On Sunday, our cable-TV attention turns back -- way back -- to spies in the Revolutionary War. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
In his English school days, Jamie Bell’s knowledge of the
Revolutionary War was limited, but accurate.
“They taught us that we lost,” he said.
Then teachers returned to kings and such, ignoring talk
about the irritable colonies. “I don’t think to this day it’s something we look
on particularly fondly.” That’s fine, because:
He had bigger things to worry about. Bell was
the young star of “Billy Elliot,” the soaring movie about a blue-collar kid who
wants to be a dancer.
And now he’s getting a crash course in the war.
In the “Turn” series, ironically, he plays an American spying on the British.
That starts with an essential problem: “George Washington …
was being massively outspied,” said Joel Stillerman, AMC’s programming chief.
Then he found “the Culper Ring, a small group of young men and women who risked
everything to (match) the British army’s very sophisticated espionage program.”
Soon, historian Alexander Rose said, the general was
savoring the mental adventure.
“We always tend to think of Washington as this solemn sort
of figure on a one-dollar bill, who’s completely and utterly humorless,” Rose
said. “But … he took this very deep interest in the goings-on of this very
obscure bunch of people on Long Island.”
Rose had come across a brief reference to the spy ring; he
went to libraries to learn more … and found almost nothing. Soon, he was in the
Library of Congress. “If you search very carefully, you find the entire
correspondence that Washington had with the Culper Ring. (In spy matters,) you
never find that, ever.”
What Rose found were the first steps of a sort of art form He wrote a non-fiction book, which producer
Craig Silverstein saw as ideal for scripted drama: “The birth of modern trade
craft was worked out here through trial and error – aliases, cover stories,
dead drops … a lot of cryptography. These things were invented by the Culver
Ring, out of necessity.”
Now that has been turned into TV drama, with Bell as a
farmer who reluctantly gets tugged into the revolution. And yes, that sometimes
mean evil Englishmen. “They used to stable their horses in … a Presbyterian
church,” Rose said. “So it was just sort of adding insult to injury.”
It got worse, Silverstein said: “The British tore up the
gravestones in this town and used them to fortify … as kind of extra shielding
against a musket shot.”
Two sides with common ancestry split. “It really was more of
a sibling rivalry,” Bell said. And now he gets to play someone on the winning
“Turn,” 9 p.m. Sundays, AMC; 90-minute debut
April 6, then an hour
Opener reruns at 10:30 p.m.; then 2:30 p.m. Tuesday;
10:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. April 12; 7:30 p.m. April 13, before the second
episode at 9 and the “Mad Men” debut at 10