In 2017, Wall To Wall Media, a joint venture of the BBC and Warner Bros., put out a casting call for secret agents. The result of that effort is a hybrid of reality competition TV and historical reenactment, an exploration of what it was like to be a British-trained secret agent during World War II. Now streaming on Netflix, Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits is one of the most intoxicating new documentaries I’ve seen in years.
Originally released overseas in April as Secret Agent Selection: WW2, the program has been retitled and listed as a Netflix Original. In it, 14 civilians (and only two with military backgrounds), spend weeks at a country house in Scotland undergoing a step-by-step recreation of the original training regimen underwent by operatives of the Special Operations Executive, better known as the SOE.
This clandestine military organization dropped secret agents behind enemy lines during World War II, where they worked against the Nazi war machine by conducting acts of espionage, sabotage and assassination. Later, that same curriculum would form the foundation of our own Central Intelligence Agency’s covert operations around the world.
What makes the program so special is the fact that it pulls in so many diverse people, including women, people of color and those with disabilities. The program is especially generous to the Polish, who fought and died to defend England during the Battle of Britain and later trained as SOE agents by the hundreds.
The casting choices seek to fully represent the range of people who joined the SOE. Rather than excluding those other than white men, the show explains that the Executive actively sought out people with diverse backgrounds in order to help them blend in under assumed identities.
The only difficult part was training them to kill. One major exercise in the series includes a six-person team made up of a mathematician, a paratrooper who lost his leg in Rwanda and somebody’s grandmother. In the end, that same exercise highlights a simulated take-down of a simulated Nazi by a woman barely five feet tall.