MI5 Body Double

Friday, 16 September 2011
Freemasons’ Hall has been leading a double life for the past decade as both the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England and MI5’s fictional home. Luke Turton finds out how the lodge has become an icon in the shady world of Spooks

Do you remember when twenty bombs went astray in Liverpool? Or what about the time Britain was on the brink of a deadly plague? Luckily, Harry Pearce and his MI5 officers are always on hand. From rogue states to ruthless assassins, Spooks has thrilled millions of television viewers every week as they see the British Security Service safeguarding the nation.

Now in its tenth and final series, much has changed since the BBC drama was first broadcast on 13 May 2002. One thing, however, has remained the same: the location of MI5’s headquarters, Thames House, where Harry Pearce runs his counter-terrorism department – Section D, for those in the know. In real life, Thames House is an office development on the bank of the River Thames, but in the Spooks universe, Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden has played the part for the last decade.

‘There was a big search years ago for a building that could double as Thames House,’ reveals Spooks producer, Chris Fry. ‘We were trying to find the right architecture that would match it. The Grand Lodge has worked brilliantly.’

Over the years, the lodge has become synonymous with Spooks. The opening sequence in an average show will often feature a bomb exploding or a similarly dramatic set-up. As often as not, the next shot will be of the Grand Lodge. ‘We need to settle the story down, so you’ll get a wide establishing shot of Thames House,’ explains Fry.

The lodge’s impressive interiors have also been used to great effect on the show. ‘Spooks does gritty terrorism but it also shows the corridors of power,’ says Fry, pointing to the visual distinction drawn between the wood panels and polished floors of the building, where high-level decisions are made, and the disused warehouses where the Spooks team execute orders. ‘We see the serenity in the meeting rooms but then our spies have to go out into the real world.’

And, when the Freemasons’ headquarters isn’t playing Thames House, it can easily double as a planning room or plush embassy. ‘When we are filming here we have to make a day out of it, so we will try and get the most out of the building,’ says Fry. ‘the actors love it because it feels special.’

FACT MEETS FICTION
Karen Haigh, who manages events at Freemasons’ Hall, has worked with the Spooks production team since the start. ‘I was laughing with the director who did the first two and last two series of Spooks about what the show has become. I remember him walking in for the first time and saying there was this new drama about MI5 – I thought it sounded really exciting. The show has been such a success and we’ve grown with it as a venue.’

So is there any sensitivity around the fact that Spooks is a show about an undercover organisation and uses the Freemasons’ headquarters? ‘The fact that it’s a spy programme and people have preconceptions about the Freemasons is quite ironic. It’s a nice twist,’ says Haigh. ‘The funniest thing for me is that the MI5 say on their website that the Spooks version of Thames House is Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden.’

MI5’s concerns about putting the record straight seem to be well-founded. Fry recalls an incident: ‘I was on the phone and this couple walked past. One of them said, “That’s the Spooks’ headquarters.” I thought that was brilliant – lots of people think that the Grand Lodge building is Thames House.’

With the final series revolving around tensions in the Middle East, the UK’s special relationship with America and Harry Pearce’s old Cold War connections, Spooks devotees can look forward to seeing a lot more of the Grand Lodge this autumn.
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