George Washington's spy ring comes alive in AMC drama 'Turn'

LOS ANGELES Fri Apr 4, 2014 6:28pm EDT

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The world of espionage has been brought to life by characters such as James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer on film and television, but a new AMC drama is going back to spy origins with America's own founding father, George Washington.

"Turn," which premieres on Sunday, tells the story of four childhood friends who find themselves pulled together as spies during the height of the American Revolutionary War in 1778 in New York's Long Island, under the orders of General Washington.

The series is based on Alexander Rose's 2007 book "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring."

The Culper Ring was formed by Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who chose an unsuspecting group of his friends, civilians who opposed the British occupation of New York - farmer Abe Woodhull, pub landlady Anna Strong and fisherman Caleb Brewster.

Abe, played by British actor Jamie Bell, is the symbol of the "everyman," reluctantly drawn into the Culper Ring because he is forced to stand by his beliefs and try and change the country for the sake of his baby son's future.

"He's not a hero. He's not a spy. He's a farmer, a failed farmer, and he's a family man. He wants the war to disappear. He doesn't want to be one of these people who wants to step up," Bell said of his character.

"Even though they are muted in the show, his politics are that a man should be in his own country and make decisions for himself."

The premiere sets up the circumstances in which the four friends are brought together, and highlights the underlying tensions and connections between them.

While the series is based on true events, not much is known about the real lives of some of these characters, some of whom were uncovered only through their correspondence with Washington, who kept the letters instead of burning them.

"We had to take a bit of liberty because there was nothing known about him. We knew he was a farmer and we knew he was terrified, but that's all we knew," Bell said of Abe.

'SPYING IN AMERICA'S DNA'

After gritty drug drama "Breaking Bad" concluded last year with 10.3 million viewers tuning into the explosive finale, and "Mad Men" entering its final season, cable channel AMC is hoping to continue drawing audiences with period drama "Turn."

Craig Silverstein, executive producer of the series, said he believes AMC Networks Inc found a programming "commonality" with "Turn."

"Before 'Breaking Bad,' there wasn't a show like that, and there really wasn't anything like 'Mad Men,' and there wasn't anything on TV like the 'Walking Dead,'" Silverstein said.

"There's nothing on TV like 'Turn.' So that's what I believe they (AMC) saw. They make their success by taking risks."

The occupation of spying has become glamorized by the likes of the suave James Bond films, Tom Cruise's "Mission Impossible" franchise, Jason Bourne in "The Bourne Identity" films and Kiefer Sutherland's agent Jack Bauer in Fox's television series "24," resurrected for a new series this year.

But "Turn" goes back to a time when state-of-the-art tradecraft consisted of invisible ink, laundry on washing lines, and dead letter boxes. The true story of the primitive efforts of an underground group of operatives is what both Bell and Silverstein think will surprise audiences.

"What this show gives you is that insight; it's as close as we could get to what it would have been like. The show isn't so much a history lesson as it is a glimpse into a different era and time," Bell said.

"The history of American espionage and spying is such a crucial asset to this country, and this is George Washington trying to figure out how to do it."

With espionage very much in the headlines these days - with U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning convicted of violating the Espionage Act and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden charged for leaking classified documents to the public - "Turn" resonates in the current debate over spying.

"It definitely shows that this is nothing new, that spying is in America's DNA," Silverstein said.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)