Some TV deaths join you. But perhaps the most horrifying of them all was the tragic end of Helen Flynn on Spooks. On Monday 20 May 2002, 8.1 million people watched as Helen was exposed as a far-right MI5 agent and was punished for refusing to give up her colleagues by having her arm submerged in a vat of boiling oil. Her partner Tom Quinn then watched in horror as her head also went into the oil, before she was shot in the head.
It was less a televised death than some sort of national convulsion. More than 250 shocked viewers complained to the BBC and BSA about Helen’s death. Given that the BBC’s coverage of Prince Philip’s death clocked up 110,000 complaints earlier this year, that might not sound like much. But at the time, 250 complaints was a deluge.
July 31 marks 20 years since the Broadcasting Standards Authority delivered its verdict on whether the BBC had exceeded its target, but also 20 years since something fundamental changed in British television.
Spooks had been different from the start. “I got rid of all the tacky British stuff – I said no cups of tea, no red post boxes, no policemen with their Bobby helmets, no red buses,” says director Bharat Nalluri. “And then I based it down by the river, the most cinematic location. I could kind of shoot widescreen. I think my pitch was just let’s turn it into an action-packed, fun, exciting little film on our tiny BBC budget.”
To make it land, the team wanted to end their first series with something big. Producers Simon Mirren, Jane Featherstone and writer David Wolstencroft had discussed the reality of life undercover with contacts who had done it for real. “They were much more granular, hands-on people than we were used to,” says Wolstencroft. “It totally woke me up.”
Helen Flynn, a junior officer who became a love interest for senior officer Tom, would die at the series’ climax. But just bumping Helen off doesn’t. Something monstrous was needed. Early versions included Helen having her head set on fire. “We definitely wanted it to be a horrible ending for that character, and we thought about other versions, one of which was fire,” says Wolstencroft. “It’s getting shot, it’s drowning. It is an unfortunate side effect of the creative imagination to think about nasty s___.”
“There was research to say it was one of the IRA’s great ways of keeping traitors and turncoats at bay,” adds Nalluri. “Whether it was true or not, there was certainly an element of it.” Other than that, being cooked alive in a deep fryer felt right, not just for its novelty, but for its mundaneness. “We’ve all been to the chippy, we’ve all seen these things cook, we all think what’s the worst thing that can happen to a character,” says Wolstencroft. “Putting those two things together I think felt like a legitimate way to emphasize the true effort that these people really take on, the 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’re now pretty used to characters sniffing it out early on – RIP Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark – but before Spooks the only obvious precursor was Drew Barrymore, who died right at the start of Scream. TV didn’t do that in 2002. “When I see it, I just go ‘fat fryer!'” says Wolstencroft. “It’s a moment now, it’s a trope. It’s hard to think of, apart from the Scream moment, where it was done on TV. It’s like Mulder dying at the start 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 on Brookside and Holby City, and her status as “the nation’s sweetheart at the time”, according to Nalluri, would make her passing all the more unexpected.
Although she was disappointed that she had missed out on playing Zoe, Helen’s short life and gnarly death were very appealing. “I was so excited. It was like a dream job,” says Faulkner. joy of a job.”
When it came to shooting the scene itself, Nalluri ended the day a little underwhelmed. On set, his tub of scalding, spitting oil was actually cold tea that a prop person blew bubbles through a straw without having the shot. “When you’re there you’re going to leave, this isn’t going to work,” he says.
For Faulkner, as she waited for Kevin McNally to pop his head into the tub, it all felt a little more real. “It stank of oil,” she says. “I think Kevin enjoyed pushing my head into it. I got really hammered.” However, it started to come together in the editing suite. Editor Colin Green made the scene “so much better than the sum of its parts,” Nalluri says, adding the sound of bubbling grease and cutting the action around Matthew Macfadyen’s horrified reaction to Helen’s torture.
“You can’t make Matthew overplay. It is absolutely impossible, says Nalluri. “It’s a very difficult thing to judge, what your face and what you should do physically when someone is being fried in front of you. It’s almost impossible. But somehow he delivers the performance without screaming and yelling, he 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 the shot: there’s an arm, there’s cold tea, it’s red, there’s Hitchcockian tension – thank you Bharat – but there’s no truly horribly violent moment on screen.”
“It’s a horror piece, really,” adds Nalluri. “But for some reason you don’t go all the way there; you still really believe it.” The only real piece of gore is a split-second glimpse of Helen’s raw, red, blistered arm. At least the make-up was less demanding than Faulkner’s previous job. “I was very used to prosthetics,” she says . “I had done an episode of Casualty years before where my whole body had to be covered in burns and I was in prosthetics for hours.”
When the second episode of Spooks, Looking After Our Own, aired, the reaction was immediate. “My phone rang the moment the episode finished,” recalls Wolstencroft.
The production team were circling the wagons the next day as the complaints came in, and a former MI5 officer told the Telegraph that the scene was “fictitious and needlessly horrific”. A BBC response noted that the fictionality was part of the point, “in the same way that Inspector Morse, while sitting in Oxford, was not intended to be a completely accurate portrayal of the Thames Valley Police.”
Producer Stephen Garrett pointed out that the rest of the episode, which featured a conspiracy to stir up racial hatred by a gang whose leader was also a domestic abuser, was “hardly the stuff that little, little, little fantasies are made of”.
“We thought we had made the right use of being the producers of a program that pushed the boundaries of what BBC TV was and was also authentic to the reality of [that world], says Wolstencroft. “It would be like nobody died on Casualty, right? So we thought it was right. I’m sure people were upset about it, but it’s very upsetting what happens to people in that job sometimes.”
Although Helen’s head entered the fryer at 9.54pm, well after the watershed, the BSA partially upheld the complaints. While it acknowledged that Helen’s death was “acceptable and important” in context and there had been a warning before the episode, the BSA said the BBC “failed to signal the level of violence to come”. It added that the scene was “sufficiently violent and disturbing to require a specific, clear and unequivocal warning to this effect, which had not been achieved”.
After the furore died down, however, it was clear that Spooks had marked the beginning of an era in which British television drama was prepared to go to darker and more complex places than before. “All we did after that point, all we had to do was hint, and you’d sit back a little bit,” says Wolstencroft. “It gave us a shorthand. And now it’s legion, it happens all the time, but at the time I’d like to think we were one of the first to do something as radical as that.”
And in the end, maybe it wasn’t some gratuitous violence or moral failure that people were really complaining about; it was that they had been sucked in by a story they thought they knew, only for it to upset them completely. People felt ambushed, and they felt stupid for being attached to Helen so quickly. That, as much as the brutality of Helen’s death, burned it into consciousness. The power has not faded with time either. “My daughter saw it a couple of years ago,” says Faulkner. “She said, ‘Mom, it’s really terrible!’ It’s one of the things people still ask me about.”