In Depth

Kingsman – a new kid on the block for British spy films

Matthew Vaughn's homage to British spy movies salutes the many that have come before

Matthew Vaughn's new spy thriller Kingsman: The Secret Service, just released in UK cinemas, pays homage to the tradition of the very British spy, but with a twist.

The film is based on a comic book and directed by Vaughn, best known as the director of Kickass and producer of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It tells the story of a veteran agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) who recruits a street kid Eggsy (Taron Eggerton) for a covert spy operation called the Kingsman, just as a new global threat to humanity emerges in the form of an evil software plutocrat played by Samuel L Jackson.

Kingsman tries to mark out some new territory with a tough-talking estate hoodlum as a new breed of spy, but it also clearly tips its lid to the history of the British spy drama.

James Bond

Bond is an obvious inspiration for Kingsman. Vaughn's film is "Bond with the stabilisers taken off", says Chris Hewitt in Empire. Hewitt says that the recent Bournification of the James Bond franchise seems to have robbed 007, the suave, sophisticated ladies man, of his sense of fun. "These days, the upper lip is so stiff that it's impossible for the old man to raise his eyebrow." But Kingsman, which has got ingenious gadgets, suave heroes with the ability to identify a rare brand of Scotch from smell alone, megalomaniacal villains and deadly henchwomen is "the most fun 007 has been in years".

The Avengers

Not the Marvel comic franchise, but the 1960s British spy-fi television series, The Avengers (and 1990s movie remake), is another inspiration for Kingsman. The Avengers focused on the escapades of dapper spy John Steed, always dressed in a suit and carrying an umbrella, and his stylish sassy assistant Emma Peel. In Kingsman, well-dressed super-spy Harry Hart brandishes a deadly John Steed style umbrella.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

John Le Carre's classic novel was turned into a 1970s TV series and a recent movie starring Gary Oldman. The central spy in the story, George Smiley, a phlegmatic, privately educated, chess-playing intelligence officer working for "the Circus" is a clear antecedent of Firth's Harry Hart. Firth even played a role in the recent screen adaptation of Tinker Tailor, as the ambiguous spy Bill Haydon, as did Mark Strong who also appears in Kingsman.

The Ipcress File

The gritty mid-1960s spy film based on a Len Deighton novel starred Michael Caine as Harry Palmer. Palmer was supposed to be an anti-Bond, the opposite of the upper-class swashbuckling glamour, he was a working class man with a Cockney twang, who lived in a seedy back street flat and wanted a pay rise. Caine's Harry Palmer is an early prototype of the working class British spy, and an understated predecessor for the Kingsman's Eggsy.  

Johnny English

The British comedy film starring Rowan Atkinson set out to deliberately parody James Bond in no subtle way. Atkinson starred as the bug-eyed, inept British agent known as 'Agent One', who, despite being rubbish at just about everything, though sheer dumb luck still manages to save the day and get the girl. The film grossed over £100m worldwide and spawned the sequel Johnny English Reborn. It bodes well for Kingsman that the public seem to have a healthy appetite for British spies, even at their most ridiculous.

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