This complicated spy spoof, written by Tom Stoppard, begins with Rupert Purvis (Alan Howard) – who works for a secret service agency known as Q6 – attempting suicide by jumping off London’s Albert Bridge into the River Thames. He accidentally lands on top of an Alsatian dog aboard a barge, saving himself but killing the poor beast.
Some years ago, Purvis had been approached by the Russians, who asked him to work as a double agent. He reported this to his superiors, who told him to pretend to work as a double agent whilst actually continuing to work for them. But the bad guys had told him to tell his British masters that he was being recruited, effectively setting up a double bluff ahead of time.
The British and the Russians subsequently used Purvis to constantly shuttle false information between each other.
The end result is that Purvis no longer truly knows who he is working for.
Recuperating at Clifftops – a rest home maintained by the agency for former spies who have suffered breakdowns – Purvis is visited by his stiff upper lip clock-loving spy chief, Blair (Alan Bates), who – in an attempt to make the poor chap feel better – inadvertently shows Purvis that his entire life has been pointless.
Purvis ultimately succeeds in committing suicide by rolling his wheelchair off a cliff at the rest home. At the funeral, Blair observes: “One asks oneself, with the benefit of hindsight, was Clifftops the ideal place to put a man who had a tendency to fling himself from a great height to a watery grave? Of course, one didn’t realise it was a tendency . . . ”
In the closing scene, the whole structure is explained by the agency’s hookah-flaunting chief (Michael Hordern), although even this explanation remains dizzyingly complex.
Simon Cadell plays the slimy investigator Hogbin, and supporting roles are filled by Maurice Denham, Zoe Wannamaker, John Woodvine, Geoffrey Chater, Ciaran Madden and Robert Lang.
The film – a Granda production – aired on Channel 4 on New Year’s Day 1989. Having started life as a radio play, The Dog It Was That Died did not transfer well to film.
Sylvestra Le Touzel