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Mr Palfrey of Westminster

4.4 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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(Sep 21, 2010)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

"Cleverly written adventures … absorbing viewing" --Daily Star (U.K.)
"Polished and realistic" --Daily Mail (U.K.)

He describes himself as "just a civil servant." But in the cloak-and-dagger world of the British security services, mild-mannered Mr. Palfrey (Golden Globe® nominee Alec McCowen, Travels with My Aunt) is an invaluable player in the spy game. A master of counterespionage and a spy-catcher extraordinaire, he’s smart, discreet, cunning--and likes to do things his own way.

His new boss quickly realizes the talents and the dangers of the deceptively charming, utterly ruthless Palfrey. Known simply as "the Coordinator" and splendidly played by Caroline Blakiston (Brass, Scoop), she appoints an assistant (Clive Wood, Pillars of the Earth) to work with Palfrey but report back to her. As always, however, Palfrey has his own ideas.

"Alec McCowen plays [Palfrey] to perfection" (The Times, U.K.) in this stylish British spy series seen on public television and featuring guest appearances by Julian Glover (The Young Victoria), Leslie Phillips (Chancer), Richard Johnson (The Camomile Lawn), and Deborah Grant (Bergerac).


Unveiling covert assassinations, government cover-ups, military skullduggery, and counter-counterintelligence is all in a day's work for Mr. Palfrey of Westminster, who's part of what could be called the Internal Affairs wing of Britain's intelligence department. Played by the superb Alec McCowen (who also appeared in Frenzy, Travels with My Aunt, and Gangs of New York), Palfrey is dapper, capricious, fussy, and combative with his superiors when he doesn't get his way--but above all cunning. The great gift that McCowen brings to the role is his ability to listen; while Palfrey is patiently letting someone talk, you can practically see the clicking circuits and whirling gears in his brain, turning what could be a banal conversation into a surprisingly taut bit of suspense. In structure, the show is a detective series: Palfrey gets an assignment from the Coordinator (Caroline Blakiston, playing a sort of Margaret Thatcher in miniature) and sets to work with his assistant, Blair (Clive Wood), and secretary, Caroline (Briony McRoberts), sifting through the details and asking innocuous questions until everything falls into place. As the nine episodes of this series are from the 1980s, it's almost entirely about the Cold War, with defectors who may or may not be genuine and double agents who may or may not be passing on intelligence that may or may not be important. Half the time, it's not who or what that gets uncovered so much as why, as Palfrey blows away smokescreens and clouds of confusion. The scripts are brisk and efficient, sometimes startlingly so, yet they never lose sight of the mundanity and doggedness of most intelligence work. It's a fascinating series, particularly for fans of Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana) and John le Carré (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). --Bret Fetzer

Special Features

SDH subtitles

Product Details

  • Format: Multiple Formats, Box set, Color, NTSC, Subtitled
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 3
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: Acorn Media
  • DVD Release Date: September 21, 2010
  • Run Time: 501 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B0039ZF8BE
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,065 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Harold Wolf TOP 50 REVIEWER on July 25, 2010
If you like watching a spy catch a spy; here's a set to own. It's created in mid 1980s when British spies used floppy disc drives, VHS tape, audiotape, and dial phones. Mr. Palfrey (Alec McCowen-'Travels with My Aunt','Victoria & Albert') is a spy-buster. A hunter of spies within. He's slick & effective--Westminster's ace. The spy activity is believable--not Hollywood super-hero, super-tech, super-action style. Palfrey was a bit stuffy in the 1st season (episodes 1-4) but eventually the dialogue gave him some quick wit adding sprinklings of humor amid the intrigue. Call it 4 1/2 stars, if you must, for age, but it's better than most 21st century spy films.

10 episodes, each about 50 minutes. SUBTITLES have been added for those who like using them. Plenty of British stars join the series as guests.

Palfrey's surprise new boss is female, known only as the Coordinator (Caroline Blakiston-"The Forsyte Saga","Wives and Daughters","Scoop"). Palfrey must find and secure a diplomat, Mr. Springer, believed spying for Soviets. A spy or scapegoat?

