Some TV deaths stick with you. But perhaps the most terrifying of all was the tragic end of Helen Flynn on Spooks. On Monday 20 May 2002, 8.1 million people watched as Helen was exposed by far-right extremists as an MI5 agent and punished for refusing to betray her colleagues by placing her arm in a vat of boiling oil was dived. 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 a kind of national upheaval. More than 250 shocked viewers complained to the BBC and BSA about Helen’s death. Considering the BBC’s coverage of Prince Philip’s death earlier this year racked up 110,000 complaints, that may not sound like a lot. But back then, 250 complaints was a flood.
On 31 July it will be 20 years since the Broadcasting Standards Authority issued its verdict on whether the BBC has passed the mark, but also 20 years since something fundamental changed on British television.
Spooks had been different from the start. “I got rid of all the narrow-minded British stuff – I said no cups of tea, no red mailboxes, no cops in their bobby helmets, no red buses,” says director Bharat Nalluri. “And then I set it up down by the river, which is the most cinematic place. I could shoot widescreen somehow. I think my suggestion was that we make this a really action packed, fun and exciting little film on our small BBC budget.”
To land it, the team wanted to end their first series with something big. Producers Simon Mirren, Jane Featherstone and writer David Wolstencroft had discussed the realities of undercover life with contacts who actually had. “They were much more granular, practical people than we were used to,” says Wolstencroft. “That completely woke me up.”
Helen Flynn, a junior officer who became a love interest for senior officer Tom, would die at the climax of the series. But just pushing Helen away wouldn’t be enough. Something outrageous was needed. Early versions included Helen setting her head on fire. “We definitely wanted it to be a horrific ending for this character, and we thought of other versions, including fire,” says Wolstencroft. “It will be shot, it will drown. Thinking nasty shit is an unfortunate side effect of the creative imagination.”
“There was research showing that this was one of the IRA’s greatest ways of keeping traitors and defectors in check,” adds Nalluri. “Whether that was true or not, there was certainly an element of it.” That being said, being cooked alive in a french fryer felt right, not just for its novelty but for its everydayness. “We’ve all been to Chippy, we’ve all seen these things cook, we all think about what’s the worst thing that could happen to a character,” says Wolstencroft. “I think bringing those two things together felt like a legitimate way to underscore the real stakes that these people are really taking on, the real people.”
The feat was moving Helen’s death from the sixth and final episode of the series to the culmination of the second. We’re pretty used to characters sniffing it early now – Ned Stark from RIP Game of Thrones – but before spooks the only obvious progenitor was Drew Barrymore, who died right at the start of Scream. Television didn’t do that in 2002. “Every time I see it, I just say, ‘Fat fryer!'” says Wolstencroft. “It’s a moment now, it’s a trope. It’s hard to imagine other than the scream moment where that was done on TV. It’s like Mulder dying at the beginning of the X-Files. It just wasn’t going to happen.”
Lisa Faulkner had read for Zoe Reynolds, but that role went to Keeley Hawes. However, she would be perfect for Helen. She had been a regular in Brookside and Holby City, and her status as “the nation’s treasure at the time,” Nalluri said, would make her death even more unexpected.
Though disappointed that she missed out on playing Zoe, Helen’s short life and horrific death was very appealing. “I was so excited. It was like a dream job as an actor,” says Faulkner. “You’re going to die in a really bad way, you’re going to be a little bit of a spy, you can go undercover, so you’re acting on top of acting. It was a pleasure to work with.”
However, when it came to filming the scene himself, Nalluri ended the day a little underwhelmed. On the set, his vat of boiling, spitting oil was actually cold tea, into which an out-of-shot prop master blew bubbles through a straw. “If you’re there, you go, that won’t work,” he says.
For Faulkner, waiting for Kevin McNally to stick her head in the tank, the whole thing felt a little more real. “It smelled like oil,” she says. “I think Kevin really enjoyed sticking my head in it. I got really immersed.” However, it was starting to come together in the edit 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 trimming the action around Matthew Macfadyen’s horrified reaction to Helen’s torture.
“You can’t get Matthew to overplay. It’s absolutely impossible,” says Nalluri. “It’s really hard to judge what your face and what you should be doing physically when someone is being fried in front of you. It is almost impossible. But somehow he delivers the performance without screaming and screaming, 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 when you’ve seen very little. “It wasn’t grotesque,” says Wolstencroft. “Break the shot down: there’s an arm, there’s cold tea, there’s red, there’s Hitchcockian tension – thanks Bharat – but there’s no really terrifying moment of violence on screen.”
“It’s really a horror piece,” adds Nalluri. “But for some reason you don’t go all the way there; you still really believe it.” The only real bit of blood is a split-second glimpse of Helen’s sore, red, blistered arm. The makeup, at least, was less demanding than Faulkner’s previous job. “I was very used to prosthetics,” she says. “I had done an episode of Casualty years ago 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, came out, the reaction was immediate. “My phone rang as soon as the episode ended,” Wolstencroft recalls.
The production team were circling the carriages the next day when the complaints were received, and a former MI5 officer told the Telegraph the scene was “fictional and unnecessarily horrific”. A BBC response noted that the fiction was part of the point, “in the same way that Inspector Morse, while set at Oxford, was not intended to be a wholly accurate portrayal of the police force in the Thames Valley”.
Producer Stephen Garrett pointed out that the rest of the episode, which chronicled a conspiracy to incite racial hatred by a gang also led by a domestic abuser, “was hardly the stuff of frisky little bucolic fantasies.”
“We felt we had done the right thing in being producers of a show that pushed the boundaries of what BBC TV was and was also authentic to reality [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 that, but it’s very disturbing what sometimes happens to people in this job.”
Although Helen’s head went into the fryer at 9.54pm, well after the watershed, the BSA partially confirmed the complaints. While acknowledging that Helen’s death was “acceptable and important” in the context and that there had been a warning prior to the episode, the BSA said the BBC “did not signal the extent of the violence to come”. It added that the scene was “sufficiently violent and disturbing to warrant a specific, clear and unequivocal warning on the matter, which had not been achieved”.
However, once the excitement had died down, it was clear that Spooks had marked the beginning of an era in which British television drama was poised 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,” says Wolstencroft. “It gave us a shortcut. And now it’s legion, it happens all the time, but back then I’d like to think we were one of the first to do something that radical.”
And in the end, it might not have been baseless violence or moral failure that people really complained about; it was that they had been sucked in by a story they thought they knew, only for it to turn them completely upside down. People felt attacked and stupid for getting used to Helen so quickly. It’s that as well as the brutality of Helen’s death that burned him into consciousness. Its power has not diminished over time either. “My daughter saw it a few years ago,” says Faulkner. “She said, ‘Mom, it’s really awful!’ It’s one of those things that people still ask me about.”