Some TV deaths stay with you. But perhaps most viscerally horrifying of all was Helen Flynn’s tragic demise in Spooks. On Monday, May 20, 2002, 8.1 million people saw Helen being exposed as an MI5 agent by right-wing extremists and punished for refusing to betray her colleagues by dipping her arm in a vat of hot oil. Her partner Tom Quinn then watched in horror as her head went into the oil too, before she was shot in the head.
It was less of a televised death than some kind of national convulsion. More than 250 shocked viewers have complained to the BBC and BSA about Helen’s death. Given that BBC coverage of Prince Philip’s death garnered 110,000 complaints earlier this year, that may not seem like much. But at the time, 250 complaints were a deluge.
On July 31, 20 years have passed since the Broadcasting Standards Authority issued its verdict that the BBC had crossed the line, but also 20 years since something fundamental changed in British TV.
Spooks had been different from the start. “I got rid of all the British parish stuff – I said no cups of tea, no red mailboxes, no cops in their Bobby helmets, no red buses,” says director Bharat Nalluri. “And then I set it near the river, the most cinematic place. I could shoot in widescreen mode. I think my talk was just turning it into a little action movie, really fun and exciting, with our small BBC budget.
To get him to land, the team wanted to finish their first series with something big. Producers Simon Mirren, Jane Featherstone, and writer David Wolstencroft had discussed the reality of undercover life with contacts who actually did. “They were much more granular and practical than people than we would have been used to,” says Wolstencroft. “She completely woke me up.”
Helen Flynn, a young officer who became a love interest in senior officer Tom, would die at the climax of the series. But just throwing Helen away wouldn’t help. Something monstrous was needed. Early versions included Helen with her head set on fire. “We definitely wanted her to be a horrible ending for that character, and we thought of other versions, one of which was fire,” says Wolstencroft. “We have been shot, there is drowning. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the creative imagination to think about bad things. “
“There was research to say it was one of the IRA’s great ways to keep traitors and turncoats in check,” adds Nalluri. “Whether that was true or not, there was definitely an element to that.” Aside from that, being boiled alive in a deep fryer with fries seemed right not just for his newness, but for his worldliness. “We’ve all been to Chippy, we’ve all seen these things cook, we’re all thinking about what’s the worst that could happen to a character,” says Wolstencroft. “I think putting these two things together was a legitimate way to underscore the real stakes these people really face, real people.”
The masterstroke was to move Helen’s death from the sixth and final episode of the series to the climax of the second. We are now quite used to the characters snorting it in the beginning – Ned Stark from RIP Game of Thrones – but before Spooks the only obvious precursor was Drew Barrymore who died at the very beginning of Scream. TV didn’t do it in 2002. “Whenever I see it, I just go, ‘fat fryer!’,” Says Wolstencroft. “It’s a moment now, it’s a trope. It’s hard to think, aside from the Scream moment, where it was done on TV. It’s like Mulder dies at the beginning of The X-Files. It just wouldn’t happen ”.
Lisa Faulkner had read for Zoe Reynolds, but that role went to Keeley Hawes. She would be perfect for Helen, though. She had been a regular in Brookside and Holby City, and her status as “the nation’s fiancée at the time,” according to Nalluri, would have made her disappearance even more unexpected.
Though disappointed that she lost the role of Zoe, Helen’s short life and gnarled death were very tempting. “I was so excited. It was like a dream acting job, ”says Faulkner. “You can die in a really bad way, you can be a spy for a while, you can play undercover, so you’re acting as well as acting. It was a joy of work ”.
When it came to shooting the scene itself, however, Nalluri ended the day slightly disappointing. On the set, his tub of hot, spitty oil was actually iced tea in which, out of frame, a stage person blew bubbles through a straw. “When you’re there, you’re going, this won’t work,” she says.
For Faulkner, waiting for Kevin McNally to push his head into the tub, the whole thing felt slightly more real. “He stank of oil,” he says. “I think Kevin really enjoyed pushing my head inside. I got drenched properly. “However, he began to reunite in the editing suite. Editor Colin Green made the scene” so much better than the sum of its parts, “says Nalluri, adding the sound of bubbling fat and cutting the action around Matthew Macfadyen’s horrified reaction to Helen’s torture.
“You can’t force Matthew to over-act. It’s absolutely impossible, “says Nalluri.” It’s really hard to judge which face and what you should physically do when someone is fried in front of you. It’s almost impossible. But somehow, it delivers the performance without screaming and shouting, it just gives you this. face and you see it through his face.
Like the shower scene in Psycho, you feel like you’ve seen a lot even though you’ve seen very little. “It wasn’t grotesque,” says Wolstencroft. “Break down: there’s an arm, there’s iced tea, there’s red, there’s Hitchcockian suspense – thanks Bharat – but there’s not a violent moment on the screen.”
“It’s a horror piece, really,” adds Nalluri. “But for some reason you don’t quite go there; you still really believe in it ”. The only real piece of blood is a split-second glimpse of Helen’s raw, red, blistered arm. The trick was at least less demanding than Faulkner’s previous work. “I was very used to prosthetics,” he says. “I had done an episode of Casualty years ago where my whole body had to be covered in burns and I was in prosthetics for hours.”
When Spooks’ second episode, Looking After Our Own, came out, the reaction was immediate. “My phone rang off the hook the moment the episode ended,” recalls Wolstencroft.
The next day the production team went around the wagons when the complaints came and a former MI5 officer told the Telegraph that the scene was “fictitious and unnecessarily horrific”. A BBC response noted that the fiction was part of the point, “in the same way that Inspector Morse, while set in Oxford, was not supposed to be a completely accurate portrayal of the Thames Valley police force.”
Producer Stephen Garrett pointed out that the remainder of the episode, which featured a conspiracy to foment racial hatred by a gang whose leader was also a domestic molester, “was certainly not the stuff that little bucolic fantasies are made of. happy”.
“We thought we had made good use of ourselves to be the producers of a show that was pushing the boundaries of what was BBC TV and was also authentic to the reality of. [that world]”Says Wolstencroft. “It would be as if no one died in Casualty, right? So we thought it was correct. I’m sure people were upset about it, but it’s very upsetting, what happens to people in that job at times.
Although Helen’s head ended up in the deep fryer at 9:54 pm, well after the watershed, the BSA partially accepted the complaints. While acknowledging that Helen’s death was “acceptable and important” in context, and there was a warning prior to the incident, the BSA said the BBC “failed to report the level of violence to come”. He added that the scene was “sufficiently violent and disturbing to require a specific, clear and unambiguous warning to that effect, which had not been achieved”.
After the fury subsided, however, it became clear that Spooks had marked the beginning of an era where British television drama was poised to go to darker and more complex places than before. “All we did after that point, all we had to do was suggest and you’d be lying a little bit,” says Wolstencroft. “He gave us a shortcut. And now it’s a legion, it always happens, but at the time I’d like to think that we were one of the first to do something so radical. “
And in the end, maybe it wasn’t gratuitous violence or moral failure that people were really complaining about; it was that they had been sucked into a story they thought they knew, only to completely upset them. People felt strained in an ambush and felt foolish for having become attached to Helen so quickly. It is this, as much as the brutality of Helen’s death, which burned her into consciousness. Her power hasn’t waned over time either. “My daughter saw it a couple of years ago,” says Faulkner. “She was saying to Me, ‘Mom, she’s really awful!’ It’s one of those things that people still ask me about ”.