Air Vice Marshal Conyers (Richard Johnson-"The Robinsons"), defense official, & a young Czech girl disappear. The Coordinator assumes there's a supreme security risk.

Palfrey cautions the Coordinator about announcing a Russian author's, Volkov (Julian Glover-"The Young Victoria","Wish Me Luck") defection. Is it just a trap since the KGB gets involved? Also Yelena (Deborah Grant-"Bergerac","Crown Prosecutor"), a Russian acquaintance of Palfrey gets into the scene.

A Russian 13th Century icon is found by the Coordinator even though never reported stolen. Why? And why is an E.
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The acting in this show is spot on when it comes to the way things really are often in spying. Sure they are adventurous spy games but for many of them it's not so glamorous at all. Mr. P has a digny office and a boss that reminds me of maggie thatcher. The cases are realistic and unlike a field operative in a foriegn land there is little action to be had. The show moves slowly just like reality often. The plots are reallife too. Thames was a company that made shows for itv which was the bbc's main competition for many decades. Thames and all brit tv was shot on video tape and that's the case here. This continued until the late 80's when it all went to film finally.
The show is very slow and each story plods on as it would in real life at least in 1984-86. They technology is of that time and so are the cold war worries. It's interesting to remember that the terrible cold war would be over in 7 years only! Noone in 1986 could see this happening! These type of spy stories are very much real ones that had played out over and over through the decades and for people to complain about how slow they were shows that they have no REAL KNOWLEDGE of spycraft. Sure they were some gunfights and big operations but mostly men ran little ops trying to ensare the other side. A good case of this is the story of the defecting author. IS he for real?
and obviously even if he isn't it's not a huge victory for the soviets to plant a man who will later return and say the west sucks. But that is how things really were back then! Each little op was such a thing. Of course at the time of this show it was only just revealed about the evil american turncoat who was working for the soviets for money. The people who died because of him were all soviets too.
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This was an excellent series with a total of ten shows, released in 1984 and aired by PBS in the U.S. in the late 80s. They only ran the shows one time. Too bad! It was the last series written by George Markstein of Danger Man/Secret Agent fame. The situation is of a very small department under the indirect control of an unnamed English female prime minister (hmmmm, who could that be?). This department tackles Mission Impossible-style tasks that cannot be carried out by official means, but they do it with a staff of three (Mr. Palfrey, his secretary and his side-kick, Blair) and no high-tech gizmos or budget. How do they do it? Their "dirty tricks" are way more tricky than dirty. Both their subjects and their audience are taken on a ride, often with a surprise ending. My favorite episode was "Return to Sender" about a Russian double-agent who has decided he wants to return home. Mr. Palfrey assignment is to stop by any means necessary. Just when you think you're going to witness the agent's demise, the team's mastery of psychology saves the day.
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The spy novel wasn't invented in the United Kingdom - American novelist James Fenimore Cooper is usually credited with doing that when he wrote "The Spy" in 1821 - but, for my money, no one does it better than the Brits.
That's probably because so many of the great British spy novelists - Ian Fleming and John LeCarre, to name just two - were former intelligence officers themselves. That allows them to bring a certain degree of authenticity to their stories.
The same might be said for spy movies and television programs. For some reason, the British just seem to do it better than anyone else.
"Mr. Palfrey of Westminster" is a prime example of just how good the UK is when it comes to producing excellent spy programs.
Palfrey is a middle-aged civil servant who is exceptionally good at ferreting out traitors in the British secret services. He's subtle, can be charming, and is always discreet. As far as his bosses are concerned, he does sometimes come off as if he's not exactly sure what he's doing but that's seldom the case for he has a razor-sharp mind and a wealth of both contacts and experience, which he uses to great advantage.
Set at the close of the Cold War, this short series is a wonderful example of great television produced on a relatively thin budget and without a lot of gratuitous violence. There are no whiz-bang special effects, no hair-raising car chases, and no James Bond-like gadgets. There are, however, smartly written scripts, and excellent portrayals. Alec McCowen, as Palfrey, and Caroline Blackiston - complete with Princess Di haircut - as his boss are exceptional in their roles, for example.
I should make clear that this is not a series for everyone.
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