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A Grittier, British 'Alias'

29 Nov, 2005 By: Brendan Howard

Judging from their high ratings and DVD sales, “Alias” and “24” are big with viewers. The two shows mix U.S. and international espionage with pulpy cliffhanger action. Across the pond, another spy show has viewers salivating: “Spooks,” or as it's called here, “MI-5.”

Season three streets Jan. 31 (prebook Dec. 11) at $79.98 from BBC Video.

“MI-5” focuses on the British agency in charge of national security and aims for more realism. It's a “Law & Order” for spies with a mixture of less outlandish scenarios and looks at the personal lives of these public servants with top-secret clearance and multiple identities.

Technician consultant Mike Baker, an ex-CIA agent now working in private commercial intelligence, has been there since the beginning.

“I knew the creator, David Wollstonecraft,” Baker said. “In a pub that passed as an office, we knocked around ideas. Then I started work on reviewing scripts and answering questions they might have.”

It's work Baker is proud of: “With other shows, they're jumping all over the planet. With ‘MI-5,' they start with a topical idea and then develop it to a logical conclusion at the end. They stuck with their original concept and didn't turn it into an explosion festival.”

He said the creators wanted to know about personal relationships.

“How do you create a firewall between your personal life and the spying?” he asked. “A great deal of the intelligence community is transparent, but working an alias, creating alternative lives, it's a lot of role-playing. To do it well, you have to immerse yourself in it.

“It's more about compartmentalization then lying. Separating parts of your life off, keeping them all fenced separately so paths don't cross.”

Baker said in the 1980s, spies were expected to keep their jobs secret. Today, however, agencies often expect agents to share with their spouses, even if they don't share the details.

Baker prefers more realistic shows like “MI-5” and such BBC productions as “Smiley's People” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” that show the grittier side. Still, he said they can't be too realistic.

“If you were going to show the real world of spying, [viewers] would be bored to death,” he said. “[It would show lots of] sitting around, waiting for a few moments of excitement, people passing paper back and forth to get approval to do something.”

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