely (Benidorm) as Morris.

Ashley Thomas in The Ipcress File ITV

Read the first reviews

The first episode of The Ipcress File aired on Sunday 6 March to four- and five-star reviews. For viewers and reviewers alike, comparisons with the Michael Caine film were unavoidable, but Cole's contemporary take on Harry Palmer was widely praised.

"Cole is a Harry Palmer for our times," wrote Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian.

"Imagine Stephen Merchant was a foot shorter and appropriated Damian Lewis’s pout. Imagine too that he is as taciturn as Alan Ritchson playing Jack Reacher. It’s not a showy performance, but all the better for that to punch up his rare bons mots."

The Daily Mail's Christopher Stevens agreed, declaring in his five-star review that "Cole proves himself a master of understated nuance."

When it came to production values, nods back to its Sixties setting were commended by Rachael Sigee, writing for the i.

"The show looked sensational, with impressive period detail, a saturated colour palette and stylised direction – tilted camera angles and rear-view mirror reflections – that paid homage to the genre without feeling like pastiche," she wrote.

Katie Rosseinsky in the Evening Standard, meanwhile, praised The Ipcress File's snappy, witty script for keeping the action moving along. 

"With a script from John Hodge, a Bafta winner for his adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, the story zips along at pace, with a healthy serving of snark on the side," she wrote.

"Most of that is dished out by the world-weary Palmer, and Cole makes a likeably cynical hero."

When can I watch The Ipcress File?

The Ipcress File began at 9pm on Sunday 6 March and continues at the same time each week until Sunday 10 April.

All six episodes are already available to watch on the ITV Hub and BritBox.

You can watch the 1965 movie of The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, on BritBox.

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