Moderate spoilers for episodes one and two.
Twenty-five minutes into London Spy’s first episode, two men have sex. The Daily Mail wasn’t pleased about this, tutting that ‘a viewer complained of a graphic gay sex scene which included nudity’, only to be ignored. (The fact the series airs post-watershed, when naughty things are known to be broadcast, is treated as a technicality.) You’d think most sex scenes featured nudity, indeed that fucking with clothes on might have more power to scandalise, but then is this is gay sex—depraved and disordered, in the Mail’s eyes, unless it’s a brown person saying so.
Today’s conservatives have nothing, heavens no, against the gays—they’d just prefer not to be reminded they’re anatomically correct. The novelty of lifelike queer characters is such that realism feels unrealistic: it must be due to a quota, the Telegraph suggests, that in all of spy fiction, one queer lead role now exists. Whether despite or because of the number of gay historical spies, espionage is a fiercely heterosexual genre, and after half a century of straight secret agents in dinner jackets getting laid, the fury London Spy’s premiere drew with one sex scene shows just how overdue it is. This never happened to the other guy.
I doubt it’s by chance this series started airing after Spectre’s release. Like In The Flesh, another queer show in a straight male tradition, London Spy wants to be compared with its antecedents—even the title invites us to consider it in terms of genre. Aside from the presence of Ben Whishaw, there are Bond nods at every turn, from the cold open and titles that bring to mind Skyfall’s to glimpses of the Vauxhall Cross building at key moments—plus, in episode one, that old 007 trope, the lover’s body found in an eroticised setting. Yet it’s differences, not likeness, the references highlight.
How revealing it is that two men having sex upset the Mail more than one being killed and dismembered. On discovering his partner’s remains, Whishaw is not like Mr Bond at all—he’s panicked, terrified, helpless, violently sick—and while his character has sex prolifically, he embodies no other aspect of Fleming’s spy, awkward both physically and socially. The other man, in spite of muscles, money and good taste, has no knowledge or love or sex, and unlike Bond, no impolite habit of surviving. When London Spy points to those films, it does so to make us notice its story’s nothing alike.
Is there a critique here? In recent years, it’s been argued Bond or a version of him should be gay, but in the world of London Spy, this seems impossible—its characters can’t inhabit that archetype. Whishaw, alienated from family as a teenager, is broke, having been driven to drugs and sex work, a gentleman of neither wealth nor taste; his partner and best friend achieved employment, education, class and cash only by avoiding sexual contact. We’re asked to imagine Bond fucking men; London Spy runs the idea into the hard ground of reality.
If Bond fucked men, he couldn’t just swan over and make eyes, like Daniel Craig with Sévérine—like Danny, he’d have to approach tentatively.
If Bond fucked men, the conversation would be halting and strained like Danny’s. I got this wrong. Are you out? Stop shaking my hand.
If Bond fucked men, opportunities to have sex wouldn’t form naturally, as in his films—he’d have to go looking for them, as Danny does.
If Bond fucked men, his seniors might feel he owed them sex, as Scottie seems to feel Danny owes him.
If Bond fucked men, on the other hand, sex on the job might place him under suspicion just as it did Scottie.
If Bond fucked men, he may have been expelled from schools like those that helped land him, Scottie and Alex jobs as spies.
If Bond fucked men, he may have been discharged from the Navy before MI6 approached him.
If Bond fucked men, he might have managed to stay put by refraining from sex, as Scottie does, staying inexperienced like Alex.
If Bond fucked men, he might, like Danny, have been rejected by family.
If Bond fucked men, he might have died on turning to sex work.
If Bond fucked men, he’d fear the consequences of unprotected sex.
If Bond fucked men, he’d fear the prospect of rape.
If Bond fucked men, his lovers’ bodies would be horrifying, not glamorous.
If Bond fucked men, he’d know he might be the one dead the next morning.
If Bond fucked men, he couldn’t be James Bond.